Script from Brien’s presentation, “Subsistoration and the Sanctity of Life” at the Soil Not Oil International Conference, Richmond, CA August 5, 2016
Thank you all for being here. First I want to acknowledge that this building and this city are built on land stolen from the Chochenyo, a human culture that lived here for thousands of years. I’m profoundly grateful to indigenous Californians for the way they lived with, and maintained, the land. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I suspect most of these cultures held views about land similar to mine, which is that I see land and life as practically interchangeable words.
I will give some background information to support the premises from which I view and experience the world. At the end, I’ll talk about what I’ve chosen to do with this perspective.
Snowpack in the Sierras set record lows in 2015. And this last wet season was an El Nino winter with close-to average precipitation in the north state. Snowpack is usually above average in El Nino years and we were at 23% as of June 1 and 6% as of June 15. We’ve been at 0% since July 1st. Early climate models predicted that the snowpack in CA would be 90% less than that of the recorded norm before the century ends, but we’ve exceeded this much of the last two years. Whether the new norm is already here is in question, but the reality is there will be a lot less snow melt than we’ve ever known. Politicians want to build more reservoirs and raise dam heights, completely ignoring the real world history of similar lands across the globe who’ve become deserts thanks to water extraction infrastructure primarily for agricultural exports, as so well documented by David Montgomery in his book Dirt, who we were fortunate to have had speak here this morning.
So in preparing for this talk I became compelled to be up to date with the latest science on climate change. James Hansen has explained that when the East and West Antarctic ice sheets and Greenland reach a point of regularly losing more ice each summer than they gain each winter, disintegration is underway, and indicators are it is, in Hansen’s words, “practically irreversible.” Even if humans disappeared from the planet tomorrow, the world will continue to warm at least 1.5*C over the next few decades. Whether we’ve passed the tipping point for no reversal of ice sheet disintegration is debated, but it is highly likely we will pass that point if business as usual continues for even a few more years. Realistically, this means the Earth will have a sea level rise of at least 2-3 meters this century and probably reach 80 meters within several hundred to a couple thousand years. These time estimates are imprecise partly because they are based on sensitivities that are not fully understood, and we also don’t know how humanity will respond in the future, when societal collapse will happen, etc. But what we do know is that the last time Earth experienced rapid climate change 55 million years ago, it occurred after a million years of serious volcanic activity during which the rate of CO2 being added to the atmosphere was 30x slower than what we humans are doing today. Ultimately, climate scientists can’t name specific timeframes because there has never been a precedent like this in Earth’s history.
So two meters of sea rise is very likely in the next 80 years. And it may happen sooner. Two meters looks like this. Slide – whole Delta area. Slide – Richmond/Berkeley area. You may be able to hear waves from this building. Oakland Airport is in serious trouble.
The natural state for Earth at CO2 levels of those today is a sea level that is at least 20m (~70’) higher, so it seems highly likely that we are already locked into some–if not all–of that. By when, and how much, we don’t know.
20 meters looks like this. Slide The inland sea will return to the great valley. Sacramento is underwater and San Jose is on the edge.
Farther into the future, assuming James Hansen is right and ice sheet disintegration is irreversible, this is what 60 meters looks like. Slide Chico is partially underwater. I couldn’t find an image for 80 meters for CA, but that would result in seaside property near Corning on the north end and Wasco on the south.
And on top of the sea level rise, there will be more severe storms, longer dry periods, more fires and a lot more heat, about 5*C by 2100 in the business as usual model by IPCC. This would be an unprecedented rate of global warming in Earth’s history. There is a chance that much–maybe most–of the life we know won’t make it through this bottleneck that Homo sapiens has caused. Under the business as usual scenario, California plant diversity would decrease everywhere by as much as 25%, and 66% of all species unique to California would suffer more than an 80% decrease in range. (http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/25/local/me-species25/2)
This is really hard news to face. Believe me, I’ve hoped the last few years that we might get lucky and only see a 2*C rise, but I couldn’t stay in denial any longer. I wanted to understand the reality of our situation. And it is really overwhelming when you factor in that the dominant culture’s response to this crisis is to set inappropriate CO2 goals with no legitimate plan to get there, while continuing to mine tar sands, frack shale gas, build more coal-fired power plants, increase state repressive powers and generally care a lot more about the economy than the state of life on Earth.
