two harakeke (flax) flowers in a digitally altered photo.

HOW HOMOGENEITY IS HURTING US AND HOW STORY JUST MIGHT HELP.

I was listening to an interview (1) about how a lack of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems, the inevitability of cross species viral infections and the direct link to a rise in pandemics.

It seemed so obvious.

Take away the natural distance and increase interaction between species and more contact is likely. The more contact the more likely cross-infection is to occur. The more cross-infection the more likely we are to meet viral threats that are an unknown challenge to our immune systems. We have, over millennia, developed immune systems which have learned to strategize against other human viruses but not, as is conjectured with covid 19, pangolin viruses, for example. The more likely we are to be encountering these new-to-us viruses in a world where we travel across the globe in a day, the more likely these things are to become pandemics.

We have learned to rely on the resiliency of our environment through the millennia. We trust that seasons will come and go, we can grow what works for us and take what we need. Over recent generations we have learned to grow more than we could before and work in less physically demanding ways to grow those things. We have begun to think it’s normal to take more than we need, and in western culture in particular, we seem to have a very short term view of the consequences. One of our basic human assumptions was that the world would always be there for us. We understood this as solid and reliable and in the face of pandemics and climate crisis this basic assumption is being challenged.

The way humans act, vaunting personal short term gain over long term benefit, has been starkly displayed in palm oil production. Years ago we went on a family trip to Malaysia, spending most of our time in Malaysian Borneo. The island had, over a couple of decades, pivoted from traditional use to deforestation in order to plant palm kernel for palm oil. The benefit to the locals was that there was lucrative worldwide demand for palm kernel, and the market was there for a product to cheaply bulk up food products, for both humans and cattle. In Borneo we saw the Kinabatangan river, a once thriving complex ecosystem, decimated to a few lonely trees. The river itself was brown from soil run off. To get to the river, the home of Orung Sangai, we drove for mile after mile past orderly rows of palm oil plantation. Not only were people disposed of their lands but the sight of the injured orangutan being rehabilitated after being shot for “raiding” showed us what a decimated ecosystem looks like.

I was captured by this in a visceral way, my daughters’ questions about why it was happening and what could we do were haunting. How can we behave like this? How can rationality and science lead us to this end? It’s my perception that it’s the disconnection from each other, from the land and our place in it that allows this short term myopic behaviour. If I am not connected to you, I am somehow able to dehumanise you, I can see my way to imagining it’s ok if you destroy your part of the planet to put product in my face-cream. If I don’t have experience of my own complex ecosystem I won’t be too worried about its destruction. If I think what I want matters more than what supports your healthy system or the shared environment we live in, then I will feel free to take what I want and damn the consequences.

What we are doing in our disconnection from our own land, our own wellbeing is not only ecocide it seems like slow, methodical suicide. And part of this slow dying is that we afford ourselves the luxury of being surprised when scientists’ predictions of pandemics come true.

Perhaps surprise becomes a disbelief that this could be happening at all. There is surely some other explanation for this virus suddenly arising? Why climate change is happening? Is it that the people who are most likely to disbelieve that our taking and destruction are beginning to require us to pay a price are those of us who have bought into individualism over being connected? Is it more likely that these people who can’t quite belive this is really happening are those of us who believe family are only the people who look like us, talk like us, worship like us. Perhaps it’s more difficult for people who aren’t exposed to or don’t feel comfortable with complexity- those of us believe that difference is a threat?

Is this why some of us buy so far into this thinking that “I have dominion and I take what I want” we are more willing to believe lizard people are coming to implant us with control devices than believe that we, all on our own, in our “dominion” over the animals and land, abused that privilege. We fucked up.

The truth that covid 19 has made me face is that humans have made this place more and more dangerous through our own avarice and thoughtlessness. We have taken the richness we inherited and through our disconnection, our lack of understanding or caring, we have caused harm. Harm that has destroyed the ecosystem with its intricate checks and balances.

All difference, all diversity, all richness and nuance and intricacy stripped away until all that is left is a weakened homogeneity.

What thrives in that environment? Viruses. Bacteria. Pests. Monoculture is full of tales of the consequences of how if just one thing is acceptable, destruction follows (2). It’s a monocultural way of seeing the world if we think only our interests count. If we “otherise” people who don’t look like us, worship like us, live like us, we are able to push away from our shared experience by imagining that we are somehow different. In the white supremacist world of western culture, inevitably we are ‘BETTER”. We know more, are more powerful, influential, and therefore more important.

The lie of that has lead to so much harm.

The truth is we need diversity to thrive. It’s as much of a law of nature as gravity and not staring directly at the sun.

What do we do to raise our tolerance for difference? What do we do to stop the destruction of the beautiful complexity necessary both in our environment and in our relationships with each other?

One way is that we try story. The destruction in Borneo captured the imagination of people around the planet because of stories about Orangutan- injured and orphaned Orangutan plucked at our heartstrings. Hearing about Orangutan and the destruction of the rainforest started people checking labels, writing to manufacturers, boycotting companies. So it’s Sstories — visual stories, written stories, interviews, podcasts that engage us. When we see the story through the eyes of another being, when we can connect to the soul of the experience — and that’s possible to connect to the soul of an orangutan too — we are moved. In activating our sense of empathy, engaging with understanding we feel our sorrow, and connect with the powerful change motivators of guilt and remorse. When we see the way a family just like us is struggling to survive we are motivated to change, we want to participate.

When we listen to stories we expose ourselves to the beauty beyond our own narrow normal we are able to paradoxically leap over homogeneity into the complex and interesting richness of diversity which in turn helps us to remember that we are all connected.

This connection repairs and repatriates us to our belonging, to being a part of life. When we want to participate we connect with others and in this connection the ecosystem between humans begins to grow. When I see your humanity it is much harder for me to believe the forces that would divide us. When I see your humanity what happens in your world matters to me. When I see your humanity I can understand the need for reparations, for healing and for thought and action to be married.

If you tell me your story, the story of your experience, your family, your land, chances are that I will find more that connects us than disconnects. If you listen to me you will see parts of yourself.

It is through the story that we know each other and connection begins. If you listen to me and understand me you are less likely to be able to make me other, to decide I don’t matter, or to find more connection with theories about lizard people and cabals in pizza shops and high places.

Similarly it is through getting to know the land, knowing its history, its losses and its possibility that we are less likely to think it’s ok to pull it apart for coal or chop down forests for monoculture. Instead, we are more likely to learn about the nuance and the balance, build connection and begin to repair.

When we know our place in this complex ecosystem we are likely to begin to heal and when we heal, what we understand what we can do for and with each other and see just how much that matters.

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Patti Digh.

(1) https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018771254/pandemic-era-report-links-biodiversity-crisis-and-pandemics

(2) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe

Creativity activist, conduit for love, synchronicity devotee