Many years ago I was hired to rewrite a number of BC Forest Service reports and brochures related to what was euphemistically called forest Health. In fact, the “Forest Health” branch and the literature I was supposed to review were almost exclusively concerned with pest management. AND pest management was almost—a few notable exceptions—entirely about dispersing various toxic chemicals by various means through the forests of BC.
Normally my views on aerial spraying of pesticides would have made for a poor employer/employee match. However, the Ministry of Forests had recently taken a big hit over a three year public relations battle to spray a large area of the province with a toxic pesticide to control spruce budworm—a pest that had mysteriously disappeared just as the planes were set to start the spray program. And, thus, while I remained a stranger in their midst, I did manage to build some bridges of understanding based on the general rethinking that was going on in the Forest Health Branch. I wouldn’t say it was easy, and it became even more difficult when to my literature review was added the responsibility to look over stacks of pesticide application proposals to ensure, at least, the provincial regulations were being adhered to.
One day when I wasn’t sure I could actually bear to see another pesticide application, I was unexpectedly invited to sit in on an all sector roundtable discussion of where to for Forest Health in BC. I was struggling to stay awake as exasperated heads of departments described how unless the Ministry of Finance woke up to the need to fund more spray programs we were going to lose our battle with the bugs (pests of all sorts). I would have—embarrassingly—nodded off—and perhaps dumped over my chair– except that as one entomologist was speaking about losses to the two-year cycle spruce budworm, I suddenly realized he had entirely shifted the metaphor; he was no longer referring to a war with the bugs; the metaphor had significantly shifted and was now about a police matter (Forest Health/good guys) and robbers (bugs). These bugs were stealing our wood! He had it all down in studies and charts of projected income from projected growth rings. It was all a bit complex—the growth modeling and the abstract losses but what it came to was a simple metaphor shift; the growth of a tree is like money in the bank—our money. If a perfect tree can be shown to grow in perfect circumstances so many units of wood in a year then that becomes the wood (harvested/milled/converted to money of course) that is rightfully ours; it’s what nature owes us each year and anything (bugs sort of things) that decreases the amount of growth of an imagined perfect tree in a perfect environment—is stealing what is rightfully ours.
I was shocked. Stealing? All of nature’s most exuberant potential belongs to us and anything that reduces that potential growth is stealing. We have a right/duty to go in and arrest–kill more accurately –these nasty thieves. It was a shocking thought. One could just as easily have put the proposition that we are so poor that we need to optimize the amount of harvestable forest growth. It comes to the same kind of spray programs but stealing (!)? What a metaphor to choose to use. Doesn’t it make us desperately greedy—all of not just nature as is but all of nature’s highest possible output belongs to us; it’s our property.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Just a year earlier while working on pest management research in northern Okanagan orchards I had noted interesting and profound difference between organic orchardists and those who operated on the standard—industrial– no legal pesticides barred model. Yes, the difference had to do with much more than the toxicity of the sprays they used; it had to do more with a fundamentally different way of looking at what orcharding was about. The standard orchardists were generally quite anxious about what these (bugs) were (here it comes again) stealing from them. Sounding so like the forest health argument, these industry modeled orchardists had a vision of what an orchard with no pests would produce and that was the orchardists’ due-their right—theirs! Having worked with such orchardists for some time I was shocked one day when I was presenting a yield estimate to an organic orchardist that predicted that the pear harvest that year, in his orchard, would be thirty percent below an average year due to an insect infestation that our recommended organic treatments had not fully controlled. I expected to hear disappointment and anger directed at me and the company I worked for –as I had from industrial pear orchardists who had suffered the same—or worse—crop reductions. But—instead—I got a smile and a warm thanks for the non-toxic recommendations that had enabled him to get off a larger crop than he thought possible for that year. And it wasn’t just one organic orchardist. Time after time, I noticed this different way at looking at expected production levels versus actual harvests. The organic growers—almost all of them—expected that nature would be providing meals for a diversity of fruit consuming organisms. Some years would be better for the orchardist and some would leave much less for human consumption—and that, however regrettable for the owner, was just what nature is about—diversity. The thing that amazed me was how this translated into body language and temperament. While experiencing similar losses the industrial grower would be angry and spewing resentment at what had been “stolen” from him while the organic grower seemed at ease with himself, nature, the world—losing part of a crop to pests was, in part, an opportunity to learn. Perhaps this year’s loss would lead to new understanding that could tip the balance more toward human appetites for the next year.
I wouldn’t be writing about these experiences from my distant past except that recently I checked a book out of the library titled: The darker nations: a people’s history of the third world written by Vijay Prashad. The Darker Nations traces the intellectual origins and the political history of the twentieth century attempt to knit together the world’s impoverished countries in opposition to neo-colonial exploitation by Western powers that so brutally sought to sequester all the resources of the Earth for their exclusive interests. The line that seems so relevant to my experiences with pest management in BC is by a British general who arrogantly states that (I am paraphrasing) the colonial powers have a right to take the resources of other nations by force and to brutalize—even kill—the citizens of third world nations because ‘they don’t fully exploit their resources so “WE” have a God-given right to take their resources for our “higher purposes” and to oppress colonized people because they are “too lazy” to “fully utilize the resources that (for some incomprehensible reason) are “tied up” in the hands of the colonized.’
