A resilient government?

Washington, DC, used to be the place to go. I arrived for the umpteenth time two days ago and rode in my first Bangladeshi cab. Like almost everyone I meet these days, the cabbie was interested in growing food on his own small farm. I contributed a little experience and a few dollars to his endeavor.

I used to go to Washington, DC a lot. I used to go to the state capitol a lot. I really thought changing the country’s laws would change the country.

Now I realize I was wrong.

We went to the state capitol and got the Arkansas Department of Agriculture established and a bunch of other laws enacted to help small farmers. One helped a few dairy farmers stay in business for awhile. But eventually, the big feedlot dairies in Texas and Oklahoma destroyed almost all the small family farm dairies from Arkansas to Georgia.

We went to DC a lot and got a bunch of sustainable agriculture programs established and even got the Delta Regional Authority established. Some of these have helped a few farmers and rural communities, but the big boys continue to expand and push out small farmers and destroy small communities.

None of these programs have lived up to our hopes. What they’ve made us realize is that any good law coming out of DC is an epiphenomenon, a side effect. Good laws which have lasting effects are the result of thousands of individual efforts and the movements these individual efforts create. When the country is transformed, it can then transform its laws.  Until then, transforming the laws will have no effect. The laws will be implemented such that nothing will really change.

The sustainable agriculture movement was one such movement based on thousands, if not millions, of individual efforts. The Back to the Land folks in the 60s and 70s and the Organic folks provided an alternative to the “Get big or get out” mentality of farm leaders epitomized by USDA Secretary Earl Butz in the Nixon years.

The farm crisis in the 1980s convinced many that America needed a new approach to agriculture. Sustainability became the buzzword of the cogniscenti after the U.N.’s Brundtland report (Our Common Future) came out. Sustainable agriculture was born and became law in the 1990 farm bill.

In the early years, sustainability was just a modern version of the older conservation movement that resulted in national parks all over the country and even a Missouri Conservation Department. My grandfather was one of the first Conservation agents, but he didn’t live to see sustainability take the place of conservation.

Some of us who had established cooperative processing and marketing ventures in the 80s became part of the sustainable ag movement in the early 90s. By the late 90s, the leaders of the movement came to realize that transformation of the agricultural economy will only happen when farmers control processing and marketing. Farmers can preserve the air and water and sequester carbon to decrease climate change and still be put out of business unless they control processing and marketing. Those who take care of the earth while they produce wholesome food should benefit from the added value they create in food.

So the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program began. Farmers could now receive grants to help them develop new processing and marketing ventures. The program was based on extremely successful state programs such as the Agricultural Products Utilization Commission (APUC) in North Dakota and the (AURI) in Minnesota.

We went to state legislatures in Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee and got programs established which adapted VAPG, APUC and AURI to those states. The one which has helped the most farmers is the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board.

These state efforts are still flourishing, but the national VAPG has run into hard times. When it began, there were many national groups working to promote sustainable agriculture policies. Today there is just one: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). NSAC is the sole force keeping VAPG alive.

And even some in NSAC are wavering in their support. Why should local groups continue to support VAPG? Six reasons come to mind.

  1. VAPG was started by NSAC.  Only NSAC pushes it for funding.
  2. VAPG gives funds directly to farmers. It’s the only competitive grants program which does.
  3. VAPG received a high score in a survey of NSAC members. Only two programs scored higher and neither of them focused on economics.
  4. VAPG is transformational. We won’t really change American agriculture until farmers own and control processing and marketing.  That is the purpose of VAPG.
  5. VAPG can provide funds to the organizations who are members of NSAC.  If you help farmers get VAPG grants, they can hire you to write the feasibility analyses and business plans they need under the grants.
  6. The final reason addresses the question: what is the purpose of NSAC?  Is the goal to help farmers or for NGOs to get grants for themselves? There is nothing wrong about NGOs getting funds to help farmers, but the goal should always be helping farmers become more sustainable and resilient. VAPG does that directly.

National advocacy organizations are like any natural system. They pass through a adaptive cycle with four phases: getting organized, growing fast, maturing and releasing. A farmer’s field shows these four phases every year. The seed is planted into prepared ground. It grows quickly. It matures and sets seed. The seed is harvested and removed from the land.

The sustainable agriculture movement is like that seed. It was organized in the late 80s and early 90s. It grew quickly in the 90s. It matured in the 2000s. Now it is getting ready for release.

Release in the natural adaptive cycle can mean death. Or it can mean reorganization and rebirth. Those systems which are resilient are able to reorganize and are reborn.

Those systems which are able to reorganize and survive are those which have nurtured their children well. National organizations only survive and thrive if they nurture the local organizations which are their foundations. Local organizations need money to survive. So, as most ag lobbyists will tell you, ag policy is nearly all about money.  How to get more money for this or that program.  Which will give farmers or farm organizations money for what many consider worthwhile projects.

Unfortunately that means farm organizations are glad when their part of the budget is bigger.  Today that means such organizations are, in effect, glad when the country accrues more debt. That is nothing that makes me happy and it shouldn’t make you happy either. The country is also a system which must nurture its children and not saddle them with debt they cannot repay.

We face the current maturity and pending release of the natural systems which are our country and many of our favorite national organizations. Natural systems which survive the release phase are those which have nurtured the next generation. For a national organization focused on helping farmers, survival and rebirth depends on the success of the farmers it tries to help.

If conservation-oriented farmers beget more conservation-oriented farmers, then their organizations can be reborn, reorganized and resilient. Does your favorite organization fit in that category?

