Monday, February 26, 2018

Will Carbon Sequestration Redeem the Lawn?

Landscaping-wise, few things offend my aesthetic and ecological sensibilities quite so much as grandiose sward of tightly mown, heavily chemically-treated grass punctuated by one or two trees and a couple of bushes. (Leaving aside, of course, the “mulch garden” topped off with a few lonely perennials.) Recently, though, I’ve learned to see some good in the approximately 40 million acres of lawn that engulf the residential landscape in the US. Caveats remain, serious ones, which I’ll get to in a bit; but the truth is, your lawn, my lawn, that of the business down the street or the corporate campus in a nearby suburb, serves as a carbon sink of modestly robust proportions. 

This is important, because these days any plan for keeping the average global temperature from going up more than 3.6 degrees (2 degrees C) now involves active carbon sequestration. We’ve dilly-dallied so long that while heading off extreme global warming and all the misery it will entail could once have involved fairly modest efforts, now much more is required, and faster. So much CO2 and other greenhouse gases permeate the atmosphere that cutting emissions to zero will no longer suffice. We must go carbon negative; but there still exists no feasible technological way to do this at any kind of scale. Yet carbon sequestration is what natural ecosystems do all the time; in general, the healthier the ecosystem, and the more full of life its soil, the more carbon it sequesters.  Hence, if we expect to be successful, it will be by working with natural systems, through reforestation, grassland restoration, natural area conservation and expansion, and changing agriculture practices to enhance soil health and thus carbon sequestration.  

Here is where lawns come in, and where anyone with a lawn can help, within certain parameters. In the US, lawns, including golf courses and playing fields, are considered part of croplands, 5% of the total, to be exact. On average, lawns sequester about 0.5 to 1.5 Mg carbon, per hectare per year (a hectare equals 2.2 acres) as opposed to an average cropland rate of 0.3 MG C per hectare per year. A standard comparison by defenders of turfgrass is that soil carbon sequestration rates compare favorably with natural grasslands, especially if the lawn is looked after through mowing, watering, and adding inputs of various kinds. Inputs vary widely and could be anything from simply leaving clippings on the lawn after mowing and other organic measures to the full panoply of fossil fuel derived fertilizers and pesticides on offer, and what they are is rarely specified in the literature. 

According to one study, even after subtracting the hidden carbon costs involved in using power lawn mowers, other power tools and fossil-fuel-based chemical inputs, lawns still sequester carbon. Another study comparing the carbon sequestration capabilities of lawns in Colorado with natural shortgrass prairies found that lawns actually beat the prairies in their carbon storage amounts. But as the authors point out, this is with careful tending and involves using quite a bit of water. Lawns would not survive in that arid region without human intervention, whereas the prairie has been self-sufficient and sequestering carbon for thousands of years. Furthermore, turfgrass has an average root-depth of only four inches or so, leading me to wonder about lawns’ capabilities for deep carbon storage of the kind at which deep-rooted prairies excel, with their diverse and prolific soil communities. And in healthy woodlands, though much of the carbon is locked up in the trees, vast underground networks of fungi and other denizens of the living soil enable carbon to translocate deep in the ground. 

When I first heard of lawns’ carbon sequestration potential, it seemed hard to believe, since a classic high-input lawn is a sort of biological null, at least as far as general biodiversity is concerned, but this actually makes sense. Grass is a perennial, one that “armors” the soil. The natural death and regeneration of its roots add biomass, as does leaving the clippings on after mowing, which enables the soil biome to thrive and carbon to be stored, at least within the top fifteen inches. Planted in a geographically favorable location, a lawn can be maintained with little effort and, once planted and established, there’s little to no soil disturbance. So a lawn, once planted and reasonably cared for will immediately start sequestering carbon, and keep doing so for at least twenty-five to thirty years, until a saturation point is reached. 

Unlike some folks I know, I’ve never been absolutely against an appropriately sized and placed lawn, though intensely against the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. Surrounded as it is by large beds of native plants, my own backyard lawn is a small part of the garden, not the extent of the landscaping—a crucial difference. Though it grows well and stays green without irrigation or synthetic inputs, my lawn would fail in the eyes of the pristine lawn brigade, since within its boundaries grow a medley of white clover, early spring bulbs, violets, a few dandelions and a little plantain and creeping Charlie. Thus it earns its ecological keep. Those other species of plants both increase the lawn’s carbon storage potential and help increase ecosystem interactions. The clover’s deep roots fix nitrogen and help the soil retain moisture during dry periods. When in bloom, the bulbs (snowdrops and scilla), violets, clover and even dandelions and creeping Charlie benefit pollinators. The whole expanse thrives with only organic inputs: clippings left on after mowing, overseeding with grass and clover seed every few springs, and top-dressing with home made compost spring and fall (if I get to it). The black, carbon-rich soil soil is eminently healthy, and earthworms abound. There’s no nitrogen or phosphorus run off, little to no methane or nitrous oxide emissions, and no hidden carbon costs either: we use a push lawn mower and hand rakes.

All of this is easy because the Chicago area where I live is one of the few areas of the US that qualify as a turfgrass sweet spot. It’s one of the places temperate enough, with enough natural rainfall and good enough soil conditions that grass can grow happily, all by itself, with little to no help from humans. In much of the country, however, irrigation and intensive inputs, synthetic or organic, are required to keep lawns lush, at a steep environmental cost exacerbated by mono-culture-only aesthetic requirements. These costs are so high that in many cases the soil carbon sequestration benefits lawns offer do not, overall, balance the scales in their favor. If a lawn can’t survive without a serious care regime, especially extra watering, perhaps its best not to have a lawn, per se, regardless of how much carbon it may sequester. 
Credit: Melisi et al

Because of these high costs, a movement way from lawns is slowly taking place. In arid regions across the western half of the continent where lawn irrigation can easily take 50-75% of a household’s water usage, over the past few years communities have been restricting outdoor water use.  Graywater systems are on the rise. Residents are encouraged to put in ecosystem-appropriate xeriscaping as a substitute for grass, which can thrive without stressing town water supplies. Fertilizers and pesticides are being looked at, too, since they continue to contribute to a variety of ecological ills such as failing soil health, release of nitrous oxide, coastal dead zones and toxic algae blooms. Golf courses, schools and park districts are starting to reassess the use of synthetic inputs and some are switching to organic methods. Yet homeowners are proving slow to follow suit, and the ideal of a green front lawn, even where it geographically doesn’t belong, is proving surprisingly resistant to revision.

It’s interesting to imagine a US where manicured turfgrass lawns ceased being a universal requirement in landscaping, supposedly applicable to all regions, everywhere (though other species of grass, such as St. Augustine, might be used in the south). What other kinds of carbon-sequestering plants could be used in the area in front of the typical suburban house? There are native groundcovers and sedges that thrive in Texas, and shortgrass prairie flowers and grasses such as buffalo grass flourish across the plains. What kinds of regionally appropriate landscaping would arise? Could thirsty Colorado lawns be replaced with native prairie species? 

Even in a grass-friendly region, grass is not appropriate in every situation. My small front yard became too shady for a lawn, thanks to a pair of maples in the parkway. It now sports a small, spring blooming serviceberry tree surrounded by woodland sedges interspersed with low growing spring wildflowers. It is very much a work in progress and will take a few years to fill in. Yet I feel confident that carbon sequestration is going on in and will continue to do, no inputs required. Let golf course owners and playing field managers wrestle with the correct balance of water and inputs that would achieve carbon sequestration while keeping their fields green.  At least there the grass is being used for something besides viewing purposes only. In general, in most parts of the country, a landscaped area of low maintenance, eco-system friendly plants (preferably species native to the area) remains a better choice than a lawn. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Constructing Hope: A Discussion of "Green Earth"

Neither hope nor its cousin joy are to be confused with optimism. The latter tends to be more a quality of temperament than a realistic assessment of prospects. As for the former, well, you have to go looking for them, or even, laboriously, construct them for yourself, at best in the company of other people. By combining found materials with what you’ve got with you—like, say, dried grass and twigs with the flint and steel in your backpack—you can, with effort, spark and and nourish a little flame that, once going, you’ve still got to work to maintain.

That’s been my project lately, in our seriously dystopic times, when my most innocuous activities—biking to work, leading woods restoration workdays for students, working on sustainability projects—sometimes feel like political activism. There’s no need to enumerate the ways that the actions of those recreating atop the federal government threaten not only civil society but also the biosphere’s wellbeing. For earth-centered folks who include human wellbeing in the definition of planetary health, there are daily blows, even as it grows clearer that the doors to an environmentally whole future, in which global warming and its effects are somewhat mitigated, are rapidly swinging shut. 