Part of this talk is going to be about what sustainable human cultures in California could look like, but such a discussion is irrelevant if we don’t prepare for sea level rise and a much warmer Earth, so that is why I started with climate change. I’ll return to it near the end of this talk.
Obviously, culture is critical to any discussion of a way forward from the mess we are in. There are plenty of books that thoroughly analyze the dominant culture, so in a talk this short, I will just state the underlying premises from which I speak, then give a little supporting evidence of my own.
- The dominant belief system of modern humans has been human-centered for at least 10,000 years.
- Unlike other animals, our ability to cooperate in very large numbers towards ends that undermine ecological integrity gives us vast powers that operate at timescales outside the norm of many natural evolutionary processes.
- These powers have further fortified our anthropocentrism and lead to a vast and unsustainable human population to the severe detriment and depopulation of most other species on the planet, while structurally requiring a life of poverty and/or misery for many of our own species.
- This culture will not voluntarily transform into a sustainable one due to the inertia of cultural norms and beliefs.
- This culture is unstoppable by the few humans who understand and desire for it to be stopped.
- It will only come to an end with global ecological collapse, which will happen due to biological impoverishment and/or global warming, as we are seeing unfold at an ever-increasing rate.
- Assuming there are human survivors, they will have to figure out how to live in a very depleted world.
- If there are pockets of moderately intact biotic communities that survive the ecological collapse, this will perhaps save humans and jump-start the rebirth of life on Earth.
- If some of the human survivors are biocentric, they may have more sway on the other humans in the new, forced-subsistence state of existence than do those of us today advocating for austerity.
Therefore, I believe we should all be supporting work to 1) defend, preserve and expand self-willed lands, particularly focusing on connectivity for climate migration and on promising locations for climate refugia, and 2) advocating for place-based, subsistence human cultures dependent on climatically appropriate plants.
So that is why I’m here today. And since my premises may not sit well with some of you, I will weave into this talk some evidence for why I’ve come to these conclusions.
Subsistoration is the term my wife and I give to the belief system, the way of life, that we know the world needs but also know will never happen in our lifetime, if at all. As the slide shows, it means subsistence + restoration.
So why subsistence? Because there never has been a sustainable human culture that lived beyond a subsistence level. Subsistence doesn’t mean hard or uncomfortable, it is simply the epitome of the re-localize movement. It can actually mean a lot more free time than most of us have, and it can be much richer than the norm of modern life.
And there really is no other sustainable option if you define sustainable as I do. But it turns out there are lots of opinions about what sustainable means, and if you dig into it, you see that one’s world view–or you could say–religion determines how you define sustainability. Now, a religion is a set of human norms and values which are based on a belief in a super-human order.
Those powers I just mentioned that we have due to our ability to cooperate in large numbers are super-human, so believing in the systems that give us these powers is believing in a super-human order.
I’m a big fan of actions speaking louder than words, so this quote from indigenous writer Jack Forbes is my favorite definition of religion.
“Our true religion is what we do, what we think, what we say, what we dream of, what we strive for, what we are, every single moment of every day.” So your religion is basically how you live your life.
In my view, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, humanism–are religions, as so well explained by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, and they determine how you view the world and how you define such important concepts as sustainability. And isn’t sustainability why we are here today? Isn’t the goal of conferences like this to help transform this culture into a sustainable one, or maybe to dismantle this one and replace it with a sustainable one? Or maybe with a million sustainable cultures?
Sustainable is a word that seems misused almost as often as it is used. And differing ideologies are why the definition for such a straightforward-seeming word is put up for debate. I mean, isn’t it like being pregnant, there is no such thing as “sort of?” Likewise, the phrase “more sustainable” is redundant. Something is sustainable or it isn’t, right?
At its most basic, sustainable simply means capable of being sustained indefinitely. And a quick test for sustainability goes like this: If inputs are required and they come from somewhere else (outside the system), it isn’t sustainable. The loop is not closed. That’s nice and simple, but where the boundary of any given “system” is located depends on, once again, your belief system.
