Posts Tagged ‘ecology’


I think I’m dying. My heart is beating too fast, I’m too weak to get out of bed most days, and some days I don’t even have the energy to eat. It’s been like this for years. It’s been getting gradually worse.

I haven’t read a book, taken a walk, watched a movie, visited a friend, or done anything useful in months. I can’t focus, can’t even think most of the time.

I’m not the only one. Many of my friends are also ill. I see the sickness all around me. Every year there are less fish in the sea, less birds in the trees, less insects. The air smells more toxic, the industrial noise is getting louder. Every day, 200 species become extinct. Most rivers no longer support any life. Around half of all human deaths are caused by pollution. We’re all dying of the sickness.

My own illness can be attributed to heavy metal and chemical toxicity, from mining, vaccines, vehicle exhaust, and all the chemicals I’m exposed to every day, indoors and out. They’re in my food, in the air, in the water I drink. I can’t get away from them. There’s no safe place left to go. I can’t get any better while these are still being made, being used, being disposed of into my body.

It’s not just chemicals, but electromagnetic fields, from powerlines, phones, wifi and cell phone towers. The food of industrial agriculture, grown in soils depleted of nutrients and becoming ever more poisoned, is all I can get. It barely provides me with the nutrients I need to survive, let alone recover. Let food be thy medicine, but when the food itself spreads the sickness, there’s not much hope for anyone.

When the soil life dies, the entire landscape becomes sick. The trees can’t provide for their inhabitants. They can’t hold the community of life together. The intricate food web, the web of relationships that holds us all, collapses.

Will I recover? With the constant assault of chemicals, electromagnetic fields, and noise, it seems unlikely. Will the living world recover, or will it die along with me, unable to withstand the violent industries that extract the lifeblood of rivers, forests, fish and earth, to convert them into a quick profit?

Western medicine can’t help me. All it can offer is more chemicals, more poisons. And new technology can’t help the land, the water, the soil. It only worsens the sickness.

If I am to heal, the living world must first be healed. The water, the food, the air and the land need to recover from the sickness, as they are the only medicine that can bring me back to health.

The machines need to be stopped. The mining, ploughing, fishing, felling, and manufacturing machines. The advertising, brainwashing and surveillance machines. The coal, oil, gas, nuclear and solar-powered machines. They are all spreading the sickness. It’s a cultural sickness, as well as a physical one. Our culture is so sick that it barely acknowledges the living world, and has us believe that images, ideas, identities and abstractions are all we need. It all needs to stop. The culture needs to recover, to repair.

I need your help. I can’t do this myself. I’m close to death. To those who are not yet sick, those who have the strength to stand with the living, and stop the sickness: I need you now. Not just for me, but for everyone. For those close to extinction, those who still have some chance of recovery. We all need you.

Today is the last day on Earth for many species of plants and animals. Every day, the sickness consumes a few more of us. If I didn’t have friends and family looking after me, I wouldn’t be alive today. When the whole community becomes sick, there is no-one left to take care. This is how extinction happens.

It doesn’t have to happen. It can be stopped. Some people, mostly those in the worst affected areas, are taking on the sickness, fighting because they know their lives depend on it. They see the root cause of the affliction, not just the symptoms. They are taking down oil rigs, derailing coal trains, and sabotaging pipelines and mining equipment. They’re blockading ports, forests, mine sites and power stations, and doing everything they can to stop the sickness spreading further. They are few, and they get little thanks. They need all the help they can get. With a collective effort, the sickness can be eradicated, and we can all recover our health.

Letter to Resurgence/Ecologist

I wrote this letter to the editor of Resurgence/Ecologist magazine.  It wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t get published, since it picks holes in the editor’s arguments.

isimg_276I agree with Satish Kumar (in the editorial for the Jan/Feb issue) that caring for our environment is a moral imperative.  However, there are many flaws in the arguments that follow.

He claims that “Our task now is to show that ecology and economy are not in contradiction to each other.”  The industrial economy is powered by the extraction, destruction and consumption of the natural world.  It is fundamentally opposed to ecology.  The economy treats the planet as a resource to be used, which will soon end with the destruction of every living thing.

