Another mountain, another epiphany (on politics?)

We’ve switched sky islands.  Now we are in the Davis Mountains.  Same cool, dry air as the Chisos, just a hundred miles north. And my dreams are still vivid. Ever since coming to the sky islands of Texas, I have been having dreams you would not believe.

chisos mountains

If you’re like me, solving problems is one thing often best done asleep.  Nothing better than a good night’s sleep to stimulate the creative juices. Sometimes I even wake up writing a solution in my head.  I might try to go back to sleep, but then my brain starts writing out the solution again and I might as well give in, get up, and commit it to paper.

We came to the Davis Mountains by first following the Rio Grande.  Looking at the deep chasms and narrow valley which surrounds the border, we wondered about how they will build a wall.  Might be better just to annex the valley and build a wall further south in the Chihuahua desert. Or forget about the whole wall and just let illegal immigrants work under supervised conditions in those annexed valleys until they learn English and assimilate. I hope you can appreciate irony.

The all-too-real dreams have continued from the Chisos to the Davis.  In one, I was with a group of people gathered to plan change in our nation.  The group had been organized and successful for some time and had evolved to fit the DC establishment.  They knew that lobbying is all about money.  How much you can get for your members. There is nothing really awful about this.  More money for good causes means they can accomplish more.  However, such pursuit of dollars will never cause much change.  If you accept the fact that nothing will change in DC, then lobbying for more dollars is the logical route.

At the end of the dream, some of us were coming to a different conclusion.  Finally, two of us shouted at the same time: why settle for a few more dollars?  We must focus on fundamental change.  I woke up with this phrase echoing in my mind. My dream was so persuasive that I started working on revisions to a draft for a section of the next farm bill and sent it to some colleagues who were in the dream.

Fundamental change of federal policy is possible. The lesson of the 2016 political season, both the final triumph of Trump and many triumphs of Bernie Sanders proves that fundamental change is just around the corner.

I just hope the result is not a hideous beast which devours its children. Both right and left are so self-righteous. Always ready to accuse but seldom willing to listen.  They each march in lock step to the mindless drumming of their group.  No one dares contradict the latest edict of their crowd for fear of being ostracized.

And where do they hear the latest group-think?  In the ever-present, self-confirming social media. Thanks to continuous exposure to social media, we have a monopolies of mind in the US.  All the major news organizations except Fox occupy one echo chamber.  And Fox is just a different echo chamber also inhabited by all sorts of alt-right outlets.

I prefer to get my news from Nature.  And today’s news from the Davis Mountains is that we have a beautiful world.  Let’s be grateful for it and stop the greedy who would destroy it.

Sky islands and epiphanies

Mountain peaks are in short supply in the Delta.  We’d been without mountains for quite a while, so a trip was required to the sky islands of  Texas this week.  Now and then, it’s wise to escape the lush, fertile Delta for some inspiration in the mountains. In three spots springing from the Chihuahuan Desert are huge mountains which create their own climate.  As you climb these mountains you find plants and animals only found in cool, high rainfall areas. The first such sky island we visited is called the Chisos Mountains.   We found in the Chisos, just as spiritual people have always found in high places, epiphany and transcendence.chisos mountains

High places have been set aside to be protected and revered all over the world. Early in America, such was not the case. The pursuit of the dollar was much more powerful than spiritual effects. The Chisos, as an island of low temperatures and high rainfall in the vast Chihuahuan Desert, are appreciated by anyone in August in Texas. Early settlers saw only the tall Douglas firs which they chopped down and shipped out. Later settlers saw only the lush grass which grew where the trees had been cut down and overgrazed it.  Only in the most recent years have the non-commercial interests in the US been strong enough to set aside the Chisos and other high places for the use of those on pilgrimage or re-creation.

The National Park Service has managed to recreate what primitive peoples established all through the world.  Protection of high places for people who just appreciate high places. At some point, however, people began to establish shrines on high places. Mountains became places to worship of whatever gods people believed in. They constructed altars and sacred objects such as pillars or poles in various shapes identified with the object of worship (animals, constellations, goddesses, and fertility deities). High places were often spots that had been artificially elevated such as the mounds of the Mississippi Valley.