Now, when I researched and wrote up our Elder Creek Preserve website, I amended a commonly used biological sciences definition to read as follows:
For an activity to be sustainable, preservation of local and global biological integrity is essential. Biological integrity is the ability of a local web of life to support and maintain a balanced, integrated, adaptive community of organisms having a species composition, diversity, and functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat of the region.
Sounds great, right? But who determines what balanced means? And we depend on science to tell us whether the organisms have a functional organization comparable to that of natural habitat of the region, but are we saying science has ALL the answers? That it knows all the intricate workings of the billions or trillions of relationships at play in any biotic community? I have to say I’m no longer comfortable with this definition or even with the simple definition because the simple one includes the word indefinitely, which means forever, and nothing about, or on, Earth lasts forever except perhaps the energy held in the atoms of all its physical matter.
So I’ve come up with a new definition for sustainable:
Living in a manner that does not disrupt the trend of natural evolutionary processes toward increasing biodiversity, soil building, and reproductive capacity for nearly all members of the existing local biotic communities and all the neighboring ones.
Well, it probably doesn’t to people who have a core belief that the supreme good is the good of humanity. Since they usually take capitalism as a given, sustainable is often framed from the perspective of development. Here’s one prevalent view: The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.
Proponents of this view are fans of ecosystem services thinking, which allows them to quantify the living world as if it were an economic entity. Would science have created this way of looking at the world if it weren’t driven by “the market”? While their triple bottom line sounds great in theory, it is always a human decision, and since nearly all humans at this point are in an economic trap, in reality economics always trumps biotic integrity. This mindset sees technology as a fix for most of our ills, but using any unsustainable technology to maintain living in excess when you know there is a mass extinction and global warming, both caused by your species, embodies–usually unconsciously–the ethics of a sociopath, which I will define in a minute.
In physical world reality, not in the real belief systems of humans, there is no excess in nature. All beings, except modern humans, live within their means and are co-creators in an extremely complex set of relationships wherein nothing is wasted and everything is needed by someone–if not by many many someones.
Most human activities since we started living more by our belief systems than by our physical needs are incompatible with the life-expanding processes of evolution. Industrialization, in particular, has been a nightmare for life on Earth. To imagine such a way of living, and then to make it real, requires a worldview, a religion if you will, that embodies a tremendous amount of indifference to life.
Sociopathy is being indifferent to the suffering of others. Industrialization requires a sociopathic society. And it requires sacrifice zones. I’ve met very few people who would gladly live next to a mine, fracking well, tailing pond, coal fired power plant, refinery or plastics manufacturing plant to name just a few. So, even if you only look through the lens of human justice, there is no justice in industrialization.
I want to give you an example that seems to be ignored or simply off the radar of most folks who don’t have to live 24/7 with the effects of manufacturing. I’m guessing everyone here knows what embodied energy is, but in case you don’t, it is the sum of all the energy required to produce any goods or services, considered as if that energy was incorporated or ’embodied’ in the product itself.
A handful of microchips can have as much embodied energy as a car.
The ratio of fossil fuels used in creating a product to its weight is 2 to 1 for most manufactured products. But the ratio is 12 to 1 for a computer or cell phone. And for a 32 MB RAM chip the ratio is 800 to 1. The smaller processors get, the more difficult and consuming it is to manufacture them. Recycling is usually not a long-term solution, and this is especially true if nearly all energy use is concentrated in the manufacturing process itself.
So since the anticipated electricity consumption of computers, cell phones, flat screen TV’s, iPods and other gadgets is a doubling by 2022 and tripling by 2030, think about how much fuel will be needed to make all these devices.
Does knowing this make us stop using electronic gadgetry? If we did, we’d lose a lot of our already minimal ability to defend the living world. So in essence, to fight for life, we have to partake in the undermining of life. It really is a horrible trap. If I suddenly started living fully in accordance with my values, I’d not only lose touch with most every human I know. I’d affect no one. We are all in the same sinking boat.
So, to wrap up this section on why subsistence? I want to conclude by saying that of course it is not socially or politically possible to start a subsistence movement. I’m not here to try to do that, but I do believe that all of us working or advocating for cultural change will do the living world (and ourselves of course) a huge favor by embedding into that work the perspective that we don’t have any other sustainable option. Using the word sustainable without the context of a subsistence level of living is sliding into the realm of wishful thinking and/or a belief system based on human supremacy and sacrifice zones. Aiming for more than subsistence puts the desires of humans above the needs of most, if not all, other lifeforms and leads to the same endpoint: global warming and mass extinction, thus undermining our own existence.