Nature builds its own walls

If you remember any poems from high school, you probably remember Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Two neighbors come together every Spring to rebuild the stone wall that Nature is intent on destroying. Every winter, the ground freezes and thaws and topples a few stones from the wall. Frost is new to this farm and not much of a farmer. He likes Nature.  He doesn’t like walls much.


Ronald Reagan didn’t care for the Berlin Wall. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he cried in 1987. In the early 90s the Soviet Union crumbled and the wall came down.  Will Pancho Villa’s grandson make the same cry in Tijuana some day?

All natural systems are open. All barriers, membranes and walls are permeable. They let some things in and keep others out. A system ceases to have any integrity, ceases to be a system, unless there is something between it and what is outside.

Today we have two North American countries with vastly different systems sharing a common boundary. The boundary is permeable—more so in some places than others.  In isolated areas, you can still wade across the Rio Grande when it’s low. Some would make the boundary more defined, less permeable. They would “build a wall.” This group also professes a deep and abiding love for America.  They not only stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, they put their hands over their hearts.

Those who most dislike America and standing for the Pledge favor more permeable boundaries. They want people and all sorts of substances to more freely move across the border. They are joined by those who say they like America, but only pledge allegiance to the making of money. This uneasy, and usually unspoken, alliance of big business and the anti-americans is the reason immigration reform doesn’t happen.

In 1914, when Robert Frost published “Mending Wall,” fences were built to keep animals out. The range was free in those days, as it still is in much of the world. Cows, goats, sheep, antelopes, bears, cougars and people could just range wherever their legs could take them. Frost, a bit of an anarchist as most poets are, liked that. So he didn’t like walls. Besides neither he nor his neighbor had cows, so why did they need a wall?

In 1914, most people in America still lived on farms, but by 1920, more than half lived in cities. In 1914, nearly everyone in Africa, Asia and Russia still lived on farms or in small villages. People had lots of kids and the surviving children spread out over the landscape to establish their own farms.  Today, in most of the world, people have few children. The exceptions are the poorest regions of Africa, the Americas and Asia.

The countries of Africa cannot provide for these burgeoning populations and people do anything they can to escape to Europe next door. The countries of Central America cannot provide for their poor families and the poor will do anything they can to escape to the U.S.

Because America’s border is porous, millions have come in illegally and live among us in nearly every town. We enjoy the fruits of their labor on our farms and at our construction sites. The unholy alliance between big business and the anti-americans will most likely continue to insure the border is porous. So your best bet is to learn Spanish. The wall in Tijuana will be torn down one day, if present trends continue.

Yet human systems are part of Nature, when push comes to shove. Resilient natural systems self-organize to perpetuate themselves and their component species. If we are resilient, we will self-organize to perpetuate our values and our way of life.  If not, we will disappear.

Any system must possess certain basic qualities to survive and thrive.  It is diverse, but the diverse elements are complementary and devoted to the goal of making the whole system thrive. The diversity which is extolled in America today is a chaos of conflicting values and goals, with one common theme–to tear down the present system.

A resilient system’s self-organization includes establishing a barrier between itself and other systems. It’s not an impermeable barrier. Resilient systems are highly connected to other systems. But they are also ecologically modular.  They are independent modules which can close off the connections to outside elements if those elements threaten the integrity of the system.

Robert Frost left the farm after one year and went to live in town. His neighbor and his neighbor’s sons continued to rebuild the wall every year.

Lots of stone walls have been built at Meadowcreek. None of them have kept out the riff-raff.

After Reagan’s Berlin Wall was torn down, a pastor’s daughter from East German took control of government. Germany today is coping with an influx of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, increasing crime and taxing public resources while big business welcomes their labor.

Soon, from an ecological perspective, Trump and Pelosi will be gone. Their current shut-down of government will end without anything close to a strong border. What will remain is the innate self-organizing tendency of all resilient systems. Which includes the innate desire for a boundary.

Natural boundaries brings the useful in and keeps the destructive out. Any thriving system has a such a boundary.

A thriving America will build such a boundary naturally. A nation which does not will disappear and chaos will take its place. Many are, wittingly or not, cheering at the latter prospect.

Pass this test and get a new holiday

January and February are pretty bleak in these latitudes. In these coldest days of mid-Winter, Americans do have Superbowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day to occupy us, but we really need better holidays which really point toward Spring. I vote for the Ukrainian Масленица or Maslenitsa also called Pancake Week or Butter Week.  Maslenitsa occurs when winter is still bedeviling us, but it celebrates the end of winter and the coming of Spring.


Maslenitsa is a week long.  On the first day the Lady Maslenitsa is constructed of straw and dressed in old clothes and hoisted on a pole. She represents the end of Winter and all our failings and problems. Once she is hoisted, Pancake Week officially begins. Maslenitsa has activities each day, including a flirting day much like Valentine’s Day and a day for wearing costumes as on Mardi Gras. The last day of Maslenitsa is the day you go to your enemies and ask forgiveness.  People take the load of problems off their shoulders and liberate  their lives from old gnawing pains, unresolved issues, and uneasy thoughts. All these are laid on Lady Maslenitsa–the renewing power of nature, rebirth and revival.  Lady Maslenitsa is burnt as the culmination of  Maslenitsa and her ashes buried to fertilize the Earth.

This rite is a way for people to be purged, to let go of anger and grudges they had built up the previous year and to enter the New Year purified and light-hearted. Then they are ready for the day after Pancake Week called Clean Monday. All the houses and barns are cleaned. That which is useless or causes problems is cast out.  It’s Spring Cleaning.  So Maslenitsa combines Valentines, Spring Cleaning, and Mardi Gras with a burning effigy.