Early on, high places played a major role in Jewish worship.  Abraham built altars at high places in Shechem and Hebron. Abraham built an altar near Moriah and was willing to sacrifice his son there. This site is traditionally believed to be the same high place where the temple of Jerusalem was built. Jacob set up a stone pillar to the Lord at Bethel and Moses met God on Mt. Sinai.

Joshua set up stone pillars after crossing the Jordan and considered this a high place of worship because the Israelites “came up from” the Jordan onto higher ground. The high places were visited regularly by the prophet Samuel.

The problem for monotheistic religious officials was that the people got benefits from mountains even when they did not worship the one true god. Solomon established idolatrous high places for his foreign wives outside of Jerusalem and worshiped with them. The people enjoyed sacrificing at pagan high places and Solomon joined them. Solomon wavered between the high place in Jerusalem and the high places dedicated to other gods.

So, however much the people liked mountains, some monotheistic prophets condemned them and said that God only approved one high place for sacrifice–the temple in Jerusalem. Religious officials claimed that God commanded that all other high places be destroyed. King Josiah destroyed them.

Other religions don’t have the same aversion to high places.  In China you can find dozens of sacred mountains. The sacred mountains are important destinations for pilgrimage.  The Chinese expression for pilgrimage is just a shortened version of an expression which means “paying respect to a holy mountain.” In  traditional Chinese religion five mountains have cosmological and theological significance as they represent on the physical plane of earth the natural order emanating from the primordial God.

The five mountains are among the best-known natural landmarks in Chinese history, and have been the ritual sites of imperial worship and sacrifice by emperors from time immemorial. The first legendary emperors of China went organized processions to the summits of the Five Great Mountains. Every visit took place at the same time of the year. The excursions were hunting trips and ended in ritual offerings to the reigning god.

A group of mountains associated with Buddhism in China are referred to as the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, and the group associated with Taoism is referred to as the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism.

The communist Chinese tried to eradicate religion, but left the areas around the sacred mountains alone.  Near Chengdu in Sichuan province, I found one of the sacred mountains to be similar to our national parks, except for the monasteries and temples built on its sides and a shrine on its highest peak.  This park’s set of peaks is called Qīng Chéng Shān, literally “Misty Green City Wall”. This Mount Qing Cheng area was famous for being the most secluded place in China.

Pilgrimages to mountains, such as ours to the Chisos, will always continue because they stimulate epiphanies and inspiration.  Perhaps that is why some church officials don’t like them.  New ideas upset the old order.  They might even lead people to challenge the idea that the future is already fixed and nothing you do can affect it.

Anyone who has seen their spirits lifted by visiting a mountain will be unlikely to submit to religious authorities who ban worship in high places. Some unbelievers hesitate to ascribe spiritual significance to mountains.  On my sojourn at Mount Kilimanjaro recently, I found people spending vast funds in pilgrimages to the top, though they contend they were just hiking.  Back from Kilimanjaro, lots of local news stories in Arkansas were on Kilimanjaro.  We’d never had such stories before.  Such Jungian synchronicity is also decried by some religious officials.

Walking the peaks of the Chisos, we see the way the mountains have been uplifted and emerged. Just as mountains are emergent, so can better ideas and better ways of living emerge when we are open to them. Those who believe in an omnipotent God who has already determined the future can’t accept that there is a better way that can be created.  They too will pass away.

Last night on Kilimanjaro

For two weeks the temptress Kilimanjaro has kept me looking for her.  The mountain likes to hide behind clouds, but she’s revealed herself at several sunrises and sunsets and a couple of times at midday. Most people come here to climb the mountain—the highest in Africa at over 19,000 feet and higher than all but Mt. McKinley in the US.  It’s a gradual slope.  If you can walk, you can climb this mountain.  The hotel I’m staying at is close to the mountain, has a generator when the power goes out, two good restaurants and lower prices than most.  Most mornings I ate breakfast with a new tour group–from China, Korea, Japan, Germany and Sweden so far.  They stay a night or two before hitting the mountain trails. A few Americans have come and gone, but they’ve been rare. The hotel is owned by Lutherans and a few missionaries come and go too.