He then states “environment and employment can – and do – complement each other.”  Yet there is no form of employment that benefits the environment.  There is no money to be made in protecting and regenerating the land.  The majority of those working in the environmental field are employed by those who profit from destroying it, so are – despite their best intentions – merely placing a “green” façade over the harm being caused.

He claims we can harvest our energy from the sun, wind and rain, which is true if we harvest this energy directly, but if we place solar panels, wind turbines or dams in the way, we are responsible for the mining, pollution, waste and demise of living rivers that these technologies cause.  This will never be sustainable.  And anything that can’t be sustained will surely come to a halt.

Kumar claims that “the western world is not in an economic crisis. The banks have vast reserves of finance.”  However, in 2011, the Bank of England told the chief executives of Britain’s largest banks that there was a serious chance that the whole financial system would collapse before Christmas.

“The land is still producing food” is next, while farmland becomes desert, honeybees are on the verge of extinction, aquifers are collapsing, soil is eroded and depleted, urban sprawl takes over the land, and corporations and machinery control the entire global food system, which could collapse at any moment.  The UN predicts a global famine this year.

And then “We have been endangering the lives of millions of creatures”.  Every day, 200 species become extinct.  80 per cent of the world’s rivers no longer support life.  98 per cent of old growth forests have been destroyed.  This is not endangering lives, it is ecocide.

If the industrial economy is allowed to continue, there is likely to be no life on the planet 40 years from now.  No animals, no plants, no microbes.

Now is not a time for denial, or hope.  It is a time for action.  If we do not act now to stop the whole industrial system in its tracks, there will be no environment left to care for.

And, to echo Kumar’s closing words, it is as simple as that.

Link to the editorial,   The Great Challenge.

The End of Life on Earth

For two hundred unique forms of living beings, today is the last day of life on earth.

Extinct.  Forever.  And so it has been, two hundred species, every day, for as long as I have lived, and so it will continue to be for as long as I live.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, they saw flocks of passenger pigeons fly overhead, so large that the sky would darken for hours, even days, on end.  There were estimated to be five billion birds.  The last passenger pigeon died in 1900.

Living beings are connected and interdependent in ways that we may never understand.  Flocks of passenger pigeons dropped manure on the forest floor in layers of several inches thick below their roosts.  The extinction of these birds would have led to a decline in the health of the forest, making trees and other species more susceptible to pests and diseases, and no doubt causing the extinction of many other species – plants, animals, insects, birds and microbes.

In North America today, it is rare to see or hear a bird.  The forests are eerily silent.  Occasionally I hear the tapping of a woodpecker, or see a turkey buzzard circling high above.  I suspect it won’t be more than a couple of years before these, too, are gone.

There are now very few salmon in the streams, hardly any frogs, and the bee population is declining rapidly.  No bees means no berries, no berries means no bears, and the whole ecosystem collapses, as all the strands in the web of life that hold it together fall away.

Humans are part of this web too, although many of them refuse to believe it.  They think of themselves as better than the animals, independent of everything that goes on around them.  Many consider the loss of their life support system as a good thing.  They see other living things as competitors, and value their destructive economy as more important than the foundation of earth and life that it is built on.  They cannot see that the growth of their economy and population is only possible by destroying and consuming its own foundations, which will inevitably lead to a sudden collapse.

Humans are only slowly beginning to discover their own vulnerability, and becoming aware of their place in the web.  The approaching extinction of the honeybee brings their attention to a strand of the web that they can comprehend.  Honeybees are necessary for the pollination of almost all human food.  No bees, no pollination.  No pollination, no food plants.  No food, no humans.  The enormous and rapidly growing population may hide the fact, but humans are now an endangered species.

There is no way to bring back the millions of species that we have lost, but by becoming aware of our connections in the interdependencies, we may be able to prevent further breakages of the web, and life may continue for a little while longer.  It seems unlikely though, given the current belief systems of most humans.  It’s probably already too late.  The last day of life on earth for humans may come sooner than we think.

Moving beyond sustainability – living within ecosystems

Sustainability as it is commonly understood is based on flawed assumptions.  It assumes that by making small changes in our lifestyles, we can continue to live as we have always done.

Do we even want to continue to live in a way that makes us stressed, ill, and isolated?

