Land and nature

Building a Successful Conversation Through Diversity

Whether engaged in a conversation about sustainability or developing a vision or plan, building diversity into our sustainability efforts is an important principle that will lead to success.

I take a broad view of diversity. It applies to the individual, the organization as well as the wider society. It includes demographic diversity, certainly. It also covers diversity of thought, perspectives, disciplines and the diverse realities that reflect each of our separate existences. It covers one additional important area that I will discuss here.

Applying Diversity to Individuals

How this principle is to be applied is the critical question. Diversity applies on an individual level. There are many different ways in which we approach the world, and they may sometimes appear to be in conflict. For example, there may be the part of us that likes structure and the part of us that may like things to be more free and easy. There is likely the part of each of us that wants to "do" and another part that is happy to just "be." There is the part of us that is a member of a capitalist, market economy and the part of us that may be quite tired of the consumerist culture. There is the part of us that firmly knows we must act to save the environment and the part of us that may be reluctant to make the necessary changes. You cannot divorce yourself from either one of these internal polarities or tensions. It may well be healthier for you to facilitate your own internal dialogue amongst them. Through such a process, all aspects of yourself will feel acknowledged and heard lessening defensiveness. A natural integration will result which will facilitate your awareness of what you truly need to flourish. You will be able to bring more of your full, rich self into your interactions with others.

Applying Diversity to Organizations, Society

The same is true with organizations and societies. They also have many different aspects to them some of which may appear to be in conflict with one another. We can facilitate a conversation amongst them and the people who hold them. As in the individual case, such a dialogue between seeming opposites is one way of enabling both to be acknowledged and heard. The human psyche will do its natural job of seeking integration both on an individual and organizational level. The result will be a healthier and more flourishing society.

We can helpfully build this diversity into our workshops, our conversations and our communities and facilitate the necessary interactions. To ensure each perspective is fully heard, listeners should try to see the world through the experiences of the person who is speaking. We should provide a safe space to support each in sharing their views.

Expanding Beyond Privileged Narratives

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There is, however, a trickier part. We may think that we have factored in a diversity of perspectives even while we are steadfastly following an historical story, narrative or discourse that has been with us for a long time. As a result, we end up privileging that discourse while ignoring other ones. These other ones represent different ways of learning, thinking and even being in the world.

Here are some examples that represent other ways of thinking and being in the world.

"First Nations people in western Canada see the forests of British Columbia as sacred spaces. People from a European background see them as resources to be used or developed even if for leisure. The giving of land back to First Nations people in Canada elicited the complaint that they do not "do" anything with it. The idea that sometimes the point is to "be" rather than to "do" seems to have proved very hard to communicate." (Cata, Myers, 2011).

"The indigenous people of the Amazon understand their world through a different sort of songline.  Indigenous people know how to "think" the forests, know that the paths through this wilderness are songs, the song that each plant has. Song makes a thread of light, a path of the mind; each song tells of one plant's relationship to other plants and not only differentiates one plant from another but distinguishes between the uses of for example, stem or leaf or root of the same plant. There is practical wisdom here but also psychological wisdom; you find your way and learn how to live unlost not through the wild forest but within it. The songlines harmonize people with environment. There is no divide." (Griffiths, 2009)

Joanna Macy in "The Greening of the Self," provides another example. She discusses the Chipko "tree-hugging" movement in north India where villagers protect their remaining woodlands from ax and bulldozer by interposing their bodies. One of her students comments,

"I think of the tree huggers hugging my trunk, blocking the chain saws with their bodies. I feel their fingers digging into my bark to stop the steel and let me breathe....I give thanks for your life and mine and for life itself."

Joanna comments in turn,

"What is striking about Michael's words is the shift in identification. Michael is able to extend his sense of self to encompass the self of the tree. (The) tree is no longer a removed, separate, disposable object pertaining to a world "out there," but intrinsic to his own vitality. Through the power of his caring, his experience of self is expanded far beyond that skin-encapsulated ego."

Each of these stories represents another perspective, a reality that may be quite different from our own.