We haven’t gotten Maslenitsa going here in Arkansas yet, but  we do spring cleaning with a Maslenitsa edge.  Here’s how it happened a couple of years ago. A first step was getting the stacks of journals/magazines, papers and books off the floor.  A couple of stacks had been there so long, a mask I’d brought from Africa had gathered dust on top of them.  About half-way down this stack, were a bunch of theology books.  They went into a box for the storage unit.  So did a bunch of manuals on business development.  All the science journals also found new homes in boxes in the shed.

Getting science, business and theology out of your hair is quite a relief.  They are annoying, pesty little concepts.  My many years in the liberal arts taught me that.  But the liberal arts had also gotten me away from Nature.  One year I was so busy studying that I missed Fall entirely.  One day it was summer, the next time I noticed, the leaves had all fallen and it was cold.  My entire liberal arts experience was similar.  One day I’m so excited about learning sociology and social psychology and economics and history.  Then I wake up a few years later realizing I’d taken all the courses, gotten almost all A’s, published papers, taught hundreds of students, and found out the social sciences are a huge growth only just barely attached to Nature.  Much like a big wart attached by a slender piece of skin to an otherwise flawless body.  You can learn some useful things by studying warts.  But in the end, you’ll only know about warts.

So, I decided to explore the regions of knowledge furthest from the liberal arts: agronomy, genetics and Christianity.  I switched over to the sciences and along the way became an active member of various churches.   I did scientific research, published papers, helped build churches. I was asked to speak at scientific conferences, preach at churches.

Becoming simultaneously immersed in science and religion might seem contradictory until you realize I was soaking up the Dutch, German and Scottish traditions which led to both the protestant reformation, the industrial revolution and, eventually, science.  These same traditions also led to what we call business[1].  And I’ve followed that tradition and helped farmers start businesses in about 30 countries.

Yet I’m boxing up all those business manuals, science journals and theology texts and putting them in storage.  Why?  It’s all the fault of ecological resilience.

Let me explain.  For almost twenty years, I’ve been away from academia doing the practical work of helping farmers get new businesses started and starting new ag entrepreneurship programs.  In the last few years, consumers have gotten more and more interested in buying food produced locally and naturally.  Farmers are trying to provide this local food and I’ve been working with several to set up businesses to do that.  Together they are creating a local food system to provide healthier food from local farms for central Arkansas consumers.  To assist this work, I began to explore how some local food systems manage to thrive and survive while others fail or never take root.

I found out that such things (sustainable systems in agriculture) are studied in ecology as resilient ecosystems.  Though similar in many goals, researchers in sustainable agriculture and ecosystem resilience have diverged.  Resilience research has focused on understanding the adaptive cycles of ecosystems and the qualities of ecosystems which make them resilient in the face of disturbances.  Sustainable agriculture research focuses on creating systems which are profitable, environmentally sound and social just.  In its focus on such legal and moral goals[2], sustainable agriculture research sometimes forgets that a system can achieve all these goals but not endure.  If it doesn’t endure, a system cannot be sustainable.  Ecological resilience research maintains the goal of understanding how systems endure.

Sustainable agricultural systems must last.  That’s the bottom line.  A food system which doesn’t last is not sustainable.  Our problem is that we don’t just want the system to last, we want it to last and produce all the benefits (profit, environmental services, social justice, etc.) we desire.   To get those benefits, we need to first understand how systems last, how systems rebound from disturbance, why some systems dissolve and other systems endure.  That’s what some resilience-oriented ecologists, especially in Europe and Australia, have not only studied for years but are beginning to apply to a variety of systems far removed from pristine natural systems.

The study of ecological resilience encompasses all social and biological disciplines.  Any practice, belief, theory can be subjected to the ecological resilience test: does it help the whole system respond to disturbance?

This test makes us take a new look at a couple of the goals of modern agricultural research: efficiency and environmental protection.  Both are so revered, they are sacrosanct in modern agriculture[3].    Ecological resilience research, in contrast, shows that the most efficient systems are sometimes the least resilient to disturbance.  The just-in-time supply chains so beloved by efficient businesses can lead to collapse of the whole system when the chain is disrupted.  Components of a system which seem useless and inefficient can save the system from disaster.   The most efficient system is geared to a particular set of external conditions.  When those conditions change, the highly efficient system may not even survive.  Flexibility and diversity are more characteristic of resilient systems than efficiency.

Alongside efficiency, environmental protection is one of the top avowed goals of agricultural systems.  Many advocate highly intensive agriculture so we can set aside land to protect[4].  The ecological resilience perspective recognizes that man is a part of all ecosystems and has always modified them.  The only question is how we modify them.  Increasing soil organic matter through burning in temperate[5] and tropical[6] regions and selection of plants and animals are some of the many ways preindustrial peoples created more resilient ecosystems.

While we’re banishing the old idols of efficiency and environmental protection, we might as well go all the way.  Did you ever notice how research areas which can’t really predict much of anything and seldom come up with testable hypotheses are the quickest to add “science” to their name?  Physics, biology, chemistry don’t need such labels.  We know they are sciences.  So when someone comes up with the term “sustainability science”, you can be pretty sure they are claiming something they aren’t.

Those who research sustainability are nearly always trying to design systems which achieve specific objectives.  No matter how laudable these objectives, this is the work of an engineer, not a scientist.  Good engineers are confident in their abilities and everyday see the failings of abstract science.

The formal knowledge we call science just puts into symbolic language the tacit knowledge of an effective manager.

Great!  Nice to have a clean house, scoured of pseudo-science, business and theology by ecological resilience.


