Blog/What is the New Story?
There are so many calls for a new story to live by. I seem to be encountering novel calls at least once a month. Each call points out the same thing; that the story we are currently living is broken. They point out that the current story is about our separateness from the rest of the living world, about our role as rulers or stewards of the world. They say that we need a new story that talks about us being part of the natural world, about our role as contributors and participants in the natural world.
But what is this new story. Of the calls that I have read, only Daniel Quinn's Ishmael dares to give even an outline. He says that we must live as if we belong to the world rather than the other way around. So do most of the others but he goes further and describes what that means.
He says that the way we farm is the biggest problem. And it isn't just a call for organic farming that he is making. That simply doesn't go far enough. The call is not simply for permaculture. Again that isn't far enough. The call is for an end to farming and to the assumptions that underlie farming.
To have a farm is to own a region of land. To own a region of land is to hold the right to control that land and everything on it. Owning a farm is acting as if the world belongs to humans rather than the other way around.
The new story demands a new relationship with the land. It demands that we belong to the land. Perhaps we simply have to be owned by farms. But what would that mean? To be owned by a region of land is not to be owned by those who control the land; it is not slavery. Probably better to come at it from another direction.
What is held sacred in our current broken story? We have our sacred values still and they have not changed much since Biblical times. We still hold human life sacred. We hold the agency of the individual as sacred. We hold our abilities to live in a relationship of peace and trust with each other as sacred.
All these sacred values are about human relationships. And certainly we need to maintain and even grow relationships between humans. But the new story demands that we take new sacred values on and place them higher than the old story values.
The new story demands that we place species diversity above human life. The new story demands that we hold the vitality of the living world higher than individual agency or even individual survival. It demands we surrender our destinies to laws about peace and trust between species.
Daniel Quinn gives us some of those laws. Thou shalt not exterminate your predators though you may defend yourself from them to the best of your ability. One may use any defence except one may not use offence as a defense. One may not exterminate a species to protect individuals.
Thou shalt not exterminate your competitors. Compete to the best of your ability. But do not hunt your competitors to extinction in order to have all your prey for yourself. You can protect the prey that you have taken, preserve it to eat later, store it where your competitors can't get it. You can store more than you need for this meal and even this year but you can't take it all. Somewhere in between is a place of sanity which will be clear when you are living in the new story. You cannot exterminate your competitors by denying them food or a place to live.
But Quinn's laws tell you what you can't do. We need examples of how to live within the law. And there are billions of humans. How do we feed them without breaking the law? Daniel Quinn says we can't because if we feed them all then the population will grow. He says that we must allow famine in order to bring human population under control. But this isn't true. The best fed populations of humans are shrinking not growing. Only in places where there is threat of famine do population grow.
Why is this so? It is because humans are highly adaptable. We switch between r strategy and K strategy easily. Animals that use r-strategy concentrate on their ability to multiply. In population dynamics, there is a general equation which governs population growth, stability and fluctuation. Plug the right values into the equation and you can get a decent simulation of the population curve for any particular animal. One of the variables, r, defines growth rate. Plug a large value for r into the equation and you get rapid growth which quickly overshoots the ability of the environment to support the population. The curve then drops precipitously almost to extinction; a famine driven population crash. Animals with high r values are said to have an r strategy. Locusts are r-strategists.
In the same equation, K defines the ability of the environment to support the organism. Animals that aim to reach K and stay there must control their growth in proportion to the food available. For these animals r is not a constant but a function of the environment. These animals will actually reduce their reproduction not just when food is rare but when they predict that it will soon become rare. Gorillas are K type strategists.
Humans can vary their strategy. In the developed world, we have reduced our r value and are aiming at a K value. The problem is that our breach of Gaia's laws has allowed us to artificially increase the K value of the environment for humans at the expense of every other organism except our food.
So we need to teach the whole world not just to give up r strategies but to aim at a lower K value. We also have to start living within Gaia's laws.
Living within Gaia's laws basically means that you have to let Life as a whole live. This means that you must look at your relationships with other organisms in a new way. But it also means that you must look at your relationship with the land in a new way.
Life lives on surfaces. Surfaces are boundaries between two realms and at boundaries resources from two realms may be combined. Life survives by catalysing the combination of resources. Plants take carbon dioxide from the air, light from the Sun, and water and minerals from the soil and combine them. This is why plants live on the surface of the Earth. Floating around in the sky they would be unable to access the minerals they need. Buried underground they would not be able to access the sunlight and carbon dioxide they need.
Animals too live at boundaries. The most powerful examples are fish-eating sea birds which dive from the air into the water to get their food. They take oxygen from the air and fish meat from the sea and combine them to power their lives. Furthermore, many of them nest on rocky shores where little grows and predators have trouble reaching them. By abandoning their nesting sites on barren lands for part of the year, they starve out their predators and then can nest in peace for the other part of the year while they bring food across the barriers of sea surface and shoreline.