DSCN7957

I didn’t come to climb the mountain.  I spent my days working with some really smart people.  They picked up cash flow analysis quicker than some U.S. business undergraduates. One lady, Hadija Abdallah, sitting on a boulder next to me, said she didn’t know how to read or write but was hearing it all and remembering it. We met outside under a shade tree which didn’t provide much shade when the African sun got low in the sky.  So we had to move our chairs now and then to get back in the shade.  Somedays we worked till dark and then many of them still had to walk or bike several kilometers home. We always met in the afternoon since they worked their fields in the morning.

They don’t have cars or TVs or refrigerators, but, boy, they have spunk.  For generations unknown they have kept the water flowing through an intricate series of canals to their small plots dug by hand on the lower reaches of the Kikavu River. Their population is growing rapidly and a town, Kikavu Chini, has developed near the bridge leading to the bottomland.  The bottomland was grabbed by the British to establish a sugar cane plantation.  The plantation is now owned by investors from the Seychelles Islands. The people of Kikavu Chini sometimes get jobs chopping sugar cane, but mostly they survive on their small plots of land growing rice and cassava.  After feeding their huge families, they sell the little they have left to middlemen who give them loans at planting and come back at harvest, offering barely enough to cover the loans.

To say they live in extreme poverty is not strong enough. Kikavu Chini looks like a refugee camp.  Its dusty streets are lined by shacks thrown together from scrap wood and mud brick. Most houses along the road offer a few tomatoes or eggs for sale. The town is a maze of narrow dirt roads. If you ask for directions enough times, you’ll find your way to the outskirts where some homesteads have bananas, avocados and coconuts. Every square inch is raising something they can eat.  If you make the right turns from there you reach the stretches of small plots planted to rice and beans and irrigated by their own canals.

A one lane road passes between these plots and heads up to the dam where the irrigation systems starts.  It’s a dead end road.  Above it is Kilimanjaro National Park and all the tourists. Yesterday we barely got past a huge truck from a nearby town picking up bundles of rice on the side of the road.  Since the villagers don’t have such lorries, nearly everyone just sells their crops in the field to middlemen who make all the profits.

Past this example of what we are fighting, the path abruptly moves up and we pick our way through the rocks to the top of an adjacent hill and the hamlet where we will set up for the session.  The hills around the valley are all rock and thorn bushes.  Cattle and goat herds–who are permitted to graze anywhere–insure it stays that way.   As the sun began to get lower, the cattle herds swept through the hamlet, but don’t try to get in on the training.

One of the leaders of the cooperative has chopped down a few weeds on the north side of his house.  Participants have bought in benches and chairs.  We tape some flip chart paper to the side of the car and we have a classroom.

Except it’s not really a classroom and I’m not the expert with all the answers.  Instead, I’m just a facilitator who is trying to help them plan, figure out what is blocking them, and get motivated for action.

We came up with lots of plans for improvement of their irrigation district and creating vegetable, cassava and egg enterprises with cooperative members.  I wish I could stay and help them create a marketing system where the profit comes to the farmer, not the middleman.

Most people come to Kilimanjaro to climb the mountain.  I do like the mountain, but I came to Kilimanjaro to help some smart, hard-working people create a better cooperative. I’m looking forward to seeing how much they accomplish by my next visit.  Maybe I’ll know a little more Swahili by then.