[1] Business first came to refer to “trade and commercial engagement” in the mid-1700s. The areas where the Protestant Reformation was strongest later saw the foremost achievements in science and industry as first noted by Max Weber and in more detail by Young, 2009. http://www.stanford.edu/~cy10/public/Religion_and_Economic%20Growth_Western_Europe.pdf

[3] For a typical example of the focus of agricultural scientists on efficiency and environmental protection, see: Sayer, J. and Cassman, K.G. 2013. Agricultural innovation to protect the environment. PNAS, 110:8345-8348. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/21/8345.full.pdf+html

[4]E.g., Sayer and Cassman, ibid.

[5] Kaplan et al., 2009. Quarternary Science Reviews 28:3016-3034. http://www.wsl.ch/staff/niklaus.zimmermann/papers/QuatSciRev_Kaplan_2009.pdf

[6] Lehmann et al. (Eds.), 2003.  Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties and Management.  Amsterdam: Kluwer.

Loving children in Ulm, at the Mexico border and in Africa

A table full of rambunctious young children greeted us as we entered the annual Ulm Arkansas, community celebration last night. Nearly the entire population of 170 came along with dozens of others who just like this little town.  Ulm no longer has enough kids to keep a grade school open. There was a time not long ago when both a Lutheran and a public grade school were thriving. Many of us would do anything we can to help the young families of Ulm.


We also stocked the bird feeders since a cold front is coming in.  Right now its raining but that is predicted to turn to snow and ice. We love to see the chickadees and cardinals flock our safflower seed–which the squirrels don’t like.  Who wouldn’t want to help such cute little songbirds stay alive in a rough winter? Besides, they’re fun to watch. So my sympathy for their plight leads me to alter the ecosystem.

Much like sympathy for Bambi has led to a reduction in hunting in many areas. The cute little fawns. Who could kill such a sweet little thing? So the city people pass laws to outlaw hunting deer.

When the deer herd grows uncontrollably, as it will without predators, even the gardens of the suburbanites begin to suffer. Not enough, usually, to induce the governing authorities to kill any of them. And even when they do, they aren’t killing, they are culling. We can’t ever like this culling. That would be too mean and harsh for the dominant culture in today’s America.

An even harsher fact is that killing deer has to be done for the good of the deer herd and the ecosystem. Without a predator to keep their numbers in check, deer will destroy vegetation wherever they are. The resulting lack of food decreases resistance to disease and eventually causes a die-off of herds. Even worse, the entire ecosystem suffers a loss of other species depending on the food destroyed by the unchecked growth of the deer herd. An old Amerindian saying was: kill the wolves, kill the mountain.

Our spot up in the Ozark mountains is a middle of a wildlife sanctuary. Deer are everywhere here. We’ve seen coyotes, a more adaptable cousin of the wolf, chasing them. The coyotes, mountain lions, and wolves manage their land, keeping the deer population low enough that the vegetation survives and all the smaller species can survive.

Outside such refuges as ours, man is the manager of all ecosystems. Even in many wildlife refuges, man intervenes. I once visited a refuge in Ukraine where predators were excluded and the deer population has grown to the point where the native vegetation is virtually gone and the animals are kept alive with imported hay.

Today, the refuges for the wild animals of Africa are similar. High fences and lots of guards attempt to keep poachers out and the elephants, giraffes and zebras protected. Even the best, such as in Kenya, are little more than zoos with lots of land. In countries with less stable governments, such as Mozambique, the only elephants I could find were in cages. All others have been destroyed for trophies or medicines for Asian markets.

African human populations, on the other hand, have exploded in recent years. If current trends continue, the continent may be able to feed just 25% of its population by 2025.  Recently in Uganda, I taught small farmers how to grow more food. Each family I talked to is having as many children as they can. Many brag about how many they have. Their little land is subdivided among all the children. Meanwhile, food aid from the West enables them to survive.

Meanwhile, the well-fed West, with low birth rates, sees the pictures of poor children of Africa and sends food, while over-populated African countries are fled by millions of their own people. One hospital I visited in Malawi was staffed only by volunteer foreigners. All the native nurses had taken better paying jobs in Europe.

While the Africans flood into neighboring Europe, America’s southern border is invaded by Hondurans. If they get across the border, kind Americans provide them food and shelter. Their parents get jobs and send the money back to Honduras–the largest source of income for the country.

We’ve come a long way from the days when we exterminated wolves and almost obliterated many migratory birds for their feathers. Someday, maybe, we will find better ways of dealing with overpopulation than encouraging them to leave their country or just sending food and nurses.

Our present well-intentioned policies are creating societies which are less and less resilient and more and more dependent. Someday, maybe, we will understand human groups as just one part of an ecosystem. Someday, maybe, we will understand that an ecosystem which continually declines in resilience will be destroyed along with all its species, including humans.

Brexit, Trump, shut-down, rebirth

When governments are dysfunctional–as they are today in the US and Britain–nobody is happy. Especially those with federal employees in the family. We like smoothly running government.  We want systems which just tick along like clockwork. The career politicians who built the system which led to the current crises are especially distraught.

thunderstorm at capitol

Anyone who has ever worked hard to build up a farm, a business, a career, a garden, or a family finds it hard to face one fact: all systems disintegrate.  To not recognize this fact is to ignore the adaptive cycles characteristics of all living systems. All systems go through stages of growth, maturity, release/destruction and reassembly.  All too often, in our efforts to maintain the system, we sow the seeds of a more destructive release.

The mature forest, watched over carefully to preserve it from fire, will eventually build up so much flammable material that a much hotter, more destructive fire results which even destroys the seed needed to regrow the forest.  The landscape is stripped of protective cover, suffers erosion and can never again become a lush forest.

Semi-arid lands, if totally protected from animal grazing by well-meaning conservationists, will develop a crust on their soils leading to less penetration of moisture and exacerbation of desertification.

