(This piece first appeared in Port Elizabeth’s “Weekend Post” on 1 July 2017)
I am inspired by the phenomenally innovative work of, California based, Elon Musk. You may know him as the founder and CEO of the ground-breaking Tesla Company. You may know that in spite of Elon growing up with the smell of mind-numbing bureaucratic paralysis in the Pretoria air, his thinking on electric cars and battery storage is proving to be hugely disruptive. His bold ideas will absolutely and fundamentally change the way we all live and work. This dramatic transformation will happen very soon and I am very excited to see it all pan out.
But I heard Mr Musk speaking the other day about his planned missions to Mars to build a colony there. I just can help feeling that that this kind of thinking is just a lot of crap, perhaps not unlike the kind of thinking of other technologists like (the American) J. Robert Oppenheimer, who applied his incredible skill to enable our species to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I can see that I think a little differently to Musk and Oppenheimer. In my reading and in my quiet time, I have come to see that we, as a species, have evolved here on this planet and are an integral part of it, perhaps like our gut bacteria are an integral part of us. To just plonk us somewhere else, is misunderstanding just how integral we are to our ecosystem and to what extent we are a product of it. I see this in the writings of brilliant and enlightened souls and I see this when I watch my cattle going about their business in the pasture.
Pasture and grasslands are a fascinating subject, but I do understand that it is quite possibly more interesting to me than it is to you. Books have been written about pasture. Entire library shelves filled. The important thing to take from our knowledge of pasture is the undeniable fact that we are dealing with a living interconnected system. In a very real and observable way cattle and grass and soil are part of the same “organism”. Grass has evolved to thrive on nutrient provided by herbivore manure, which in turn is digested by specifically evolved soil based mycelium and bacteria. Grass had evolved to look, taste and behave the way it has because of grazing animals like cattle. Cattle have developed their size, shape and biology because they have evolved in the pasture (alongside their predators) eating the grasses that they do. These are not just curious facts of anatomy and biology. These are fundamental truths. They are absolute “laws”, that whether we choose to or not, are a governing force in all of our lives. It may appear to me that I, as an individual, am a separate organism to the people around me and to the things that I consume and to the things that try to consume me, but in truth, with the perspective of evolution and of time, I am not.
So much of what I see around us attempts to convince me that I am a separate organism, that I am able to survive even without this planet; that I am separate from the earth. The spectacular 1960’s project to send a man to the moon, walk around up there and take photographs of the blue planet from that far off position, is one in a sequence of events, since the beginnings of consciousness, that have made us feel more and more comfortable with the argument that we, human beings, are a separate and distinct organism.
But when I sit in the pasture. When I observe the earthworm magically building soil from excrement, when I appreciate the cattle, I let the picture remind me of who I am. I let the picture remind me that I am a part of an organism that is beginning to show signs of disease caused largely by people (people very much like me) that have somehow come to forget the obvious truth that they are only a small (yet very important) part of a big and complex organism. Perhaps, with time, we will come to see that the disease afflicting our planet is like the disease of cancer that afflicts so many of our bodies.( A disease that killed my own father.) Some doctors say that a cancer cell is a cell that has forgotten that it is part of body, that it is part of an organism. A cancer cell consumes energy and replicates very rapidly, but it has forgotten its function within and as part of the organism. Cancer cells grow and grow until they kill the very same body that it forgot that it was integrally part of. Cancer cells form tumours that are fuelled by excess sugar in the system. In the same way perhaps as our bodies make up rapidly growing populations that cluster in cities that have become distorted way beyond any useful shape and size by the injection of excess energy in the form of over exploited fossil fuels. Perhaps tumours, cities and Elon Musk behave in this way because they have forgotten what our species has known since it has first emerged from the cradle of human kind all those years ago.
So what do we do about all this? I can only suggest that you come sit with me in the in the pasture one afternoon. Perhaps we can be still, observe and help each other remember.