Life Webs


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Big problems, small solutions

Some years ago, I went to a meditation class taught by people who were trained in Tibetan Buddhism. In the question period that followed the lecture, an attendee asked, “How can we ever end war?”

Whew. Big question.

One of the teachers answered, “Be kind to the people around you.”

Whew. Small answer.

When you think about it, it’s the only answer. If we all were kind to the people around us, wars could never arise.

On the other hand, it’s no answer at all. However hard we try – and even though we must try – none of us will succeed. I haven’t, for sure.

When she was still a middle-school student, my daughter, who today is (happily) a mostly kind and peaceable adult and (less happily) a survivor of several horrific, violent events and a historian who studies the history of violence, wrote somewhat prophetically: “As long as I’m in the world, there can never be world peace” – meaning not that she was a terrible person, but that even ordinary people have violent impulses and, more fundamentally, that people’s interests always conflict.

What I’m concerned with in this blog is violence not to other individuals but to the ecosystem, violence for which there can be no atonement or forgiveness, violence that may make the world uninhabitable for ourselves and for many other species. The threat of rapid climate change is real and terrifying.

I don’t fear for the future of life on earth. Over billions of years, living forms have evolved to adapt to new situations. This will doubtless continue until the sun burns out in another five billion years. As dinosaur extinction opened up new opportunities for mammals, so the extinction of mammals may open up new opportunities for mushrooms, or crustaceans, or ferns. New species will arise. Plastic-eating  bacteria may take over this blog when I’m gone.

In the meantime, however, I worry about the future of my grandchildren, and of the oak trees, the sparrows, the coral, the salmon, the polar bears, and thousands or millions of species that we haven’t even given names to.  And I suspect that as long as I’m in the world, there will never be ecological peace. Not that I’m a terrible person, but I can’t manage to live sustainably. Nor is the political system capable of answering these questions (or, at this moment, any questions at all).

There are small answers. There are ways, old and new, for raising food sustainably, even for healing the land. I want to write about some of them here. I’m working on putting some of them into practice. These are good and necessary and joyful things to do, on the order of being kind to the people around you.

The question is whether small solutions can solve the big problems, given the magnitude of the big problems and the short time we appear to have left before everything collapses. I’m suspicious of solutions that involve a return to the village economy, if only because there’s no political way to get there short of a complete collapse – and also, it’s far from clear that solutions designed for a small scale could work on the enormous scale we have to cope with today.

If we have any hope at all, it’s by applying new technology tools to scale up the “small answers,” the small self-sustaining solutions, that already exist. New materials, big data, sophisticated chemistry and physics, massive computational models- we can’t afford to ignore any of the tools at our disposal, or reject the science and technology that got us into this mess. Rather, we have to apply them to the systems thinking, the cyclical thinking, that was more natural to people before the age of technology.

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