Gaia’s Garden

I live amid an urban oasis, a collection of very tall trees, timber bamboo and Japanese maples. Some of the trees are quite old, and know this tiny piece of Gaia’s garden far better than I. In a rainy year like this, the tree’s root-hairs – roots are the tree’s sensory system through which voluminous communication with Gaia occurs – are bathed in a rich, watery sea of nourishing information. So it is throughout Gaia’s entire global garden.

We think most often in terms of “up” or “down” even though earthly reality is “in” and “out.” A strange attractor compels us towards Gaia’s heart, and that attractor is what we call gravity; in the case of Gaia, we might call it love. Gaia holds us close and demands our attention; Gaia, after all, busily supports planetary-wide infestations of life. Humans are one such infestation, and thankfully, Gaia tolerates all infestations for a while – the plants and animals and everything in-between – from the smallest to the largest. In a very real sense, all infestations are Gaia; they arise from Gaia, they are Gaia’s garden.

Gaia is patient and knows no matter how wild and crazy they get, in the end the infestations will settle down and come home. There is, honestly, no place else to go. Yes, the present human infestation has convinced itself that it will spread to Mars, and more – that it will spread to the stars. Anything’s possible, but Gaia just laughs as always, a great breath shifting the jet stream into polar loops that simultaneously melt glaciers and produce enormous blizzards. Gaia is patient almost to a fault; imagine cleaning-up after 250-million years of dinosaurs.

Does Gaia ever complain? Well, some might call volcanoes, earthquakes, Tsunamis, tornadoes and the like “complaints,” but that feels too Biblical. Gaia moves a shoulder to relieve a little tension and the whole San Andreas Fault line shifts. Today those fault lines run under human infestations. Massive portions of the earth, as we know, are covered with all sorts of plant and animal infestations, but the human infestation is global, featuring densely inhabited pockets encrusted with human waste-products and built structures.

Gaia, like any patient gardener, watches and makes changes appropriate to the overall health of the garden. What humans call Death happens, but Gaia has outwitted Death for billions of years by incorporating Death itself; Gaia lends life and collects all debt through Death, right down to the last molecule. Gaia’s garden is inventively self-regulating, constantly fostering new infestations and retiring those unable to adjust to changed conditions. It’s how a 4-billion-year-old garden survives while floating in the bitterly cold reaches of outer space.

Of course, Gaia, is loved by Sol and Sol holds Gaia close-by. Sol constantly reaches out to Gaia for an impossible embrace, and in return Gaia’s garden lights up and beckons to Sol’s love, the warming rays of life.

Incidentally, trees are not, as many falsely imagine, standing with their feet stuck in the ground. Trees spend their lives with their heads buried in Gaia’s garden, and in this way secured, their limbs and bodies can hang free, waving in the wind and creating leaves unfathomable in number, shape and size to best absorb Sol’s love. When those leaves’ work is done, they fall into Gaia’s embrace and become, as will we all, mulch for Gaia’s Garden.

Fevered Visions of Dystopia

In the end, the skein of civilization turned out to be thinner and less substantial than most anyone had expected. Collapse of modern society took only a matter of weeks, not months. Once the electricity stopped the whole of industrial and mechanized society came crashing to a halt. Assumptions about emergency plans dissolved into the reality of human chaos as those with their hands on the levers of the system abandoned their posts and joined the rest of the masses in a panic of self-preservation.

Water stopped flowing, gasoline pumps sat idle, communication networks failed, and food distribution came to a screeching halt. Almost overnight chaos descended, first in the largest cities, and then progressively outwards into all reaches of society. A desperate population stormed markets and shops of all types, grabbing anything which might provide sustenance or protection. Like other sectors of government, law enforcement disappeared. Deprived of transportation, mechanisms of order lost their instrumentality. In the end, will to survive replaced command and duty as one-by-one police officers abandoned any pretense of organization and sought refuge for themselves and their families.