========

My work in Tanzania was supported by Catholic Relief Services and the USAID program Farmer to Farmer.  Contact CRS to help farmers in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Kilimanjaro is clear today

Sunrise and sunset, I’m gazing at Mount Kilimanjaro. Kili, her name here in Moshi, Tanzania, is a modest woman.  She often covers herself with clouds, sometimes head to toe like the devout Moslem women on Moshi streets. Their first call to prayer comes at first break of dawn, far before Kili can be visible or any sensible Tanzanian is up and about.  But soon after, I climb up to see if my muse is available for viewing.  This is a little before seven and coffee from her flanks is my morning companion. Lately, Kili has been far from shy; she’s almost brazen.  Yesterday she hardly covered herself all day long.

DSCN8144

Coming back from the dry barren hills above the Kikavu River, I watched her all the way home.  For two weeks I have been working with an irrigation cooperative known as UWAKICHI which organizes a valley on the sunny Northern side of Kili.  Water flows in torrential rivers from the mountains of East Africa, but the lower elevations are dry as a bone.  But when the water is channeled from the river to the land, the land becomes lush.

It’s the perfect time to visit Kili.  It’s July—winter in these southern latitudes, but not yet the dry season. I’ve escaped mid-90s temperatures in Arkansas for the low 70s, just above 20 C.  Twenty centigrade (68 for Americans) seems to be the cutoff for natives here.  Any lower than 20 and it’s just too cold.  They like it hot.

I’m staying at a Lutheran Hotel.  Strange oxymoron, that. I don’t think of Lutherans as running hotels. Patels yes, Olsons no.  And it’s a Lutheran Hotel which doesn’t allow alcohol.  Strange when Martin Luther made his own beer and loved good wine.

That hasn’t stopped the Germans from visiting.  The hotel was filled with German tour groups the first few days.  Then German Lutheran pastors descended.  Many were decked out in the colorful African shirts that only tourists wear.  After they left, every day has been a different nationality.  First Japanese, then Chinese, and yesterday Koreans.

None have joined me to just gaze at Kilimanjaro.  Many stop by and look for a few seconds, but then they are off to some other tourist activity.  They always miss the best views because they can’t wait for the clouds to clear.  One sunset, when Kili was gradually revealing herself, a Japanese and a German both stopped by to look several times.  But they had no patience to wait.  Eventually she showed her whole western side, but they weren’t there to see it.

The Germans and Japanese were mostly older couples and young women.  The Chinese were families. Lots of children happily playing in the hotel gardens.  Not much different from the village children who wander in and out of our training sessions.  The only difference is the laughter of the African children.  They seem always happy, laughing, joking, hugging each other.  Easy to see why Africans have so many children.

No children in the Japanese or German tour groups.  Just as they have few children at home.  Small wonder the Africans and Chinese are taking over the world.

One group conspicuously missing are Americans.  A few lone Americans have turned up.  No American tour groups.

The aging Americans, Germans and Japanese are perfect visitors for Kilimanjaro.  According to ancient legends, the white snow of Kilimanjaro is the resting place of the gods and spirits of the ancestors.  It is where you go when you die, not a place for the living.

So I won’t climb to the top.  I’ll just enjoy the snow stretching far down its sides, wondering whether the doomsayers are right that the snows are disappearing.  They seem pretty enduring.  I think they’ll last awhile.

Pesticides, RNA⇒DNA and wilderness

Enjoying beautiful June weather–and its been the best this year–is destroyed by a spray plane flying over.  But after this week we will have fewer. The Governor has signed a regulation outlawing the pesticide dicamba.  Last year I lost several trees to drift of dicamba.  No telling what it did to my health.

Pigweed is a weed most crop farmers will have to fight at some point. Pigweed has developed immunity to chemical pesticides.  Conventional farmers try every new chemical they can find to rid their fields of this pest. Organic farmers know that no weed is resistant to a sharp steel blade and use tillage to eradicate the weed.wildnessIn 2016 and 2017 farmers in the Delta have resorted to a very volatile chemical, dicamba, because nothing else works on pigweed.  The problem with dicamba is that it drifts to neighboring farms and kills the neighbors’ crops.  Unless your crops have been genetically modified to resist dicamba, they will be destroyed along with the pigweed.

