Just up the road from here, essential workers are building a series of small dams to prevent flooding in the towns downstream from me. They are using a technology that allows fish to travel upstream, filters out pollutants from the water flowing through, and captures eroding soil from nearby farms. Over time, the dams will naturally disintegrate in a random series, leaving behind fertile soil already seeded with plants to provide a large “soil sponge” that can capture rain without need for further dams. They’ve been working nights recently, to avoid getting in the way of traffic.
Other parts of this essential workforce have been perfecting the design of solar powered oxygen pumps that simultaneously function as air conditioners, air purifiers, and food production units. (If we had enough of them, we could easily feed every living thing on the planet.) These pumps also produce raw materials for construction and clothing, while collecting CO2 from the air and storing it safely above and below ground.
The pharmaceutical wing of this workforce has figured out how to switch on brain development in utero, and synthesize vitamins from simple foods. It can also now create and deliver the exact dosage of antidepressants and immune boosting chemicals each person needs, at exactly the time they need them.
These workers, designers, patent holders and investors are not human. They are the myriad species with whom we share our landscapes: plants, fungi, insects, animals, and microbes. If they all went on strike, we would have no oxygen to breathe and no food to eat. Most rainfall would cease. Dead animals and plants would pile up, miles high, with no easy way to break back down into raw materials for continued life. Temperature regulation on Earth would deteriorate to the point that it would become uninhabitable. Meanwhile, our own human brains and bodies would cease to function.
These essential workers get no pay, no health insurance, no workers’ compensation if they are injured. In fact, in most countries they have no legal rights at all. They can be bought and enslaved by the highest bidder, forced to work under terrible conditions, have limbs cut off, and be killed when they are deemed unnecessary to production. Yet they build the infrastructure, and provide the goods and services that underpin every economy on Earth.
The Work of Other Species
The terms “essential worker” and “frontline worker” have taken on tremendous new meaning since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This article proposes that other species are essential workers whose labor is absolutely necessary for the future of critical infrastructure — both human and planetary. Their work underpins all food systems, regional and global water security, transportation, housing, health, and the climate and metabolism of our planet.
Many species are also frontline workers: facing huge risks while going about their daily labors. They are harmed and killed, intentionally and unintentionally, with antibiotics, pesticides, tillage, harvesting machinery, logging, construction, and more, without thought for how their work — and the systems that depend on their work — will proceed without them.
All species are continual designers, capable of new strategies — often in rapid response to a challenge. Like the humans who design, build, and repair our roads, bridges, and electrical grids, the work of other species involves coordinated efforts and constant intelligent decision making. They are also investors in local and global economies — and they will require a return on investment (ROI) in order to stay in the game, payable in a currency that they can use.
The work and economies of other species “enfolds” our own — it is not separate, nor is it merely a part of it. To enfold means “to surround or envelop” or “to hold someone lovingly” and it implies nestedness.
The word economics originally carried much of the same sense of care and nestedness: oikos (home) and nomi (care) = “the care of home.” Aristotle defined it as “the pragmatic science of living virtuously as a member of the polis (or community) through wise household management.”
Hummingbird nest by Rene Madariaga from freeimages.com
Human economies have failed, fertile lands have turned into deserts, and empires have fallen throughout history, in large part because the “deciders” did not recognize, understand, or value the work of other species. They failed to see that human work and human economies are nested within the work and economies of other species. They did not design their own future to include these essential workers, find a way to work along with them, or invest in the larger economy.
These large-scale collapses come from a profound loss of cultural understanding. To fail on this scale requires that many people view the living beings around them — plants, animals, insects, microbes, fungi, (and the land, forests, oceans, continents, and atmosphere that they continually regenerate) — as something quite different from what they actually are.
In societies that have become self-destructive, people lose their ability to see living systems as intelligent communities at work. Instead, people learn to see other species and their ecosystems as:
- Resources from which value can be extracted (“How much corn can this variety produce?”)
- Problems to be overcome (“These swamps are in the way of my proposed housing development”)
- Enemies to be eradicated (“Town policy requires that lawns have no dandelions, therefore I must use weed killer.”)
Others take a sentimental view, seeing life and landscapes as:
- Vulnerable victims that need protection (“Save the ____!”)
- Beautiful wonders that provide pleasure and entertainment. (“Come watch our amazing dolphin show!”)
Many of these views unconsciously reinforce the others: e.g., “I’m using this pesticide to kill an ‘invasive’ insect species, in order to protect a vulnerable type of tree, so that the lumber continues to return value to me as an investor, and I can continue to enjoy the views in my ‘pristine’ wilderness environment.”
For current societies to continue, we will need a clearer view.
California. Photograph by Didi Pershouse
“Continued critical infrastructure viability”
The definition of “essential workers,” in guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is those workers “who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continued critical infrastructure viability.” Their work enables the functioning of essential industries such as food and agriculture, medicine and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement, and public works.
