Responsibility for regeneration

By Mary Odum

Examples can be powerful

I’m housesitting in Alaska, and my return to a place where Mother Nature is in charge once again motivates me to express myself. The front yard of this house is a beautiful rock garden which is low maintenance, and fertilizer and pesticide-free. But the real front yard for this house is the back yard, which backs to 780 square miles of Chugach State Park and its pristine wilderness. That view is grounding, reminding me of what the world looked like before the fossil-fueled growth of the past two centuries. Can we return to that view after the fossil fuels are gone, with clear

Anchorage back yard
Anchorage back yard

air, drinkable water, and an intact food chain? Do we just throw up our hands and accept die-off? Or do we actively work towards a more balanced society? Who’s going to do that and how do we start? This post is about prosaic lawn reform as a symbol of change and personal responsibility for the environment, but first I’m going to wander in synthesis through the threads of current events, to pull that theme together.

Many chaotic current events compete for our attention, yet the speed with which they are occurring suggests we are in an era of tipping points. How does one describe the collapse of an empire—where do we start with so much chaos in the world, and a global world view that promotes the mandate for economic growth? Do we begin with politics, or culture, or the financial system, pollution, or even renewable energy? Those competing current events are all related, but only if we use systems thinking to view the picture at a larger scale. The focus of most people on single causes such as climate change, or politics, or tech-happy solar futures, is comforting, since reductionism to single cause issues creates solutions such as adding technology (and thus more energy and pollution) allows us to keep on with our lifestyles. We tell ourselves (or we read too much Grist or Treehugger who tell us) that we don’t have to do anything except to buy more technology—we can keep what we’ve got, and the problems lie at the larger scale with us as helpless victims. We can buy a Prius (or a Tesla!), or a solar panel, and just keep on trucking, while blaming a powerful other, such as a presidential candidate, or Exxon, when it is the entire system, including us, who is responsible. Voting for one political party or the other is inadequate. Staying quiet while xenophobia and gun violence takes hold of your country is inadequate. Focusing on single cause environmentalist issues is not enough.

Reductionism closes the conversation to the real problem of growth, and the big picture, creating denial and a comforting absolution to Business as Usual (BAU). Reductionism allows us to fit in culturally to a world whose religion is economic growth, but it is a form of self-deceit. Our mandate that insists on the economic need for growth has to change in order for us to accept our personal responsibilities in all of this, and not blame our problems on scapegoats or find solutions that just make things worse.

Relocalization is coming, are you ready?

The political and financial circus this month related to Brexit is an illustration of what reductionism does to our thought processes. Most reduce the issue to politics, suggesting that those against Brexit are wealthy “haves” who support the status quo and further globalization. Those for Brexit are angry reactionaries to immigration of war refugees or reactionaries to their own poverty. But viewed from the larger scale, in a political world in overshoot still striving for even more globalization through the Trans Pacific Partnership in the face of diminishing energy production, Brexit is the first step in de-globalization, with smaller economies, local currencies, and more self-interest in contrast to corporate interest. A future with less energy will become more local politically, with retraction into geographically smaller political entities. It will become smaller culturally, with problems such as xenophobia and increasing violence, as political boundaries reshuffle as the system’s response to resource imbalances. Relocalization will result in healthier cultural shifts such as cultural de-homogenization and less complexity. The new world order promoters may have overreached their boundaries with their machinations about the TPP. Globalization promotes economic growth, resource extraction and consumption, resource imbalances, and increasing corporate power, while further skewing trade imbalances and heightening disparities between haves and have-nots. The fact that there are only several brief, emotional articles on Brexit as a step towards de-globalization, that view de-globalization as an economic threat, emphasizes how blindly focused on growth our world views have become. So how is Brexit, a global, political issue, related to responsibility for ecological generation? Descent is here, and it is visible on the global scale in terms of political events and widespread industrial-scale pollution. It is time to understand why things are happening, so that we can avoid looking for scape goats, and begin taking responsibility for the process of personal change.