Of course, the idea of refuge was an illusion. Money itself useless, the shift to digital banking had insured the disappearance of an organized economy. Bank and stock accounts ceased to exist in the silence of dead circuitry. Wealth instantly evaporated, all records of it inaccessible as backup generators at data centers failed for lack of fuel. There was nobody left at their desks to do anything about it, anyway.

The electrical grid and everything connected to it died a quick death, but what followed was anything but quiet. When it came to nuclear power plants, the end was explosive. Emergency shut-down protocols automatically kicked-in, but panicked staff were long gone. Once the generators stopped, the coolant systems for pumps that kept water flowing and reactor cores stable failed and one-by-one the radioactive fuel cores melted down. The failures variously sent exploded plumes of deadly steam into the atmosphere or physical explosions contaminated the landscape for hundreds of miles. Those plants which did not fail remained vulnerable, their pools of spent fuel rods beginning to boil as cool water ceased to circulate in them. Over time, they would boil off their water, melt and descend into the earth until they hit an aquifer, at which time they too exploded in a volcanic geyser of radioactivity.

It didn’t matter much. By that time billions of beings had perished from lack of water. Ironically, it was the poorest of the earth who lasted longest, those already used to scraping life from the scarcest of resources. It was the poorest as well who had retained any sense of communal identity, and were best able to pull together in groups to provide for each other. Jungle dwellers and inhabitants of garbage dumps were among the few with survival skills commensurate to the task of returning to pre-industrial life. It turned out either talents born of isolation or the ability of small groups to share limited resources became the refuge denied those who had in all ways become little more than part of the industrial machine itself.

The strength of industrial society – dependence upon advanced electrified technology – was revealed as its weakness. In the end it was only those who had retained a physical relationship with the earth itself that survived.

RoundUp, Slavery and Avarice

Much is being made of current research indicating that the Glyphosate in Monsanto’s herbicide RoundUp is a likely carcinogen. A laboratory-made, liquid life-killing poison that turns dandelions to brown, withered husks in a day; that it probably causes cancer should surprise no one.

Weeds in your lawn; this is a big problem? Apparently so, especially for men. RoundUp gets plenty of advertising time during sports broadcasts on TV, along with ads for high-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers with comfortable seats. In a gesture to properly establish “the enemy,” weeds have been identified by Madison Avenue as the next-best stand-in for those insecure men who need something to kill. Even the language of war is used; Monsanto is promoting it’s new RoundUp “wand” which “targets” weeds. Next up, smart-phone controlled RoundUp-ready Drones.

Identifying the natural world – weeds – as the “enemy” and developing technologies of death is bad enough, but then, people with gardens have been selecting “good” plants and pulling out “bad” ones for thousands of years; nothing new in that. What is truly dreadful, however, nearly demonic, is the mechanism of avarice – what we commonly call greed – when combined with our modern industrialized approach to social organization. The combination of avarice and technology is literally killing the life of our planet.

This topic of avarice has been on the minds of thoughtful people for a long time. Author Peter Graeber suggests that most of the Ten Commandments can be connected to sins of Greed. He points out that “coveting your neighbor’s wife” is not about sex, since the prohibition against adultery qualifies for its own Commandment, but rather about wanting a slave to clean your house and do the chores. One must assume this would also include pulling weeds.

The roots of slavery, in some metaphorical sense, is about killing weeds. Slaves have been used worldwide in agriculture for many thousands of years. A “round-up” used be about expeditions to capture slaves for picking cotton in American colonies, working on rubber plantations in South America, or cutting sugar cane in Cuba, after all. And of course, a western “round up” was about herding cattle, which is what people become when they are turned into property. It’s still happening; estimates are that 45-million people remain slaves, world-wide.

