Thursday, June 12, 2014

#133 Respecting our ecosystem

It’s heartening how sometimes a larger truth to which one is deeply committed can knock the air out of an insistent but essentially irrelevant argument.

With six children in my family growing up, one-on-one attention from my mother was a precious but scarce commodity.  When one of her children was sick, however, my mother always came through.  One of the highlights of my childhood was the time in seventh grade when I had bronchial pneumonia.  The first few days, when I was delirious, were harder on her than on me, and they were followed by weeks recuperating at home with just my mother and my precious little toddler brother.

I often wished in high school that I could have another break like that, but never got sick enough again.  There was no tolerance in my family for malingering—and no sympathy for weakness or petty complaints.  If what ailed you wasn’t demonstrably serious, you were expected to continue to pull your weight.

So I came of age still wistfully wishing that sometime I might get sick enough that somebody would put me first and make everything better, while at the same time being a harsh judge of complainers and weaklings.  This has been particularly challenging when I’ve been a little under the weather.  Quite apart from whatever was happening with my body, there was full-scale warfare in my head.  I’m not feeling well.  Oh for goodness sake, it’s not that bad; just get over it.  But really, I’d rather be in bed.  Buck up.  Tons of people keep on working when they’re sick—what makes you think you’re so special?  I think I need to lie down.  Oh, stop whining!  Maybe if I take care of it, it will go away.  Oh, if you must, you little weakling.

Over the years, I’ve had many reminders that my body is trustworthy.  I’m not one to lie in bed in general, and I tend to prefer work over rest.  But somehow the war in my head has continued, and it’s been hard to listen to my body with all that din between my ears.

Then, somehow, a totally new concept fell into that space, stunning all other voices to silence.  Your body is an ecosystem.  It deserves respect.

Well, I’m passionate about ecosystems.  I have a sense of wonder about their complexity, the amazing levels of interdependence, the variety of distinctively lovely forms they can take.  And I’m keenly aware of the threats that so many ecosystems face, and how a loss in one can devastate others.  I have some sense of both their vulnerability and their resilience, and my respect for their value is abiding and deep.

The idea of human bodies as ecosystems is newer to me.   I have loved breathing in the reality that every water molecule in my body has existed for billions of years; that our existence depends on the soil, the source of our food; that we are all miracles of recycling.

It makes sense that poisons and pollution affect my own internal system just as they affect our external waterways and atmosphere.  It’s a little harder to get my mind around the reality that the vast majority of cells in my body are non-human.  I am host to an enormous diversity of other microorganisms—with all the intricate interdependence of any other ecosystem, and with all their resilience and vulnerability.

So, this ecosystem of mine, as all other ecosystems, is totally deserving of respect.  If it is under stress, that is something that calls for thought, care and intelligence.  I can benefit from its resilience—it doesn’t need to be constantly fussed over—but I certainly don’t want to take its good functioning for granted.

What does this mean?  When I don’t feel well, when this ecosystem that I inhabit is stressed, neither moral judgments about weakness nor lingering hopes for comfort from my childhood are relevant.  What is called for is a thoughtful assessment of the whole system, and as non-invasive a program to bring it back to balance as can be managed. There’s much that I still don’t know but, with respect for this ecosystem as central, my feet are on solid ground at last.


In our big shared garden
digging baby black-eyed Susan plants
to give away
a Mexican neighbor offers me cilantro
and I go home with four sweet plants
to tuck in with my herbs.

Then, hauling pots of flowers
that have spread out of their beds
to share with rental neighbors
eager to fill bare ground with life,
As I walk, I greet a gardener
I do not know, who turns out to have
sunflowers to spare,
and digs them out most willingly—
Just what I’ve been looking for,
the final touch of glory
that our garden needs.

I’m filled up to the brim
with so much giving and receiving
in these few hours,
so much pleasure shared.
The earth, indeed, is full of gifts.

Dare to imagine:  A new economy is possible!

Who will feed us?

The industrial food chain uses 70% of the world's agricultural resources to produce just 30% of our global food supply.  Conversely, the peasant food web provides 70% of the global food supply while using only 30% of agricultural resource.

While industrial agriculture can produce a higher yield of a monocultural crop than can peasant monoculture, multi-cultures of diverse crops, fish and livestock (intercropping) can produce more food per hectare, which is also more nutritious, than any industrial monoculture, at a fraction of the cost and with employment and environmental benefits.

Looking toward the future, with "agribusiness as usual":  urban share of global population, obesity, meat and dairy production, water demand, and greenhouse gas emissions all rise dramatically.  With the "peasant web", including land and rights, rural population holds steady, nutrition and food availability increase, obesity drops, and greenhouse gas emissions, water demand and agricultural fossil fuel use all drop dramatically.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

Paul Hawken's unforgettable presentation of the 2 million-plus groups around the world that are working toward a just and livable future. (I've mentioned this one before, but it's made me hopeful again!)

Food distribution companies, such as Common Market in Philadelphia, that work to connect local farmers with large institutions such as hospitals and schools--thus supporting small farmers while improving the quality of food these institutions serve.

The Obama administration's recent Environmental Protection Agency ruling, which is intended to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30% (from 2005 levels) by 2030.

The Bike Superhighways of Denmark, a network of 26 routes to connect commuting suburbanites to the city, including air pumps, safer intersections, and traffic lights timed to average cycling speed, allowing 50% of all Copenhageners to cycle to work or school every day,often faster than by car.

More resources

Posts on other people's blogs: 

NEW:  Check out my friend Daniel Hunter's new book, a narrative of direct action campaigning:  Strategy & Soul: A Campaigner's Tale of Fighting Billionaires, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos:

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at