So, Why Restoration?
Fortunately in this crowd, I don’t need to explain the WHY part at all, but I do want to say that full restoration is impossible and to believe we humans are capable of stewarding the Earth to the kind of fecund biodiversity that Earth created without us is either sheer arrogance or ignorance. Why do I say this? Let’s start with soil, with the global picture of nutrient cycling. Seabirds and anadromous fish provide important transfer of nutrients from the sea to land. 10,000 years ago this totalled about 150 million kg of phosphorus per year globally, a transfer that has declined to less than 4% of this value as a result of the decimation of seabird colonies and anadromous fish populations. And while there is a lot of domesticated animal dung to replace the manure of the extinct megafauna on land, it tends to be concentrated, not spread out as it used to be. And most of it is no doubt loaded with antibiotics, which persist in soils and water a long time, killing a lot of the micro-fauna in these critically important environments. The estimate for terrestrial loss of nutrient cycling since Pleistocene times is 92%.
So you see why I say we can’t restore fully, because to do that, one thing needed is a globally- intact, healthy ocean community. So the restoration part of Subsistoration simply means working to improve lands from their current depleted condition to a better one using native and climatically-appropriate plants.
So how depleted is California?
One hundred and seventy years ago, California’s Central Valley was endowed with a natural environment the scope and magnitude of which it is difficult, if not impossible, to fully comprehend today. According to various accounts, the Sacramento Valley had approximately 800,000 acres of riparian forest remaining after 1848 and it is conservatively estimated that the southern half of the great Valley had an additional 121,000 acres.
As of 1983, there were 49,000 acres in a disturbed and/or degraded condition and 53,000 acres, for which no report of condition was named. But surely the majority of this mature riparian forest had been or is currently being heavily impacted by human activities. Even if there are still 50,000 moderately intact acres, which is highly unlikely, we’d be at 5.4% of what existed just 170 years ago. And that 5% is fragmented, polluted, and absent some keystone species–and some is still under threat of “conversion.” Given the trajectory of Homo sapiens, there is no way to restore these magnificent forests. You see why I have the premises I do, right?
As for the sad state of interior CA’s waterways and the Delta, this low rez slide should say it all. Riparian, aquatic, wetland and floodplain habitats totalled about 4.7 million of the Central Valley’s 13 million acres before 1900. As of 1995, these habitats had been reduced to just over half a million acres, less than 11% of their former territory. Here I have to say that Irrigation agriculture, everywhere it has been used extensively, with very very few exceptions–and CA is surely not one–leads to desertification. It is the enemy of biodiversity, biological integrity, evolution and sustainable human cultures. We are on the same path (though faster due to modern technologies and global markets) that led to the deserts in present day Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and other places all of which had both forests and woodlands before agriculture took hold. Please support any entity you can that is working to protect water or trying to undermine CA’s water infrastructure and/or the mentality that wants more of it. And the corrupt Westlands Water District in particular needs to be eliminated, returned to the desert it wants to be. Please help everybody fighting Westlands, like AquAlliance for example.
So, much of CA has been severely hammered and there is no doubt that such degraded lands need help, so the real question is, “To what level of partial restoration do we aim?” This is another topic that could go on for hours, so rather than detail why I’ve come to my conclusions, for brevity, I’ll just put them forward, then give what I believe should be the main focus for much of California:
Degraded lands needed to feed the present human population in CA should be managed for soil-building and water retention with a permaculture approach, using irrigation only from rainwater harvested on-site. This, of course, will never happen as long as capitalism runs the show. But we may as well advocate for it and make it happen where we can. So I want to say that I’m really grateful for the soil carbon movement, and for all of you who work to raise awareness of the fact that soil is the foundation of our own existence and well-being, and an important component in sequestering atmospheric CO2.
Semi-intact lands, which are mostly rangelands and forests these days, should be preserved from extraction, and the life that makes them what they are should be protected.
I’m so grateful to all the people who fight for forests and against development.
