Biomimicry, pesticides and emotions: a fairly profound thought (for me)

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Walking in to work this morning I had an aha moment; I was watching someone spray their yard with Roundup and memories started to flood back. Sometimes Monkey mind can provide a great journey.

Several years after finishing a degree in Environmental Studies I decided to go travel and teach. My goal was to spend time in Nepal and the first organization to respond to my request to do voluntary work suggested I learn something about Permaculture before arriving in Kathmandu. I chose to study in Australia where the concepts had originated and in particular to go and meet the man who had initially pulled the ideas together. Bill Mollison is an incredible person, not so much an original thinker as a watcher of natural processes and a collector of amazing practices and he had created a two week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). This did more to give me a framework for all the random bits of information that I had collected in my lifetime than 3 years in college ever did and also the tools to make the rest of my travels positive for myself and the farmers I met along the way. Something it might help to know is that Permaculture is based on watching what nature does, recognizing her patterns and endeavouring to have her do work for you.

One vivid memory I have sees me in a remote village in Nepal. I am sat on my haunches on the mud floor of a simple straw hut surrounded by farmers and their sons. I am telling them about how the chemicals they have been sold by western companies to help their crops have been banned in the west, in fact they are known as the dirty dozen; there are tears sliding down my cheeks.

Something I learned during the PDC was to ask why things were happening the way they were. If a certain weed is growing it is providing something that is needed by the soil, if I can figure out what the soil needs then I can take care of it, if I poison the weed, then ultimately I am going to poison the soil around it. The bottom line is that things happen for a reason.

I have another vivid memory of a session in a hot, dry Australian classroom that explained natural succession and planting accordingly. Two years earlier I had planted oak trees for an organization in cold, wet Wales, and it did not seem right. Now half way around the world, armed with a simple model I was able to picture the whole natural succession that allows an oak to grow. Firstly, a weed; often bracken, grows, sending down enormous tap roots, deep mining the soil for minerals and then leaving a dense mulch layer on the top. Then a plant like gorse pops through, it is a nitrogen fixer and is prickly and keeps animals away. After a while, birch pushes its way up through the gorse. Birch grows for 30 years, it spaces the oak and helps these big trees grow straight and tall before it too dies out and gives the oak the space it needs to thrive. The take home lesson is it might be more productive to plant one of the earlier species in the succession rather than the tree you want to grow, especially if the soils are not ready to provide for it.

Wandering past this lady with her Roundup, I was wondering what the soil actually needed, I was also debating what the end result of her actions were going to be. She certainly was not solving the problem, even if the symptom was going to “disappear” for a while. What were the side effects? Was her dog going to notice what was happening to his stomach having inhaled the fine mist? I believe we become desensitized to the idea of pesticides because it is now so mainstream. (Red Herring Alert: How sad is it that I have to go out of my way to buy food that is natural and unsullied by human tampering?)

Here though is my realization. If I consider my emotions in the same way that Bill helped me to see nature then rather than trying to deal with symptoms I need to see what is underlying them. For a number of years I have been trying to fix things that I see as problems, basically I have been spraying Roundup. Now I need a different model for dealing with the “issues” in my life. The difficult part is going to be finding a framework that worked as effectively as figuring out the natural succession of a Welsh oak wood while sitting in a room in Australia. Another friend of mine who is the chair of a psychology department suggested I start with Erikson & Maslow – I love both men’s theories however I am looking for something that I can figure out for myself, based on my own observations, in the same way as I did the oak wood.

I do not have a question for you today, I will though happily take suggestions.

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Some Thoughts on Sustainability

I have been thinking about the word “sustainability” a great deal recently and more importantly about the meaning it adopts due to the cultural context that surrounds it. I also find that I am concerned with a parallel thread that seems completely inter-relatedt; health and wellness.

Let us start by looking at a historical perspective of health and wellness. Until recently health was considered as an absence of disease, during the 1980’s it took on a larger mantel. This new vision of wellness incorporates achieving and balancing physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social and environmental health. By changing the way we look at health and wellness we make it easier to achieve because we understand it more. The very definition also allows us to move towards something attractive rather than away from something that we do not want which ties in with contemporary thought on goal setting.

What has this got to do with sustainability? Well for starters, to be sustainable a body or organization has to be healthy. I think this is something that has yet to be given sufficient significance within the discussion on sustainability. I also believe that the definition of sustainable needs to be expanded beyond Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland report 1983) Ultimately, sustainability could be about creating healthy people, organizations, environments, learners etc. which go on to (pro)create more healthy…

Another aspect that can be incorporated from the wellness movement is how to incite motivation that changes behavior. When a person is obese they need to see that they are overweight, there is no need to judge oneself, there is though the need to make a change. It is about being honest with oneself and making small changes that over a period of time create big results. It is about seeing something for what it really is rather than either being a conspiracy or for someone else.

The similarities go further still. Both are holistic concepts; a situation will never be truly healthy / sustainable until all the components are taken care of and nurtured. Therefore all the components need to be identified.

For a university to be sustainable there is a need to have healthy students who are able to achieve their optimal state of learning in the same way that there is a need for a small carbon footprint. Encouraging exercise and good and local nutrition is as important as recycling. Aiding students to feel a necessary part of a thriving society is as relevant as energy efficient buildings.

My thoughts then turn to what should a University Sustainability Club do. Obviously all the mentioned areas need to be incorporated and there is a lot more examples of Universities that have been focusing on environmental sustainability who provide an extremely good model. I believe though that where possible we can focus on initiatives that marry as many concepts together as possible. For instance:

·         Encouraging self powered commuting  – which might involve cheap / free rental of equipment (bikes from bike club, skis from student union), organizing leaders / guides (from clubs such as PE majors club), encouraging facilities to groom trails on campus rather than scrape them, prizes for people who are involved, more safe & covered storage and showering facilities on campus

·         Socials that involve exercise, education, networking and fun

·         Lobbying the food providers on campus to really consider the food that they are supplying and ensuring that there is information on all the food sold and that it is also measured for how healthy and local it is. All while working under a tight budget to reduce the costs. Perhaps, this would be more easily done if UAA provided the food on campus rather than contract it out.

I know that this is not really original thinking and yet I am inspired by a man I was lucky enough to spend some time with. Bill Mollison; the originator of permaculture, once said to me, “by myself I can do nothing, with one friend I can change the world.” Bill does not have many new ideas he has though taken lots of well proven ones and strung them together in a package that has been making a real difference in the world. I suggest that we do the same.

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