This brings up some questions:
- What roles do other species play in the viability of our human-managed food and agriculture systems? Our medical systems? Water and wastewater systems? How about telecommunications? Information technology? Defense? Transportation and logistics? Energy? Law enforcement? Public works?
- What is the essential work that ensures the viability of the critical infrastructures of soils, forests, oceans, and atmosphere, and how much of that work is done by non-human workers?
- How do we design societies and governance to ensure that this work by other species — and their human coworkers — can continue?
These questions may seem hard to answer at first, because the labor and intelligence of other species has been oddly invisible to us, even though we depend on it every day.
We assume, for example, that oxygen production is natural, free, and dependable — something that just “happens,” like parenting. It rarely occurs to us that oxygen production on Earth requires an enormous workforce of photosynthesizers on land and in the oceans. We see right past the fact that plants are continually and intelligently managing and investing in relationships with symbiotic microbes and herbivores that are as changeable from minute to minute as the stock market. Oxygen production is not counted in our economies or GDP. Nor have we considered what currency plants would find useful in their own economies as payment or ROI from their human symbionts.
We do not easily connect power outages, road closures, or endless war with a failure to co-invest with other species. Yet nature’s workforce ensures the clean abundant supply of water needed to cool nuclear reactors, repave roads, pour cement, and produce information technology, just as it ensures the supply of food needed to fuel the engineers, operators and CEOs engaged in these activities, and the microbes needed to digest those foods and turn it into energy that powers that human work and intelligence.
Other species not only manage and maintain the supply chains on which industries and economies depend, they also manage the weather that those supply chains depend on: providing the biological materials and transport of water for clouds and rain, as well as regulating temperatures on land and greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Because non-human work is invisible to our economic thinking, it is not just undervalued, but unvalued. We only pay the cost once the work has ceased to happen, at which point it becomes an unfolding entanglement of problems, leading to an extremely expensive crisis.
Entanglement in the Central Valley
Beaver meadow valley, by Didi Pershouse
California’s Central Valley used to be an emerald green series of wetlands, created by the work of myriad collaborators from every biological kingdom. This collaborative effort on the part of countless species kept the water table high, and cooled the air through constant transpiration (the evaporative cooling “sweat” of plant metabolism, when plants have enough water at their root zone). This cooling created low pressure systems, whose vacuum-like influence helped to move moist air from the Pacific coastline up over the coastal mountain range, down into the Central Valley and on to the Sierra mountain range beyond.
As the moist air passed by, giant redwood trees along the coastal range could harvest the water they needed directly from the mist in the air, condensing it onto their needle structure, allowing it to flow down their trunks, and into the soils below them, where their roots could take it up for growth (and transpire it back into the air). This also quenched the thirst of the moisture loving fungi in the soil. The saprophytic fungi reduced fire risk in the forests by decomposing trees, branches, needles, and leaves that had fallen to the ground. Other fungi — the mycorrhizae — sorted and delivered nutrients where they were needed, and served as a communication system within the forest and the fields below, alerting plants of approaching dangers, so that they could produce the right chemicals to ward off pests.
The rich deep soils in the valley, as well as on the mountains, were held in place by a sponge-like web of roots and fungal hyphae, strengthened against the eroding forces of wind and water by biological slimes gluing the underlying mineral particles together. Life continually moved through this “soil sponge” creating macropores and micropores that could soak up rain that fell, filter it, and store it underground in deep aquifers and within the soil itself — so that it could seep out slowly into year round springs, streams and rivers. The lush vegetation provided food, water, and protection (from extreme cold, heat and wind) for the workforce of microbes, fungi, pollinators, grazers, dam builders, and others, as well as the humans that lived alongside them.
Until the arrival of Europeans, everyone participated in the “local economy.”
Settlers arrived and stayed in California for all sorts of reasons. It was hard for those arriving from colder climates (where land degradation had already begun) not to be awed by the mild weather, clean air and water, deep fertile soils, stunning beauty, and enormous trees. It was also hard not to see the living systems as resources that could return huge value to them, if they were sold back East, or in Europe.
Unconscious of the region’s true economy, they cut the redwoods and killed off beaver throughout the West to make into hats for the European market. They drained the wetlands, broke up the soil sponge with plows, planted crops, and compacted the fertile valley soils with heavy machinery, to the point that soils no longer absorbed the rain. Then they began pumping water out of aquifers to irrigate the crops they planted, and left the soils bare after harvest.
Without the diverse natural plant cover — or even cover crops — there were no plants to feed the essential workers that could rebuild the sponge-like infrastructure of healthy soils. Once the soils lost the biological glues and threads that held them together, the sand silt and clay particles became more like dry flour than moist spongy bread. The air filled with brown dust whenever the wind blew, and the rivers ran brown when it rained, as the topsoil drifted steadily away.
