Category Archives: Language

Nature as a Model For Society and the Economy

For years now my real interest has been in plants and the life sciences.  This has lead me to better understand the physics and chemistry of life, of the organism, as I attempt to understand the truly awesome and fantastical phenomenon that is life itself.  I find it impossible to ignore the links between all of the sciences and it should not be too surprising that what one might learn in biology can have application for our own human species, including the social aspects of our lives, because whether we talk about art and beauty, economics or the institutions we share as humans, all are an outgrowth of our lives and the forces and cycles that govern us.  Primary among these is the phenomenon of relationship whether between the various ‘nested’ and interlinked cells in our own bodies or the countless organisms we share this world with, with which we in fact evolved, in both competitive and cooperative ways.  John Donne once pronounced in a poem that, ‘No man is an island’ and he meant that quite literally.  Our fate and health are all bound to one another whether we like it our not, in relationships which can be mutually beneficial, or, if we choose to ignore and deny them, in mutually destructive ways.  

Ecology is the study of a shared community of organisms, its description and how it all fits together, its relationships, ‘eco’ arising from the old greek word for household and logos, which speaks to order, purpose and form.  Economy, begins with that same concept of ‘household’ only its suffix comes from the greek word meaning management or distribution and refers to the function of the household, its processes and how it produces, distributes or apportions its resources and products…it refers to the actions whereby the ‘household’ lives, the actions, that characterize its many relationships.  In ancient Greece the economy revolved around the household.  In their world economic actions were not simply those by which a society achieves material ends, the Greeks also constrained it to those activities which resulted in ‘praiseworthy’ outcomes, those which provided a larger benefit to the household.  (Greek society, not perfect, was much like our own, placing women in a subservient role and was dependent upon slavery.  Like American democracy, it was exclusive, but capable of being expanded to include all peoples.) 

The two concepts remain closely linked though today our understanding of economy includes only those parts of the larger community’s operation, the money economy, that produces material benefit and wealth.  Any harm accrued or costs imposed on others is not directly relevant if such costs have been ‘outside’ of the transaction, beyond the responsibility of the buyer and seller’s deal.  Leaders have mutually decided to exclude all else.  We define our economy in a limited way that serves the production of wealth and its accumulation, making profit the purpose and most relevant factor in economic decision making, placing outside it that which we choose to, that which we under value and take for granted.  The two largest examples of this are our exclusion of domestic or women’s work, and the contribution of the environment.  To include them would radically change our economic calculations and the very concept of profit.

Profit is what remains after costs are considered.  To the degree that costs can be excluded then, profit is increased.  This ‘habit’ of exclusion extends throughout society and extends to whole sectors of the human population and beyond, distorting our decision making and the broader social and political structures that govern our lives….Our understanding of economics today exists outside of ethics.  Ethics and ethical behavior, if it is to factor into it, must be imposed.  That is the responsibility of a society through its political processes.  Such decisions lie within the realm of possibility though considerable power is aligned behind our current model and we behave as if they are fixed and unchangeable.   (See this PDF to understand how far our economic ideas have strayed from the thinking and goals of the ancient Greeks.)  The Greeks rightly recognized the economy as the engine of the ‘household’ and society, the system that, through nature’s largesse and human labor, creates that which sustains us.  It is necessary that an economy be regulated through rational decision making.  Such a system ‘freed’ of its responsibility to society to move it in a beneficial direction, is more likely to simultaneously squander its world and resources while failing to meet the needs of its people and the many species that comprise it.  The Greeks understood that by not limiting the pursuit of luxury the capacity of nature to fulfill its demands would be compromised.

This last year has driven this point home for me as the pandemic and our divisive politics, both plagues on this world, work to drive us apart.  These compound the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor, stranding ever more of the middle class on their own as well.  We’ve conflated what we want with what we need and released individual greed to pursue its ends freely.  I have been studying the topics of evolution, natural selection, random mutation and the role of energy in life, acting as a driving, creative, force behind evolution, increasing complexity and the self-organization of organisms, which in the world of physics are recognized as far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, taking higher quality energy in, utilizing it in their growth and metabolism, before exhausting it outside of their ‘bodies’.  Organisms have the ability to self-catalyze, reproduce and maintain themselves as long as energy flows through them uninterrupted.  These phenomenon lend weight to our understanding that life is not a random occurrence, there is something inevitable about it, the underlying physics and chemistry of the universe pushing the process.  Organisms are living, self-reinforcing, complex ‘nested’ systems, each composed of successful, dynamic patterns, that repeat in innumerable forms, between very narrow limits.  Organisms exist in the ‘moment’ along the energetic cusp between life and death, that sweet spot within which our chemistry and metabolism remain, between sub-critical and supra-critical states, stasis and conflagration.  There are countless lessons for us to learn from biology that we can apply to our own lives, because life is not an accident, nor is it a singular miraculous event…it is rooted within and powered by the forces of nature.

