Living in this World

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#107 Microorganisms and Fertility

There’s something about the earth that calls to me. I love the feel of a good rich soil, knowing how it nourishes the plants we depend on to stay alive. I love making compost, finding earthworms, breaking up clumps of soil with my hands to create a bed for new seeds. So I’m thrilled to be reading a book that links the fertility of our soil with our wealth. At one point it talks about all the millions of microorganisms in every little bit of good soil. Those microorganisms have never gotten much respect. Scientists have been much more interested in how adding fertilizers and pesticides can increase yields. But they also know that after a while you have to add more fertilizers to get an increase, and then you have to add even more to maintain that yield, and then, even with such high dosages, crop yields start to decline.

Why? It seems that those heavy doses of fertilizers and pesticides kill off the microorganisms, so you end up with the soil as a sterile medium, useful only for receiving outside inputs and physically holding up the plants. And for some reason, that’s just not enough to make them thrive. Nobody seems to know exactly what all those microorganisms are and how they all work together, but it turns out that they’re critical to the fertility of the soil.

Well, this got me thinking. None of those microorganisms make the difference by themselves. But that big community all working together creates something of enormous value. It reminds me of human communities, creating culture, creating wealth, creating a fertile place for people to thrive. But I worry that we’re losing our fertility. The external inputs that seemed so hopeful when they were first introduced--the consumer products, the commercial entertainment, the advertising--are killing off the vitality of our soil. For a while it seemed like more inputs led to increased well-being, but as the doses got heavier, the rate of increase in quality of life slowed down, and now, despite continued, ever more feverish expansion of external inputs, our well-being is steadily declining.

The loss of good soil is a serious problem; it’s hard to even get one’s mind around the world-wide implications for feeding our planet in the face of such degradation. But I find reason for hope in my compost pile. It’s not impossible to create good soil. It’s not impossible to nurture the conditions that allow those microorganisms to find each other and start working their magic together again.

Similarly, I think we need to take ourselves very seriously as the microorganisms of society. We don’t have to accept our communities becoming an ever-more sterile medium into which ever-increasing doses of mass culture are necessary to prop up ever-more uniform lives. We can build up our resistance to those outside inputs which are poisoning the soil of our communities. We can put our energies to interacting with each other and creating richness from that interaction. The process remains a mysterious one. We may not know exactly how it happens, but it seems to be true that we, working together, with each other, are the only hope for a renewed fertility of our degraded culture.

A new economy is possible!

Do people need to eat? A recent economic study asserted that, since agriculture accounts for only 3% of some key indicator, losing that sector would not have much impact on the overall system. This scenario--an economy whose numbers stays healthy without agriculture, while its people try to manage without food--is a mind-bender.

We bend our minds, struggling to make sense of these things, when the answer is right in front of our faces, too simple to see: they don’t make any sense. This way of thinking about economics cannot solve our problems. We’ll have to wade in among the experts, brush past the thick curtains of numbers, and demand that our economic system be based squarely on the needs of its constituent human beings.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The continued success of the Occupy movement in bringing economic justice into the public conversation.

The response of the citizens of Iceland to the collapse of their privatized banking system: refusing to take on the debt, launching penal investigations into those responsible, and rewriting their constitution--with popular input--to free the country from the power of international finance. (google "Why Iceland should be in the news")

Elderly Catholic nuns who are well-informed and sharp about international finance, global trade, and liberation theology.

The Philadelphia Orchard Project, that gathers folks in poor neighborhoods of the city to plant little orchards--beautifying their blocks and enriching their diets at the same time.

Check out:, a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years.

Also: START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.

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If you're in Philadelphia and want to move your money out of a big bank, go