It’s a façade, an illusion, out to convince us that if it looks good on the outside, we don’t need to think about what’s underneath.

It assumes that technology will solve all our problems, although the problems are in their underlying nature cultural, psychological, and ecological, not technological.

Sustainability advocates tell us we need to change our behaviour.  If we can only reduce and minimise our actions enough, we can continue consuming and wasting, but in a reduced and minimised way.

Consuming the earth’s resources and creating waste and pollution can never be truly sustainable, no matter how much we reduce and minimise these activities.

The current sustainability paradigm makes us feel guilty about our activities that have a negative impact, so sells us products and services with the label “sustainable” attached, to allay our guilt.  Now that we have these sustainable products, we can continue consuming, and feel good about it.  Now we can say that we have achieved sustainability.  Mission accomplished.

Sustainability concepts create a belief that there is scarcity, that we need to be frugal, to deprive ourselves for the greater good.  Actions taken with this motivation have little if any effect.  Is that one minute less in the shower really going to help anyone?  These attempts at frugality often lead to anxiety, disillusionment, and strained relationships.

Installing a solar panel, buying new lightbulbs, energy-efficient appliances and compostable cutlery might make you feel good, but when you think about the resources that went into making, transporting and selling these things, you start to see that they are the opposite of sustainable.  Consider a solar panel:  it contains metals extracted from an energy intensive mine, on land which has been taken by force from the original inhabitants, assembled by underpaid labour, transported across the world, and sold for high profit by a corporation.  Do you really support these activities in the name of sustainability?  The amount of energy that goes in to making the panels is barely less than the amount that they produce in their short lifetime.  And what are you doing with this energy?  Running refrigerators, televisions and plenty more unnecessary and resource-intensive appliances.  But hey, they’re energy-efficient, so they’ve got to be good, right?

This belief about sustainability reinforces the dominant paradigm of consumerism.  It encourages us to buy more, waste more.  It is nothing more than a marketing tool to sell us more crap.  The beneficiaries of this scam are the corporations, not the environment.  Environmentalists have bought in to the scam, free labour to promote their products.

None of the technologies or behaviour changes that we use in the pursuit of sustainability can ever achieve this goal, as they exist within the belief that economic growth is the only way forward, and growth can continue indefinitely if we make ourselves believe that it is sustainable.

And even if it was possible, do we really want to make it sustainable to live in a world where inequality, obesity, isolation, bureaucracy, wage slavery, debt and oppression are the norm?

Convincing the masses that growth can be sustainable, if only we make a few small changes, allows the system to continue to oppress and destroy, because we feel comfortable and trust what they say.

Current technological and policy approaches require that things continue on the way they always have, that the global economy grows, the electricity grid stays connected, oil keeps being pumped, water supplies from massive infrastructure remains available.  These services can’t exist without massive input of resources. Without these unsustainable foundations, all the solar panels, water-saving devices, carbon taxes, and other products and policies, are completely useless.

Everything we do is assigned a footprint, and if we’re told that if we just make our footprint small enough, we will be sustainable.  We’re instructed to reduce and minimise ourselves down to nothing, act like we don’t exist.  Shrink ourselves down so much that nothing we do has any impact on anything around us.

So what’s the alternative?  Do exactly the opposite.  Change our assumptions and our worldview completely.  Instead of aiming for minimum impact, aspire to maximise the impact of everything you do.  Rather than reducing the amount we consume and waste, let’s maximise our potential, and expand the possibilities of what we can create. Stop consuming altogether.  Instead of basing our actions on the assumption that everything we do has a negative impact, and aiming to reduce these actions, we can eliminate these activities entirely, and replace them with positive actions.


The only way to effectively address the issue of humanity’s continued existence is to identify ourselves as living within nature, not separate to it.  If we view our earth as nothing but natural resources to be exploited, we will never sustain ourselves.  To instead change this view to becoming part of the ecological communities on the land where we live, and nurture and enhance these ecosystems, is the only possible way forward.  Meeting the needs of humans, and those of other beings, can be a symbiosis rather than a conflict.  We need to learn from the world around us, and place our lives in the patterns and cycles of nature.

We can regenerate, rather than destroy, the ecosystems and natural processes that make it possible for humans to exist.