For fertilizer, more is better?

waterflowThe uproar this week in south Florida from Okeechobee water releases that created heavy algae blooms on beaches on both coasts, which is being billed as “playa guacamole,” contributes to my theme of personal responsibility for ecological regeneration. Suddenly, cumulative and repeated phosphorus and nitrogen overuse and runoff have reached a tipping point, and are visibly damaging economies. While there is a lot of talk in Florida of removing septic tanks, or shifting water from Okeechobee into new land purchases south of the lake, that doesn’t fix the real problem, which is runoff from fertilizer (and pesticides) in south Florida, combined with a long history of channelization of the Everglades and damming of the Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers. And when released water gets to the coast, it dumps onto beaches and into canals, instead of being absorbed into what was historically nutrient-buffering Everglades, estuaries and mangroves, letting Mother Nature do the work and deal with the overload. We are what we eat, and industrial scale waste has to go somewhere. It’s just that now, the problems have gotten so big that the damage is visible from space, and smell-able on both coasts, becoming a tipping point. Environmental refugees—it’s a thing, and closer to home than one might think. I have already met one environmental refugee in Gainesville this month, who moved away from the Treasure coast disaster in the Port St. Lucie area. Industrial scale fertilizer—it’s a problem, and if you have a lawn and use fertilizer, you contribute to the problem.

The water picture in north Florida is more hopeful. I support the Florida Springs Institute, and I’ve been mulling the role of springs advocacy in the bigger picture. The assaults on Florida springs include urban and agricultural water withdrawals, urban and agricultural fertilizer, dairy and cattle ranches, neighborhood lawn run-off, and septic tanks. Many of these problems are large-scale problems secondary to growth, which are difficult to impact or influence when competing with powerful corporate and big agriculture lobbies. Well, they are difficult to impact until a problem becomes visible from space—then people get riled and tipping points occur. Large-scale movements often attack powerful others such as corporations or politicians who are one component of the problem—in the case of south Florida’s current phosphorus pollution crisis the scape goats are Big Sugar and Florida’s governor. But there are things that we can do, once we recognize that we are all contributing to the problem, since we are participants in an economic system in extreme overshoot, where we use energy intensely, eat the products of industrial agriculture, and live in suburbs where we create toxic runoff. The system needs to change radically, and change begins with us. We contribute to the problem, and our beliefs about growth need to change. If you still believe that economic growth and development is necessary and good, at the expense of what is left of our environmental support system, then you contribute to the problem. This view includes many environmentalists—are you one of them?

The war on nature—are you a foot soldier in it?

highpressurepesticidespraytruckThe answer to environmental problems is not more technology. My pond is a microcosm of what is happening at the larger scale. Pesticide companies commonly spray entire yards in the neighborhood, using a large high-pressure hose. Neighborhood runoff from heavy fertilizer and pesticide users in the neighborhood creates duckweed blooms in the pond, and heavy toxin loads. Then neighbors treat the “unsightly” duckweed by spraying the pond with 2, 4-D and Roundup, using an airboat. Those pesticides are in addition to routine municipal spraying for mosquitoes, which will probably increase now that media hyperventilation about Zika is creating anxiety. Why is the Zika threat being promoted so heavily in the media, relative to other problems? Is it amenable to pesticides, and what happens when we bombard our environs with even more pesticides than the scale we are producing now, due to Zika, with resulting die-offs? Won’t pesticides do more harm than good if the poisons kill the birds, bees, bats, and other insects that eat the mosquitoes? Severe declines in these populations mirror a rapid rise in global pesticide use.

Last fall the cumulative effect of pesticide use was a sudden frog die-off in the pond, which probably also ironically increased the mosquito population, since there was less natural mosquito larvae control. This month, there was a large fish-kill which was probably related to the heavy pesticide load, a 6-inch rain dump after a tropical depression with heavy runoff, and summer heat.  Heavy pulses of pesticides and fertilizer overwhelm the pond, and Mother Nature can’t keep up.

Personal responsibility for regeneration

Gunderson & Hollings, 2002
Gunderson & Hollings, 2002 Regeneration now?

Ecological regeneration can begin on our own small plot of land if we are homeowners. We have some control over our own yards, and a change in behavior can change cultural values, reduce pollution, reduce consumption, and promote ecological generation. Examples can be powerful. We can do something, if we own pesticide and fertilizer-fueled lawns. If you still have one of these lawns, and consider yourself an environmentalist, you contribute to the problem.

