I wrote this over a month ago, but am just now getting around to posting: A strong north wind yesterday brought down all the remaining leaves on our street. It seems fitting then that the essay and poem this month are both about trees. On a very different front, I'm trying to get some momentum going on a campaign to get my college to divest from fossil fuels--a small step beyond consumer choices that anyone can take on climate change (see the first thing that makes me hopeful, below). And, as I prepare for Thanksgiving, here's a mind-bender that's stuck with me: What if we woke up tomorrow to find only the things that we were thankful for today?
Climate and fate
I don’t remember exactly when I first internalized the message that the Sahara was steadily, inexorably pushing south, transforming some unimaginable amount of arable land every year into barren waste. It was appalling. While I didn’t doubt that our species had played a role, the forces of nature that had been unleashed seemed now to be beyond the power of any human action to contain, much less reverse.
By the time I heard about draught in the Sahel, with all its unspeakably tragic human consequences, I was so numb that I could barely take it in. After all, who has ever won against a desert? Who could fault me for accepting defeat? So when I saw a reference recently to reforestation efforts in Niger, the image that came to mind was brave little tree seedlings, valiantly trying to survive in a vast expanse of hot sun and bone dry sand—doomed to a short, harsh life and cruel death. But I was compelled to investigate, and this is what I learned.
When the French colonized what is now Niger, they brought their own experience with agriculture, an unshakable confidence that they knew better, and an intention to use their superior understanding to make a profit. Big fields are best for export-oriented monocultures, and crops need sun (in France) so trees outside of designated woodlots should be cut down. These practices, along with the starving of local initiative that comes with strong centralized ownership and control, set the stage for desertification. A period of unusually high rainfall after World War II postponed the impact, but draught came with a vengeance in the 1970’s. With agricultural exports drying up—literally—and uranium mining hard hit by the end of the nuclear power plant boom, the economy tanked. All that was left for the newly independent nation was to use the tragedy of draught and the specter of desertification—both all too real—to petition for international aid.
Some of that aid went to failed tree-planting efforts; other projects had impact only as long as new money kept flowing in. But one man in one little NGO discovered that, in many places, the root systems of the trees that had been cut down were still in place; farmers just kept chopping off the brushy growth as it sprouted up in the middle of the fields. If it were pruned to leave the strongest shoot, however, that shoot would quickly grow into a tree. The potential benefits were enormous: shade in a sun-drenched land, water retention, a means of breaking the destructive sand-filled winds, carbon fixing, and generation of scarce organic matter and firewood. But there were obstacles. Generations of western farming practices left people reluctant to have trees in their fields, and centralized—often corrupt—control of resources left farmers without property rights to any tree they might grow.
In the mid to late 1980’s two things happened to tip the situation toward change. A new draught made desperate farmers willing to try anything, and the death of the country’s president resulted in a power vacuum that essentially knocked out all central authority for years. This created the space for local communities to develop their own protocols for land and tree management, and the speed with which new trees grew, with all the associated positive feedback loops, allowed these communities to increase crop yields and be significantly buffered from the effects of draught.
Such positive results were noticed and replicated in neighboring areas, and by the time a centralized government was functioning again, the evidence was sufficiently compelling that they were induced not only to support replication, but to legislate protection of local land management practices.
By now Niger—said to be the poorest country in the world—has successfully reforested 5 million hectares (almost 12.5 million acres) of land with some 200 million trees, securing the livelihoods of 4.5 million people. An aerial view of the border between Niger and Nigeria makes clear the difference that this greening has made.
Of course there is no guarantee of a happy ending. Population pressure can still drive people of the Sahel into poverty and, if rainfall decreases over time, the land’s ability to produce food will be compromised. The lesson is not that climate change is a myth, but that our numb submission to what seems like fate is part of the problem. The truth is that there is untapped resilience in both nature and the human spirit; the potential for rapid change in a positive direction cannot be discounted; and the freeing up and resourcing of local initiative, whether by accident or by design, may be at the heart of the solution.
An oasis of serenity no more,
great clouds of swirling dust
roar of machines and men in gas masks
have conjured up a war zone in the park.
The enemy is leaves.
Blowing every blade of grass
blasting under every bush
their goal is total mastery
and barren earth
(which will be covered up next spring
with pricey mulch).
In another universe of possibility
peace and leaf removal coexist:
long-handled rakes and
muscles turned to useful work
bring leaves from grass
to mound around each bush
providing insulation from the winter cold
then breaking down to fertilize the soil.
There’s a modest circularity in this
a hopeful sign of things both past and yet to come
acknowledgment that nature and a few strong arms—
no fossil fuels, machines or noise
no pricey mulch—
can do the job with quiet elegance.
Imagine: A new economy is possible!
It all turns on affection
Excerpts from a talk by Wendell Berry
Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management. By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live. An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another. Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference. Most economists think of this arrangement as ”the economy.” …They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”
…By now our immense destructiveness has made clear that the actual value of some things exceeds human ability to calculate or measure, and therefore must be considered absolute. For the destruction of these things there is never, under any circumstances, any justification. Their absolute value is recognized by the mortal need of those who do not have them, and by affection. Land, to people who do not have it and who are thus without the means of life, is absolutely valuable. Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth “something”; it is worth everything.
…I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.
Some things that have made me hopeful recently:
In a focused effort to combat global warming, seven colleges and 22 cities in the US have committed to divest from fossil fuels in the last year--and dozens more campaigns are underway across the nation.
the name Rolling Jubilee, a group of Occupy Wall Street activists has managed to buy almost $15 million of Americans' personal debt helping them pay off their outstanding credit in one year, using $400,000 to purchase anonymous debt cheaply from banks and then "abolish" it, freeing individuals from their bills.
Healing and Rebuilding our Communities workshops in Rwanda and Burundi that include participants pairing across ethnic lines for a "trust walk", including this testimonial: I remember the trust walk when the person who killed my family was my partner. During the genocide, I witnessed this man kill my two brothers with a machete and my younger sister with a spear. I was shaking because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down, but he also had fear and he took me gently, kindly. I asked him, “Will you lead me in peace?” After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him. http://aglifpt.org
An agricultural cooperative in South Korea with 2,000 growers and 380,000 consumer members, and sales growing annually by 20%, creating an alternative economy that supports local organic farmers, produces healthy food and protects the environment in the process.