Today the modern world prefers the slavery of debt, however. Avarice now takes the form of usury, interest rates so high that people remain in perpetual debt. The whims of the slave master have been replaced by the whims of the credit master – the banks, the credit/collection agencies and ironically, the U.S. Government. The roots of bankruptcy are as old as the Ten Commandments; the seven-year limit of bankruptcy law can be found in the Bible. When it comes to student loans for college, however, the biblical bankruptcy rules do not apply; bankruptcy does not exempt a debtor from the obligation to pay U.S. Government education debts.

So there we have it, the RoundUp-Industrial Age that 18th Century poet William Blake envisioned and dubbed “the Satanic Mill.” Graeber notes we are all, in some sense, both master and slave; as masters we select which “weeds” shall live and which shall die, and as slaves in a system through which we ourselves are rounded up to work for others.

Maybe it ends with letting the dandelions grow.

Exceeding Sonoma Valley’s carrying capacity

Population pressure plus expanding tourism is quickly pushing Sonoma Valley beyond its carrying capacity. This happened in the Napa Valley years ago, as anyone who has navigated Hwy. 29 in June or July has discovered.

For those who commute to work in San Francisco or Oakland, exceeding carrying capacity creates a weekday nightmare; traffic on five-lane freeways literally moves at a snail’s pace. BART trains are jammed, for those lucky enough to find parking in a BART lot. A recent poll indicates one-in-three residents of the Bay Area is considering moving somewhere else due to stress and congestion.

The idea of carrying capacity is very simple; when any container, such as a sewer pipe or roadway, is forced to carry more volume than it can properly contain, turbulence and disruption arise. Turbulence can take the form of gridlock, the chaos of the inability to move. In the case of a sanitary sewer line, it takes the form of backed-up sewage flowing from manhole covers.

From a civic and social planning perspective, exceeding carrying capacity is akin to placing too many rats in a cage; when personal space shrinks too much people get angry, frustrated and edgy. Road rage is one extreme symptom; common rudeness and discourtesy are less dramatic but nonetheless affect mood and social stability.

Carrying capacity can be enlarged, of course, and in civic planning this revolves around insuring that land is made available for the increased need of housing due to population growth. If, however, the infrastructure that serves housing growth is not increased, the carrying capacity of community infrastructure is quickly exceeded. Tourism and hospitality both add temporary population surges which serve to push demands on infrastructure beyond the limits of its carrying capacity.

In 1964, regional planners developed designs for a four-lane Sonoma Valley freeway connected to an expanded network of North Bay freeways to increase carrying capacity. Rejected by the public, which preferred a small-scale, rural-style community, those plans were set aside. Today, this leaves our valley with two-lane Hwy. 12 running North/South through most valley towns, the only transportation corridor available to serve our area’s expanding use.

Our infrastructure is what it is; given increased demand and fixed capacity, is there a way to reduce the detrimental effects of exceeding our Valley’s carrying capacity? The answer is “Yes-But.” Solutions will include significant trade-offs; it’s impossible to please everyone, always.

One solution is to focus all new housing on creating rental housing for people who already work here – hospitality workers, teachers and fire department personnel, etc. – thereby reducing commuting. This means largely curtailing new single-family market-rate housing, now median-priced at over $600,000.

When it comes to tourism and the economy, it means reducing hotel growth and cracking down on vacation rentals which remove single family home rentals available to workers; offering free, high-speed internet availability which facilitates working from home and reduces commuting, and attracting tech-savvy employers who utilize such networked methods.

As for the environment, it means supporting and implementing non-polluting, electric, car-and-bicycle-share services to reduce private auto use and the acres of parking devoted to it.

Will these approaches curtail some types of opportunities? The answer is “yes.” But, either we live within the limits of our carrying capacity or suffer increasing painful consequences.

From Eco to Echo

Having now passed the 50th anniversary of the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson it’s tempting to feel the ecology movement she fostered has made a difference. However, in comparing its successes to its failures, I’d argue the ecology movement has been a colossal flop.