A company focused on buying or eliminating competitors to dominate a national market  doesn’t pay attention to changing market drivers, only to have a more innovative company come in from outside and destroy it.

A people are intent on maximizing pleasure because “you only have one life.”  Their society becomes increasingly dependent on immigrant workers, beset by crime, and dissolves.

The mature oak trees would probably maintain their forest as it is, if they could.  Their system, luckily for oak trees, allows disturbances to maintain the adaptive cycle of growth (r), maturation (K), disassembly (Ω) and reassembly (α).  Unluckily for our species, we are so adept at prolonging the K phase that we often destroy the capacity for reassembly.  The cradle of civilization in Turkey, Syria and Iraq attests to this fact with hundreds of dead cities in a man-made desert[1].  And more are in the making.

What will break us out of our seemingly uncontrollable need to maintain a stable, mature phase?  Those of us who are Christians might remember that “you must be born again” and creative destruction.  We might then recognize we were in a stultifying K phase and needed someone like Trump to induce chaos so the system has an opportunity to reassemble and jump to an enhanced, revived growth phase.

Or, like the transcendentalists[2], maybe Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu as destroyer, creator and preserver might be more to your liking. Though the Indians have had the Bhagavad Gita for 2500 years and they are still stuck trying to preserve a K phase and endure overpopulation as a result.

Or, we might pay attention to the Tao Te Ching and encompass both the creative (yang) and the destructive (yin) while not becoming too entranced with either.  Though the cradle of the Tao, China, is the most powerful modern example of perpetuation of the K phase until the foundations for resilience and transformation are destroyed.

Or, maybe we could be convinced by the Austrian school and the creative destruction of Schumpeter[3].  Though the big business types entranced by the Austrian school love to form the monopolies and oligopolies which undermine the diversity needed fore resilience.

More radically, we could just set aside all these theories and return to what stimulated them in the first place.  We might even see how natural systems manage to be resilient and transform themselves if the disturbance is strong enough.

We might learn of how complementary diversity, conservative innovation, modular connectivity, and controlled redundancy are four qualities which lead to increased potential for ecosystem resilience and transformation.

If we continue in our communion with nature, we might even understand a little better how to scuttle the stable, mature phase before it gets too comfortable and move into an rebirth which expands our potential even more.

Establishment Republicans and Democrats (Republicrats) are trying to manage the present disruption to return to the stable system they liked. Radical Democrats are trying to replace the stable system with a socialist system which has never worked.

The devotion of Republicrats to their stable system of big business/big government collusion is much like suppressing fire until a cataclysmic forest destruction takes place. The Trumpettes and the socialists are just different sides of the same coin. Both represent attempts at rebirth after the Trump induced destruction.  In the midst of that destruction, we cry out in anguish, wondering where we went wrong.

The adaptive cycles are indifferent to our anguish, to fairness, to our limited sense of right and wrong.  They just are.  Or, if asked what you should call them, they would say “I am.”

So you can learn more about r, K, Ω, α and the qualities which lead to resilience and transformation.  Or you can just let them buffet you around as they wish.  Rebirth will come.  The only question is whether you use it or it abuses you.

[1] Lowdermilk, 1953.Conquest of the Land  http://www.wasco.oacd.org/linked/conquest.pdf

[2] Thoreau, 1839. A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.Pp. 111, 116.

[3] Schumpeter, 1943. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.   http://digamo.free.fr/capisoc.pdf


Africa, Asians, and the wild

Africa is just like North America–controlled by successive waves of people, each with better armies than those who preceded them.  The difference is the order of events.  Africa has only recently been invaded by Asians.  The first invaders of North America were Asians.  The Paleoindians invaded from Asia and exterminated dozens of huge species (including mastodon, mammoth, horse, giant bison, giant beaver, American lion, and saber-toothed tiger).  The Chinese are finally getting to Africa and the wild animals are being wiped out now.


For millennia, Africa was controlled by the Bushmen or San,  small, light brown hunter/gatherers. They were gradually pushed out by various Bantus– a much larger race with dark black skin, iron weapons and agriculture.  The Bantu had reached Southern Africa about the same time as the Dutch settled at Cape Town. The Dutch and the Bantu tried to expand at the same time.  The superior weapons of the Dutch enable them to prevail and control South Africa.  Other Europeans used their superior technologies to conquer most of the rest of Africa. But that control didn’t last long. Africans learned technology and organization from the Europeans and created armies which eliminated control of Europeans over the continent.

But the biggest changes in Africa have occurred since the wars ending European control. Until then, African societies did not have the organization and technology to kill off their largest wild species, nor the medicine to enable their populations to expand.  Importation of European technology has caused the near total destruction of African ecosystems and wild species within the last fifty years.  We have provided everything they need to destroy the ecosystems they once were integrated with.  Today the iconic wildlife of Africa only survives behind high fences under heavy guard.

Meanwhile Western medicine and food aid have vastly increased the population.  From an estimated 140 million in 1900, Africa grew to a billion in 2010. According to United Nations conservative projections, this figure will rise to 2.5 billion in 2050 and more than 4 billion in 2100.  Then Africa will have a large population than India or China.

In Africa, an estimated 90 percent of the entire continent’s population uses wood for cooking, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, firewood and brush supply approximately 52 percent of all energy sources. While deforestation in other parts of the world is mainly caused by commercial logging or cattle ranching the leading cause in Africa is subsistence needs of its rapidly growing population.

Africa is suffering deforestation at twice the world rate, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Some sources claim that deforestation has already wiped out roughly 90% of West Africa’s original forests. Deforestation is accelerating in Central Africa. According to the FAO, Africa lost the highest percentage of tropical forests of any continent during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Some African countries are losing forest at a rate of about 2-3 percent per year, in some countries much faster.