In discussing the First Nations story, Cato and Myers comment:

"What is important here is the unsettling of a previously privileged discourse, an historical embedded discourse from a "civilized" culture of pioneers, conquerors and colonialists, who on initially encountering First Nations and indigenous Peoples' way of life considered it inferior and yet now value their wisdom as contributing to a different understanding of life and collective reality. In the context of the sustainability crisis, this awareness of an alternative perspective acquires added salience." (Cato, Myers, 2011)

 


Stepping Back Into The Future

Those of us who grew up in Western societies have a lot to be thankful for. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle are just a small part of it. We could also have some regrets about things that have limited us. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle are just a small part of it. For better or ill, we have become part of a conceptual map of the Universe that persists in creating dualities about just about everything. Good and Evil, Body and Soul, Mind and Body, Humans and Nature. The list goes on and on.

When we stop to think about this, we know that our world does not easily divide along those lines. Yet, it is the way we have been taught to see the world and we persist in doing so.

Each of these has proven to be problematic throughout history. The most pernicious of these in our current world is the division into Man and Nature, Human-kind and everything else. This has then predisposed us - in our ever-present myopic way to see ultimate value in ourselves and to see everything else as either our play-things or our receptacle for what we don't want, hazardous wastes, excess carbon from the production of energy, our disposable plastic trash. As a species, we often see other species as disposable.

A profound Deity looking down upon us might wonder how we got to this point. In my own small way, so do I. Beyond that, I wonder why we persist in hanging onto a world-view that has rarely served us as we compartmentalize the human mind into countless categories of Us and Them. This latest categorization of Us and Them threatens to do us in because in reality there is no Us and Them; there is just All of Us - animals, fish, insects, plants, trees, wind blowing through the trees and the animal that evolved into Human Sapiens.

When we put toxic substances in our drinking water or in our breathing air, we are not just killing other species, we our killing ourselves. We are slowly making our lives on this planet unbearable and our Earthly home uninhabitable. We are rending the fabric of Nature.

To get beyond this requires us taking a step back in time to when we saw the world as a unity and lived in it fully along with all of the rest of Nature and the rest of life on this planet. We can spend time reading about indigenous people and oral cultures at a time when there was a common language across Nature where all of the different parts of Nature listened and interacted daily with each other.

We have fallen prey to the illusion that just because Western Man came later than indigenous peoples that he is smarter, knows more. We have fallen prey to the illusion that Human-kind knows more about survival than species that have been thriving on this planet for millions and millions of years. The new field of Biomimicry affords us the opportunity to learn from many of these success stories in Nature. However, this learning should not turn into yet one more example of us using Nature for our own selfish purposes. It should become an endeavor of respectful and caring listening.

It is time that we acknowledge that somewhere along the way, we have gotten off track. This is not to say that we have not learned from Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. It is to say that all along we should have been learning from and respecting other voices as well. Voices of other humans who have chosen a different path from Western Man and voices abundant in Nature. It may be the most momentous step in the cultural evolution of a large segment of Human-kind but somehow we must move beyond the dualities that have plagued us over time to a more encompassing view in which the human-animal again takes its place as a member and good citizen of life on Earth. If only, there were some species in Nature that could teach us how to do this.

 

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Toward A Story of Place

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Bioregionalism as a Story of Place

Bioregionalism is seen by a number of writers and practitioners in the field of sustainability as an important part of the solution to the current challenges facing our planet including Climate Change and injustice and inequity.

Bioregionalism is essentially a story of place - of how life anchored in a given place supports success, fulfillment and sustainability. It is the story of human beings living in harmony with the land and its various species.

A number of people such as the author Daniel Christian Wahl have offered definitions of bioregionalism which tend to revolve around the idea that a bioregion is a region defined by characteristics of the natural environment rather than by human-made divisions. These characteristics include: climate, soil, landforms, watershed, native plants and animals. They can include indigenous culture, local community knowledge, environmental history and geography. In a number of writings, Wahl provides these additional insights.