During the past half-century global environmental conditions have fared worse, not better. Faced with evidence of destruction of the world’s forests, ocean acidification, global warming, population growth pressure, exposure to health-damaging chemicals, over-fishing and destruction of animal habitat, many scientists are now predicting a near-future extinction event to rival the largest in earth’s history. Whether people and the societies we have created will survive is unknown, but that human beings are the cause of this potential extinction is now obvious. We are indeed clever and resourceful, creative and industrious; we also happen to be too greedy.

Our contemporary social narrative is bleakly naive, namely that our creative abilities and capacity for adaptive innovation will provide a steady path to future well-being. When things were slower and technology less pervasive, such a point-of-view had possibilities. In fits and starts we’ve tried to keep up with our effects on nature, but their relentless and accelerating  growth renders any present effort to “catch up” nearly impossible. To be sure, good people are working hard to implement good ideas and practices, but emerging economies can’t afford clean technologies; the world’s population continues to expand, placing new demands on global productivity.

Facts alone are not enough to save the world; if true, we would have saved it by now. People are driven by emotions, not facts – by desire, attachment, urges to avoid suffering and to seek satisfaction. Hope and fear overwhelm rationality and go on to form the ground of human behavior. Despite efforts to mitigate what we know about people by creating law and order, governing systems, education, reward and punishment, the truth remains: our desire for personal security makes us short-sighted, and simultaneously produces its own set of problems.

Our inherent problem is that we objectify nature; we see ourselves apart from a hostile, external force we try to control. Moreover, our responses to ecological destruction reflect a belief system which all but guarantees their inadequacy. Despite heart-felt, honest feelings –  even despair – about the worsening condition of our world, our addiction to “moreness” trumps all. A persistent industrial ethic many generations in the making molds and conditions our ecological solutions. Thus our recycled garbage is picked up by large trucks, transported to large processing facilities and refashioned by large machines; all these industrial-scale efforts produce prodigious quantities of greenhouse gasses, but it feels good to recycle. The largest environmental groups ironically add to the solid waste stream by cranking out millions of pieces of direct mail, in part to raise millions for yet more direct mail. In short, trapped by hope and fear our eco-solutions all too often echo our problems.

Our desires are too strong and our needs for satisfaction and security too great. Alternatives like outlawing plastic packaging or mass-boycotts of products by consumers are deemed too radical and therefore unlikely. For all our right environmental aspirations, we seem stuck between a rock and a hard-place. It’s a sober thought, but perhaps before we can succeed, we must admit our failure.

One thing is perfectly clear. We are killing our planet.

Can you feel it?

The season is changing. You’d think after 65 years, I’d be used to it, but I’m not. I was born in September, so perhaps that’s sharpened my attention. Whatever the cause, I can feel it.

My wife and I recently spent a week by the ocean. Surrounded by the sound of surf I watched the tides and wondered why I couldn’t feel the pull of the moon the way I feel the change of season. Perhaps the rhythm of the moon is too regular and all pervasive. Unlike the sun, the moon’s illumination does not change with the season. The regularity of its phases is matched by the constancy of its light. At our latitude, the sun’s yearly cycle, in contrast, takes it every lower in the sky for half-a-year, it’s illumination changing with it. The plants respond and so do I.

Right now the black walnuts are in free-fall. Sitting in the yard is a test of courage and probabilities. By the time a black walnut is ripe enough to fall, it’s usually ripe enough to make a mess. Black walnuts are so named because it’s ripe husk becomes a mushy ball of juicy jet-black muck. When one hits the flagstone in the garden it’s with an audible “smack!” that always makes one glad to be inside. The squirrels and crows are not helping. The squirrels, mouths and chins blackened by walnut husk juice, have started their neurotic nut-hiding game, burying and moving and reburying the same nut all over the garden, completely losing track. Next spring I will pull up the young trees that have sprouted, walnut still attached.