In many African countries the only forests left are in reserves protected by guards and fences. Today in Ghana and the Ivory Coast no forest is left outside the reserves and even the reserves are being encroached upon and degraded by excessive logging and exploitation. In the Congo Basin, where there are still forests outside the reserves, these areas are going very fast because of agriculture, commodity development and farming by small-holder farmers.

Research carried out by WWF International shows that in Africa, rates of illegal logging vary from 50% in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea to 70% in Gabon and 80% in Liberia – where timber revenues played a major role in financing the Sierra Leone Civil War and other regional armed conflicts.

Ethiopia, the third largest country in Africa by population, has been hit by famine many times because of shortages of rain and a depletion of natural resources. Deforestation has lowered the chance of getting rain, which is already low, and thus causes erosion. Many Ethiopian farmers have told me that their district was forested and full of wildlife, but that overpopulation caused people to come to that land and clear it to plant crops, cutting all trees to sell as firewood.

Ethiopia has lost 98% of its forested regions in the last 50 years. Increasing dryness in East Africa due to deforestation has been the cause of droughts and famines in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

Over 150 years ago, when the first European visitors documented Kilimanjaro’s appearance, the volcano’s cone was covered with a thick crust of ice. About 90% of this ice has since vanished. The rate of glacier shrinkage has doubled since the 1970s.

Chinese companies are on pace to strip the continent of all easily mined minerals within the next few years.  I’ve seen valley after valley totally destroyed by Chinese miners in the last few years in Africa.

The Chinese seem intent to be the next people to control Africa. If so, we’ll see environmental destruction more intense than ever before.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if societies controlled Africa for the purpose of protecting it from destruction. Europe, the US and Japan all have increasing rates of forestation and decreasing destruction of the environment. They also have decreasing population rates, except for migrants from the Third World.

No external force is likely to intervene to halt the destruction of Africa’s ecosystems. I’ll keep going to the parts of Africa where there are remnants of wild Africa. If you want to see them, you’d better go soon.  They won’t last long.

Beer and football or a Jeremiah for the Earth

Prophets are looked at askance these days.  Who wants to be scolded?  Who wants to hear depressing facts about the coming destruction? Even if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, who wants to hear about that? Much more fun to watch football and drink beer.

jeremiah lamented the fall of jerusalem

So what do you do if you are convinced that such destruction is happening and feel called to wake people up? You might follow the path of Jeremiah–whose very name now means a long, mournful lamentation about the dire state of a society destroying itself.

Jeremiah was born into a family of priests and studied all the Scriptures diligently until his early 20s when he felt called to walk down the road to Jerusalem and begin fifty years of condemning his country for its failures, warning of its coming destruction.  After about three years of his public tirades, the King of his country instituted far-reaching reforms much as Jeremiah demanded.

Jeremiah wasn’t at all satisfied. He wanted far more basic change. He gave a famous speech in the most important building in his country–the equivalent of America’s Capitol building.  He urged people to quit relying on the priests of the temple, our Congressmen, and institute genuine reform of society.

He predicted that their society would be destroyed if they continued on their present path. For his troubles, he was arrested and banned from preaching in the Capitol. After some of his dire predictions came true, he collected all of his writings and presented them to the King.  The King destroyed them and Jeremiah went into hiding.

When that King was replaced, Jeremiah emerged to again preach things the people didn’t want to hear. When he tried to leave his country, he was arrested and thrown into prison. The King secretly met with him now and then, but did not release him.  The next King released him, but that King was assassinated. Jeremiah was then forced to leave his country but continued to rebuke his countrymen until they finally killed him.

So, if you want a peaceful, joy-filled life, Jeremiah’s path probably isn’t yours.

Then again, if you are convinced the world is on the path to destruction, you don’t have much choice, do you? You can either join the beer and football crowd as the world slides into oblivion or you can become a prophet for the Earth.

I have to admit I’m with the beer and football crowd right now, waiting for a prophet of the Earth to emerge.

Racism, sexism, socialism: which is more mokita?

Do you ever want to talk about certain things, but know you shouldn’t? Mokita is a word from Papua New Guinea which mean “a truth we all know but agree not to talk about.” There are an increasing number of mokita in the United States, but many fewer in Africa.   Makes me glad my next trip to Africa will come soon.

I’ve sure enjoyed my time on farms in Southern Africa.  These farms are much like Africa’s peoples: as diverse as can be. Many are as technologically advanced as any European or American farm. My first visit was to a wheat and tobacco farm similar to my old farm in Kentucky, though a bit bigger. This visit was just after control of Zimbabwe was taken from the Europeans and returned to the Bantus who had taken it from the Bushmen.[1] The Europeans, mainly Dutch who arrived about the same time they settled in North America, had established productive farms throughout Zimbabwe and South Africa. Thirty years ago, when I first visited, the government was just beginning to take control of these farms. I visited several of these “cooperative” farms which were run by groups inexperienced in commercial farming. All were barely functioning. Many had even hired Dutch farmers to plant and harvest their crops.

lions zebra.jpg

The farm I had been sent to help was celebrating the arrival of dozens of school-leavers. They were supported by an NGO which hired managers with no experience in farming, much less commercial agriculture. My main advice was to hire experienced managers. The trouble was that such managers only existed among the Boers and those were the folks being run out. Zimbabwe has continued the mistake of running out the proficient Dutch managers for almost 30 years now. The result has been impoverishment of one of the most prosperous countries of Africa.