The hot bare soils created a rising buffer of hot air that prevented cool moist air from the coasts from flowing into the valley, resulting in less moisture moving over the forests and mountains. When rain did fall, the water moved sideways over the compacted soils, creating flooding, and failing to refill aquifers. Massive concrete dams were built to capture and hold water, and pipe it far away. The new production methods under these conditions required absurd amounts of water: a gallon of pumped and piped water to grow a single almond. As the valley dried out, and water tables were pumped down, sinkholes developed, threatening houses and roads. Low water tables concentrated toxins in the water, affecting the health of those who lived there.
Crops grown in monocultures, rather than polycultures, had fewer underground microbial relationships to bring them the exact nutrients needed to create vibrant health and immunity. Humans fed the crops a few key elements — nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — rather than the rich smorgasbord of nutrients they would have received from a living soil web. This made plants vulnerable to pests, fungal diseases, and viruses, creating a demand for pesticides, something that would have been unimaginable in an earlier era.
Today it is a common sight when driving through the valley to see human workers in hazmat suits and masks, applying chemicals to the crops. The air is filled not just with dust from failed soils, but also with pesticides, and antibiotic resistant bacteria from the region’s feedlots.
The pesticides include the chemical glyphosate, which was patented as a broad spectrum antibiotic for humans, but was never brought to market for that use because it kills off beneficial bacteria and leaves pathogens to run wild. Because of its continuing use as an herbicide and desiccant, it persists not only in crops, but also in air and water. This affects the human microbiome (community of microbes) responsible for turning on brain development in utero, regulating metabolism and immunity, and producing most of our brain chemicals. With these and other antibiotics freely circulating the planet in our food, wind and water, every human’s ability to think, thrive, and self regulate is affected. Likewise for every wild or confined animal that breathes, drinks, or eats.
In dry, dusty conditions, without fungal communities to decompose dried leaves and dead trees, fire becomes the next hazard, deteriorating air quality even further, spreading toxic chemicals from burned houses onto crops, into wild areas, and into drinking water. The health and vitality of the human and natural workforce in the area declines, and declines.
A century and a half of disregard for nature’s essential workforce has put the nation’s food supply at risk. California’s Central Valley provides close to half of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts for the entire USA.
The gift of enfolded economies
I teach an annual workshop on whole systems landscape function in the Central Valley to a group of mostly Latinx high school students and their teachers, along with local conservation groups. I ask them to list the problems in the region, then I divide the students and adults up into about eight groups, and assign each of them to a bureaucratic “department.” The job of each department is to come up with a work plan and a budget for solving one of the identified problems. Each department then has to argue the case for their budget to the group. The arguments quickly become heated. Which is more important: air or water? Which is more of a threat: fire or poverty?
Their budgets are wildly low. It’s hard for them, or any of us, to imagine the true cost of facing or tackling these problems one by one. Wildfires cost the State of California approximately $24 billion in 2018. The Sites Reservoir that aims to provide water from storm runoff will take seven years to complete, and is estimated to cost $5.2 billion. The social costs are even higher: 100 percent of residents of the Valley are exposed to health endangering levels of air pollutants.
But my students have an advantage. In our work together, they have been studying the intertwining relationships among healthy soils, vegetation, flooding, drought, air quality, air temperature, wildfires, climate, social unrest, and human mental and physical health. It’s only a matter of time before someone tires of the haggling and says, “Hey, wait a minute, what if we pooled our resources? If we all invested in functional landscapes and the soil sponge, how many of these ‘problems’ would go away?”
In essence, they are asking: How much of this work could (and should) be done by other species?
This brings up other questions:
- What do we pay this biological workforce with, given that our coins, bills, credit and gold have no value in their economy?
- How do we design an economy with this biological work and workforce in mind?
- What policies are needed to enable the larger economy to thrive?
The students, many of whom have been quiet, start to talk excitedly — eyes lit up, postures suddenly strong and enlivened — as they start to imagine and plan a new economy. I’ve seen this transformation in people around the world — conservative and liberal, old and young, rich and poor — when presented with the opportunity to view our relationships with other species through new eyes.
Participation in this larger economy can make our lives more viable, and more meaningful and purposeful as well.
We can address most of the major challenges we are facing today by recognizing the work of other species, elevating that work to its actual place, creating conditions in which that work can continue unimpeded, and learning the currencies that hold value in other “kingdoms,” as we exchange with plants, animals, bacteria, and more…
Our new aim should not be to extract more value from the larger economy that enfolds us, but to find our place within it, as we engage in a meaningful exchange.
With gratitude for my reviewers from The Regenerative Economy Collaborative — Ben Haggard, Connor Steadman, Hector Miramontes, Vanessa Armendariz, Brad Lancaster, and Alejandro Levins — for the thoughtful listening, questions, and editorial suggestions they provided during the writing process.