We exist within a complex network of organisms, a network of self-sustaining systems, made possible and animated by the flow of energy as it moves from low to high entropy, from order to randomness, sunlight ‘becoming’ living tissue, feeding successive trophic levels, endlessly cycling.   All of life exists in this singular moment entirely dependent upon the health and vitality of the whole, the process of which each individual is a part, with a role to play, which effects every living thing and of what will follow.  Through our broader economic behavior we have set ourselves outside of this essential process of nature.  We cannot know ultimately where this will take life, but we do know, with some confidence, that if we interrupt or compromise it, we put everything at risk.

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On the Necessity of Poetry in the World

In Pinnacles National Park on the High Peaks Trail

Unlike the Irish, who embrace and celebrate their poets, or the Japanese with their several centuries long history of haiku, we Americans embrace the rational, the utilitarian and too often jot our observations down in reductionist, artless lines….I know that is not always true, but face it, we scoff at poetry, unless it is dressed in the postures of hip-hop or pop culture, ambient lyrics vying for our attention in the ‘battle’ to attract customers.  Poets take as a given the mystery and beauty of life.  They do not shy away from the sharp edges and risks.  Like visual artists, whose eyes cause them to see the world in a multiplicity of ways, poets describe a mutable, ineffable world, that is different from moment to moment, whose ‘boundaries’ shift and transform that which they appear to contain…as if the world were an experiment in the shifting perspective of quantum physics….Poets ‘paint’ with swaths and scrawls of letters across the page, measured and rhythmic, a code, an illumination, a pathway they’ve scribed across a page, from heart to heart across the beating Earth.  We Americans crave solidity, a stable world where being and life are fixed and knowable…we leave the rest for God and the egg-heads as if these things don’t really matter to us…as they are beyond our ken and responsibility.  The world of the poet raises too many questions for us and questions can undermine the investment we’ve put into our fixed world image upon which we’ve staked our lives.  Americans are blindered gamblers and most of us have placed our bets on the same outcome.

I do read poetry…even attempt to write it sometimes.  I read science and history, politics and about the social ways of my fellows.  I garden and often agonize over what is ‘wrong’ in this world…what we can do to heal it.  Poetry teaches us that connection is often not found in a straight line.  Solution is not found in the old ways of thinking, ways that can only lead us down this path we seem to be fatally connected to.  Poetry is opening and inclusive, it speaks to what we share, what we stand to lose.  To read it requires something different of us, that we exercise and strengthen long neglected muscles, muscles that once moved us through our childhood worlds of wonder and awe.  The adult world has largely banished this, stripped life of wonder, and with it, the value integral to the heart of all things.  We scoff at those who speak of this, call them childish and dismiss them….This is what we’ve lost and the world so desperately needs today.  Continue reading

On Our Expulsion From the Garden: How Our Ideas of the Garden Shape What We Do

There are those who argue that life is short and violent, that we have nothing to look forward to other than our deaths…so we might as well grab for whatever we can now!….that is the path of the nihilist and the greedy, it serves as an excuse, a rationale for their choices, following an ethic of ‘why the hell not!’  This is consistent with the ‘beliefs’ of those who feel the weak get what they deserve, that anything that opposes their idea of dominance, is weakness and failure and they pursue it with the righteousness of a ‘true believer’.  “Only the strong survive”.  If our gardens can teach us anything it is instead that, ‘He/She who has the graciousness to take only what they need and gives back whatever they are able to, live on through the love and lives of those and that which they’ve nurtured, helped, befriended and mentored along the way and in this way have helped build a richer, more complex and diverse world.’  Our true legacy will be best expressed in the richness and health of the world we leave behind, of those that we’ve loved and taught.  As competitive as the world is, it is this positive, cooperative, supportive aspect of life that makes it all possible.  While the world is divided into heterotrophs and autotrophs, those that must consume to live and those able to grow and metabolize that which they need from the world around them, it requires them both, working in a balance to sustain them all.  We humans, ultimately, cannot be any different if the world is to continue on. Continue reading

A Look into Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and the Use of Neonicotinoids: A View from two Extremes, part 2

A bee working the large inflorescence of a Heptacodium miconoides.