Well, then. Where to go looking? One's active work one counts greatly, though the slowness and difficulty of that work can get disheartening. And I’m seeing a resurgence of outright, vocal, practical commitment to sustainable policy and practice grounded in local efforts by individuals, community groups, municipalities and states. This could help bend our society towards a sustainable arc. There is evidence that if 10% of a given population subscribes to a particular idea, theory or principle, or changes a way of doing something a whole group or society will change. Marketers and purveyors of authoritarian propaganda and fake news try to exploit this idea endlessly, but it can, and does, work the other way too.

 If enough people change their minds and habits in real life and on the ground in their communities and through their networks, a move towards environmental justice, including for species other than humans, will occur. There is hope to be found in working with others on this project and actively rejoicing in that work: a community climate forum I attended recently at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History felt joyful. Stanley Field Hall, big enough to hold a pair of stuffed African elephants and the skeleton of a 40-foot long Tyrannosaurus, with plenty of room to spare, was packed, the energy contagious. Two thousand people celebrated their and their organizations’ work, in direct opposition to retrograde policies and actions engaged in by the current administration.

Then there are the hopeful facts that get semi-buried by news of humans and their doings. For example, whitefish in the Great Lakes have learned how to eat invasive round gobies that have threatened the ecosystem with collapse; rather than declining as expected, the fish are thriving, having learned to change their diet. Certain songbirds in the American West have started nesting slightly earlier, adapting to earlier springs and thus earlier appearance of the insects on which they depend to feed their offspring’s gaping mouths. Deeply inspiring for me, populations of sandhill cranes have come trumpeting back from near extinction because we humans aided them by conserving, restoring and expanding the wetland habitat on which they depend.

This looking for hope and joy has extended to the fiction I’ve been reading lately. At one time I might have naturally gravitated to some dire, prophetic novel such as "The Handmaid’s Tale" or "The Windup Girl." At their best, these doomy novels have served as instructive warnings of what the world could become if we are not careful. They’ve given a thrill and embodied a necessary social critique. They still have a place, if well written enough. But these days, if you want dystopia, just check up on the (real) news.

This fall, however, I came across Green Earth (Del Ray, 2015), by Kim Stanley Robinson, and have kept it in mind as a part of my fire making kit ever since. Part of the relatively new cli fi genre, the book is full of climate-change related, extreme weather disasters. It could have been yet another nightmarish fantasy trip. Instead, its tone and structure convey hopefulness and there are moments of true joy. It is Robinson’s updated consolidated version of his Science in the Capitol trilogy first published in the early 2000’s.

With underpinnings of Shakespearean comedy, the novel mostly takes place in Washington, DC and features a group of scientists employed by the National Science Foundation together with people in their professional and social networks. What happens to them in the wake of apocalyptic flood and polar vortex events, and how the NSF decides as an institution to try to do something about global warming forms an inspiring tale. In keeping with the comedic structure, there is a forest (DC’s Rock Creek Park) where the rules of “civilization” don’t quite apply. There are lovers found, misplaced and found again, mistaken identities, and a range of characters from all sectors of society from Phil Chase, who runs for president and could be the Duke of Athens, to groups of homeless people and Frisbee-golf playing fregans standing in for “rude mechanicals.” There are strong women of active temperament, agents of their own fates (the NSF, for example, is run by the tough Diane, of noble temperament and stamina); supernatural elements embodied in a group of Tibetan Buddhists whose island home is threatened by rising seas; and a villain pursuing a pair of lovers. I think there’s even a “fool,” duties split between two-year-old Joe, who may or may not be the next incarnation of the Buddha, and his father, who works as an environmental policy writer for Phil Chase.

And we are always aware of the power of nature, its effects on people, and the mysterious forces that run it. There are encounters with wild animals and a notably athletic woman who appears from time to time, kayaking the Potomac River, who could possibly be an avatar of Gaia. In the tradition of such comedies, the protagonists progress towards greater self-knowledge and there are marriages and reconciliations at the end.

Journeying through the sprawling tale is Frank Vanderwal, the flawed yet endearing main protagonist. Frank is a surfing, rock climbing scientist from California whom we meet while he is doing a stint at the NSF in Washington. He thinks he is about to go back to California, but for reasons having to do with a sudden climate change event, a letter, and Diane, he stays. Since he had only sublet his apartment for a year, Frank becomes technically homeless. An experienced outdoorsman, he develops what he calls an “optimodal lifestyle,” involving a treehouse he constructs, a van, his office and the gym where he works out and takes showers. This situation leads to his moving nomadically through society. By his own admission, Frank is something of a quasi jerk given to ruminating on the beauty of the women of DC, who, through a combination of misadventures and encounters with the Buddhists, gradually gains self-knowledge and a modicum of maturity.

When the original trilogy was written and published prior to 2010, it must have seemed, to those not up on the threats, as somehow fantastical. Reading the revised and updated version, it has become an uncanny reflection of our times. When I started reading, I’d just learned of the slowdown of the thermohaline circulator. And while reading, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria churned across sea and land. Houston’s 50-inches of rain chimed eerily with Robinson’s fictional storm in DC (while Puerto Rico’s ongoing difficulties have become a national disgrace). The novel’s extreme winters bring to mind the winter of 2013-2014 that introduced the words “polar vortex” to our common vocabulary; conditions, while not as bad as in the novel, caused hardship, and misery even among the hard-bitten denizens of the Chicago area where I live.


Gary Snyder once wrote that there are two streams of thought and belief that have the possibility of changing our culture and thus our relationship with the earth. One is the ancient idea of Gaia, mother earth, an idea coming to the fore in a new way. Our scientific and ecological knowledge increasingly understands the earth to be a single, complex, interconnected whole, perhaps not sentient, as the old myths would hold, but a powerful system on which all life depends and to which all life contributes one way or another: the living earth. The other is Buddhism, with its ideas that because all things are inter-related, humans are required to have compassion for all other living things. It is this combination of scientific and spiritual truth, which Snyder, a practicing Zen Buddhist and trained anthropologist articulates so poetically, that Green Earth embodies as comic fiction. Beyond the details of plot that, particularly in the year since the presidential election, take on an almost fairytale glow, or the shimmer of mirage, these deeper ideas add intellectual and emotional heft to the book’s comedy.

A difficulty with much dystopian fiction is that, while it can serve as warning, it can also be seen as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Reading it in times like these can add layers of malaise, cynicism and depression to our experience of daily life in a way that can destroy hopefulness, and thus the ability to act in constructive ways. Nor does it seem to me that that most escapist fantasy, with its larger than life-size heroes endowed with magical powers untethered from very real laws of physics, is very helpful, or at least not beyond adolescence. There is a great need for fiction that might invigorate one to act as one can, where one is, with what one has, to address the very real political and environmental dilemmas of today.

Right now we need imaginative fiction that can help us understand and chart our way forward among real dangers. Fiction, like myth, is vital to the journey. The non-fiction purveyors of global warming solutions, for example, shouldn’t be the only semi-hopeful voices in the room. For one thing many do not, frankly, write very well. For another, most people’s imaginations are best caught and inspired through narrative. Our brains are fully engaged when encountering stories, and we learn from them more easily than through other means. Poetically-true story and myth are vastly different from the alternative-facts lies and perversions of reality that authoritarian leaders and governments employ. Story and myth exist in a sort of meta-reality and we confuse them with lived reality governed by physical laws at our peril. Though made up and not pretending to be real, the good stories do not shy from complexity. They help us understand how to navigate reality, how we ought to treat each other, and how it is possible to live on earth in the condition of being human in difficult circumstances. They can remind us, as a Wendell Berry poem advises, “to be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Climate Change Doesn’t Care about Anyone’s Opinion: Notes on Reciprocity and Sacrifice

As the Delphic oracle laconically informed the Spartans, Erasmus paraphrased in Latin, and someone later rendered into English, “bidden or unbidden, God is present.” Regardless of one’s ideas about what is signified by the word “God,” the statement could be broadly interpreted to mean that the universe in general and the earth in particular function the way they do as a result of structure and laws—“God,” if you like—that are always operational, regardless of what anyone thinks about the matter. On earth, these operations, governed by the laws of chemistry and physics (among others), include both the behavior of the atmosphere when its greenhouse gas proportions are altered and the subsequent cascading effects on the functioning of the biosphere: our home.

