Seeing Ourselves within the Web of Life
It is hard to imagine, but prior to the Apollo space program in the 1960s, no human had ever seen the image of the earth against the backdrop of space. Children today are inundated
with such imagery and don't think much about it. But the first images from this new perspective had a profound effect on the American psyche.
From space there are no visible boundaries or cultural divides, just a beautiful blue marble alone in an infinitely large universe. From space it is readily apparent that all life is interconnected, that the fate of humanity is directly linked to the fate of planet earth. Many people consider the Apollo program as the beginning of the environmental movement and the inspiration for Earth Day, a day that is recognized and celebrated around the world. The Apollo program gave birth to a new perspective: the holistic worldview.
In a holistic worldview we learn to mentally step beyond ourselves, to see our lives as individual strands within the web of life. We become aware that everything we do in life causes a ripple of impacts, big or small, good or bad, to travel throughout the web and ultimately back to us. For example, consuming gasoline can fund terrorism and contribute to global warming, melting the Arctic ice pack too early for polar bears to hunt seals. Our actions are reflected back to us in the form of an increasingly dangerous and impoverished world with a destabilizing climate and disappearing wildlife. Holistic processing isn't merely a guilt trip, but rather a values-driven perception of the world and a means to make a positive difference.
Holistic thinking is characterized by a high level of mutualism, in which people seek quality of life, prosperity, and a clean environment for each other as much as for themselves. Issues are perceived in terms of well-defined holistic goals, rather than as piecemeal problems. Socially and politically, boundaries between nations become more symbolic than rigid as cultures meld into a global community, working together for the betterment of all. A holistic approach is desperately needed to achieve global sustainability in the twenty-first century.
Consider the issue of global warming. The green techno-gadgets emerging from systems thinking have the potential to rapidly ween our species off of fossil fuels forever, which is necessary to reduce the impacts of global warming. However, soil carbon may be an even larger factor in global warming and the primary reason that global warming has progressed faster than climate models predicted.
In short, the substance that gives rich topsoil its dark color is carbon. Without the aid of humanity, nature built topsoil from little more than air and water. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, convert the carbon into vegetative matter, and exhale oxygen back into the atmosphere. Over time, dead vegetation is decomposed to become rich brown or black soil. Worldwide, soils contain an estimated 1,500 gigatons of carbon, compared to 750 gigatons held in the atmosphere and 650 gigatons held in plant matter like the tropical forests. Interestingly, an acre of grass can absorb more carbon per year than an acre of forest, and much of that organic carbon can be composted into soil under favorable conditions. Unfortunately, disturbing soil through plowing or desertification exposes its carbon content to the atmosphere, oxidizing it back into carbon dioxide gas.
More than half of the earth's land surface consists of grasslands, but these grasslands are turning to deserts at an alarming rate. Ten thousand years ago, much of the Middle East supported forests and grasslands, which turned to desert due to deforestation, agriculture, and poor grazing practices. Likewise, the rich soils of the Sahara once grew the grain that supported the Roman Empire. But now the soil is gone, oxidized back into the atmosphere or blown out to sea, leaving barren sand and rock covering an area nearly as large as the United States.
In China, human-caused desertification was first documented in the fourth century B.C. and has spread ever since. Desertification accelerated over the last hundred years due to a combination of deforestation, grazing, and over-cultivation. Twenty-seven percent of China is now covered by useless sand, which threatens to bury the capital of Beijing under advancing dunes.
Newsweek magazine reported that 40 percent of American crop and rangelands have turned to desert due to poor management. But there are many degrees of desertification, and we have seen only the beginning. With deserts spreading at alarming rates across North America, Asia, and Africa, we are losing carbon to the atmosphere and losing the ability to extract it again.
In a holistic worldview we learn to play by the rules of the ecosystem. We become conscious of the web of life and to work towards healing the earth and replenishing the soil for the betterment of all.
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2. _____. "The Soil Carbon Manifesto." http://www.carboncoalition.com.au/. Accessed November 6, 2007.
3. Jim Scott. "Arid Australian interior linked to landscape burning by ancient humans." http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_ releases/2005-01/uoca-aai012505.php. January 25, 2005. Accessed November 6, 2007.
4. Ron Gluckman, Fengning, and Langtougou. "Beijing's Desert Storm." http://www.gluckman.com/ChinaDesert.html. Accessed December 18, 2007.
5. Rohr, Dixon. "Too Much, Too Fast." Newsweek. June 1, 1992. Pg. 34.
6. _____. "The other side of global warming." ManagingWholes.net. http://managingwholes.net/?p=22. Accessed October 24th, 2007.