Why do we have lawns anyway? The last two centuries of fossil-fueled growth encouraged us to believe that we could all live as kings and queens, to the manner born. The clipped, irrigated, fertilized, and pesticide-laden yard is a symbol of first world success and potential royalty in an economy that never stops growing, in the same way that our political royalty symbolizes everyman’s dream of being a millionaire. At some point soon, we will reject symbols of growth. Natural places will be in greater demand, as places of peace and natural prosperity. Lawn reform is energy-saving, time-saving, quieter, healthier, cheaper, and better for the environment.

We can be the change, beginning today. Plant trees, as they take a long time to grow. Convert your lawn to native plants. Stop irrigating, except for watering new plantings by hand. Stop using fertilizers and pesticides. Begin building soil instead of depleting it. Compost on your property, Return hardscapes to permeable surfaces, and use rain barrels and rain gardens to limit runoff. Use a corner to plant an organic vegetable garden if there’s room and sun, to add to your sustainability. Foster a complete ecosystem for the critters. And finally, talk to your neighbors and friends about the changes and why you’re doing them. While you’re at it, talk to the person who manages your kid’s soccer field, or the golf course. Why are you letting your children roll around on a carpet of pesticides, or eat food grown by a poison-maker?

Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County is back Breathed’s Bloom County is back

packraftAt some point, we may not be able to buy fertilizers and pesticides anyway, or water may become costly or unavailable for irrigation. A yard full of native plants is non-carcinogenic (especially to vulnerable children and pets), and drought and heat tolerant in the face of climate change. In an era with less electricity, trees in the north can be used for firewood and in the south for shade and cooling. And economics may dictate that we use our time and money for more important things than mowing and dumping chemicals on the lawn. Besides, would you rather be mowing your lawn or exploring the great outdoors? So avoid the rush—working with nature takes time, especially if you want to grow trees. Lawn reform is also a personal solution for any of the single-cause environmentalist issues that the media is now focused on, including climate change, toxins, biodiversity, and fresh water use. If you have a treated, monoculture lawn, you are have a role to play in repairing environmental damage. Here are some interesting groups working on lawn reform.

Yards are the next frontier of conservation

  • Thanks, Mary! You’ve been missed!

    I get in a lot of trouble for not maintaining a lawn the way people think we should. But we put goats on it, and I periodically scythe down the stuff they won’t eat standing, like thistles and nettles, which they then oblige when the sting goes away after cutting.

    We used about eight cubic metres (eight yards) of goat manure in our garden beds last year. They harvest the sunshine and package it in a form we can use directly (milk) and indirectly (manure)!

    I’m also glad to see a Panarchy diagram here, although one might see it as somewhat defeatist to note that we are simply behaving the way the “ruler of everything” dictates.

    Perhaps on your way between Alaska and Florida you can come by for a visit.

  • Brian

    It is amazing and confounding to be in a world with so many choices. Like this year, I replaced my water heater to a heat pump and cut my electricity usage by a third which with gov subsidies will pay for itself in a year and installed a thermosyphon on the side of my house and cut my fuel oil usage in half which payed for itself the first winter. But these were all choices based on being a “consumer” using market signaling. What does a heat pump do? Can we have someone do a net emergy savings analysis for us? Will the greenhouse film I used on the thermosyphon cause Jan Steinman to breakdown and cry while it chokes the ocean food chain in 10 years after its useful life?

    And just recently the number of people in the park I run in everyday has doubled in the middle of a heat wave. Great you say, but why? Because of the new augmented reality game Pokémon Go. Not sure how much of the video it feeds to the corporate panopticon, but what do they do with it? Especially when the prime minister of Isreal is playing and tweeting it.

    I feel pulled forward, making choices like a passenger on a white water rapid adventure that has been thrown overboard flailing to reach for some safety. Questions seem all I have left, which makes for some interesting writing. Can I make three paragraphs using only questions and still make a point?

    Best to you Mary and Jan! Glad to see your both still alive and doing.


    • Will the greenhouse film I used on the thermosyphon cause Jan Steinman to breakdown and cry while it chokes the ocean food chain in 10 years after its useful life?

      Yes, even while I do the same.