No longer do I think that anyone doesn’t “believe” in climate change, particularly the money-fueled “deniers” and “skeptics.” The disastrous effects already are too much with us. Everything is more or less as usual, only more—or less—so, sometimes unbearably more or less. There are the generally intensified floods and droughts, new warmth, and new extremes of weather, sometimes unseasonable, often deadly. To my mind, at the terrible center of the refusal to take serious action regarding global warming stand the orphaned children of Aleppo. They are victims of a war caused in part, some say, by an unprecedented, climate-change-fueled drought. Those children have the misfortune to live in an already climatically fragile, over-populated country and region that would benefit by people working together to help improve resilience, but that instead has become enmeshed in nihilistic, zero-sum conflict. Even where there is not war, along the Atlantic seaboard, in the “global south,” and the American heartland—lives are becoming increasingly uneasy due to climate change’s effects. This is true even in places where the changes continue to be denied, a stance satirized by a recent New Yorker cartoon caption: “Dad, your basement is flooded with over ten inches of left-wing hoax.” The language we use to describe things is important. It is how we construct reality and make sense of the world. What the deniers are doing, really, is not only denying reality, but also denying people’s ability to describe that reality and take appropriate action.

But all this has been written, tweeted, filmed, and spoken about before, on and on, while the atmosphere keeps on getting loaded up like a giant piñata full of unusual surprises to be released in the future when a few more childish hits break the structure. The real question could be what to do about it. Actually, that’s not even a real question any longer, either. Answers are to be had, ascending in levels of complexity from the very simple, such as that those of us who own cars could drive less and walk or bike more, to the most complex of technological, social and political structures and processes. And this, too, has been endlessly discussed—and in some places, appropriate actions taken. To me, there are other, related questions I would love to see at least beginning to be answered, that maybe are beginning to be answered: How can we make important the idea of sacrifice as something desirable, in the old sense of making something sacred, of giving something up or away for the sake of continued health of the community? How do we revalorize the idea that the community, from which we are not separate, though we are an individual species within it, is “Nature,” aka the biosphere, and every aspect and part thereof? And finally, how do we re-learn the value of reciprocity in our relations with the natural world, our community? These are big questions, big enough to be pondered for a lifetime and more, and I have no answers. I’m trying to figure it out for myself, and mostly, writing helps me figure out what I think.

What would we give our lives to protect? 
A recurring theme of Tana French’s brilliant series of detective novels focused on the Murder Squad of the Irish city of Dublin is the question posed by Detective Frank Mackey’s father in "Faithful Place": “What would you die to protect?” Different characters in the series reflect on, act upon, and through events and actions come to answer some version of that question for themselves. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they figure out who perpetrated a crime. Sometimes simply parsing the question causes a realignment of fundamental relationships in their lives.

One could ask this question in slightly less dramatic terms. Many of us in the US mostly don’t encounter the kind of life and death situations giving murder mysteries their heightened drama. So: what are you willing to at least risk your life to save; or, what are you willing to sacrifice, to give up or give away—make sacred to god—in order to protect something dear to you? This question, really, is about love. What is it that you love so much, is worth so much to you that you would give your life in order to make sure it survives? Sometimes the answer is so self-evident it goes without saying. For me, images of my children and husband immediately come to mind, though further reflection offers other ideas as well. Often, though, it’s easy to avoid even considering this question, especially in a wider sense, unless forced by circumstance. To have thought about it—or not—and to take decisions and follow a course of action based on whatever one’s answer is—or not—brings one face to face with what is most important in one’s life. And the answer is often discovered through action rather than cogitation. Sometimes it is the threat of losing something taken for granted that forces a person—or a community—into this kind of self-discovery. Sometimes the self-discovery leads to new discoveries about the world and about relations with it. Often the answer is not only about family, but also about our home, our land, about that which gives us sustenance, material and spiritual.

It is in this light that I think about the water protectors who gathered last fall to defend, non-violently, the Standing Rock Sioux’ sacred sites and the Missouri River, sacred in and of itself, as all rivers are sacred, because of their life-giving benefits to all living things within their watersheds. I do not put that title in quotes, as so many in the media did, marking it out as a new, not quite legitimized version of the term protesters. To me the epithet is brilliantly accurate, emblematic of the action they were taking and sacrifices making. They were not protesting against something, but were, in truth, protecting, in service to their personal values, and the larger set of values and beliefs that leads a person, a group, a tribe, a people, to honor the earth for what it is and what it does, to value and protect those things, perhaps intangible, that are of inestimable value, and on which their lives depend. The water protectors were making a sacrifice, a chosen sacrifice. They were voluntarily giving up comforts, livelihoods, and certain kinds of social and legal standing while risking their lives to protect what they love, in service to a reciprocal relationship with the earth.

Sacrifice and reciprocity mean giving gifts 
The word “sacrifice” is sometimes suspect nomenclature denoting a troubled, complicated history. At root, the word means making an offering—making something sacred—to god(s). That idea has had wildly differing interpretations and applications in different times and places, ranging from the Aztecs’ habits of daily human sacrifice to the sun, to Mother Teresa giving her whole life in service to the poor, to parents making sacrifices in their own lives so their children may succeed, to the current president’s claim of having made sacrifices as he avoided duty, obligation to family and society, and integrity in his wealth-fueled quest for greater riches and adulation.

In early days, making something sacred to god often did involve killing some living thing, human or animal. The Aztecs and Mayans may seem like poster cultures for human sacrifice, but in fact, prior to modern times, wherever humans practiced nature-centered fertility religions, the custom was pretty usual. This includes South and Meso-American cultures, the ancient Celts, Scandinavians and other pre-Christian European cultures, and others.

The understanding that human sacrifice was not necessary to appease various gods, assure luck in a dangerous venture, or restore the fertility of the earth prior to planting season must have marked a major turning point for many cultures. (Though of course most have invented other, equally spurious religious or ideological excuses for killing people). This realization by, among others, the ancient Greeks, Old Testament Jews, Buddhists, and North American Indian tribes, is a great invention. The idea and practice then had room to enlarge into something less literal and transactional; it could become symbolic, as in such different religious realms as the Christian custom of communion, representing Christ’s eternal sacrifice, and certain old North American Indian rites in which pretend “arrows” were “shot” at “victims” during adoption and renewal ceremonies. It also became personal—regardless of belief, adherents have often made—and make—physical self-sacrifices of various kinds, including living lives of poverty and service, and putting their lives on the line to carry out non-violent resistance in the face of oppression.

And sacrifice and reciprocity do exist in a gift-giving context. On a basic, transactional level, something is given in order to get something back. A more mature person, group or culture will think in terms of reciprocity, that subtler and more complex concept that has moved beyond the transactional to include altruism, mutual benefit, and love. We give back because we understand what great gifts we have been given, or how others have sacrificed so we might thrive, and to make the family or community stronger and healthier. Regardless of the particular elements in a given case, reciprocity involves true relationship that benefits all involved, and respects, rather than attempts to exploit, other parties. Our friends have us over for dinner. If we wish to continue a strong relationship, we subsequently have them back to our house, or we buy them a meal at a restaurant, or we do something else that lets them know we appreciate them and want to continue the relationship in a way that strengthens the love and support we provide one another. By contrast, if we buy dinner from a restaurant, we are under no obligation to do so again, nor is the restaurant under any obligation to us. The distinction might seem painfully obvious, yet our culture has confused these two kinds of relationships, and in too many cases substitutes the transactional for the reciprocal.

“Ecosystem services,” a term that has come into vogue in recent years, along with the idea of putting a dollar value to those “services,” takes us along the transactional path. I understand the concept, and why monetary terms are used, as though to appeal to capitalists in language they can understand, in an effort to save ecosystems. To me it’s a little like calling “parental services” those things loving parents do for their children—providing love, discipline, food, clothing, housing—and then putting a dollar value to them. Who will pay? Why do not parents get a salary—from some large corporation—for their trouble? How does this explain the essential nature of a parent-child relationship, especially the love part? It is mysterious and complex, the parent-child bond, and when it goes right, is a relationship not transactional, but reciprocal, in a way that grows in reciprocity and mutual benefit over time, and further, benefits the community of which the parents and children—the family—are part.