Instead of small, ineffective technological responses to isolated problems, we need an integrated understanding of our place in nature, to see the issues we face in context of the culture that has created them.

We need to stop being motivated by the rarely-defined entity we call “the environment” which seems to be something that exists far away from where we live, in the oceans and rainforests, that we don’t engage with and doesn’t provide anything for us.  Start being motivated to create for ourselves everything that we need to sustain ourselves.  We need to feel a deep connection with the land that is our home, and dedicate ourselves to making it as healthy and robust as possible, for our own sake.  We must conserve and enhance the webs of life that are immediately around us, within our homes and bodies, and the land that provides our food, fuel and shelter.  Only by meeting all our needs in our immediate vicinity, while regenerating the land, can we anticipate human existence surviving and sustaining itself more than a few generations.

We need to dispose of the work ethic, which tells us we need to be busy for the sake of it, and replace it with an ethic of caring for nature and people.  We need to replace our busy-work with time spent observing, thinking and designing ways for nature to do the work for us.

What does this way of life look like?  We can learn a lot from the world’s indigenous peoples, and base our vision on traditional worldviews.

In a truly sustainable human settlement, everyone is attuned to cycles of nature, because we know that our lives depend on it.  We know our water catchments, our food sources, the seasons, plants and animals, and we can forecast the weather.  We identify ourselves as part of an ecological community.

Water is taken only from the catchment where we live, and returned to the earth.  Water doesn’t need to be piped in from far away, and disposed of via sewers and stormwater drains.  There is enough water falling on our settled areas to sustain our homes, food gardens and ecosystems.

Learning happens by observing nature and culture, and practicing skills and crafts.  There are no experts or authorities on learning.

Everything is shared with neighbours, as there is nothing to be gained by having more than anyone else.  Value is given to relationships, not possessions and money.

Nothing is waste. Everything is useful and part of the cycles of nature.

Connections between everything in the ecosystem are recognised and nurtured, and used to design our own connections within the system.

Everyone takes responsibility for providing for the community and regenerating the land, and everyone has a niche where they can express their creativity and passion, and use their skills.  We do not hand over this responsibility to governments, or expect that someone else will do it for us.

Food grows not in intensively managed gardens, but forests modelled on native ecosystems.  After the initial designing and planting of the food forest, there is very little human work required to grow food, as the forest is largely self-perpetuating.

Building materials are sourced from the house site and nearby, and buildings are designed to integrate into the land that they have been built from.  Designs are inspired by the architecture of plants, and the structures built by animals, villagers and nomads.

Humans are embedded in nature, so everything that humans do is a process of nature, not imposed on it.

Local cultures evolve around the landscapes and natural processes of the region.

Seasons and natural cycles are celebrated.

Technologies adapt according to locally available materials, to meet specific needs.

Communities are organised in many different ways, and structures evolve.  There is no one best way to organise ourselves that will work for everyone.

We don’t need to discard what western civilization has created.  It’s all useful, and can be adapted and re-made into items that are valuable in ecosystem-based communities.  The technologies, knowledge and cultural practices that have developed in the industrial era are an abundant resource, to be valued and used wisely.

To make a truly sustainable life possible, we need to have a vision of what the transformed world will look like, and work towards turning it into reality.  This will be a gradual process, and the vision will change as we learn more.  Without a vision to move towards, we will continue to perpetuate the illusion that our small acts are all that’s possible, which only hastens us toward extinction.

What can we do?  Join the transition movement.  Learn permaculture design.  Stop shopping.  Live local.