Bioregionalism is a comprehensive way of defining and understanding the place where we live with the aim to live in that place sustainably and respectfully - developing sustainable means to satisfy human needs - access to food water, energy, shelter, materials and education. It involves becoming fully alive in and with such a place.

Bioregionalism involves a sense of belonging to and having responsibility for a place - the region in which we live. It entails having an intimate knowledge of the natural cycles and ecological relationships that operate within it and a sensitivity to disturbances of the ecosystems in which we live. It constitutes a "terrain of consciousness" - about how to live in that place.

A sense of identity comes from our awareness of and knowledge of our immediate environment. This makes people assume responsibility for the place in which they live. This shared sense of belonging to a place strengthens and rebuilds communities. Human cultures develop in relation to the natural ecosystems in the site they inhabit.

The activities carried out in a bioregion are appropriate for maintaining the natural characteristics of the land. The region's economic activity and means of production are tailored to local materials and resources. Agriculture, manufacturing and construction industries need to be transformed to function within the limits of the carrying capacity of the bioregion.

A given bioregion can consist of many co-operating regional communities which are mutually dependent on each other for their existence. Though Bioregionalism acts locally, at the same time there is a connection to the planet by seeking to maintain an equitable, sustainable approach to the carrying capacity of the Earth's biosphere.

Epic Stories of Civilization

It has been said that the use of story is the main way that humans have made sense and communicated throughout their pre-literate and literate history. Many stories over history have been about place - about the communities, people, land and culture of place.

Among the most well-known stories in Western civilization are the Iliad and Odyssey - epic poems by Homer. It is now believed that these were originally recited by Homer in pre-literate times as oral stories (Eighth century, BCE) and then in a later period of history, they were written down.

In "The Formation of the Homeric Epics" by classics professor, Margalit Finkelberg, she discusses the unique role that these stories played in the creation of Greek civilization. She describes a period at the time of the fall of Mycenaean civilization when people were on the move throughout Asia Minor settling in what became the Greek city states. Though earlier epic poetry may have discussed the actual historical events causing the displacement of old populations and the aggregation of new populations, the Iliad and the Odyssey created a different explanatory story - a myth dealing with the ten year Trojan War and the siege of Troy.

In the Iliad, Greeks from many different places joined together in the common enterprise of the Trojan War to obtain the release of Helen, the wife of Menelaus, brother of Greek King Agamemnon held by the Trojans. Throughout the Odyssey, Greek hero Odysseus endeavors to return home from the Trojan War to his wife and son in Greece. These narrative epics gained privileged status in the hands of Homer and according to Professor Finkelberg in accord with the desires of the population to see themselves as one integrated society though initially made up of different languages, dialects and cultural histories.

According to Professor Finkelberg, "This resulted in the emergence of an image of the past shared by all the inhabitants of Iron Age Greece. Epic poetry became the main vehicle for spreading the new image all over the Greek world."

"In the hands of Homer, the story becomes about the establishment of usable ideological foundations for the present and the future. The Iliad and Odyssey provided Greek civilization with a new foundational myth that sustained its validity until the end of antiquity."

"The history of the Homeric poems is not just the history of a literary text but that of a literary text highly privileged in the civilization to which it belonged."

The Story of Earth

I have been wondering whether Earth has a story. Unlike the people in ancient Greece, we on this planet are not coming from many other places though certainly there are differences in language and culture among us. And, life on Earth is made up of many other species and other-than-human intelligences.

I wonder whether what we need at this point in our history on this planet is a story, an epic poem about life on this planet, just as each individual community or bioregion could have a story indigenous to that place.

What if we had a story that could help us to recognize our rich diversity among species along with a recognition of the commonality of life on this planet? A story that can move us to take greater responsibility for the welfare of each other within the human species and across species and within our planetary limits. A story that can motivate us to take action to respond to the Climate Crisis and the other challenges embodied in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. A story that can touch us on an individual level, in our communities, jobs, regions and as inhabitants on this planet.

The video at the end of this article may be the best we have as yet for an epic story of Earth.