Thus our relationship with nature, with the biosphere of which we are a part. It is not true that “Nature,” that entity over there, separate from us, provides services either because somehow subjected to us, and there for the exploitation, or because we could somehow pay Nature a salary. We ought not to say to nature, “We’re going to plant five or a thousand native trees in this city or along this rural stream bank for you, Nature, so you’d better pay us back with cleaner air and stream water” (and meanwhile, the city or farmer might expect payment from some government entity for doing this). We are all familiar with this way of looking at things. The trees of New York City, for example, are considered to provide 22 million dollars a year worth of carbon sequestration and air pollution filtering; but that is missing the point, as might be expected, given the transactional nature of our culture’s dominant ethos. We are misunderstanding the actual relationship and in so doing, making a grave mistake.

The crucial point is that Nature, or the biosphere as a whole (the global, interconnected community of which our species is one in possibly eight or nine million), which is subject to the laws underpinning the functioning of the entire universe, though impersonal in its actions, offers us gifts, a livelihood, if we are smart enough to recognize this; and at the same time, lays on us the obligation to give back for the benefit of the whole. In a context of reciprocity, more questions abound: What can and should we humans offer of ourselves, or that is precious to us to ensure the continued health of the biosphere? What actions can we take to maintain the reciprocal relationships so necessary to the proper functioning of ecosystems local, regional, continental and planetary? How can we best use our talents, to benefit the whole enterprise, especially those, whether in kind or degree, that make us uniquely human?

Getting to choose is important 
Another important thing about sacrifice and reciprocity is the element of choice. These days, a prevailing ethic seems to be that if sacrifice is to be required, better that others should be made to sacrifice for the personal gain of those who are better off. This attitude pinpoints the difference between willing and unwilling sacrifice and the importance of the context of reciprocity. Not for nothing are the environmentally damaged places where poor people, often of color, live called “sacrifice zones.” Not by choice, these people lose freedom, health, livelihoods and communities, family bonds, and often their lives to the grinding demands of an economic system and society run by powerful entities and people that prize transactional, exploitive relationships above all else. There is no reciprocity involved. Nothing is being made sacred. These places ought to be called “scapegoat zones,” in the sense of the Ursula Le Guin parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” And what happens when a civilization makes pretty much the whole planet a scapegoat zone?

In the question of the DAPL, the investors, the pipeline company and the mostly white citizens of Bismarck avoided making a potentially dangerous environmental tradeoff that would disadvantage their community by “sacrificing,” or scapegoating, the poorer people downriver and, with the collusion of the Federal Government, denying them the right to choose what tradeoffs and sacrifices they, themselves, were willing to make. And none of these corporate and governmental entities were willing to give the Missouri River (including the watershed and all living denizens thereof) any “say” in the matter. This, the water protectors turned on its head by rejecting imposed sacrifices and embracing others in alignment with their own values—and the river’s requirement that it be able to fulfill its life giving role in the landscape.

Any successful mitigation of climate change and environmental degradation on the necessary planetary scale will require a similar flip in societal values—and actions—from the merely transactional and exploitive to the reciprocal and regenerative. It will require millions, actually billions, of humans to change aspects of their lives, to become earth protectors, ecosystem protectors, and biosphere protectors. This change will look very different in different parts of the world and will require very different kinds of sacrifices, from different groups of people, some of which actions might not be obvious or evident to the affluent westerner. It will also require certain kinds of social and environmental justice to take place that the wealthy and powerful will resist, are already resisting, mightily. The reader will, I’m sure, immediately call to mind individuals, governments and corporations engaged in this last-ditch, retrograde resistance. Yet even they need clean air and water as a condition of life.

Besides choice, a further crucial component of sacrificial, reciprocal relationship is a social milieu in which group social values uphold the practices, and in which all members are in good standing of the group. What is defined as sacrifice will depend on attitudes, individual and societal. Long ago I gave up eating meat. Vegetarianism, in the context of our industrialized agricultural system, is the quickest way for a relatively affluent American such as myself to lower her carbon footprint. I suppose it is a sacrifice in keeping with my social and cultural identity as an ecosystem protector. Other people have other reasons, beliefs and habits. For some, meatless Mondays, or, for Catholics, not eating meat on Fridays, or for others, giving up meat for a certain holiday is a chosen sacrifice. But this is a sacrifice relatively affluent people who can afford to buy meat get to decide to make. It is not a sacrifice malnourished people necessarily can choose, since it might be a condition imposed by poverty and politics, to deleterious results. Successful vegetarianism, while better for the planet, and good for religious practice, depends nutritionally on having both enough to eat and access to plenty of other healthful foods, and these, in turn, require agency in society; for it is not true that there is not enough food to feed everyone, rather it is that poor people cannot afford to buy much food, healthy food least of all. Their economic—and social—standing bars access.

Sacrifice and reciprocity are not easy, either to talk about or to do, particularly in this America in which the idea of the public good is in such disrepute. Getting to choose means many won’t choose. For one thing, there is required an acknowledgement of privilege, and the need for imposing restraint on a comfortable way of life, a step many are not prepared to take. For example, climate scientists are among the privileged members of society, and among the global top ten percent of carbon emitters, in part owing to their propensity to fly around the globe attending conferences. Only recently have a few come out and publicly stated that they, themselves, perhaps ought to be part of the solution in a material way. It has been estimated that if the top ten percent of carbon emitters, including elite climate scientists, Davos attendees, members of the US House and Senate, billionaire cabinet members and all the others, including your average frequent fliers and, not least, the denizens of any middle to upper-middle class American enclave, were to reduce their personal carbon footprints to the European average, planetary carbon emissions would be reduced by as much as 30%. What kinds of “sacrifices” would this entail?

Unfortunately, at the moment, it seems that having enough wealth means never having to exercise carbon restraint, or if one does, it means one’s house can be that much larger. Al Gore could have avoided a lot of trolling had he opted to build a smaller house. Peter Thiel and certain other members of the global financial elite are in a position to benefit the public good enormously, yet they abdicate any idea of social and biosphere-related reciprocity by indulging apocalyptic fantasies with real-world bolt holes.

The people and the bison 
Recently, I went to see a film, “Little Wound’s Warriors,” by a colleague of mine. It is composed of a series of interviews with residents of Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, a curtailed remnant of the homeland of the Lakota people. The main interviewees were the high school students at Little Wound School, which educates grades kindergarten through high school. An affecting portrait is built up, as they, and others from the community, describe life on “the rez” and their efforts to strengthen the community after a series of suicides by young people. The miserable history of the US Government’s genocide and double-dealing, and Anglo culture’s attempt to obliterate native culture by actively suppressing language, religion, and ways of life, is not a matter for history books for the Lakota, who are living with both the direct experience and its pervasive after effects. While honest in its portrayal of the devastation caused by poverty, drug and alcohol use, there was hope in social engagement and a renewed emphasis on traditional culture. Besides the renewal of ceremonies, beliefs and the study of Lakota language, the people have embarked on the project of bringing bison back to the reservation.

This last is significant. George Apple, a leader at Pine Ridge, was there with several others for a post-film panel discussion, during which the subject of the tribe’s relationship with the bison came up. He said the Lakota have always believed that the strength of the tribe is dependent on the strength of the bison. The Lakota people are bonded with the buffalo in a relationship of deep reciprocity. As the fortunes of the bison herds go, so go the fortunes of the tribe.

Afterwards I asked George to explain more, and he told me this creation story: long ago, before time began, the people were living underground. Life was good, and they lived happy lives. At some point they were tricked—how, he didn’t say—into emerging into the land we now call America. The people promptly began to suffer, because they didn’t know how to live here where life is so hard. Not knowing how to get along, they were starving, and had no homes or way of living. The buffalo came to them and taught them, and in fact sacrificed themselves so the people could live. The people learned ceremony, to help them stay healthy and keep in good agreement with the spirits—the forces—that govern the world, and they learned how to use every part of the bison—meat for food, hides for warmth and shelter, and bones from which to craft tools. No part was wasted. George then told me that so close is the physical and spiritual bond that Lakota people say that they and the buffalo share DNA. Now, the herd is increasing. As part of tribal renewal, they have a buffalo hunt each year, during which one animal is killed and the young people are taught the old ways regarding the bison and its uses.

 A lesson I drew from that story is that with reciprocity comes responsibility. In the terms of the story, the buffalo sacrifice themselves, but the terms of that sacrifice entail the human responsibility to live on the land so that the bison might thrive, and this requires ceremony, as well as practical actions in the material world, such as careful stewardship —and sacrifice of our own greed, arrogance and lawless behavior vis a vis what we call the natural world.