Pigweed is a fascinating species in the genus Amaranthus.  This genus is also known for grain amaranth–which is high in lysine, an amino acid found in low quantities in other grains. Amaranth grain is free of gluten, which makes it a viable grain for people with gluten intolerance.  The many wild species of amaranth provide a pool for disease and pest resistance which can be used by plant breeders to improve grain amaranth.

Unfortunately for conventional farmers, the diversity and adaptability of the pigweed amaranth has overcome the best chemicals modern science can produce.

One research group has shifted the tolerance of pigweed to dicamba about three-fold in only three generations.  So dicamba will soon have to be replaced with other pest control techniques.  The co-evolution of herbicides and weeds makes some farmers get on the pesticide treadmill. Farmers who rely on pesticides are forced to use more and more and increasingly toxic chemicals to control insects and weeds that develop resistance to pesticides.

Pigweed’s ability to adapt makes it a resilient species in conventional farming systems.  No matter what chemical disturbance is thrown at it, it adapts and overcomes the disruption.

In ecological resilience circles, pigweed’s ability to adapt is known as conservative innovation. Pigweed innovates to meet the new disturbance, but its innovations conservatively maintain the other characteristics which make it adapted to farmers’ fields: short life-span, extremely high growth rate and seed production and ability to withstand overly dry or wet conditions. These qualities reflect the redundancy and ecological integration that resilient systems are also known for.

Resilience research not only explains the co-evolution of crops and weeds it also provides explanations for the changes in species which traditional Darwinian theory cannot explain.

Traditional evolution theory explains change in species as occurring by gradual accumulation of random mutations.  The fossil record does not bear this out.  Instead species appear to make radical sudden changes after staying the same for long periods. From trilobites to dinosaurs to worms, nearly all species have been shown to remain the same for eons only to abruptly change into a new species. These sudden changes after eons of stasis is known as punctuated equilibrium.

Resilience theory explains punctuated equilibrium with the quality of all resilient systems called self-organization. Self-organization turns a collection of interacting elements into an individual, coherent whole. This whole has properties that arise out of its organization, and that cannot be reduced to the properties of its elements. Such properties are called emergent.

We see this routinely in human systems.  Communities which bounce back most quickly after disaster are ones which are self-organized and do not wait for outside assistance. The creative destruction which characterizes economic change is based on emergent self-organization.  All the elements for production of automobiles were known long before cars were invented. When they were organized into a new system, the horse and buggy were consigned to the dustbin of history.

Many times in human history the same invention has been made in many different parts of the world at about the same time. Though certainly an inventor was involved in each case, the invention occurs by self-organization of the different components in the inventor’s mind.

Punctuated equilibrium at the species level is self-organization of an existing species into something better adapted. To better adapt to its environment, a member of a species reorganizes itself to create a new species. If the change results in more surviving offspring, the new species supplants the old species.

A mechanism for this self-organization has recently been revealed. One possibility relied on a paradigmatic shift in our understanding of genetics. For many years, genetic researchers accepted a simple dogma: DNA was a string of genes which were copied onto messenger RNA.  These are know to travel to the ribosome where proteins were made. Then it became clear that when DNA was copied into RNA, many sections were not translated into the protein. These sections, called introns, had to be edited out. The remaining sections, exons, are spliced to become the RNA from which proteins are made.

Later, the genome project showed that there are only 20,000 genes but at least 100,000 different types of proteins in the human body, and probably many more. Also many of the proteins in humans have subtle differences from other creatures. How could so few genes make so many different proteins?RNA splicing

Researchers finally realized that DNA was just a library. A form of RNA selects from DNA whatever exons it needs to form the desired messenger RNA which is then turned into proteins by the ribosomes.

The very same sequence of DNA can be considered an exon or an intron, creating a tremendous variation in the construction of proteins between different cells. Also, the points at which the cut is made is not as fixed as it seemed at first. Specific types of cells, such as those from organs like the brain, the kidney, etc., have multiple alternative splicing patterns.