All waterbodies and waterways, all self-willed lands, public and private, should be off limits to extraction of any kind, and off limits to further development or any management for economic goals beyond subsistence.
Of course this is fantasy as well given the current power structure and world view that sustains it. But once again, why not preach it? And I’m here today to do some preaching for oak woodland restoration.
Of all the California native biotic communities, oak woodlands share the distinction of wanting to exist primarily in the same places humans most want to dwell, farm and ranch. Since Euro American arrival, this has been pretty bad news for oaks and all the life depending on them, as I’ve already mentioned. Here is a better-than-most thinning of blue oak woodland, often endorsed and partially funded by government agencies.
Of course oaks require no irrigation, no fertilizers beyond what native plants and animals provide, and only minimal tending a few times a year. Their acorns have similar nutritional value and cooking properties to corn, but unlike corn, oak trees require no tilling. Acorn stores beautifully for years and comes from a variety of species that often produce in alternating years so that going without is rare. A well-tended, mature valley, blue or black oak can yield over 200 pounds of acorns every 2-5 years for one to three centuries. In the old days, it was even more for even longer and acorns were a staple food of nearly every tribe in what became California.
Oak woodlands are crucial to California’s hydrology primarily because the carbon rich soils they create hold more water than do soils depleted by annual cropping or standard orchards. And even though at least 50% of pre-gold rush oak woodlands have been destroyed, most of the state’s water supply still filters through them. I suspect just increasing the canopy cover of all California’s oak rangeland to 60% would do wonders for the water cycle and be the best boost for soil building we could have in a truly sustainable “system.” Even better would be to return all intensively farmed land to oak woodland. Besides their climate-cooling skills and benefits to the soil and water cycles, oaks provide habitat for well-over 300 animal species, 5000 insect species and more than 2000 plant species. Their presence ensures biodiversity. And the plants oaks provide for create a positive feedback because native plants often support 10 to 50 times as many species of native wildlife as nonnative plants.
From a subsistence perspective, no cultivated plant in California can compete with oaks as the foundation of a sustainable human food system. This is true, not only because of acorn, but also because healthy oak woodlands feed animals and can be compatible with pastoralism and vice-versa. Pastoralism is living in a manner characterized by the raising of livestock. I’m happy to see a grazing movement trying to restore soils and biotic communities through animal impact that mimics natural herds being moved along in dense groups by predators. I’m glad there are striking examples of this being more than theory, even if stunning results have yet to be obtained in CA. Of course most pastoralists are in the economic trap like the rest of us, so even those trying to make the living world a top priority usually succumb to economic rationale. And economic reality is unavoidable so long as we have cultures demanding more than subsistence. But pastoralism, done right, does allow for far more biodiversity on large semi-arid landscapes than do orchards on those same lands. In fact, grazing, even if done poorly, generally is less destructive to land, creeks, rivers, and native species than standard irrigated orchards or row crops. And predator-friendly pastoralism is a natural transition to returning native animals as the primary grazers and browsers. You can’t do that with English walnuts, almonds, prunes or rice.
Pastoralism also can open windows for us humans into the world of intimacy with, and sanctity of, a certain place. Pastoralism done well, is about respectful relationship, about finding a balance with the life that is the land, while orchards and row crops, especially in arid and semi-arid lands, are about removing native species and controlling the land, in essence fighting life. Well-managed herding is almost always better for the land–for the native plants and animals–than any other form of agriculture.
And the greatest surprise for me with pastoralism is what it’s done to my heart. I love acorn woodpeckers, but to spend enough time to know them as individuals is beyond the constraints of my life right now. However, domesticated animals offer a kind of personal connection with us that draws out our abilities to love and care for non-humans, enriching our lives with more nurturing relationships. Each of our 18 sheep have names, distinct personalities and preferences for interacting with us. They are very social people and sometimes are quite playful. We got into pastoralism with the standard idea that the boys would have short lives, but our desire for respectful relationship means we will breed less frequently and rely on dairy for our calories, with some meat provided through natural attrition. Our sheep will get to live to old age, and we will eat them only when they die naturally or it is obvious their quality of life is quite poor. Subsistence pastoralism allows for this humane way to live with nonhumans, while economically-driven pastoralism almost always requires some cruelty, as do all economically-driven activities.