When I was on the Zimbabwe border in Mozambique last year, most of the people had fled the poverty of Zimbabwe to come to a country only a little further from the bottom of the world’s economies. Thirty years ago, when I first visited, no one would have thought Mozambique could ever be a better place to live than Zimbabwe. Until the early 1990s, Mozambique was still a scorched and destroyed country in an interminable civil war.

Today, South Africa, in some regions, is barely distinguishable from prosperous American suburbs. It’s neighbor, Zimbabwe, was once just as prosperous. The difference is leadership. Nelson Mandela insisted that the managers of successful, productive industries could remain at least partly in control of them. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe took control of such enterprises away from their successful managers.

It’s such a stark and vivid case study of the effect of governance on management of adaptive systems. It seems such a simple lesson to learn: productive, resilient systems depend on proficient managers. Unfortunately, this simple truism contradicts the belief that Bantus should be in charge of everything. Rather than permitting those who know and built the system to continue to manage it, this belief insures that management, however ineffective, belongs to a particular ethnic group.

Where allegiance to the ethnic group is much stronger than any desire for resilient, productive systems, the larger system or society will decline. Recently in Uganda, I noticed that most businesses were once again managed by Asians (mainly Indians). These groups were tossed out of the country abruptly in the early 1970s. After the businesses and the country experienced a sharp decline due to the lack of experienced managers, Asians were permitted back in the country. Zimbabwe shows no sign putting the health of the country foremost.

Ethnic bonds can be a valuable and a crucial underpinning of productive, resilient social-ecological systems, as studies of social ecosystems throughout the world have shown. It is one component of resilient connectivity between units in a system. The trouble arises when the ethnic bonds are so strong that feedback is ignored and connections broken between other components in a system.

This has been observed in American cities. Internal solidarity (also called bonding social capital) can help a city weather a storm, but cities don’t bounce back from severe catastrophe unless they also are highly connected with outsiders (bridging social capital).

In systems language, resilient systems have strong connections for feedback from both inside and outside. However, resilient systems also have modularity. That is, subsystems are not so tightly connected that failure of one component leads to failure of others. As successful farms in Zimbabwe were confiscated, the remaining farms continued producing, often helping the new “cooperative” farms.

The economic system of Zimbabwe was thus permitted to only gradually decline. It has taken Mugabe and his minions thirty years to almost completely destroy the system. The decline of the system can only be stopped if bonding social capital is leavened with bridging social capital which attracts competent management. Uganda, with help from its neighbors, overthrew their leadership and established a more resilient system. Zimbabwe waits for its people to throw off the shackles of its destructive leadership.

The danger for South Africa is that they will succumb to their neighbor’s systemic failings. Now that Mandela is gone, the voices advocating racial solidarity may overcome those favoring a productive, resilient system. Strong internal connectivity, such as ethnic bonds, can help subunits operate smoothly. However, Mandela saw beyond the components to the larger national system interacting with other national systems. He realized complementary diversity is required for all resilient systems. Many South Africans today would destroy this diversity and the productivity and resilience which it enables.

The story of agriculture in Southern Africa has much to say about racism and socialism, so it’s probably mokita in some circles.  I hope it’s not in your world.


[1] The Bantu culture expanded from Eastern Nigeria throughout Southern Africa displacing the hunter-gathering San as late as 300 AD.  The San were pushed into isolated desert regions.  Various tribes of the Bantu stock fought wars with each other for control of Southern Africa until the Europeans tribes came, fought their wars and left. .

Thriving marriages, businesses and ecosystems need . . . maintenance

If you travel by yourself to enough remote places, sooner or later someone will be sure you are a spy.  Especially is you have a plausible cover story that gives you an excuse to probe and ask questions.  This is what real spies call a “legend.”  One former Soviet spy told me it’s good to have several legends.  I’ve always just stuck with one: I’m a consultant trying to help farmers improve their farms or cooperatives.

The consultancies are what pays for my trips to these exotic places, but what I spend most of my time doing is learning what resilient people do.  I justify this because I have to learn what the people are doing now in order to help them do it better.


What I usually learn from these farmers is that they know how to grow food successfully no matter how challenging their conditions. These farmers don’t fret much about tomorrow.  They may be poor, but they are pretty sure they will make it.  Just like the stork in the sky, they know what to do in each appointed season; just as the dove, the swift and the thrush know when to migrate and when to procreate. They know their role, they know what to do.

So why are so many people in our developed society so clueless? They often don’t know how to live.  Some contend they do know and say:  “We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord (or the Prophet or the Buddha).” But all these writings have passed through thousands of scribes whose lying pens altered the scriptures. So those self-described wise ones will be put to shame. Trapped in the letter of the law, they will be dismayed. They have rejected the Spirit of the Law, though they can see it in all of Nature.

Others see that natural systems remember what Man has forgotten. This leads them to places such as Meadowcreek or Scattering Fork to learn how to create and keep going relationships naturally.

A lot of people who haven’t farmed for a living think farming is easy pickin’s.  And honorable and healthy to boot. Lots of smart suburban kids think they want to farm, come to Meadowcreek or similar places. There they sometimes find out they don’t really like to work in the dirt.

Another group of really nice non-farmers are the folks who retire from city jobs and think they will farm.  So they have a fun retirement supporting their farming habit from their pension.

But the group of non-farmers who cause problems the most problems are those who own or control land and force the real farmers to make them a profit. Some of these folks really mean well, but, boy, when they put the squeeze on, it can cause some problems.

Recently, I finished an assignment working with such folks..   Their farm is next to the best African wildlife preserve. There’s always so much to learn on a well-run farm. The farm I worked on produces high quality shade grown coffee. The local managers are brothers in a Catholic order. More than 400 people live on the 1000 acres of the farm.