Tell Your Story of the Land

Likely, few of us are epic poets though together we might be. However, we are all in a position to tell our story of the land and the communities who live on it. Each of us has our stories of living in place, in community, of hopefully beginning to live more sustainably.

Is there a bird near your house that you continuously notice? What color is it? What song does it sing? Does it have a mate, a nest, young ones chirping away? Are there cats in your neighborhood as in mine that have their daily habits? Do you interact with them, feed them? Do you concern yourself with their welfare?

Outside the town where I grew up in New Jersey, there were miles and miles of cornfields. I still remember the pleasant feeling of seeing them, of buying fresh corn from a farmer at a roadside stand.

I remember fondly the farmer's market in my town outside Boston and the joy of buying fresh vegetables and talking and eating ice cream with my neighbors. I recall the city sparrows who visited my back porch and listening to them chirp away in the early morning.

Where I now live in Haifa, Israel, when I get on a bus, I see secular Israelis in shorts, religious Jews in long black coats, Moslem women with headscarves and soldiers, school kids, elderly people. It is comforting to me to live in a city where all co-exist in our increasingly fragmented world.

So, tell your story. To your kids, parents, family members, friends, strangers. Ask them to tell theirs. Weave them together into your own little epic of life on the land, in community hopefully striving for some degree of harmony with all.

Video: An Epic Story of Earth.





Operationalizing a Bioregion

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How to "operationalize" a bioregional approach is an intriguing question to ask.

The response to this question starts from the premise that a bioregional approach is a framework - it is an orientation, a way of seeing things. In this regard, we can say that a bioregion aligns with the ecology of place. We can surmise that this is how Nature sees itself. This becomes the defining litmus test rather than saying that one is part of a city or a political region. It is not the politics that defines the existence of the region, but rather its own local ecology.

In taking this ecological perspective, we are asking the question what does it take for this bioregion to thrive as any ecosystem might thrive.

One "operational" step on this developmental pathway is to map the bioregion in which one exists. This will be in line with recognizing the multiple capitals of the bioregion and also to assess whether the bioregion being considered is congruent with any political, geographical jurisdictional lines which currently exist.

For the purposes of this, we can set out the multiple capitals with which the region is endowed:

  1. Financial capital
  2. Manufactured capital
  3. Human capital
  4. Social and relationship capital
  5. Intellectual capital
  6. Natural capital (renewable and non-renewable environmental resources)

Here we are asking the question: what are the different types of resources which endow the region. We are looking at the past, the present and the future potential.

Specifically, we can look at the plants indigenous to the region, the climate, the terrain of the land, the watershed, the animal life. We can look at the cycles of life that happen in this region: the length of seasons, the growth seasons of plants, the habits of animals (seasonal pollination activities of bees), the relationships among species, even the migratory habits of humans (is there a seasonal migrant work force). We are looking to have a deep ecological knowledge of the region.

We can look at the existence of renewable and non-renewable natural resources which includes minerals, rich soil, clean air and water.

We can look at the history of the people resident in the area. What traditions do they have, food they are noted for, well-known cultural attributes? Are they rich in historical skills, intellectual abilities, technical knowledge? The list can be a long one as each area of capital is explored and mapped. This is done on multiple scales: nano (individual), micro (enterprise), meso (portfolio) and macro (national) if applicable.

As part of this, we can ask questions about who are we as a community. What are our values, our vision for the future, our assets- both historical and current and our culture. Are we indigenous, homogeneous or diverse? Where are we on the path towards recognizing and articulating values and in developing a common culture?

Finally, one has to assess the carrying capacity of the bioregion from both a local and global perspective. (See: Kate Raworth, "Doughnut Economics") For example, what kinds of industry or agriculture will be within the carrying capacity of the region without having a negative impact on the surrounding elements of the environment? What will be the impact of activities within the region on the global carrying capacity? As part of this one must look at issues of equity within the bioregion and the impact in contributing to inequities on a global scale.

This type of mapping process helps to create attunement with the local ecology and also positions the residents of the bioregion to think about strategic actions that will enable the overall bioregion to thrive.