On the subject of meat consumption, I want to say that I endorse campaigns aimed at CAFOs and animal cruelty, and the movement I’d really like to see take hold is one against the over-consumption of everything. It is not meat-eating that is the problem, it is how the meat was raised and the quantity consumed. I’m afraid the same can’t be said for most other things we consume. “It is not the cell phone that is the problem, it is the way it was made and quantity of use.” I don’t think so. Cell phones may save human lives occasionally, but their existence clearly does the living world more harm than good. Animals can be raised in humane ways that help–or at least don’t degrade–the web of life, but can you make computers, cell phones, cars, airplanes, plastics, metals, or anything industrial without requiring sacrifice zones? Soil microfauna needs animals above to reach maximum biotic capacity, but soil life is harmed by industrialization. Pastoralism is not only possible without industrialization, it offers a rich life without it.
And for human health, I would argue that most humans need some animal fat, cholesterol and protein in our diets, but I can only think of health problems from regular use of cars, planes, phones, computers, plastic, etc.
So, Over-consumption and unnecessary consumption–of everything–are the problems. And this culture instills this way of life into every child before they have the cognitive awareness to understand what is going on. It is part of the dominant religion. Economic growth = ecological diminishment because humans believe themselves “worth it.” And usually unconsciously. The embodied death in our tools, toys, foods and daily activities often goes unconsidered.
So if you are an activist fighting fossil fuels, I thank you wholeheartedly, but please don’t promote renewable energy as anything but a transition to powering down. The production and distribution of electricity, no matter how it is done, undermines life, and its ubiquitous availability ensures overconsumption of unnecessary gadgetry and alienation from the living world by its users. To be part of this culture requires unnecessary consumption, so all activism currently targeting specific lifestyle choices could be funneled into one major campaign against unnecessary consumption of everything. Of course that would be an austerity movement, and even though that’ll never happen voluntarily, it really is the only way forward for humans if we want to survive in the long-run.
So, back to oaks and subsistence, the California version of austerity. I’ve shown how acorn and pastoralism make a lot of sense as the foundation of a sustainable human diet in the lands of CA that want to be oak woodlands. But what about climate change? what about oaks in a 5-degree C warmer world? Even with a great loss of endemic species, there is at least one ray of hope for some. Phenotypic plasticity–or genetic possibility–is an amazing piece of evolution giving individuals a vast set of variabilities to draw from. So perhaps some oaks may survive in a 5-degree warmer world in refugia–or isolated locations–especially if we help them find those spots. I highly recommend planting acorn in higher elevation sites and further north whenever you get the chance. And expanding the range of the interior and canyon live oaks, turbinella oaks and Alvord oaks of SoCal northward may be of particular value due to their genetic ability to thrive in hot, low-rain climates.
There is one other thing I want to say about how I’m choosing to respond to climate change. If you know that a loved one may die soon, you don’t just make plans for life without them, you also do everything you can to ensure as high a quality life as you can for them until they die. The analogy of climate change being like a cancer at stage 3 on the verge of stage 4 is not a bad one. There is no one I know who thinks you should just abandon a loved one because they might die soon anyway. On the positive side, the certainty of the demise of oaks and many other CA natives is still shaky, so maybe Stage 2 is a better analogy. I sure hope so.
So whether some oaks can survive rapid climate change is not the whole point. Doing right by them while they are still with us is what love does. I love and revere oaks, and hope if you live with them, you love them too. I wish we lived in a subsistence culture that would rapidly embrace a Green Belt Movement like the one Wangari Maathai created. I’d help plant a protected oak woodland that wrapped the future inland sea.
But we can grow the oak-loving culture and save some oak woodlands now by supporting the folks working to pass the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative in Napa County, by supporting the Save the Richmond Hills Initiative, by boycotting Justin Wines, and by donating to California Oaks.
And while I’m preaching about what the living world really needs, not what is politically possible, I can’t discuss the need for subsistoration without talking about place-basedness. Sustainable human cultures have always been bioregion-dependent, even if nomadic. Living any other way means imposing foreign ideas on others. No human culture has ever been sustainable once its members became dependent on materials or religions from other places.