But Life doesn't just live on surfaces. When it is most successful, it actually increases the surface area of surfaces, increasing the area over which resources can combine. Plants don't just grow as a single flat smooth layer over the land. Trees are covered in layer after layer of leaves. Grasses extend a profusion of blades up from the surface of the soil. Underground roots and rootlets branch and rebranch. The surface area of leaves in a living environment and the surface area of roots in a living environment are each much higher than the surface area of the land. The new story speaks of this increasing surface area as sacred. Because of this it recognizes the organisms that create surface area, all plants but especially trees as sacred.
This increase in surface area also leads to an increase in volume. As plants grow taller and roots dig deeper a greater and greater volume of space is carved out by Gaia's Kingdom. The corals and kelp in the sea do the same thing. The new story recognizes this increasing volume given over to Gaia's kingdom as sacred. Because of this it recognizes the organisms which create this volume as sacred.
Many organisms find ways to make livings by living between the leaves and roots of the plants or between the digits and branches of coral. As the volume of the living system increases so does the mass. The new story recognizes the mass of life, its biomass, as sacred.
In these spaces between roots, branches, leaves and digits, new microclimates are created. For instance think of the dark, cool, still humidity of ground level in a rain forest grading upward to the windy, hot, bright and dryer environment of the upper branches. This leads to tremendous diversity of forms; the giant trees themselves, the slow growing, shade tolerant shrubs that grow on the forest floor and the epiphytes that carefully conserve water as they grow on the upper branches of the trees. But this increased diversity leads to further increases in diversity as various organisms find ways to feed on one type of plant while finding shelter among another type of plant. As the number of plant species growing within a biome increases the number of opportunities (niches) for animals and funguses to make different livings increases even more quickly. New animals and funguses create new opportunities for other animals and funguses to evolve that take advantage of relationships with the first animals and funguses. These relationships come in many forms, predatory, parasitic, or mutually beneficial. The new story recognizes this diversity of life as sacred.
So as People of Gaia, living as if we belong to the world, we must view every square meter of the Earth as sacred, as belonging to the living Gaian community of Life. We must strive to increase the surface area of Life in the environments around us. We must do this in such a way as to increase the volume of space that Life occupies and to increase the biomass that occupies that space. Most of all, we must do this in a way that increases the diversity of Life around us. Instead of living with a mantra of "yuck" so that we are driven to eliminate the species that bother us and disgust us, we must live with a mantra of "yum", welcoming every species we encounter into the environment around us.
This doesn't mean that we must allow every form of vermin into our dens, to eat our stored supplies and bite us while we sleep. But it does mean that we must define the border between the dens that we defend against intruders and the 'outside' where we welcome all creatures. It means that when we define that border, we must place it as close to our bodies as we can. It does not mean that we must live in crowded coffins hidden away from the world. We must not live as if we are separate from Gaia's world of Life. And so we must not see ourselves as living in those Dens in our own world away from Life. Instead we must see ourselves as living in the world and we must see our Dens as places where we retreat to in order to rest and find that extra bit of safety that we might need once in a while.
And as People of Gaia who see every square meter of the Earth as sacred, we will see the roofs of our Dens and other buildings as blasphemous if they are not green with wild exuberant Life. We will see every roadway as blasphemous if it is not covered over in wild exuberant Life. Perhaps the roads will pass between huge trees whose canopies close over the roads. Perhaps the roads will be buried under built structures that support growing plants. The same will be true of our roofs. Perhaps we will keep our buildings small and spread out enough that a solid canopy of trees reaches over them. Perhaps we will build them solid enough to support the weight of soil and root and trunk so that the forest grows on top of our cities. Perhaps we will hang tiny buildings among the branches of trees.
But now imagine where we will grow our food. Imagine that your region was a forest before agrarians came along and saw the land as property, as a resource to exploit, and cleared it for lumber and fuel and a place to grow crops.
This will be true for a huge portion of the world's population seeing as we have cleared a large fraction of the world's forests. To live by Gaia's laws is to grow those forests back. It won't be enough to grow orchards, not even organic orchards with shade grown ground crops, and not even permaculture orchards with a huge variety of native and wild plants all of which provide food for humans.
It means growing the forests back with the same variety of native species that were there before. Where I live it would be oaks, maples, beeches, birches, spruces, pines, hemlocks, balsams, white cedars, aspens, poplars, sumacs and a huge variety of others. As that forest comes back you learn to do two things. You learn to eat the native plants and you learn to insert food plants into the mix. So yes, you make certain there is a good representation of native crab apples and choke cherries and plum trees and walnut and you learn to prepare beech nuts and maple syrup and birch beer and spruce beer. But you also add artificially selected breeds of apple and pear. Anywhere there is enough light, a clearing where a large tree was felled by a storm for instance or before the trees have grown tall, you add a large variety of vegetables. You add all of this the way permaculturists might, using mixed seed bombs that release their randomized seed load slowly into the environment keeping the food plants in higher representation than normal on the land.
Later on when the forest is climaxing and there is little sunlight filtering through between the huge trees, you may find novel ways to grow food in the forest. You might send small robots that can maneuver through the forest without damaging the vegetation to carry grafts of fruit and nut trees into the canopy and graft them into place high up where they can get plenty of sun. Then the robots will return to the canopy to harvest the fruits and nuts later. Bringing them back down to you to preserve and keep for the long winter and to eat fresh in the fall.
