Religion and resilience

Most Wednesday mornings I get to see some of the most resilient systems in Arkansas.  I travel to Stuttgart to eat breakfast with a group of 60-90 year olds.  People who reach that age in good health have much in common.  They regularly exercise their bodies and their minds.  They eat and drink in moderation.  And they have faith that all will be well.  They have personal resilience.

photo-gutluk-temir-minaret-kunya-urgench-41066-xlTheir resilience has much in common with the resilience of ecosystems.  Ecologists contend a key to resilience is modular connectivity–systems which are independent but networked. All these folks are stubbornly independent, but they have a network of a few close friends and lots of other contacts.

Resilient ecosystems are conservatively innovative.  Resilient natural systems conserve what works, but have mechanisms to rapidly change when disturbance hits. Conservatism may seem to dominate in my Wednesday morning group, but they are very innovative when he comes to resilience.  They know more about what medicines will keep you active and alert than anyone else I know.

You can go through all the eight necessary qualities of ecosystem resilience we discuss in our book, and these folks rank high on all of them.

Meadowcreek and Stuttgart are the exact opposite geographically and economically.  As you drive from Meadowcreek, the hills and valleys slowly disappear, the road get straighter, the population gets smaller and the farms get bigger.  At Meadowcreek you can climb several hundred feet from the valley floor to the ridges.  The highest point in Stuttgart is the landfill.  The twists and turns of Arkansas Ozark roads are legendary.  Near Stuttgart, roads often stretch in a straight line 14 miles to the horizon.  A 10 acre field at Meadowcreek is huge. One hundred sixty acre fields are common in Stuttgart.

Yet the qualities of resilience in both places are the same.  The flat, rich Delta lands of Stuttgart put wholly different constraints on farming from the rugged, rocky Ozark lands of Meadowcreek.  Technological advances and national farm policy has made thousand acre farms the standard units of production in the Delta.  Small fields, stony soils and lack of commodity payments means the Ozark farmer must find intensive, value-added crops if she is to survive.

Despite the different systems of adaptation required of farming systems in the two areas, the personal resilience systems have remarkable similarities.  One similarity is in an area many shy away from: religion.  I’m going to ignore the wise advice to avoid religion and politics if you want to avoid a fight.  Most ecologists don’t have to worry about this because plants and animals are notoriously lacking in either.  Those interested in social ecological systems don’t have a choice.

Many of the folks attracted to Meadowcreek have had run-ins with organized religion. The rigidity traps created by most religions and denominations make this entirely understandable.  Many read about Buddhism and Taoism and think they have found religions more compatible with resilient ecological systems.  I’ve been fortunate to travel to hotbeds of all the major religions and found that they have all diverged from their sacred writings and basic precepts.  Modern Buddhist and Taoist worship and temples seem similar to the worship in Catholic and Orthodox churches to me.  Each has strange rituals, demands obedience and collects money.

What’s amazing is how i keep running into adherents of all the major religions who have very similar beliefs.

A professor of foreign languages in the Soviet days, now resiliently a translator, was my guide to Turkmenistan, a desert country in Central Asia populated almost entirely by Moslems.  In central Turkmenistan is a major crossroads on the Silk Road.  If you can’t get to Mecca, its nearly as good for a Moslem to visit the Urgench obelisk. In the middle of the desert, this obelisk rises from nowhere to be the tallest in Central Asia.  At Urgench and at fancy modern mosques, the Professor Doctor shared the Turkmen approach to religion.

Many Turkmen consume pork and alcohol and look at Iranians as not really Moslem.  As we looked across the border into Iran from the southern mountains of Turkmenistan, my translator told how she and her daughter visited Iran and were dismayed at how they were castigated for letting the backs of their bare hands be visible.  I asked her what the foundation of Islam was for her and she said: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Sounds like the Christian golden rule to me.  On my travels, I often insert aphorisms from the New Testament into my talks and trainings.  When I ask my audiences if they have a similar saying in their religion, they invariably do.  Its easy to see why the most successful missionaries are those who build on the basic beliefs of local people rather than try to convert them to an alien way of thinking.

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists often have run-ins with the devout of all religions.  Regardless of how much the Gospels might help my audiences in foreign countries, strident proselytizing for Christianity will get you nowhere.  The ecological resilience perspective, however, resonates with practical farmers, businessmen and agricultural teachers everywhere.

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