SALINA, KAN. — I’ve spent the last few months filming a Showtime documentary about how climate and environmental stresses helped trigger the Arab awakening. It’s been a fascinating journey because it forced me to look at the Middle East through the lens of Arab environmentalists instead of politicians.
When you do that, you see the problems and solutions very differently. Environmentalists always start by thinking about the health of the “commons” — the shared air, soil, forests and water — that are the basis of all life, which, if not preserved, will undermine the whole society.
The notion that securing the interests of any single group — Shiite or Sunni, Christian or Muslim, secular or Islamist — over the health of the commons is nuts to them. It’s as laughable as pictures of gun-toting fighters strutting on the rubble of broken buildings in Aleppo or Benghazi, claiming “victory,” only to discover that they’ve “won” a country with eroding soil, degrading forests, scarce water, shrinking jobs — a deteriorating commons.
Our film crew came to look at the connection between the drought in Kansas and the rise in global food prices that helped to fuel the Arab uprisings. But I stumbled upon another powerful environmental insight here: the parallel between how fossil fuels are being used to power monoculture farms in the Middle West and how fossil fuels are being used to power wars to create monoculture societies in the Middle East. And why both are really unhealthy for their commons.
My teacher here was Wes Jackson, the MacArthur award winner, based in Salina, where he founded The Land Institute. Jackson’s philosophy is that the prairie was a diverse wilderness, with a complex ecosystem that supported all kinds of wildlife, not to mention American Indians — until the Europeans arrived, plowed it up and covered it with single-species crop farms, mostly wheat, corn, or soybeans. Jackson’s goal is to restore the function of the diverse polyculture prairie ecosystem and rescue it from the single-species, annual monoculture farming, which is exhausting the soil, the source of all prairie life. “We have to stop treating soil like dirt,” he says.
Jackson knows this has to be economically viable. That’s why his goal is to prove that species of wheat and other grains that scientists at The Land Institute are developing can be grown as perennials with deep roots — so you would not need to regularly till the soil or plant seeds.
The way to do that, he believes, is by growing mixtures of those perennial grains, which will mimic the prairie and naturally provide the nutrients and pesticides.
The need for fossil-fuel-powered tractors and fertilizers would be much reduced, with the sun’s energy making up the difference.
That would be so much better for the soil and the climate, since most soil carbon would not be released.
Annual monocultures are much more susceptible to disease and require much more fossil fuel energy — plows, fertilizer, pesticides — to maintain. Perennial polycultures, by contrast, notes Jackson, provide species diversity, which provides chemical diversity, which provides much more natural resistance and “can substitute for the fossil fuels and chemicals that we’ve not evolved with.”
Jackson maintains some original prairie vegetation. As we walk through it, he explains: This is nature’s own “tree of life.” This prairie, like a forest, “features material recycling, runs on sunlight, and does not have an epidemic that wipes it all out. You know during the Dust Bowl years of the ’30s, the crops died, but the prairie survived.”
Then he points to his experimental perennial grain crops: “That’s the tree of knowledge.”
Our challenge, and it will take years, he notes, is to find a way to blend the tree of life with the tree of knowledge to develop domestic prairies that could have high-yielding fields planted once every several years, whose crops would only need harvesting and species diversity could “take care of insects, pathogens and fertility.”
And that brings us back to the Middle East. Al-Qaida often says that if the Muslim world wants to restore its strength, it needs to go back to the “pure” days of Islam, when it was a monoculture unsullied by foreign influences. In fact, the “Golden Age” of the Arab/Muslim world was when it became a polyculture between the 8th and 13th centuries. Of that era, Wikipedia says, “During this period the Arab world became an intellectual center for science, philosophy, medicine and education.”
It was “a collection of cultures, which put together, synthesized and significantly advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Roman, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Byzantine and Phoenician civilizations.”
What is going on in the Arab world today is a relentless push, also funded by fossil fuels, for more monocultures. It’s al-Qaida trying to “purify” the Arabian Peninsula. It’s Shiites and Sunnis, funded by oil money, trying to purge each other in Iraq and Syria.
It’s Alexandria, Egypt, once a great melting pot of Greeks, Italians, Jews, Christians, Arabs and Muslims, now a city dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, with most non-Muslims gone. It makes these societies much less able to spark new ideas and much more susceptible to diseased conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies.
To be blunt, this evolution of Arab/Muslim polycultures into monocultures is a disaster.
Pluralism, diversity and tolerance were once native plants in the Middle East — the way the polyculture prairie was in the Middle West.
Neither ecosystem will be healthy without restoring its diversity.