Each type of cell is a self-organized system which recreates itself.  RNA changes the proteins produced depending on the cellular environment. RNA selects from the available DNA to create RNA which is adapted to the each cellular environment in the body.  If a new RNA is more successful than others, it can be incorporated into its DNA library.

When this new conservative innovation is created, it can be inserted and saved in the DNA library by an enzyme known as reserve transcriptase (RT). Reverse transcriptase was discovered independently by two researchers in 1970.  It is most famous as the mechanism by which the HIV virus infects humans.

A role for reverse transcriptase in evolution was made by many researchers–most influentially when Cairns reported his observations on ‘directed mutations’ in bacteria in 1988. James Shapiro had shown in 1984 that the appearance of mutations corresponding to an araB-LacZ cistron fusion could not be accounted for by models of random hereditary mutations. Through a precise statistical analysis of the formation of mutants, Cairns and his collaborators demonstrated that in the case of a nonlethal selective procedure, the time of appearance and the distribution of mutations are different from the random ones observed by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück in their famous 1943 paper and they suggested that bacteria were able to choose the mutations that they should produce. The mechanism that Cairns favored was the reverse transcription of mRNAs permitting bacteria to adapt to new nutrients. The way in which the variant favorable forms of mRNAs were selectively recognized was not precisely described.

Cairns’s article initiated a flood of publications and a huge debate in which many eminent molecular biologists participated. Not only did Cairns’s observations show the limits of one of the iconic experiments of molecular biology, but they were shaking one of the pillars of Darwinism – the randomness of mutations. The debate lasted for seven years, and a consensus was reached that the mutations were not directed, but resulted from an increase in the rate of mutation of specific genes, and a rapid diffusion of the favorable mutations by conjugation.

Cairns himself afforded the strongest experimental arguments against an involvement of reverse transcriptase by showing that some of the adaptive mutations were due to suppressor mutations, unlinked to the gene (LacZ) under selective pressure.  Still to be discovered is why specific genes are stimulated to increase mutation rate.

Regardless of the mechanism, the many new mutations produce proteins which then self organize into new pathways which enable bacteria to adapt to almost any change. Directed evolution tools have been used to improve synthesis yields of desired products, limit or expand substrate specificity, alter cofactor specificity, and improve stability over a wider range of temperature and pH. Reverse transcriptase is not needed to explain rapid evolution in bacteria.  However, in organisms with a nucleus (eukaryotes such as pigweed and humans), RT may be involved as a mechanism of increasing mutation rate.

Reverse transcriptase is being discovered more and more widely in animals and plants. Self-replicating stretches of eukaryotic genomes known as retrotransposons utilize reverse transcriptase to move from one position in the genome to another via an RNA intermediate. They are found abundantly in the genomes of plants and animals. Also in many eukaryotes, including humans, another reverse transcriptase is telomerase. It carries its own RNA template which is used as a template for DNA replication.

Remaining to be discovered is whether newly organized RNA can be incorporated by RT in germ line DNA in eukaryotes so that it is passed to the next generation.  We do know that the genomes of many eukaryotes, particularly complex multicellular forms such as mammals or flowering plants, consist mostly of sequences derived from mobile genetic elements (transposons) which are inserted into the germ line. Also well established is that transposons have been a recurrent source of coding sequences for the emergence of new genes. Increasing the activity of transposons coupled with selection, has enabled “directed evolution” in the eukaryote yeast.

We don’t yet know if this is the way pigweed evolves to be resistant to pesticides. More broadly, we don’t know how the vast changes occur that create new species. What does seem likely is that stressors stimulate production of multiple DNA changes, probably through transposons.  Then the protein products of these DNA changes self-organize providing fodder for selection of a better adapted species.

Some are not sure we really want to know the answers to all this because that opens the door to controlling evolution.  But this research can’t be stopped.  The good news is that only resilient organisms and species survive. Resilience requires fitting into existing systems. Any new species will only survive if it fits.  As long as new species must survive in the natural world, non-complementary innovations will not survive.

