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Deep thought - Aug 28

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Diversify, Diversify, Diversify

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
One of the great tragedies of the current environmental crisis is the present and potential loss of about 50% of everything, including everything we never knew existed and now never will. Most of the estimates of the impact of human behavior on the world suggest that over the next century, human beings will destroy about 50% of the life on earth. That is, more than 50% of all frog and fish species. Almost 50% of all plant species. Tens of millions of insect species. All those large mammals we purport to care about.

...The reality is that we don't fully grasp how much we depend on other species - for example, some species support as many as 200 other species by pollinating the right plants, providing food for others, etc... We don't grasp how vulnerable we are to a worldwide plague, or blight, as our crop varieties get narrower and narrower. We don't fully grasp how vulnerable *we* are to the loss of our ecosystem. Because, if we understood it, we'd have to stop - even if the price of stopping were high. How much easier to ride gaily towards extinction - whose extinction, we shall not know until we know.

It may be too late for some species - the black rhino, for example, has already probably fallen below the number required for long term survival. But before we keen our song of mourning, perhaps each of us should ask whether we've done everything we possibly can to ensure the survival of our own share of the world's diversity. Because, after all, all of us have a little bit of control over the world around us - maybe just a very small amount, perhaps enough to save one breed of plant, one meter of wild space, one single species. But, as they say in my own faith, he who has saved a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. Now that was spoken of human lives, but it may be that some portion of the whole world depends on your personal commitment to diversity.

...First, there are seeds. Even if you only grow in windowboxes, or a tiny garden plot, you can save some varieties of seed. And if you take up a variety of seed that isn't one of the most common (you can get many of them by joining Seed Savers Exchange at, or join a local seed saver's group) ones, you may well be preserving a food plant that would otherwise go extinct.

...Besides growing multiple varieties within a species, growing a range of crops makes a huge difference. I'm fond of the phrase "belt and braces" - that is, as much duplication of purpose as humanly possible. Redundancy is your protection. So besides your potatoes and wheat, add some Amaranth, Corn and Buckwheat. Besides your apples, try Medlars or Mulberries. Add groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes to go with your peanuts and sweet potatoes.

And don't just get fixated on food - a good garden needs wild places, to increase diversity as well. Even a tiny yard can have a patch of multi-purpose attractive insectiary plants - dill and cilantro gone to seed, along with bee balm, echinacea and hyssop and some tall grass or wildflowers to provide a place for ground nesting birds and wild pollinators to live. Or perhaps you can leave that dead tree standing to provide nests, or some brush piled up near your compost to make a home for birds.

...The reality is that the preservation of genetic diversity is one of the most important and urgent projects we have. We need as many species, wild and tame, of as many plants and animals as possible. The more we cultivate them, preserve them, save their seed, spread them around, even guerilla plant them into uncovered soil, the better the chance that we and our children will have a world to grow up in.

As you are designing your land use, as you are working within your neighborhoods and community, remember the watchwords - diversify, diversify, diversify. It is as if you have saved the whole world.
(28 August 2007)
Diversification is a key strategy used by peasant farmers -- and they know a lot more about survival than we do.

We are especially clueless when it comes to microbes. We depend on them, but we know only a small fraction of them by name. Meanwhile we are busily changing the environment in ways that are probably harmful to them. We just don't know. Case in point: chloramine has replaced chlorine in our local water supply. The anti-bacterial action of chloramine is much more long-lasting than chlorine, and we are watering our plants with it. What is the effect on the soil microbes, on which plant life depends? We don't know and scanning the Web a few years ago yielded no studies on the subject. -BA

UPDATE (Aug 29)
Reader SP writes:
I have a little knowledge about microbes (forms part of my still unfinished PhD)

A common phrase in the soil literature is that from 95 - 99% of the bacterial diversity is "unknown", by which is meant that all we know is from an assay of diversity using genetic methods... we do not have "many" cultured examples from soil. When you consider the millions of bacteria that can exist in a gram of soil then the few thousand examples kept in culture collections is small. Part of the reason for this is that standard culture techniques (using agar) only select for a subset of the bacteria.

Although Im not sure what the effect of chloramination on soil bacteria is, a greater worry might be the proliferation of antibacterial agents in household cleaning products. The fear of microbes used in TV adds to promote these products is probably leading to greater resistance to common (formerly useful) antibacterials. If soil bacteria develop resistance, then in a process known as horizontal gene transfer (the exchange of genetic material between different bacterial species) this resistance can be spread around the bacterial world. Eventually to a "nasty" species.

Note that 99% of bacteria are actually harmless to humans!

Soap should be enough - unless you are a surgeon.

I thought the idea behind chloramination was as a means of maintaining the chlorine content during its transport through the pipe network as the chlorine was slowly released... but that for most users by the time it reaches the tap levels are very low. I thought it was more of a human health issue.

What you say accords with my layman's understanding.

I was curious about the effect of chloramine on soil populations (bacteria but also fungi and actinomycetes) when I learned that chloramine was persistent. Unlike chlorine, which dissipates if water is left standing, it continues to stay active. A chemist I talked to said that chlorine would become bound up by other other chemicals in the soil. She wasn't sure about chloramine, as I remember. What I particularly wonder about is the effect of applying chloramine constantly to the soil over periods of time. I would guess that this would affect the soil ecology, hence the population of microbes (presumably for the worse).