Living within ecosystems

Minimise negative impact Maximise positive impact
Imposing from above Creating from within
Isolated, disconnected strategies Connected, integrated solutions
Linear Cyclical, closed loop
Motivated by fear and guilt Motivated by love and hope
Focussed on problems Focussed on opportunities
Technological innovations Cultural adaptations
Individual behaviour change, within existing systems that don’t support the change Create new systems and structures
Complexities are simplified, not explained or understood Complexities explained as patterns, can be easily understood
Concepts not easily understood Concepts make natural sense
Act without thinking, place faith in the system and experts Thoughtful, place faith in ourselves and nature
Benefits the current system Benefits people, nature and culture
Degenerative, wasteful Regenerative
Limiting Expansive, creative
Visioning a future the same as it is now Visioning a transformed world
Small ineffective changes Total transformation
Large, industrial-scale Small, human-scale
Scarcity Abundance
Deprivation, frugality Infinite natural wealth
Reinforces existing power structures Disregards or dismantles existing power structures
Boring Exciting, engaging
Reductionist Holistic
Homogenised Diverse
Static Dynamic, evolving
Reactive Proactive
Common response is apathy Common response is action
Illusory Real
Limited possibilities Infinite possibilities
Colonial Vernacular
Rigid Flexible, adaptive
Impossible Inevitable
Civilized Primitive
Forecasting Backcasting
No feedback mechanisms Constant immediate feedback
Humans exist outside of nature Humans embedded in nature
feelings of anxiety, depression and apathy Convivial, joyous and painful
Competitive Co-operative and collaborative
Delivered Interactive
Requires print-literacy Requires eco-literacy
Knowledge held by power structures and experts Knowledge held by human and ecological communities
Demands compliance Invites participation
Requires a large investment of energy for a small result Requires low or no energy investment, for a maximal result
Artificial Biological and ecological
Vulnerable Resilient


Weeds, ecology and health

This article was published in Chain Reaction #109 (The National Magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia)  July 2010.

What is a weed?  The generally accepted definition is that it is a plant out of place, but who dictates the right place for a plant to be?  The very idea of a weed is a cultural construction.  Nature knows no weeds.  The American poet Emerson wrote “a weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

What is seen as a weed depends on the context – the location and the values of the person making the judgement – so that a plant that is considered to be out of place is different in a garden, an agricultural setting or a native forest.

The concept of weeds comes from the culture of domination of nature.  We feel the need to control our surroundings, and can’t stand for plants that can look after themselves, exhibitions of nature asserting itself in our man-made environments.

These plants can be useful to us in many ways, as food and medicine, and they have an essential role in repairing damaged landscapes and creating healthy ecosystems.  The fact that they grow freely, without any work being done by us, means that they cannot be exploited.  For this reason weeds are not valued, and even considered an enemy, in western cultures.

By getting to know our local wild plants and making use of them we can move away from the paradigm of subjugating nature for the purposes of economic growth, and towards a more harmonious and integrated relationship with our world.

a patch of tasty wild food in a supermarket carpark: includes purslane, amaranth, mallow and others

In times of scarcity, a knowledge of local weeds becomes essential to survival.  During the world wars, many people around the world became dependent on weeds for food and medicine.  When the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, the government distributed pamphlets with information about edible weeds.

As we become familiar with the weeds growing in our neighbourhood and use them in our daily lives, we develop a closer relationship with nature.  We find ourselves becoming a part of the environment we live in, rather than imposing ourselves on top of it.  Value can be discovered in neglected landscapes, by exploring these spaces that are considered wastelands and recognising them as diverse ecosystems that are a source of abundance.  A wild food hunt is an adventure, which can be so much more fun than shopping.  By taking notice of what is happening around us, the changing seasons, and the patterns and cycles of nature, we can learn about the natural world through direct experience, using all our senses.  We come to understand that it is the land, not the supermarket, that feeds us.  By eating wild plants and animals we significantly reduce our ecological footprint – the amount of land that is cleared and farmed to provide for our needs.

Leafy greens contain almost all of the vitamins and minerals we need.  By eating foods that are more nutrient-dense, we reduce the overall quantity of food we need to eat, which means less effort for our body to assimilate, and less effort and cost involved in shopping, transporting and preparing our food.  In green vegetables, 90 per cent of vitamins are lost within hours of picking, so by eating directly from the living plant we can optimise our intake of nutrients.  All wild plants contain more nutrients than cultivated plants, as they have to spread their roots further to obtain water and reach fertile soil.

Obesity is caused by the body craving nutrients and feeling a need to eat more.  It is a symptom of malnutrition, rather than a lack of self-control.  Many people in western countries don’t have access to sufficient nutrients and suffer a range of health problems as a result.  Adding a few weeds to our diet could be enormously beneficial to our health.