The problem is that humans are creating conditions where non-resilient innovations survive.  Infectious organisms thrive in hospitals when they would die in the natural world.  Pigweed thrives in cultivated fields, but dies out in more natural conditions. So we must set aside wild areas.  Thoreau said it best long before we even knew what DNA was: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”

 

Elephants and rural development

The first time I looked an enraged elephant in the eye, I was standing outside a compact car with snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.  He was on the hillside just above us.  His glaring eyes were red and his ears were spread wide.  We jumped in the car and took off.

The elephant had good reason to be mad.  The cooperative president who was with me wanted to divert the water from the elephant’s national park to irrigate farmland for his cooperative members.  Though I go to Africa to help cooperatives like his and I know his farmers need water, there is no way I could agree with him.  It’s a dilemma everyone in rural development faces.  The rural poor often want to get rid of wildlife.  And they are succeeding.

The earliest estimates put the number of elephants on the African continent around 26 million.  Today there are less than 400,000 with at least 100 more being killed every day.

elephant

Elephant slaughter began to drastically increase in the 1950s when many African regions gained independence from colonial rule.  The European love of wildlife was not passed down to the new African states.

Poaching elephants started increasing even more this century with the growth of a consumer class in China increasing demand for ivory. In 2012, the price reached $1,000 per pound in Beijing.  Two tusks of a male elephant weigh about 250 pounds.

In 2016, the price per pound had risen to $1500/pound and National Geographic reported that poaching is so intense “that in 10 years’ time we could lose 50 percent of Africa’s remaining elephants.”

Rhinoceros horn is even more valuable: $25,000 per pound.  The only rhinos you can see in Africa are in fenced enclosures with several guards for each rhino.

In a couple of weeks I head back to Kilimanjaro to work with another cooperative.  Fifty years ago wildlife roamed where these cooperative members farm.  I’ll help their farms become more productive and profitable.  I just wish I could do the same for the wildlife of Africa.

Everyone wants to help starving children in Africa have better lives.  We are succeeding and African nations’ populations are booming. What will keep them from continuing to decimate the wildlife of Africa?

A partial solution is to commercialize wildlife.  Wildlife numbers are actually increasing on well-guarded reserves where tourists pay big bucks to see elephants and zebras, giraffes and rhinos.  I’ve been to several of these reserves in Malawi and Kenya. I’ll soon be in others in Tanzania. So they get a little income from me.  Wish I could do more.

I’d like to believe that we could establish and support big enough reserves to not just protect elephants and rhinos but also the thousands of lesser known species which face mass extinction. I’d like to think that people will soon realize how essential the biosphere is to our survival.

But I’ve seen the destruction of wildlife and whole reserves when a weak central government confronts the vast demand for elephant tusks and rhino horns in China.  I visited one reserve in Mozambique where the lake was dry because the water had been used for a Chinese goldmine and all the animals killed or put in cages.

What’s needed is a powerful government which values wildlife.  To some extent we have that today in South Africa and Namibia.  Namibia had 7500 elephants in 1995 and has more than 20,000 today.  Unfortunately Namibia is mostly desert so it can’t support many elephants.  When will the other countries of Africa wake up and protect their wildlife?

 

 

Balance and inner peace promote and require creative destruction

“Harmony and balance” seem like good goals. You may be attracted to yoga and Taoism because they are philosophies of harmony and balance. Balance is something most of us strive for in our lives, our work, our relationships.  Unstable, unbalanced people are usually to be avoided.