One day I was trying to get phone reception in a likely spot amongst the coffee bushes while waiting to walk to the coffee processing plant with the main manager.  Two Oldeani coffee farm workers were riding a tractor to the field as they passed the farm manager and I. They were loaded up to do combat with a little worm which has invaded one corner of the coffee farm. Though they were off to do important work, the manager stopped them. The exhaust pipe had become disconnected from the muffler. In their haste to get to the field, they hadn’t fixed it. So the tractor was spewing exhaust and noise over them and they even through the scarves over their faces.

The manager calmly pointed out that they needed to make that minor fix before they went to the field. They argued for a bit that it wasn’t necessary, but the manager firmly sent them back to the machine shop.

The tractor they were driving was so old that the paint had worn off its hood and there was no way of knowing even what brand it was, much less how old it was. The youngest tractor I’ve seen on this farm has been there about 30 years. Somehow, this isolated group of uneducated village people have kept all the machines going to harvest 280 acres of high quality coffee every year.

They key to their longevity is maintenance. They know their mechanical systems and they know how to keep them functioning. Others of us aren’t mechanical. When my machines quit working, I take them to someone who knows how to fix them.  I’m only able to survive because my land is supported by a larger system of outside mechanics and factories and people who pay me for work off the farm. There is no way that my little place by itself is a resilient system. It does survive and thrive, but only because it is part of a larger system—which I cultivate to insure long-term resilience.

This coffee farm does rely on oil and some spare parts to keep its engines running. But it is pretty durn independent. Until the speculators cause a dip in the price of coffee.  But even that doesn’t affect them much, they produce nearly all their own food—great pumpkin soup and French toast and cheesy potatoes by the way.

The people of the farm follow a pattern which has endured for generations. The trouble is that they don’t own the land. It’s owned by a church based in the capitol city several hundred miles away. And that church wants more profit.  I think the farmers will surmount this challenge too.  And the city people trying to squeeze them for more profit will likely fall by the wayside.

In  the meantime, they will baby their old tractors, coaxing them to work together to keep the farm running, producing high quality coffee. Just as any good business manager coaxes his people to work together for a common purpose. Just as any spouse babies and coaxes his partner to create a lasting life together.


Maintenance is the M in our CLIMATED model of resilience to climate change and other disturbances. You see it in all living systems. When it fails, the system uses up its resources and ceases to exist.

It you want to learn more about maintenance (called redundancy in the ecological literature), download the maintenance chapter of our free book on resilience. It’s available at: https://meadowcreekvalley.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/srs-chapter-6-rr.pdf


“I’m getting older (sigh)” or “I’m resilient!”

Most of us want to live as long as we can.  Many are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prolong their lives. And even when we aren’t, often our relatives insist we undergo every available procedure to stay alive.  Of the $3 trillion we spend on health care every year in the US, up to 20% is spent in the last year of life.

A resilient person will live a lot longer than a non-resilient person, but like everything else in the universe, we are dispensable components. We play a part in our families, our societies, our ecosystem and then others take our place. If we have lived well, our family, our society, our ecosystem will be more resilient–better able to survive and thrive.  If not, our family, society and ecosystem will decline toward oblivion.


An ecosystem doesn’t care whether any particular individual survives. In fact, the ecosystem is built on the recycling of all its individuals. When an individual becomes unable to contribute, his place is taken naturally by others. In nature, every being is food for some other species. Your job is to contribute to the resilience of the system. You must help it innovate, maintain complementary diversity, increase its integration with natural systems. When you are ceasing to do that, your value to the larger system ceases.

The great conundrum is that we must strive to survive in order to serve a system which cares not whether we survive. Many of us have lost any allegiance to a purpose higher than prolonging our own lives and achieving our own goals, no matter the cost to the society and ecosystem we are a part of.  They focus on their personal survival and prosperity, their personal resilience.

Those who have lost allegiance to a higher purpose have a hard time when they age.  They often get depressed about the problems growing older can bring. They focus on their own pain and suffering rather than being  joyful at having another day to live, help, create, dream. Resilient people take the latter attitude.

Unless you are old, you can’t be sure you are resilient. Resilient systems last. No matter how flash a new system may appear, it could disappear anytime. Not all resilient people are old, but all long-lasting systems are resilient. Yet resilient systems are always renewing themselves. They are always figuring out new ways to conquer new disturbances.

That attitude is the foundation of resilience.  Without it, you won’t withstand new disturbances, troubles and upheavals. Who knows what new changes will occur and whether you can overcome them? No one on earth.  Yet the resilient take the attitude that we shall overcome.

So we should be glad we are getting older.  It shows we are resilient.

Youth is wasted on the young, but only on some of them. Those who turn out to be resilient often have old souls. And they appreciate older people. Resilient people often don’t seem up to date and modern. They have overcome the addiction to the modern, the fashionable, the popular.  Non-resilient people often see them as old-fashioned, a throwback to olden days, even atavistic.

Getting stuck in a rut is a sure route to lack of resilience.  The rut that young people often get stuck in is the eternal pursuit of the new, the fashionable.  They aren’t stuck on maintaining the old ways; they are stuck in always changing, no matter how well the old ways were working.

Because they got stuck in the modernity treadmill, many young people have never even experienced the systems which worked so well in previous generations. Many don’t know about running free in the woods, climbing trees, building fires, milking cows, hoeing a garden. They don’t know about the peaceful, prosperous years in the 1900’s.

If 20 years is a generation, almost a generation has passed since we gave up the 1900’s. Without knowing the 1900’s at all, people have grown up, accumulated houses and families and knowledge enough to be professionals.

I take pleasure in being stuck a little in the last century. And trying to pass on some of the old truths which modern people don’t want to hear any more.