Sunday, November 30, 2008

Infiltration and Naturalization (Part 1)

In my post titled Putting Down Roots I suggested that in order for us to live sustainably on this planet we must learn anew how to inhabit our ecosystems, becoming full participants again.

But how is that to be done? I surely can't be suggesting we return to hunting and gathering and sleeping in little grass nests like the !Kung once did. We must go forward from where we are, but what exactly does the way forward look like?

I don't pretend to have the answers, but I'd like to share the train of thought I've been following recently. As I've pointed out before, I want to use my practice of voluntary simplicity as a tool for exploring the many issues we face. From the clarity I gain by living without unnecessary distractions, I hope to be able to see things in novel ways. I don't expect to find the right answers, necessarily, but I wish to escape from bland, homogenized groupthink. I want to entertain possibilities.

The one question I've been turning over in my head for awhile is--Just how exactly do we become naturalized to our place in the ecosystem? When we move and enter a new locale--a new country perhaps--how do we become truly naturalized citizens of that place? We don't simply take a multiple choice test and consider ourselves naturalized. There's far more to it than that, of course.

About a year ago I read Amy Chua's very thought-provoking book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. It was about the way in which global free markets have created elite minority groups, what she calls "market-dominant minorities"--those groups (usually outsiders) who come to control the bulk of a country's wealth and natural resources. The Chinese in the Philippines, the Jews of post-communist Russia, whites in Latin America--these are a few examples. Then, if universal suffrage is granted to the citizens of these places, more or less overnight, it creates a situation primed for violence and turmoil. The indigenous people of a country, who have been so poorly treated and who have seen their land around them abused and despoiled by the market-dominant minority, suddenly have power. Not only to elect their own, and thus peacefully oust the interlopers, but also to seize property and assets from those they've ousted. Often things have turned even more dangerous, escalating to violence and genocide.

This post isn't about free-markets and democracy, though--it's just that this book got me thinking about the way in which outsiders can really screw things up (all in the name of progress, of course). An outsider comes in and sees cheap labor, cheap resources, opportunities for exaggerated profits. For them, it's about money, success, business. Extracting and transacting. As a result, culture and environment are decimated, the people left impoverished.

I've decided that market-dominant minorities (and multinational corporations) are like invasive weed seeds. In a healthy ecosystem, plants and animals evolve together over thousands or millions of years. Over time they create defenses to protect themselves from each other. There are checks and balances established that create a healthy balance. But if a foreign weed is introduced into that ecosystem--a totally alien seed that the local flora and fauna have never encountered-- it can grow unchecked. There are no defenses present in the environment to stop it. It can take over, smothering out the native vegetation (as the russian olive tree does around here and the kudzu vine does so well in the southeastern US). Market-dominant minorities and global corporations behave similarly. They ride in with their wads of cash, and what human ecosystem has yet evolved a defense against that? Land can be grabbed with wads of cash, metals, ores, timber can be grabbed, whole industries can be grabbed.

On a smaller scale, when we as individuals move about on this planet we run the risk of acting like evil weed seeds in our new landing places. We arrive unnaturalized to the local conditions. This is a dangerous state to be in. We want to be secure in our new place, so we start doing things to stake our claim. We build a house maybe (is the design in alignment with the local environment, or is it more a reflection of the architecture in the place we left?), we attend town hall meetings, city council meetings (do we try to impose our ideas right away, try to outlaw certain "backward" practices we find here?), attend school board meetings, find a church. All of these are ways we're trying to fit in and become naturalized, yet if we don't take the time to acclimate and to really get a sense of the community and all of its intricacies, we run the risk of introducing damaging practices.

In my community there's been uproar over a new school superintendent who arrived from California with his own ideas of how things should be done. The entire community has been up in arms about his crackpot ideas, which probably worked beautifully for him in his old district. He didn't take the time to acclimate to his new locale and find effective solutions that the community could back.

In Denver recently the city chopped down a beloved willow tree without realizing the importance of it to generations of people in the community.

I've heard of monstrous subdivisions going in on formerly agricultural land and the newcomers trying to outlaw livestock from adjacent farms because they object to the smell.

I could create a list a mile long with other examples and I'm sure you could too, but my point is we must take the time to acclimate to our new surroundings before we act. We have a responsibility to become naturalized citizens of whatever place on earth we happen to inhabit. It takes time to become naturalized--it doesn't happen overnight--so we must be careful in the interim, while we still have weed seed potential, to act with great care in our new environment.

Look for future posts expanding on this topic.