      I’m trying mightily to salvage a glass greenhouse that is 40 years old (and which should have at least that left in it, barring major hail storms). We are not able to offer much for it — and we will have to borrow what we can offer for it — but the institution is balking, and may put it up for public auction.

      The “ace in the hole” is that they want to build a LEED-certified parking garage in its spot. (Ugh. Don’t get me started.) I can certify that the greenhouse will get re-used, while if they put it up for auction, it will probably be chopped up and sold for scrap, which will cause them to “lose points” on their LEED certification. We have a champion in the organization, but he’s a relatively low-level bureaucrat, and is waiting to see what the upper echelons decide.

      I figure the longer the process runs, the better our chances. At some point, the building crew for the parking structure is going to arrive, and some muckety-muck will say, “GET THIS THING OUT OF HERE!” So we’re just waiting…

      Such games we have to play to do “sustainable development” — an oxymoron if I ever heard one! I dare say that if all the externalities were included, a glass greenhouse would be cheaper than a plastic one…

      • “I feel pulled forward, making choices like a passenger on a white water rapid adventure that has been thrown overboard flailing to reach for some safety.” And LEED-certified parking garages, of all things, how delusional. Amen. It is frustrating to watch the defense mechanisms people use to defend life in the fast lane.

        Here’s someone else who sees the worldview piece, at least–he’s an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. Poor guy, writing from within the “Global development professionals network” at the Guardian–what an uphill battle.

        “But when it comes to climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using, it’s what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this…..

        ….The climate movement made an enormous mistake. We focused all our attention on fossil fuels, when we should have been pointing to something much deeper: the basic logic of our economic operating system. After all, we’re only using fossil fuels in the first place to fuel the broader imperative of GDP growth……

        ….Our focus on fossil fuels has lulled us into thinking we can continue with the status quo so long as we switch to clean energy, but this is a dangerously simplistic assumption. If we want to stave off disaster, we need to confront its underlying cause.”

        IMO, it is irresponsible or delusional at this point to promote renewables without first describing the limits of a society that renewables could support.

        I am reading The Mandibles right now by Lionel Shriver. I highly recommend it. The first half of the book pegs our near term economic future (the next 5 years) in high-resource countries, IMO.

        Edit to add: Brian, come up with three paragraphs of questions, and I’ll publish them.

  • cognizantfox

    Thank you for writing Mary. Reading words I agree with causes a release of dopamine so it always feels good to read your writing! I struggle too with the enormity of the ecological challenge we face and our tendency to focus on a symptom of that problem rather than the root case. I’ve been interested lately in a couple things related not to the ecological problem but the neurological one.

    Research indicates the human brain did not evolve as a tool to make decisions about threats that are complex, distant, largely invisible, and require solutions perceived not as gains but costs (see Complicating efforts to make progress is the likelihood that those resistant to change will use advocates’ “hypocrisy” to damage their credibility and thus their argument (see

    I have a feeling the way to make real progress on most of our problems is really to understand ourselves.

    Enjoy your time here in Alaska. I hope the creative juices continue to flow!

    • Maia

      “the way to make real progress on most of our problems is really to understand ourselves.” Truth rings pleasingly even when it means a whole lot of work ahead of us… Thanks.

    • And a happy, HOT, BAKING, summer day in Alaska to you too, Mr. Fox. I was hoping for some cool, rainy days–not so much. There are not many climate change disbelievers in Alaska.

      I’ll repost one of the links–Disqus chewed them up. The study suggests, basically, that actions speak louder than words for climate researchers’ impact. You’d better walk the walk in order to be listened to.

      But if I’m a climate change researcher, that means I can still buy a Tesla to get around in, support a transition to 100% renewables with solar panels, clean coal, and nuclear, and still be influential . . . . as long as I make up fiction about the environmental accounting for it, based on CO2 alone and ignoring most of the environmental and energetic costs.

  • Maia

    Mary, I admire your thinking so much, very illustrative of the kind of “start from the Whole” view we need to take. But how in the world does a reader sign up for notification of new artilces and comments? Looked and looked, with no luck. Can you advise? 🙂

    • Hi, Maia, thanks for your interest. The subscribe button is in the left hand column on any page–scroll down past the three search functions and you’ll see a subscribe button. If it doesn’t work, email Thanks!

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