New technologies, we will embrace where they follow Gaia's laws. High efficiency solar panels can be placed high in the trees and from them, high efficiency (LED perhaps) grow lights can be dangled down to near ground level allowing sun hungry vegetables to grow on the otherwise dark forest floor.
And when the deer come and eat the food you were counting on what do you do? There are several things that you do. You may hunt the odd one to eat. It seems cruel but it is part of the balance of nature. You are within Gaia's law if you hunt a few to eat but you are not within Gaia's law if you exterminate them or exclude them from "your" land. You must accept that you will share your food with them and with rabbits and with mice. You will belong to the forest that you nurture and a forest is not only made of trees and plants but also of the huge variety of animals that live in it.
But why did not the entire forest get eaten by deer back before agrarians came and cut it down? The answer, where I live, was cougars and wolves. And so if you are to grow the whole forest back you must also grow the wolves and the cougars back. You will have to find a way to keep a small pack of wolves and if the forest you steward is large enough perhaps a few cougars. As long as we are few in number, we who live by Gaia's law, we will not be able to let the predators who share our forest wander onto the land that is seen as belonging to our agrarian neighbours. So perhaps we will install an electronic fence and collar these predator brothers so that they cannot follow the deer and the rabbits and the mice that escape from the lands we steward. For, if they visit the herds that our agrarian neighbours claim to own, then they will surely be exterminated. So the buried fence will allow the herbivores to pass unchallenged but the large carnivores will get a signal and then a shock if they try to leave "our" lands. By doing this we will enable the lands we steward to support a full ecosystem.
Now, as you walk through your neighbourhood, imagine living in a civilization that lives by Gaia's laws. You live under the cool shaded canopy of a continuous forest that stretches for thousands of miles in every direction. You may still drive cars once in a while but the roads never leave the shade of the forest except to disappear under ground or under buildings. Public transit does the same. Even bike paths never leave the trees. Skyscrapers like cliffs pop up through the canopy but soil filled balconies support native plants and small trees clinging to the sides of the buildings like the trees that live along the escarpments. Small forests cling to inset microclimates on the roofs of the skyscrapers. Neighbourhoods of treehouses gently sway rocking their occupants to sleep.
Everywhere robots bring food to hungry citizens carefully balancing what they take and how they seed the forest in order to keep diversity even higher than the old native forests achieved. The air and water are clean. The climate is stable. The soil is rich. The citizens are happy. They are living a story in which they are not at war with their mother, Gaia. They are living a story in which humanity contributes to the surface area and volume that Gaia occupies. They are living a story in which humanity helps increase both the biomass and the diversity of Gaia. It isn't paradise but it would be a good place to live. Together, we can build it.
And as we build it we will dream further. We will test each dream that we dream asking, "Would this dream increase the surface area and volume which Gaia occupies? Would it increase her biomass and diversity?" If the answer is yes, then we will add that dream to our program of contributions to Gaia. We will examine the idea of working to identify asteroids and comets that threaten to impact the Earth and then finding ways to deflect them. We will find that asteroid impacts and comet impacts decrease the surface area and volume that Gaia occupies. We will find that asteroid and comet impacts decrease her biomass and diversity. And so we will find that deflecting them is work that contributes to Gaia. We will take up the work of NEAR with enthusiasm.
We will analyse the idea of taking fresh water from rivers just before they flow into the sea and pumping it upland into deserts to irrigate the deserts and turn deserts into forests. We will find that such work increases the surface area and volume occupied by Gaia. We will find that it increases her biomass and diversity. We will carefully take up this work, trying to avoid damaging the estuaries and the rivers, trying to avoid too harsh an impact against the organisms that live in the deserts. But we will take up this project anyway because it represents a righteous contribution to Gaia.
We will analyse the idea of desalinating sea water to increase the amount of water available for the irrigation of deserts and find that it is also a righteous idea. We will take it up with caution, finding ways to add the salt to the sea without causing imbalances in the salinity of the sea. We will continue to be cautious about protecting some of the habitat of desert organisms so that we do not lose diversity as we raise biomass.
We will analyse the idea of using genetic engineering to create trees which can grow where trees do not presently grow. We will do this with caution taking centuries to test and carefully integrate these new organisms into the biosphere. But we will take it up as a way to increase the diversity and biomass of Gaia and to spread her more deeply over new area.
We will analyse the idea of bringing Life to lifeless worlds. We will carefully search Mars and Ceres and the Moons of Jupiter for Life and where we find none we will find a way to seed Life. We will do this because these will be truly new surfaces upon which Gaia might spread and diversify and increase her biomass. In fact, this will truly make Gaia a mother god, giving birth to baby gods. What else could we call these new biospheres which arise on new worlds but the gods of those worlds? At least this is metaphorical truth that, as much as Gaia is the body of all Life on Earth, a child of Gaia who was the body of all Life on Ceres would be a metaphorical god also.
What other ideas will come forward as we accept that it is to be our contribution to Gaia, to help Gaia increase in surface area, volume, mass and diversity? Imagine the legacy of humanity.