You could make a common summary of the underlying perceptions of Forest Health managers, industrial orchardists, and colonial powers thus: “It’s all ours! The entire natural world—living and inanimate—belongs to us because only we will ensure that it goes to a higher purpose; it’s consumed by human populations or, more exactly Western nations.” And—actually—it is a bit more specific: consumed by this generation of European peoples—it seems as inappropriate to leave something to the next generation as it is to leave something to other life forms or other peoples. And anyone interfering with our right to take all that nature does—or could—produce is a thief of the worst sort. Indeed such a perception seems to be the core rai·son d’être for the economies of the industrial world.
I realize this seems like a long argument, but I think it is so fundamental to the problems that confront humanity that I it is worth considering a bit further.
While Naomi Klein, in her seminal work, This Changes Everything, seems to argue that the massive challenge of climate change implies that capitalism, the very rationale underlying western society, has, inexorably failed and must be replaced if we, as a species, are to survive our greeds, I am convinced that the failure is larger than capitalism. In fact, it is the concept that underscores capitalism—that all of nature—all the world is rightfully ours to consume and anything that reduces that right is stealing from us. If we are to survive—or hopefully—thrive, we must see the world through a fundamentally different lens. We must begin to open our eyes and ears to the idea that all the world and all its living organisms are not ours by some God-given right. And we have a place in the web of life but we cannot CANNOT take it all and have a living world left. We must learn to think like an organic orchardist and acknowledge that our own life depends on the survival of a vast diversity of living organisms. We must learn to live cooperatively with other people and other life forms and accept that all the interconnected web of life is, inextricably interwoven with even the diversity of such things as the mineral composition of the Earth’s crust and the ocean and wind currents, the diversity of soils and vegetation as well as the diversity of peoples and cultures.
Where it was once thought the natural world could be explained as an economic system in which each unit (gene) sought to maximize its interests in a hostile and competitive environment, it must now be recognized that Place (a sense of belonging; a sense of participation; a sense of autonomy and self survival within the context of one’s relation to the whole) is one of the most vital operating principles in the natural world.
In contrast to the It’s all ours for the taking view which sees humanity as separate from nature and thus exempt from ecological consequences, the vast and seemingly inexorable consequences of Climate Change mean we must, now, recognize that the place of humanity in nature is closer to the relation of cell to the organism it animates where cooperation and harmony ensure the survival and health of both cell and organism. This sense of place is one of the most important principles in the cohesive functioning of a living system. Where cancerous cells were once viewed as aggressive cells that overpower their neighbours, it is now recognized that cancerous cells are, in fact, relative weak cells incapable of perceiving their proper relation to the whole. These “transformed” cells go on pursuing their own interest—the all too familiar it’s all ours for the taking scenario– in defiance of the organism to which they belong precisely because they have somehow lost their sense of place and belonging, no longer perceiving their embeddedness in the whole. Oncological researchers have noted that tumour cells, which develop from normal body cells, differ from normal cells in three important respects:
- Malignant cells are immortal.
They go on dividing indefinitely, while normal cells have finite lifetimes like any macroscopic organism. Tumour cells have been shown to go on multiplying as long as there is available nutrient.
- Cancer cells cannot recognize environmental restraints.
Normal cells need hard surfaces on which to grow and serum to supply growth factors. When they are crowded they cease dividing, “Transformed” cancerous cells, however: show none of the above limitations. They grow on soft agar or hard surfaces and divide to the point of piling up on each other until the medium is exhausted—“It’s all ours” taken to the extreme.
- Over time cancerous cells exhibit a progressive loss of differentiated identity.
Liver tumour cells, for instance, lose the characteristics that delineate them as uniquely liver cells.
Should not we take careful note of the natural consequences of this loss of differentiation with its accompanying dedication to uncontrolled growth and insatiable consumption of everything around? Nowhere has there been a clearer statement of the failings of the “It’s all ours and we must consume all of it” syndrome than in the Hindu/Buddhist teaching of Karma-what we do today affects directly who we become and what kind of experiences we will have. If we create mountains of toxic waste now it will not only poison our minds and bodies now, it will continue to haunt us in our future lives-our children. The law of Karma teaches us that the most important pursuit of our time is not the consumption of everything. What we need most urgently is a spiritual transformation that allows us to feel emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually and spiritually the utter embeddedness of our own lives in the living, creative natural processes all around us. Once we know that experience in our hearts, we will fully comprehend that the only fitting relationship to such intelligence, such “mindfullness”, is one of discourse/dialogue rather than a vain attempt to dominate, control, use up.
As the organic orchardist might suggest, what is good for the planet is good for the people of the planet; healing rather than consuming the planet, is essential to resuscitating the essential, vital soul of humanity for planet and person, orchards, oceans, land, salmon and seal, bear, eagle, forest and glen are embedded physically and spiritually in an inextricable, commingling web of Earth, Self and Community.