A bee working the large inflorescence of a Heptacodium miconoides.

This is the second and last installment of my look at Jon Entine’s articles and the strategies he employs.  Here is a link to the first of my postings on this.

Part II: Bee Deaths And CCD – Flawed Chensheng Lu Harvard Studies Endanger Bees

By Jon Entine | November 24th 2014

Last week, in Part I of this two part series, “Bee Deaths Mystery Solved? Neonicotinoids (Neonics) May Actually Help Bee Health”, we explored the claims by Harvard School of Public Health researcher Chensheng Lu, heralded by anti-pesticide and anti-GMO advocacy groups, for his research that purportedly proves that the class of chemicals known as neonicotinoids are killing bees and endangering humans. And we saw how many journalists, our of ignorance or for ideological reason,s promote dicey science. 

(Some advocacy groups have latched on to Lu’s work looking for legitimacy and support. There has been a growing community of resistance to much that has been going on in the agro-chem-gentec industry that pre-dates Lu and his research. They have been challenging the multi-billion dollar industry on multiple fronts. On the other hand, it only takes a little checking to discover that Lu is often viewed as a ‘liability’ within the scientific community and a hinderence to their efforts by many in the community who have been advocating for good science in the political process that regulates these industries. They did not choose Lu nor do they now claim him as their champion. Entine, in his previous article strategically chose Lu as a ‘straw dog’ to represent his opposition, the “anti-pesticide and anti-GMO advocacy groups”, a target that he could then ‘tear down’ and then apply to the opposition groups as a whole, as if Lu, with his biases and ‘sloppy science’ were truly representative of them. In these articles, at least, Entine gets to choose. This strategy is becoming increasingly common when ‘industry’ and their front men, under attack, seek to ‘confuse’ the public thus reducing political pressure that might seek to limit them and their ability to conduct ‘business as usual’. Continue reading

A Look into Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and the Use of Neonicotinoids: A View from two Extremes, part 1

A bee visiting the flowers of an Edgewortia chrysantha in Washington Park.

A bee visiting the flowers of an Edgewortia chrysantha in Washington Park.

The following posting is built around an article written by Jon Entine in response to Chensheng Lu’s claims that Neonicotinoides, synthetic Nicotine, a commonly used ‘group’ of insecticides in modern conventional agriculture, are at the heart of CCD.  There is a link to the original Entine article posted on his site, the Genetic Literacy Project ,it also appears, on the Science 2.0, website.  There is a second Entine article as well addressing more directly Lu’s ‘science and Entine’s conclusions that I will deal with in a later posting.   I began this after reading it several weeks ago on Facebook and was initially, convinced by it that Lu was in fact practicing bad science and that bothered me, because Entine’s article was ‘pushing’ me so hard to get to that conclusion.  Later, the topic kept popping up on my radar as I saw calls for bans of neonics here in the US.  I more recently was puzzled by what I found on the Xerces Society website regarding the issue…so I decided to look a little deeper.  What follows is still a beginning, an attempt to winnow the ‘wheat from the chaff’.  There are many more questions to ask if we are to make a responsible decision on this issue.  Such things are never simple when fallible humans and corporations are involved. Continue reading

Blurfillication and the Neutering of Language

[Okay.  Every once in awhile you’re going to have to allow me one of these.  I am a horticulturist and a word guy.  Communication is hard enough even without interest groups screwing around with our language!!!  Throw in the taxonomists endlessly resorting families and genera…and I can’t hardly think.]

Before you start, I offer this in the way of a little explanation:  In my previous life as a horticulturist working for the City of Portland Parks and Recreation, I attended more meetings than I want to think about, and I was a field guy.  One series of them focused on “sustainable landscapes”.  I felt like I might as well have been sitting there with a bunch of Russian and Chinese speakers, I mean no disrespect, but I have absolutely no facility for foreign languages.  English and botanical latin pretty well max me out.  I could not believe how many different interpretations of the phrase there were.  To me it was very simple and very clear…somebody either stole the word sustainable and transformed it or I was asleep that day in class when they passed out the definitions.  That is where the following comes from…that and my own often off the wall associations….

Blurfillious: \ˈblər fil-le-yəs\ adj, the quality or state of having been rendered meaningless, generally applied to words themselves not the actual objects or actions. Continue reading