We are attracted to concepts like balance of nature and climax communities.  Many of us like to think that balance and stability are good and natural in the world and its ecosystems. Once upon a time, this view was promoted by eminent ecologists such as Eugene and Howard Odum once viewed the mature climax community, e.g. an oak-hickory forest in the American Midwest, as a steady-state system which is far more sustainable than a growth-oriented ecosystem.  Many modern agroecologists seem to also see the most sustainable system as a well-developed, stable, mature system which recovers from disturbance and adapts to change.

yin_yang_by_aureshion-d6ceu2c

But disturbance and transformation and change underlie the ability of us and our ecosystems to achieve stability and balance.  In fact, stability and balance of our bodies or an ecosystem are the net result of the ongoing adaptation and change of hundreds of subsystems. These subsystems are constantly adapting and changing to enable you to feel balanced and in harmony.  Your body is constantly repairing itself and regenerating itself and fending off microscopic attack.

The calmness and inner peace which most religions urge us to achieve are attitudes which enable our bodies to fend off and adapt to disturbance. But none of us and no ecosystem can just maintain the status quo forever. All people and all ecosystems have adaptive cycles characterized by phases of rapid growth, mature stability, release and disorganization, and reassembly and reorganization leading back to rapid growth, stability, release and reassembly ad infinitum.

In fact, too strong a focus on stability can undermine personal and ecological resilience.  This was learned first in forest management.   A stable, mature forest in which fires are suppressed will eventually become a raging inferno which scours the landscape.  The result is often massive erosion and destruction of seeds and roots.  Artificially maintained stability of the forest results in reduced capacity of the system to regenerate.  An unstable ecosystem, with small fires and other disturbances occurring every year, maintains a variety of systems from meadow to savanna to forest.  Disturbance is required to maintain the diversity needed for resilience.

In our own lives, we often don’t want to see our children grow up, we don’t want to change occupations, we don’t want to change our habits.  Yet the healthy person, just like the healthy ecosystem is always adapting, changing, growing.

Every system has a temporal dimension which requires both phases of rapid growth and phases of disassembly.  The mature forest seen as a natural climax community by early ecologists and held up today as a model for sustainable systems by some agroecologists was known by both aboriginal Americans and Australians to be a much less productive phase than the grasslands and savannas which precede it.  Consequently they each regularly burned their landscapes creating more open areas for pasture and deeper soils through the incorporation of manure from the increased populations of ruminants.

Disruption and disassembly is required to induce a new growth phase.  When ecosystems are allowed to be composed of a series of growth and disassembly-release phases, they are usually more productive, increase soil quality and water conservation capacity, and store more carbon than systems permitted to progress to steady-state maturation.  Aborigines found that the technology of fire enabled them to maintain their ecosystem primarily in a growth phase.

Today’s ecosystem managers are similarly using technology to continue rapid growth phases instead of settling for mature, steady-state phases.  Paradoxically, the disruption and growth phases must be balanced lest they destroy resources (soil and water) instead of enhancing them.  This often happens when greedy managers convert the increased productivity into extracted profit.

The conventional wisdom in many sustainability circles that stability and balance are good and growth is problematic should be leavened with the reality of ecosystems.  In fact, trying to maintain stability and a climax community may actually erode resilience.  By keeping one particular system stable, the resilience of the larger system may crash.  U.S. agricultural commodity policy–promoting stability while decreasing diversity, redundancy and flexibility—is widely believed to undermine ecological resilience of our agricultural system.

The inability of some to escape the siren call of stablity has led to a misinterpretation of ecological resilience in most sustainable agriculture circles.  Resilience in sustainability circles is often the materials science sense of ability to bounce back from disturbance and maintain key functions and components.  In that sense our commodity production system is very resilient.  By maintaining commodity support payments through effective lobbying efforts, the system continues to bounce back and retain all its key functions and components.

As resilience becomes a term more widely bandied about, we can be sure the materials science definition of resilience will be most attractive for those trying to uphold the status quo—just as ag administrators in the early 1990s declared that “everything our college does is sustainable agriculture.”

Some sustainable agriculture advocates are also intent on preserving particular practices and systems.  As such advocates become more familiar with adaptive cycles and ecosystem resilience, may they embrace the creative destruction at the heart of all resilient ecosystems.

Just as you, in your search for harmony and inner peace, may come to realize it is an attitude which promotes the most creative destruction.  You may even see that inner peace requires creative destruction.