Giving our lives, rebuilding relationships 
Sacrifice is another word for giving. We give so that all might benefit. We give to improve the public good. We give because we are given so much and want to continue a relationship of reciprocity. We talk about helping biodiversity increase, about creating habitat for wildlife, for bees and butterflies, for birds. When we do that, aren’t we also creating habitat for humans? What do we most need to thrive? Our and other living things’ habitat needs really are one and the same. Saving butterflies and bumblebees, mangroves and seagrass, mountain lions and prairie chickens—and bison—means saving ourselves. Humans need what all other living things need, including space to live according to the ways of our species, appropriate food, clean water, clean air and a stable climate regime. If we only focus on what we imagine to be strictly human needs without cultivating reciprocity, there is no productive way forward.

All other species suffer the consequences of over-success and overpopulation, and endure natural correction in one way or another, often tailored to the particular way the species inhabits its niche. Too many deer browsing a woodland understory in the absence of predators will encounter certain starvation, disease and death until some kind of equilibrium is achieved. A virus too efficient at killing its host will itself will die out over time. You could say climate change is our own special corrective, tailored to the particular traits that mark us as the species Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, every other living thing—all our plant and animal relations—will be caught up in the dreadful consequences. “Nature,” as we personify the planetary biosphere, is not kind, nor merciful (nor malevolent); but nature will allow our species to live and thrive if we practice reciprocity, which, among species, we are uniquely able to consciously do. In the long run, we do not get to bargain, nor to we get to choose the conditions for continued survival. We do get to choose to find ways to live in accordance with the laws nature sets. Millions of people are already engaged in this work, in multiple realms, from the religious to the most steadfastly pragmatic.

At present, ecocentric ideas are reappearing in some religions, monotheistic or not, without also bringing back the idea that we must kill some people in order to ensure the earth’s continued health and fertility. Old, nature-centered religions have been resurrected, morphed into gentler versions of their blood-soaked prior incarnations. And quite a few Americans who do not subscribe to any religion, who may in fact not merely be secular but actively anti-religion because they adhere so strongly to the ideology and methods of scientific materialism, nevertheless have embraced a conservation ethic because that is where the weight of evidence moves the scale.

Though there has been progress—world emissions have been flat for three years now—help is mostly not coming from the powerful and rich, the politically connected. There is no Deus ex Machina. It is up to all of us to do what can and must be done. There is hope, but the time is growing short.

Two books that give an overview of Native American history and ceremonies are “The First North Americans: An Archeological Journey” by Donald Fagan (Thames & Hudson; Reprint edition [February 7, 2012]) and “An Archeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual” by Robert L. Hall (University of Illinois Press [April 1, 1997]). Archeology and anthropology can be controversial among native peoples, for good reasons. These books are sensitive and informative. Robert Hall was Native American himself.

A webinar in which British climate scientists Kevin Anderson and John Shepherd discuss the necessary carbon reductions, including reductions by the top ten percent of emitters, can be found at

Info about “Little Wound’s Warriors: Voices from the Badlands,” directed by Seth McClellan, can be found at

Related Posts:
Ethics and Ecosystem Interactions: Why Reconciliation Ecology Matters
On Pretending That What's Happening Isn't Actually Happening

Friday, July 8, 2016

“Beyond the War on Invasive Species” Offers Whole-Systems Guidance for Ecological Restoration

In 2009 two colleagues and I got permission to make an experimental “pocket prairie” on about 3,000 square feet of campus lawn. We coupled a minuscule budget with an aversion to pesticides, so instead of “nuking” the grass, that December we seeded into the frozen, live sod. (Most prairie seeds need a period of cold before germinating in warm weather.) I had read somewhere that this approach could be taken—had been taken at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The next spring we mowed, and added some small plants we’d either propagated or ordered from a native plant nursery. All summer we searched for signs that our seeds had germinated, but they took their time: for a couple of years it seemed as if the turf grass and non-native weeds would win out. Gradually, however, through continued care, over seeding and planting, and a yearly early-spring mowing, the area thrived. Tall, strong prairie plants have mostly shaded out the turf grass. Bird and insect life proliferates, even though the place remains a tiny island in a chemically treated sea of lawn bordered by parking lots. Even endangered Monarch butterflies have shown up in increasing numbers to sip nectar and lay eggs on the four species of milkweed. 

The early challenge posed by weeds continues, though less than the first couple of years. Incursion by aggressive species (aka opportunistic, early successional annuals and perennials) would, if not controlled, soon dominate the prairie garden, as we call it. Of the approximately 2,500 species in Cook County, Illinois, about half were not present prior to European settlement and are considered non-native. Of these, a relatively small number have the ability to reduce biodiversity where they grow and are considered invasive. Thus, in the prairie garden, Canada thistle, white sweet clover and perennial sow thistle appeared in successive years, followed this year by crown vetch, and, because of their natures, soon became too abundant for good balance among species. There are no “bad,” or “evil” plants, and these do have some value for pollinators. For example, some pf the clover honey available in stores comes from this species of clover. However, each of these plants has the potential to shade and crowd out the slower to establish and grow prairie plants, quickly and decisively becoming a near monoculture. How to manage them? 

It is this kind of dilemma that Tao Orion’s “Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) approaches head on, with smarts, honesty and the authenticity that comes from lived experience. Orion, who holds both a degree in agroecology and a permaculture certificate, manages a 6.5 acre smallholding with her husband. She also teaches at the University of Oregon and is on the staff at a non-profit sustainable living institute, Aprovecho. She knows whereof she speaks. Her book is a worthwhile entry in the ongoing discussion about how to carry on the very real and most urgent tasks of ecosystem regeneration in human-occupied areas, which is to say nearly everywhere. She criticizes the vocabulary and approach of the field of invasion biology, which, according to her, is ideology driven, demonizes non-native species and features an increasing reliance on toxic pesticides to eliminate invasive plant species in natural areas, which in her view repeats the mistakes of industrial age agriculture. She proposes that healthy ecosystems more readily resist aggressively opportunistic species; instead of treating symptoms of extreme disturbance using extreme measures, we should look at the larger causes that enable invasive species to take hold, begin to remedy those, and while we are doing so, adopt management techniques drawn from permaculture ideas and practices. What we would be left with would be human-managed ecosystems that might not necessarily duplicate those that existed pre-European settlement and would include not-historically-native species—but would be healthy, diverse and well functioning. 

In this context Orion begins from first permaculture principles: care for people, care for planet, reinvest the surplus, and turn problems into solutions. She presents case studies of ecosystems where invasive plant species have taken over from natives and recounts the moral language used about these plants and measures, often violent, used to extirpate them, often without success. For example, Orion analyzes the problem of tamarisk (salt cedar) trees along the Colorado River, their displacement of willows and cottonwoods and how land managers have tried to eradicate the tree without addressing what it is about the ecosystem that favors the invasion: in this case, the nearly nonexistent river flow owing to human urban and agricultural use. Salt builds up, water is reduced and a salt-loving species such as tamarisk is bound to be ecologically favored over the water loving, less salt tolerant natives. She makes the very good point that it is human development and control of the river, including the siphoning off of all of its water before it reaches the delta and the Gulf of California that are the real problems. These new conditions disfavor the historic plants but favor the salt cedar for good reasons. More reasonable, at least from an ecosystem’s—or the willows and other historic species’— point of view would be to change river management such that water flow would bear some resemblance to historical norms. 

This approach, as she points out, would of course also require vast changes in the human societies along the river, from residential water use to agriculture and manufacturing, which in turn would require vast changes in government policy and multi-state agreements. (And in fact, a single “pulse flow” of less than 1% of the river’s historic pre-diversion flow, that in 2014 briefly revived the riverbed all the way to the Gulf, took eight years to negotiate. Native vegetation subsequently regenerated, among other positive changes; hopefully this was a first step toward ecosystem rehabilitation and there will be more pulse flows in the future.) 

Because Orion is a permaculturalist, she naturally thinks about ecosystem management in terms of benefits to humans. The book is packed full of examples of how weedy plants could be turned to better account. A great example of this is the lowly ailanthus tree, or tree-of-heaven, with which almost everyone is familiar and almost no one loves. One reason we have them in the US is that the ailanthus silkworm produces a fiber reminiscent of a cross between silk and wool. At one time there was a thriving “ailantine” textile industry in the US and other parts of the world, which ceased when cotton gained dominance. Similar to the argument proponents put forth in favor of hemp, she proposes resuscitating an ailantine production sector. Like hemp, ailanthus trees can grow on marginal land and in unfavorable situations and do not require the fertilizer and pesticides needed in industrial cotton farming. As she says, “cultivating tree of heaven for fiber helps mitigate climate change, reduces pesticide use, remediates heavy-metal-laden soils and has the potential to create economic outcomes for people living in invaded ecosystems.” She has similar ideas for kudzu, scourge of the southeast. 