So this movement (slide – Buy Local), is a great start, and this one (slide – Live Local) is what we need.
And there is a really important world view that all sustainable human cultures have probably had in common. Animism. Animism has likely been with humans much much longer than any other belief system in spite of repeated attempts to destroy it.
What is animism?
Animists know and experience the world in a very personal way. They are concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons, only some of whom are human.
Now, I have to note, some of these persons are labelled inanimate and called “resources” by most humans these days.
The term animism began as an expression of disdain toward indigenous peoples and the earliest presumably religious humans. It was, and sometimes remains, a colonialist insult.
But in reality, animists are people who experience the world to be full of persons, and experience that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is varied, but at core it is about learning to act respectfully towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others, even if they are not always sociable.
I thank Graham Harvey for his important book on this world view.
So what does respectful relationship mean? According to Harvey, “…’respect’ is a blend of cautious and constructive acting towards other persons and even towards ‘things’ which might turn out to be persons.” In my experience, it is living in a way that considers or applies the precautionary principle to every interaction with all of natural creation. It is living without indifference toward others, so it is the opposite of sociopathy.
Ya know, if I had magic powers and could snap my fingers and change everyone, I’d turn us all into animists. Strategies to solve all the world’s problems would be had in months.
Animists live a type of personhood and selfhood that radically challenges those of the dominant culture. Intelligence, rationality, consciousness, volition, agency, intentionality, language, joy and desire are not human characteristics that might be mistakenly projected onto non-humans, but are shared by humans with all other kinds of persons.
Importantly, animism is totally place-based for it is all about relationships with the life–the land–where you live.
So how would real animists define sustainability? Well, they’d start by asking the rest of the people where they live what they think…..
For full disclosure, I have to admit that while I call myself an animist, I’m just on the path. To overcome the enculturation of liberal humanism is a huge personal challenge for anyone raised in this culture, and I haven’t done it.
One clear message that comes out of animist cultures living in balance with–meaning within the carrying capacity of–the land and life around them is that living large is unacceptable. Hand-in-hand with living humbly is maintaining your population. Living in respectful relationship with the rest of life means you don’t overpopulate, for that ensures misery and suffering for other beings, as well as for some, if not most, members of future generations of your own kind.
I can’t bring that subject up without saying that I think all of us who want a better world for ourselves and all other life would not be wasting our breath to speak on behalf of population planning and shrinking the economy. As most of you probably know thanks to books like Alan Weisman’s Countdown, with the right kind of leadership, voluntary human population reduction could have profoundly positive effects for all life on this planet in as short as 40 years. Please support everyone you can who is giving their lives to this most important issue. And thank you to anyone in the audience who works for education and equality for economically marginalized women, as this is the most important factor in reducing our numbers.
Another aspect of animism I want to mention is the use of language, for it is the carrier of ideas, which are the fodder for “management” of the rest of the world. I suspect no animist would ever use words like management or resources, and would never call the oceans, any forest or grassland, or any species “ours,” as is the new vogue of environmental groups these days, except perhaps in phrases like “our home,” “our family” or “our kin.”
One last component of animism that I want to mention, which is perhaps obvious at this point, is that if you treat all creation with respect and caution, you probably see the whole world as sacred, meaning worthy of reverence or even veneration. And why shouldn’t we? This planet and all its features and life far exceed superlatives like marvelous, amazing, beautiful, extraordinary, and miraculous, though I think miraculous comes closest. For me, there is no greater miracle and nothing more sacred than the evolutionary process of life on Earth.
So there’s a description of the kinds of human cultures that could actually live sustainably with the rest of life on Earth, and now I’m gonna ground these understandings in some practical steps we are taking given the current sociopolitical conditions.
What We’ve Done, What We Do, What We Are Planning to Do
For starters, being responsible to, and living in respectful relationship with all the persons that are the place I call home, would be a full-time and life-long responsibility. My wife and I are lucky to live with 233 acres of mostly blue oak woodland on the edge of the foothills of the Yola Buli mountains.
We are still paying for the land that we get to call home, but by having title, we are able to remove it as much as possible from the economic system. We are in the process of putting a very strict conservation easement on the preserve which will legally protect the land from exploitation and management practices that degrade it, barring eminent domain of course.