It’s September and the Bambusa oldhamii is sending up it’s new growth. A big, green, timber-style bamboo, oldhamii, like all bamboo sends up new growth at its maximum diameter. Adding nearly nine inches a day in height, I’ve literally sat for hours just to watch it grow. By the end of October, the new culms will be 35 feet high, and if October is cold or frosty two month’s growth will have to do until next spring when the lateral bamboo branches and leaves will emerge. Like me, oldhamii is not native to California.

It’s about now I begin to pine for rain. The dust on the skylight will be washed off by a solid rain, and that’s good since I’m long past climbing up on the roof. But we never know about the rain to come. At the first good rain the ground exhales, and so I do. By now it feels like the land is holding its breath in anticipation. I watch the skies and breathe deeply through my nose, instinctively searching out the faint odors of fall rain. I don’t smell it yet, but I can detect something in the air. Like I said, I can feel it.

Tellingly, I’m beginning to think about Cassoulet. An all-day cooking fest, Cassoulet is a white bean dish that’s assembled from cooked beans and roasted meats. When it’s done, the kitchen is a mess, the house is filled with delicious smells, and the heat from the oven gives everyone flushed cheeks. If lucky, by dinner time it will begin to rain, and filled with beans later on I’ll lie in bed falling asleep while the rain drops on the skylight tap out the rhythm of this fall’s seasonal melody.

The consumption spiral

Like water circling the bathtub drain, our consumer society expends a lot of energy but ultimately spirals down a bottomless hole, and unless more water is continuously added, nothing but an empty tub remains.

Of late, the “water” being added is money printed by the Federal Reserve Bank, in the form of bond purchases and zero interest rates. Added to this has been federal government stimulus spending, but the sum total of these efforts remains a sputtering faucet and the tub’s still draining, not filling up.

Western economics, what I would call the economics of consumption, has spread across the globe, hastened by policies developed by the U.S. dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and now using state capitalism, China has joined in. Such global institutions force the consumer society ideals of expanded credit and lend money to weak countries by tying loans to “opening up” economies. In layman’s terms, “opening up” means making weakened markets available to multinational corporations and banks for economic exploitation. A form of financial colonialism, the client countries end up captive economies of wealthier countries, dependent upon them for “water” to keep their financial tubs full. Polite words like “development” have been substituted for “exploitation” in an attempt to disguise the raw face of such financial colonialism.

In our American economy, it’s the average citizen that has been turned into a colonial subject. The increasingly complex web of financial and systemic instrumentality that comprise modern life has rendered the notion of self-sufficiency a quaint notion of the past. Society has always required interdependence; farmers grew food and city dwellers bought it, for example. But today’s economy is bound to a consumption machine, and not a hair’s breadth separates them in most lives.

Your wallet, for instance. You might think those credit cards and driver’s license are handy tools, but they are an instrument of colonial control. Your purchases and your movements are tracked and correlated with other data; your car’s license plate, the things you buy, the bills you pay, the shows you watch – everything about you and what you do is scrutinized in the bowels of vast data-mining computer centers owned by the corporate colonial powers. Your privacy is just an illusion.

Meanwhile, the colonial consumer society is systematically destroying the planet. The water rushing down the drain is greater than that which can be added. You may ask, “where does the water go once it goes down the drain?” The answer is into the tubs of billionaires and billionaire corporations. The basis of the colonial consumer society means your tub drains to holding tanks, from which its “water” is loaned to other colonial subjects at a profit. In this way, the wealth of many is drained to increase the wealth of the few. The British used such colonial economics for 400 years, to become for a while the world’s only superpower and the wealthiest nation on earth. Eventually, their colonial subjects gained independence, but have progressively been turned into client states remaining firmly under western domination and control. Those who resist are deemed “rogue” and subjected to subversion, sabotage, and economic starvation until they comply.

Ours is not what we would call an “enlightened” society, but it could be. That transformation will require an honest recognition of how profoundly damaging colonial consumer society is, and discarding it. It’s either that, or the trash heap of history.