In some ways, however, Orion goes too far in her rehabilitation of invasive species and the claim that healthy ecosystems can resist them. Certain species actually do exist that rampage through even healthy ecosystems for which controls must be found. Midwesterners continue to mourn the ash trees, now replaced on urban parkways and lingering as ghosts in the woods, which succumbed to the emerald ash borer, the seemingly unstoppable pest from eastern Eurasia. In the case of the ash, Orion says that suboptimal rain in the Eastern US weakened millions of them: fully healthy trees would not have died. Unfortunately there is more to this story. American ash lack the EAB-fighting chemicals that Chinese ash possess owing to coevolution. In China, for example, healthy American ash trees die, while Chinese ash species do not. What is to be done? 

On the other hand, Orion’s larger point, that we should manage ourselves and our ecosystems to maximize biodiversity while also helping ourselves, is well taken. Having spent much time clearing Eurasian buckthorn from oak woodland savannas over a period of fifteen years, I have witnessed how control allows assemblages of native plants to flourish. At the moment, buckthorn is chopped down and burned and the stumps herbicided. I’ve long thought better use could be made of the wood. Perhaps licenses could be given to people to harvest and put it to good use, whether as fuel or for crafting—it is good, sturdy wood, after all. A pity to waste it. 

Another slight caveat I have is Orion’s apparently somewhat romanticized ideas about indigenous peoples’ land management practices. For excellent reasons, the myth that prior to 1492 the US was a pristine wilderness has been dispelled; now, partly in reaction to our own bad management practices, an idea has taken hold that ancient indigenous peoples always managed the land better than we do. Yes, many pre-modern and non-western cultures have much to teach about useful methods, and perhaps even more importantly, about maintaining right relationship with the natural world. Yes, the peoples that would later be called Native Americans managed the continent on a vast scale through strategic burning, cultivating wild plants and trees within wild settings and practicing garden agriculture. In many cases this led to increased biodiversity, including an abundance of game and plentiful food crops, and Orion’s examples are both evocative and to the point. The prairie and woodland savanna landscape I love was created through this kind of management. However, it is also important to remember a few other facts that temper the record. Certain practices such as prehistoric mass bison kills would not look sustainable to us. The Anasazi and Hopewell cultures both collapsed partly for environmental reasons, including, in the city of Cahokia’s case, overpopulation and agricultural degradation. And in central Mexico, Aztec overpopulation resulted in overuse of the land, evidenced by the marks of widespread erosion that occurred prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

More generally speaking, while what was to become the US was certainly more populous (50-100 million) prior to European incursion than previously believed, that many people living an ecologically friendly, land-based lifestyle within a much larger matrix of ecosystems is vastly different from 350 million or so employing ecologically disastrous methods to supply our wants and needs. Clearly, though less populous than many other countries, from an ecosystem point of view, even the US could be considered overpopulated. 

Looming over this book, and over all questions and ideas about how to manage land so that not only people but all the other species—plants, animals, lichens, fungi, and all the denizens of the several microbiomes—can thrive, is the overwhelming fact that we have indeed entered the Anthropocene—the age dominated by humankind. Debate continues about when it began. To Orion’s point, a recent article in PNAS demonstrates through a review of evidence that we’ve been altering ecosystems for 13,000 years for better and worse. Also, while we have a right to be here, and are capable of managing ecosystems in beneficial ways, it seems irrefutable that other species need room too. Globally, our one species is taking up space and eliminating suitable conditions for the other 2 million named species and 6 million potentially to be found and named. For them there must be large areas of good habitat. 

Orion recognizes the need to restore ecosystems and manage our land in such a way that certain species of plants that are overly opportunistic in certain contexts can be managed and controlled. She gives a number of useful recommendations that range from eminently practical to “if only it could happen” scenarios. Yet she doesn’t fall into the opposite, gung-ho Anthropocene “nature is dead and we might as well get used to it” camp, and for that I thank her. At this point, we can’t stop the ongoing reshuffling of ecosystems. Too many factors are stacked against us to return to some version of the past, whether we view that past as mostly wilderness or mostly beneficially managed through indigenous peoples’ activities. Yet large, intact ecosystems with defining characteristics do persist. And land management, and the ethos that defines it, is already changing, as evidenced by books like this one. What needs to be changing even faster are the social conditions and the inexorable civilizational logic that create environmental chaos in the first place. 

Recently, I learned a new term: “moral injury.” This is what soldiers suffer when they return from war, having been required to take part in or helpless to prevent morally repugnant actions, or having seen terrible things they couldn’t help, such as the killing of children and helpless civilians. These lie outside their identity as moral beings and they can’t forgive themselves. Though symptoms can be similar to those of PTSD, moral injury is different and creates deep-seated, lasting emotional wounds, with unrelenting feelings of guilt, shame and despair. There are a number of therapies, some of which are psychiatric, but also spiritual and meditation-based. Strikingly, something that seems to help is being out in nature and learning again to experience the beauty of the earth. I mean no disrespect to the vets who have undergone such terrible experiences and live with such debilitating results; but in thinking about the term itself, I wonder if there can be another form of moral injury that arises from the way our society clearcuts forests, plows prairies and pollutes the air and waterways. I have read many texts in which the writers mourn the old landscapes and feel guilt, shame and responsibility that they didn’t or couldn’t do more to preserve them. 

Perhaps our industrialized society is staggering under a huge load of this kind of moral injury regarding our treatment not only of people but also of the ecosystems that support us. Perhaps climate change deniers, in effect, are denying their own debilitating moral injury. Perhaps, however, it is most acutely felt among people most in tune with their home ecosystems and among those seeking to help our dominance become less ruinous to other species. I believe that being out in nature helps. Practicing reciprocity—giving back to nature what we owe—helps. How do we replace a societal ethic of relentless growth with one of nurturance and restraint? If enacted on a wide scale, land management of the sort Orion is advocating, along with other forms of reconciliation ecology, has the potential to help cure this societal sickness through the restoration of ecosystems. “Beyond the War on Invasive Species” is a good example of the new ecological theory and practice that is manifesting in multiple arenas. 

Meanwhile, here in the prairie garden we keep planting and observing. As I write, yesterday I was cutting back white sweet clover. It is nearly as tall as I am, but then so are the liatris, prairie sunflowers, the cup plants and compass plants, common milkweed, grey-headed coneflowers and so many others. The flowers are mostly at eye level, and the warm-season grasses will overtop them all next month. Plants cover every square inch of ground. Wading in among them to cut the clover, green growth pressing on every side, bees and butterflies pollinating close by, is one good way to experience living nature, Midwest version, in its sun-powered, midsummer exuberance. I’ll never eradicate the weedy plants, but neither will they take over. I’ve discovered that cutting back thistle when in flower to a height of six or eight inches helps knock back the population, as does cutting sweet clover while in bloom but before it sets seed. There are, besides, native plants that can hold their own against opportunistic weedy plants. For example, fast-growing cool season native grasses such as switch grass are reputed to be able to stand up to crown vetch’s suffocating embrace. I’ll plant some soon and see how it goes.

Many thanks to reader Margaret F-H for suggesting this book.

Note: Posted at the end of a horrific week of gun violence in the US. When will we ever learn?

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Podcast: "Saving the Ecosystem with Wild Backyards (and other awesome endeavors!)"

Rivera Sun and Sherri Mitchell
Rivera Sun and Sherri Mitchell of Love (and revolution) Radio contacted me for an interview about native plant gardening and reconciliation ecology. They are warm and encouraging radio hosts. We had a wonderful talk. Here is the link to the podcast

From the Love (and revolution) Radio website: 

"Rivera Sun is a novelist and non-violent mischief maker. She is the author of The Dandelion InsurrectionBillionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars. She is also the social media coordinator and nonviolence trainer for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Her essays on social justice movements are syndicated on by PeaceVoice, and appear in Truthout and Popular

Sherri Mitchell (Penobscot) is an Indigenous rights attorney, writer and activist who melds traditional life-way teachings into spirit-based movements. Follow her at Sherri Mitchell – Wena’gamu’gwasit." 

Rivera and Sherri interview all kinds of folks about sustainable living, so readers might want to subscribe to their email newsletter here.