I searched the web (this was several years ago) and contacted the local water board. Couldn't find any studies about it, which isn't surprising since the idea that soil microbes are important for plants is fairly recent. If you run across any studies, I'd be interested to see them.

I don't know about tap levels of chloramine being low... they are at least high enough to kill aquarium fish unless the water is treated to remove the chloramine.

BTW, have you encountered the work of Elaine Ingham, the soil microbiologist from Oregon? She's developed a technique for assessing soil microbiology that uses visual methods for determining the populations of classes of organism (rather than using culture techniques)? I wrote an online article about her work: Soil food web - opening the lid of the black box

UPDATE (Aug 30) - Maybe we ought to do a post devoted to chloramine? Reader march/eb reports that whereas chlorine doesn't cause the lead oxide in old pipes to become solvent, chloramine may do so

The Plan

William Kötke, Speaking Truth to Power
A plan to save the life of the earth and the human species by creating an entirely new human culture...

... Viewed as a whole [ours] is a pre-adolescent human culture. The human species has produced many types of culture but the mining of the earth's fertility to swell the social body, to increase the power, production and profit of the elite who are gathered around the emperor - has been a disaster. This grasping after material objects and desperate need to exert power over other humans is an immature response to life. The highest purpose of life in an industrial society is to produce industrial goods.

If We Were Mature Members of a Mature Species

In our maturity we would notice that it is the biological processes of life that provide our sustenance. The loss of only one coral reef and its incubation of numerous fish schools translates its effects to us. The loss of one forest means the deprivation of clean water for us. We cannot destroy that which feeds us. In our maturity we understand that rather than suck biological energy from the earth we must restore the ecologies of the earth to health and live from the increase. A healthy living earth would reflect in a healthy human species.

In our maturity, we would notice that the scramble for industrial products is hardly a sophisticated purpose for the life of the human species. A more mature focus would be to aid the life that we are a part of. If we were a mature species, would we not want a human culture that encouraged the fullest development of each member of society, from en utero to old age; the development of our full human potential? Rather than the "progress" of amassing money, the manifestation would be of more and more human creativity in refining culture and aiding the life process. The proposal is that the highly unusual abilities displayed by rare people are abilities that are latent in the species and that all people can fully develop all of these abilities - full blown - as human culture and creativity become more refined. Because we live in a machine society and our lives are shaped by the needs of the machine process, we fail to recognize that we can shape and create the way we biologically relate to each other and the earth. But, in order to shift from the industrial system we must have some other way to provide food, shelter and to raise children free from emotional damage.

...Because humans have the mobility and intelligence, they can restore the ecosystems and increase the diversity of many areas over what would be climax. Humans can potentiate ecosystems and live in stability from the increase. Realizing that now, anything except existing wild lands would be scar tissue renewing the flesh of the earth. The preferred method of restoration would be the practice of Permaculture. This method of growing food and restoring ecosystems has spread world-wide among cognizant people.

...For the humans and planet to endure, a completely new human culture must be created. This is not movies and books. This is the whole world view and all of the content by which we relate to each other and to the earth in belief, practice and ritual. This will be a most amazing adventure. If one has heart and courage and can move out of virtual reality onto the fact of the living planet, our future will provide one of the most exciting challenges we humans have faced, with the greatest benefits, if we are successful. ...

By Wm. H. Kötke, author of, Garden Planet: The Present Phase-Change of the Human Species, which can be seen at and the underground classic, The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future, which is now being reprinted and will be available at in October.
(27 August 2007)

Problems of aging, shrinking population

The Economist
The population of bugs in a Petri dish typically increases in an S-shaped curve. To start with, the line is flat because the colony is barely growing. Then the slope rises ever more steeply as bacteria proliferate until it reaches an inflection point. After that, the curve flattens out as the colony stops growing.

Overcrowding and a shortage of resources constrain bug populations. The reasons for the growth of the human population may be different, but the pattern may be surprisingly similar.

For thousands of years, the number of people in the world inched up. Then there was a sudden spurt during the Industrial Revolution that produced, between 1900 and 2000, a near quadrupling of the world's population.

Numbers are still growing; but recently an inflection point seems to have been reached. The rate of population increase began to slow. In more and more countries, women started having fewer children than the number required to keep populations stable.

...As population predictions have changed in the past few years, so have attitudes. The panic about resource constraints that prevailed during the 1970s and 1980s, when the population was rising through the steep part of the S-curve, has given way to a new concern: that the number of people in the world is likely to start falling.

Some regard this as a cause for celebration, on the ground that there are obviously too many people on the planet. But too many for what? There doesn't seem to be much danger of a Malthusian catastrophe.

Humankind appropriates about a quarter of what is known as the net primary production of the Earth (this is the plant tissue created by photosynthesis) -- a lot, but hardly near the point of exhaustion. The price of raw materials reflects their scarcity and, despite recent rises, commodity prices have fallen sharply in real terms during the past century.

By that measure, raw materials have become more abundant, not scarcer. Certainly, the impact that people have on the climate is a problem; but the solution lies in consuming less fossil fuel, not in manipulating population levels.

Nor does the opposite problem -- that the population will fall so fast or so far that civilization is threatened -- seem a real danger.
(27 August 2007)
Let's call it a victory that The Economist (a bastion of capitalist thought) is talking about subjects like population, overshoot and resource depletion. They are not particularly concerned yet and the phrase "whistling past the graveyard" comes to mind. -BA

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