Most weeds and leafy greens have some medicinal value.  The effects they are credited with vary between cultures and sources, and each individual experiences these effects differently.  Animals instinctively know which plants to eat when ill.  By getting to know the plants in our local area and tuning in to the way they affect our bodies, we may be able to regain these lost instincts and take responsibility for our own health.

Most leafy greens contain alkaloids – poisons that accumulate in the liver if eaten too often.  Different plants contain different alkaloids, so eating a variety provides a range of nutrients and prevents liver damage.  This same principle of varied eating, and everything in moderation, applies to all foods.

In the garden weeds have many benefits.  The weeds that grow in a particular place indicate the soil condition.  For example dock and sorrel can be found in poorly drained and acidic soils, salvation jane and horehound indicate overgrazed and compacted soil, caltrop and wireweed show that the soil is infertile and dry, and nettle, sow thistle and chickweed grow in rich, fertile loam.

As weeds are often deep-rooted, they bring nutrients to the surface that are not otherwise accessible to more shallow-rooted garden plants.  By cutting these deep-rooted plants and leaving them on the surface as mulch, the nutrients then feed surrounding plants.  The deep roots also aerate and add organic matter to compacted or poor soils, improving conditions for other plants.  Making compost or liquid fertiliser from weeds is another way to return these nutrients to the soil.

Weeds can form a living mulch, protecting the soil from the drying effects of sun and wind, and prevent leaching of soil nutrients.  Weeds can also contribute to pest management by providing an alternative target for pest species, and the flowers can attract predators that control pest insects.

Working with nature in the garden by observing and learning from wild plants, insects and animals that exist there can be enlightening, liberating and make gardening much more fun.

In degraded landscapes, weeds are essential in repairing the soil to create an environment where other plants can grow.  Weeds are a pioneer species, the first stage in the succession towards the healthy diverse ecosystem of a mature forest.  By colonising damaged land, weeds halt erosion, reduce salinity and add organic matter to the soil.  They protect other plants from sun, wind and predators.  As the plants that form the next stage in the succession grow, weeds are shaded out and the soil conditions become unsuitable, causing the weeds to die of their own accord.  Weeds such as blackberry, lantana, gorse and thistles are seen as an environmental problem but are actually nature’s way of redressing an imbalance.  They are part of the solution to underlying environmental damage.

Ecosystems change and evolve over time, as a result of changing climate, species migration and human impact.  Attempting to recreate the environments of 200 years ago is not necessarily a good thing, considering that humans have been altering the Australian environment for 40,000 years already.  Ecosystems of 200 years ago are no longer suitable to the conditions, and many introduced plants can be beneficial to our landscapes.

Some common edible weeds in southern Australia are dandelion, purslane, stinging nettle, fat hen, wild lettuce, mallow, chickweed and prickly pear.  When foraging for wild plants, there are a few points to consider.  Be sure to identify plants correctly, as similar looking plants may be poisonous.  Also be mindful of potential chemical contamination: railway corridors are often sprayed with herbicides, and runoff from busy highways may contain a range of contaminants.  Compared to the amount of chemicals applied to commercially grown fruit and vegetables, most weeds growing in urban and rural areas are unlikely to present a risk.  Be conscious of the amount you harvest in any location.  Leave enough behind for others to use, both human and non-human, and for the plants to grow and reproduce.

A plant will taste different depending on the conditions in which it grows.  The soil type, climate, season and plant genetics can affect taste and nutrient value.  Young leaves are much more palatable than older leaves, which become coarse and bitter.

Weeds can be added to salads, with the more bitter tasting leaves used only in small amounts so as not to be overpowering.  Weeds can also be cooked in the same way as any other leafy greens, in soups, omelettes or stir-fry dishes.  Green smoothies are an easy way to eat more leafy greens, by blending raw leaves with some fruit, for a tasty and nutritious breakfast.

References and resources

Australian Weeds – Gai Stern

How can I use herbs in my daily life? – Isabel Shippard

Growing Community: Starting and Nurturing Community Gardens – claire nettle

Beyond the Brink – Peter Andrews

Green for Life – Victoria Boutenko

Plants for a Future –

Article in The Age about edible weeds –

Radio interview with David Holmgren – A Permaculture Approach to Weeds