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Ethics and Ecosystem Interactions: Why Reconciliation Ecology Matters
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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ethics and Ecosystem Interactions: Why Reconciliation Ecology Matters

The problem with ecosystem interactions
Here’s a phrase that’s lately been haunting me: “the extinction of ecosystem interactions.” I first encountered it in science writer Connie Barlow’s fascinating book, The Ghosts of Evolution, which is about the plants, mainly trees, that have lingered into modern times even though the megafauna with which they were co-evolved, that ate their fruits and dispersed their seeds, have gone extinct. Of the several reasons the animals disappeared, a major one has everything to do with our species’ penchant for using a resource until there is nothing left. Thus, when you look at, say, an Osage orange tree, with its large, inedible, multi-seeded fruits, or savor the delicious flesh of an avocado (while not eating the insanely large, poisonous seed contained within), you are summoning the ghosts of the elephant-like gomphotheres and others that once roamed the Americas.

This is an excellent example of the extinction of ecosystem interactions. Once the animals disappeared, so too did the relationships and their attending interactions, leaving the plants hard put to survive into the present day. How and why they did so is a long, convoluted story best told by Barlow. The phrase itself comes from a short article, published in 1977 by pioneering ecologist Dan Janzen, called “The Deflowering of Central America,” in which he traces the relationship of a particular bee species with a certain species of flowering plant, and describes what happens when that relationship is interrupted by over-disturbance of the human kind.

When we think about species extinction, we often think about individual, usually charismatic species such as honeybees, monarch butterflies, eagles, wolves or polar bears, or plants such as giant sequoias. However, individual species of plants and animals do not exist in a vacuum. They live as participants in a four-dimensional structure of relationships, dependencies, limiting factors, physical environment, weather, and multiple stocks and flows that includes all the other living beings who also exist in this same web. For example, plants have flowers so they’ll attract pollinators, who forage among the flowers for food in order to raise their young so that the whole cycle can perpetuate itself. And some pollinators such as monarch butterflies are so exquisitely adapted that their young can only grow and thrive on the pollen and nectar of certain plants. Plants also produce fruits and seeds, and, if not wind-dispersed, rely on animals to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds, though the animals, of course, are looking for tasty food. Then there are the soil critters with whom the plants interact (the biological system of the soil), and the predators that hunt the herbivores, and on and on in the dizzying complex web of interactions that makes a healthy, dynamically balanced ecosystem.

It is this web of interactions that can get thrown seriously out of whack through destructive human disturbance, which, as we can’t avoid knowing, is happening on a planetary scale.  Human overpopulation is a major factor. Urban overdevelopment on the one hand, and, on the other, desertification caused by overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices that include overuse of groundwater are perfect instances of what I’m talking about.  So is clear cutting forest, and in a very extreme example, the nearly complete replacement of thriving, complex ecosystems such as the oak savannas and prairies of the Midwest or parts of the tropical rainforests of Brazil with industrial corn and soy production. In these latter cases, the destruction of interactions extends as far as killing off a thriving soil biome and polluting streams and rivers.

Even in less extreme cases such as when land is cleared for a school, shopping mall or housing development, the native plants get cleared away, native bees and other insect pollinators, predators and herbivores subsequently decline through lack of food and habitat to enable good reproduction, which leads to further plant declines for lack of pollination. When the insects and the seeds and berries produced by native plants decline, so do the songbirds that depend on them, as do the raptors that hunt the songbirds.  The same pattern goes for all the other life of the ecosystem: mammals large and small, amphibians and other reptiles, and the myriad life of the soil. When birds and other dispersers decline, plants further decline, and so on in a downward spiral of impoverishment until--in my part of the world-- the prairie, savanna or woodland becomes a shadow of its former self. If enough of these interactions go extinct, the ecosystem, which by definition is a complex adaptive system, will, owing to positive feedback loops, slide into a less complex state, with a cascade of negative effects for all other species in the system, including further extinction of species. The word for these kinds of sad landscapes is depauperate: they are poor, impoverished and devoid of the richness and biodiversity that should be there by rights.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting around to what I want to discuss, which is the importance of the protection and restoration of ecosystem interactions in human dominated landscapes and how reconciliation ecology can help us do so. The question is not just how we can save any particular good-looking species such as monarchs. Beyond that lies the bigger question: What can we can do to encourage complex ecological interactions, and do it on a large enough scale, quickly enough, thus saving monarchs, and all kinds of other species (some of which we haven’t even discovered yet), as well?

This is an altogether more interesting, difficult question. It is also more fraught: with danger, difficulty, and potential failure. Yet only by attempting to answer and act on this question in a given place—and indeed the answer is worked out through the action—can we, ourselves, find a home within nature, and help ensure that all kinds of ecosystems—and ultimately the planet—will be not only a suitable habitat for these others, but also for us. The question is fundamentally practical because answering it could go a long way towards helping solve many global environmental problems such as climate change and the need for carbon sequestration.  Yet it is deeply ethical and spiritual as well. Discovering answers and appropriate actions requires a shift in thinking, a redefinition of humanity’s proper role vis a vis the biosphere as well as a shift in ethics, religious doctrine and spiritual practice. In the long run, the complex definition of what it means to be human may shift and change, as well.

What is reconciliation ecology and how can it help?
As formulated by Michael J. Rosenzweig in 2003, reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play." Implied is an ethos demonstrated through action that has the potential to help us move beyond our current, cruel dilemma of how to live on the earth without wrecking it. Like ecological restoration does at the landscape level, it does not focus specifically on saving one or another particular species. When most effective, reconciliation ecology helps a given piece of land recover the myriad functions and interactions that enable it and all its denizens to thrive, yet does not post “keep out” signs for humans. Importantly, unlike conservation or preservation, which focus on reserving landscapes specifically for non-human species, reconciliation ecology also encompasses the work of reconfiguring overly human-dominated landscapes to make room for other species. It enables humans to take our rightful place as caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the earth.

The thing about natural systems is that they need a lot of space. In ecology, the species-area curve suggests that the larger the area, the more biodiversity can be supported. Thus, in general, islands have less biodiversity than continents. By extension, in a fragmented landscape of nature reserves surrounded by human development the reserves function like islands. Species go extinct and ecosystem interactions wink out when there is not enough habitat and contiguous landmass to sustain enough different species of plants and animals so they’re able to reproduce well enough to keep populations at a healthy size. While nature reserves are of the utmost importance, no matter how we increase their size and extent, they are not by themselves enough to provide for real habitat needs, even if connected by corridors. We can see this clearly in the case of bee and butterfly declines in the US. Yes, pesticides and disease take a deadly toll; but it is also simple lack of habitat—of large areas with huge numbers of diverse flowers that allow for healthy ecosystem interactions—that is a major factor in the struggles pollinators face in maintaining viable populations.

E.O. Wilson has recently proposed that we should give over to nature half of the earth by creating vast reserves on land and sea. This statement could bring to mind the old human culture/nature dichotomy so prominent in Western thought, including the either/or binary thinking and non-holistic problem solving that has so often and still continues to result in incomplete solutions that in turn generate further problems. This type of thinking gave us the now generally discredited idea that there is a bright line of demarcation (perhaps symbolized by a fence) separating humans and human culture from the rest of earth’s species. One might fearfully imagine the human population huddled in crowded cities, sequestered from vast areas where we are not allowed. This is clearly not Wilson’s intent, however. One of his models is places such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica, where Dan Janzen and his wife Winnie Hallwachs have, with local people, developed a model of conservation and restoration that includes livelihoods for residents.

One way I like to think of sharing the earth is to picture a continuum, with outright wilderness on one end and completely human-dominated areas, e.g. over-developed urban centers or industrial zones such as the tar sands mining areas on the other. These are extremes. It is desirable—and necessary—to greatly enlarge protected wilderness zones and to restore as many natural areas as possible, while sharply decreasing the size and impact of anthropogenic sites— and completely eliminating the most egregious. But in-between there is a huge amount of territory that is and will remain mostly human-impacted but livable. Here lie plenty of opportunities for reconciliation ecology at every scale.

Living the good life in the middle landscape
In the US, at least, much of our landscape is what could be considered what literary critic Leo Marx described as a “middle landscape” that blends human culture and nature—admittedly, often disastrously at the moment, but where we also have the most obvious chance to do better. This middle landscape, as discussed by Marx and others subsequently, encompasses towns, suburbs, farms and even nature preserves in a human-managed patchwork. This is the type of landscape within which Thoreau resided and wrote so productively about nature, as did both Aldo Leopold, when he moved back to the Midwest after years out west in wilderness areas and May Watts, who lived in Chicago and whose writings celebrated and defended close-by natural areas. It is where my colleagues and I do our own ecological restoration and management work in Chicago-area forest preserves and where I do my native plant gardening at in my backyard.  Most Americans may never hike in the Rockies or, conversely, visit the tar sands desolation. But most of us do reside in some version of the middle landscape. Here is where most ecological restoration via the practice of reconciliation ecology must and can be done—at home.