We also do the following land care, subsistence and advocacy work at the preserve:
- Remove dead wood from oaks and use it to protect young oaks and propagate other native perennials
- Cage young oaks
- Graze to increase animal impact on the land to a level that seems to match the land’s needs
- Graze for fire protection
We are still assessing grazing’s value to the land- and will adjust flock size after a few years of observation and management refinements.
- Build baffles in the creek to imitate the works of beaver to slow, spread and sink water and to create ponds that build up nutrients and save wildlife during dry creek times
- Catch rainwater for most of our water needs
Offer assistance to neighbors who want to live less damaging ways
- Gather, plant and eat acorn
- Solicit participation in a climate refugia network and climate corridor plan from neighbors with similar views
Now, this last one is our best stab at trying to help life within our watershed move to higher ground via natural, established wildlife routes. We are looking to collaborate with other folks on the creation of a formal or informal Climate Migration Corridor to allow some species to survive the unprecedented temperature rise coming our way this century. Integral to this project is the identification of climate refugia at elevations commensurate with the anticipated rise in GMT for oak woodland and other lower elevation native plant communities. Ideally, the project would be administered and monitored by residents of the corridor, making this a model for landowners who live in other areas of steep elevation gain–the foothills and mountains.
We are currently in the brainstorming phase for fundraising for the purchase of, access to, or conservation easement on private lands, and we are in discussions with the Northern California Regional Land Trust and others about how best to make this corridor possible.
Here is a map of the approximate location of the proposed corridor. The yellow outline to the left is the Yola Bolly Wilderness and off to the right is the Sacramento River. As you can see, most of the blue oak woodlands in this region have been clear cut, so this proposed corridor is already a wildlife corridor and a logical choice to legally protect. We chose this spot not just because we live in it, though that is very important, but also because the Cost Ranges are a biodiversity hotspot, due primarily to a lot of elevation change in short distances. This particular corridor rises from about 700 feet to 8000 feet in only 16 miles as the raven flies. Alongside this, we will be starting a Climate Refugia Network that maps possible climate refugia and transplants key members of biotic communities to higher elevations and latitudes in areas beyond our watershed. We are exploring relationships with numerous individuals and organizations about partnering with us on this project, so give us a shout if you are interested, too. [Note: Have researched this further and changed directions.]
The world as we’ve known it and would like it to be, is in crisis. Most humans in crisis turn to their belief systems, their religions, to find their way. This is what I’m doing and the more animist I become, the more I’m drawn to act out of love, and the more I experience the sanctity in all life. Those of us who love the living world suffer from the pain of watching loved ones die as this crisis worsens. I believe we need to map a path for ourselves that both serves life on Earth and keeps us from falling into utter despair. Culturally, we need to protect as much self-willed land as possible, as this is the best way to preserve biodiversity, which is the best way to save our species. And personally, connecting with place, with the life that IS that place, and doing what you can for these persons is my best stab at facing this enormous problem for life on Earth and this great challenge to one’s own spirit.
To that end, my wife and I have decided to try to do both at once, to try to create this migration corridor in our watershed and to specifically seek out locations that seem best suited to be climate refugia for the species we love most, some of whom are clearly in danger already. Valley oaks, blue oaks, native grape, willow, cottonwood, elderberry, manzanita, coffeeberry, ghost pine, california buckeye, rhus trilobata, and poison oak are some of our family members for whom we are trying to find new homes where they might make it through this bottleneck for life.
In times of crises, I believe we need to act with our heads and our hearts, and our hearts need to be filled with love for the sacred, which is the living world that created and sustains us.
I hope that I’ve been able to sway some of you today to question your allegiances and shift your beliefs to be more in alignment with the evolutionary processes, but even if I haven’t, I hope we can all agree that expanding oak woodlands and creating climate migration corridors are a top priority in defending the miraculous life that is called California, while providing landbases from which future subsistoration would be possible. This work can be done at many scales, by individuals from anywhere.
So please contact me if you want to help us, or want to be part of our refugia network.
I’d like to close by saying thank you to everyone here today who loves the living world so much that you are already actively working, or advocating, for life on Earth.
Thank you for listening.
Footnotes and graphics provided upon request. Contact us if you are interested.