I like to think of reconciliation ecology as the umbrella term for all the ways that people are learning to live and work while making room for nature and biodiversity. The list is long and encompasses multiple, overlapping disciplines: ecological restoration and rehabilitation, carbon farming and ranching, organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry and permaculture, among others that involve working on the land hewing closely to natural processes and cycles, while looking to increase biodiversity.  Urban planners, architects, landscape architects and designers who are incorporating green infrastructure, green corridors and other resilient features into their designs must also be included, as well as native plant and bird gardeners, regenerative gardeners and myriad others.

It all adds up. The fact that my next-door neighbor and I garden with native plants in our backyards might not be enough to help increase ecosystem interactions in our town. But the fact that over the last five to ten years hundreds of people in the same town have begun to engage in some form of native plant gardening, along with local schools and parks, means that for many species of animals, especially birds and insects, there is increased habitat richness and abundance, leading to the chance for increased complexity of ecological interactions and hence, a stronger ecosystem. Meanwhile, backyard carbon sequestration is going on, the air is a little less polluted, the soil is healthier, and rainwater more easily absorbed. And, these gardens form a link or corridor with the forest preserves, helping to expand habitat a little further—important not only for resident birds but for all the migrating warblers and other birds that pass through spring and fall. In this way, we local gardeners are contributing to improved ecosystem interactions at a continental, even a hemispheric level.

The kind of earth-centered ethos and practice I am talking about recognizes that, while human beliefs and actions help “bring the world into being,” a foundational teaching in some indigenous belief and ceremonial systems, our species is, as is becoming increasingly clear, not the boss of nature, even though we bear responsibility as caretakers. Nature gives us great gifts: life itself, for example, and the wherewithal to create societies and enduring civilizations. We might ask ourselves what we owe in return, and how we can reestablish a relationship of reciprocity. We indeed are not “as gods so we might as well get good at it,” as the Whole Earth Catalog famously proclaimed in 1968 and some neo-environmentalists seem lately to have taken for a motto, particularly those in favor of techno-fixes for ecological problems.

This is not at all to dismiss science or technology; I thoroughly understand the roles both will have to play as we work to help ecosystems recover their natural functioning. But, as Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out, also in the 1960’s, we must mature past “cowboy” ideas about living on earth. Hard limits mean we do not actually have the freedom to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, with no planetary consequences. Many people are still resisting if not outright denying this truth. However, ever-increasing numbers of people have embraced an idea of reciprocity, even if not fully articulated, from those risking their lives in environmental struggles in Honduras to affluent Midwest suburbanites who have stopped using pesticides, let their lawns get a little less “pristine,” and begun to plant milkweeds for the monarchs.

They all have recognized in some way and have expressed through their actions that it is time, past time, to once again take up our sacred role and responsibility of tending to the earth, whoever and wherever we are. This goes double for those of us who are not of indigenous cultures. In this light, reconciliation ecology might be seen as a religious project, for, as Chicago-based William Jordon (who coined the term “restoration ecology” in the 1980’s) writes, “religion is the art and discipline of dealing with the problems of relationship at the psychological and spiritual levels.” I recognize that some of those most committed to ecological restoration and reconciliation ecology would be the last people to speak in overtly spiritual, much less religious terms. Yet there it is. If we work faithfully and patiently to aid wild nature, we just might avoid mass extinction while helping mitigate climate change and making up for grievous mistakes we have made and continue to make. 

I am not advocating a return to a hunter-gathering way of life, or, again, getting rid of science, nor the scientific method; nor am I advocating romantic pie-in-the-sky solutions that ignore the very real, implacable natural processes that can be so destructive to human kind. Nature is not our cuddly Disney friend, and much restoration work is hard, dirty and can involve sheer drudgery; I say this from experience. But I do believe that unless the spiritual, ethical and moral elements are reincorporated into our relations with nature, we will not get very far in our efforts against climate change, pollution or any other environmental problems we face.

Can reconciliation ecology, along with conservation and ecological restoration, return continental ecosystems to how they were before European settlement (in the US), a rule of thumb standard for many in the ecological restoration community? No, not likely. For one thing, time and change only move forward. As Heraclitus pointed out, a person cannot ever step twice into the same river because the water flows and the person changes.  So it is with landscapes: they can only ever evolve into something new. Physical conditions change, the people and other species inhabiting them are different, human culture is different and myriad new (and some destructively invasive) species have made their homes across the country. We must beware the false dream that there is some past, edenic golden age to which we might return, if only such and such conditions were met. (Also, as a reminder, in many places, pre-European landscapes were not unpeopled wilderness. The land was managed in ways to increase overall productivity; management was part of and requisite to material culture and spiritual belief systems.)

Physical conditions in the past were not those of today, and true to the nature of history, we can’t ever fully know what they were. Even if we had access to a wayback machine, the complexity would be too great for us to recreate. Even in the present we can’t know all the interactions in a given ecosystem, or for that matter, whether we are truly restoring or instead helping create something new. As Jordan has written, there are always “Humpty Dumpties,” or ecosystem features that may have contributed to the structure and ecological functioning of a given place that cannot ever happen again, preventing the landscape we are restoring from exactly entering its historical arc. The mere fact of taking on such a project in the present by modern people would guarantee that such a recreation would be inexact. However, though we can’t know all the interactions we are trying to restore, it is still possible to get things going again and build up to some kind of critical mass so that the web of relationships begins to recomplexify on its own.

The upshot is that if we carry on restoration and management projects, large and small, and make plenty of room for wild nature, as E.O. Wilson suggests, there is hope that continental ecosystems can recover into a new state of health. But much would have to change.

Where are we going? How will we get there?
 Based on the evidence of climate change, resource depletion and species extinction, it is clear that many of our currently accepted, conventional ways of life and means of solving problems based on the model of “progress” aren’t good enough anymore because they fail to take the biosphere enough into account. To truly “return,” or recreate something even approximating pre-European conditions, in which there could be expansive enough habitat to maintain good enough biodiversity so as to least slow species extinction to normal ranges, while also increasing resilience and helping to sequester carbon and slow climate change, the US population would have to stabilize and ultimately shrink. In the meantime our society would have to evolve, hopefully by choice, but also perforce, into something so radically different from its present state as possibly to become nearly unrecognizable to many people alive today. Yet this new, biocentric or ecocentric civilization and resulting land use might also be unrecognizable to historic native peoples, though based on similar cultural deep structures of relationship with the natural world as those societies had and their descendants continue to have.

In such a society many of our accepted conventions would be turned on their heads and categories that are clear-cut to us would become permeable and would blur and change. I find it easy to imagine the landscapes, and harder to imagine the embedded society. Cities might become biodiversity hubs interlaced with green infrastructure, farms and wide green corridors that would connect large natural areas outside their limits, while in the meantime farms and ranches might not be easily to distinguish from the surrounding “wild” countryside. Large parts of the country would be off-limits to development and would be places dangerous for the unwary owing to a proliferation not only of herds of herbivores, but of the large carnivores on which ecosystems depend for their health. There might be fewer roads, and those that remained would have wide overpasses designed for free wildlife movement. There might be new religions, and traditional ones might become more ecocentric. Perhaps the old versions that focus on reaching for the sky at the expense of life on earth would come to be considered immature. The nature of work might change in unforeseen ways. Children would be trained in systems thinking and would grow up with a working knowledge of ecology in general and ecosystem knowledge specific to their place. Materialism might decline. With restrictions on resource use across the board, and particularly fossil fuels, material wealth would certainly decline, and life would be less “convenient” and harder, possibly much harder, measured by modern American expectations. There would be no such thing as “disposable” anything, dwelling spaces would be smaller, travel more difficult.

Such is the logic of truly low-carbon, ecosystem-sensitive living, which requires an ethic of modesty and restraint, the practice of living within the constraints of community and a willingness to attune human ambition, societal expectations and mores to what a balanced ecosystem permits. I do not in the least think I am indulging in “ecotopian” thinking. Human nature wouldn’t change and people in general would not suddenly become wiser and more wonderful than they are today. I suspect that many Americans, if deposited suddenly in this kind of society, would not find it to their liking. Yet I also suspect there might be satisfactions of a different kind than we are mostly accustomed to.

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