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Inner Healing as the Key to Ecological Restoration

Scientific inquiry and investigation showing the direct influence of human social, cultural, and political structures on indicators of ecological well-being and environmental decision-making

Our human lives typically boil down to the decisions we make on a day to day, moment to moment basis. When we have to make decisions about the environment, our cultural pattern is to take as much as we can with impunity. We are not so great at giving back, restoring the ecology of the environment, or taking in a way that is regenerative. We externalize our costs of production onto the environment in the name of making more profit.

Our agricultural history shows this very clearly, a pattern of taking wild lands and transforming them into cash crop monoculture agriculture in the name of making a quick buck. We don’t integrate ecological design into our industrial agricultural systems or think about regenerative processes. We take what we can get away with and give back what’s necessary to sustain that model of mining the soil for everything it’s got.

One of our greatest challenges to making better decisions about the environment as a human society is our inability to work together and collaborate peacefully and harmoniously. We were all raised in a capitalistic culture built on inequitable power dynamics of hierarchy. Being able to share power and resources terrifies us to no end, and so many times when the attempt is made to work together in a collective fashion and make decisions together cooperatively, we end up reverting back to our old ways of status quo power hierarchies. We end up in conflict and are unable to heal, we revert to disruption and dysfunction, and bridges are burned. The work suffers, and in the end it is the ecology and environment and wildlife and climate that suffer.

These are new ways of being and interacting and working together that we are envisioning and striving for. Attempts at collaboration or socialist or communist structures have been made in the past, but they do not serve as ideal models for replication. There is no true past to replicate. What we are calling forth has not been seen before, what we are living has not been seen before. At least, many of us do not know of a previous model like the crossroads we have been sent to live within. The road forward must be built anew, threading together past successes with new visions, integrating lessons of failures past with failures current, and choosing again and again and again to pick ourselves up from where we have fallen to try again to make that path forward.

It is a time of integration, complexity, and multi-dimensionality. We must acknowledge ourselves as whole human beings with complex constellations of needs, traumas, loves, passions, skills, and visions. To work together in a lifelong commitment towards ecological restoration and justice is to attempt to mesh together those unique constellations and form new connections of lasting strength. This can only happen with relationships cultivated in trust, restorative justice, and community healing through shared purpose, vision, and commitment.

Ecology as a field of science has typically focused on the biophysical reality of our world, in a way “othering” human beings and separating ourselves from the web of life. Ecology is exciting in its interdisciplinary nature, integrating the scientific fields of physics, chemistry, biology, and statistics in its pursuit of understanding of the metabolic transformations of the environment. The Ecological Society of America is a professional society for ecologists which has held a conference every year to discuss the latest findings in ecological research.

I was excited to see that the theme for the 2019 ESA conference was “Bridging communities and ecosystems: inclusion as an ecological imperative,” and stumbled upon a few papers on this very topic. The first LA Urban Soil Symposium was held this year in June, as a needs assessment for LA urban soils, as voiced and expressed by the community groups who work directly with the soils and communities in LA. The theme of the symposium was, “Healthy Soils for Healthy Communities.” I have given several talks on this very topic, titled, “The Power of Soil in Growing Healthy Communities,” at various locations including the Huntington Garden and several libraries in the area.

I came across a paper this past year addressing cooperative collaboration frameworks for scientists, policymakers, and community groups to pursue joint research ventures together directly benefiting both ecological and community well-being: “Connecting Diverse Knowledge Systems for Enhanced Ecosystem Governance: The Multiple Evidence Base Approach.” My personal thoughts have meandered to research questions like, “What types of social, cultural, and political structures, such as popular lifestyles and governance models most improve indicators of soil health and ecological well-being?”

As a specialist in soil and compost ecology I understand indicators of soil health and ecological well-being. My primary collaborator is a social science specialist who understands indicators of positive human developmental health and community well-being.

In my community work I continually advocate for lifestyle and cultural changes which require deep personal commitments, ideally lifelong commitments to lifestyle and cultural practices that foster care, creativity, earth healing, community building, and stewardship of community services. In my collaborative work with community members, we consider care of the community first. If we want to build a garden to grow food for the community and alleviate food insecurity and environmental injustice, how can we build relationships of trust with our community? How can we hold ourselves accountable so that we do not exploit the very community we profess to assist?

And so it is with great delight to see that the community work we have been doing and the evolution of our philosophies of transformation, care, and stewardship are being expressed, researched and quantified and published, in the realm of ecological science, and being shared in professional societies and forums. When I read the paper on “Improving Environmental Decision-Making Through Integrated Governance, Public Engagement, and Translational Approaches,” I felt affirmed as here was a research paper essentially saying to do the things we have found ourselves doing in our work on the ground. This paper identifies 5 key ingredients for inclusive community engagement:

  1. Listen
  2. Show up
  3. Follow up
  4. Connect to the issue
  5. Trust

In the evolution of our framework of community engagement, we have settled too on these ingredients for building successful and authentic relationships with the community. We are always talking about active listening and cultivating trust, and pondering the methodologies that facilitate active listening and trust. In order to engage in active listening when reaching out to a new community, one must hold aside their preconceived notions of what should take place. Space must be made for true listening, for community members to truly feel safe to share their ideas, visions, and dreams with us for what they want to see in their world.

“What are the first steps you take when starting a new inclusive, community engagement initiative?

  • Consciously step back from how you understand the problem. Observe.
  • Focus on process design. Be clear, flexible in time and resources, and transparent.
  • Build relationships.
  • Develop partnerships.”

Community engagement is a social question of human dimensions, considering, including, and integrating each of our constellations of wholeness and complexity. It is not a task for the faint of heart or those who are eager for instant gratification, for it is here that the great work of deep listening and multi-dimensional integration is done.

And when we are talking about how to listen and work together, we are talking about how to be deeply and fully human. Thus my delight in seeing a paper from the ESA about this very topic: “Extending the Vision: Highlighting the Human Dimensions of the Ecological Society of America,” where ecologists have taken the lead to integrate the human dimensions of ecological science and pursue solutions to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion within ecology and across the ESA as a professional society.

“Current ecological conditions are linked to human social systems: socioeconomic, geopolitical, cultural, and identity issues that influence how people interact with ecosystems. Our understanding of patterns in natural systems, and our ability to make predictions, is intrinsically linked to current and past human knowledge, behavior, and processes.”

“The study of human dimensions includes the application of theories and practices from diverse fields such as economics, psychology, sociology, policy, geography, environmental science, and the humanities. Such research is generally focused on the reciprocal interactions between humans and their environments, and it is informed by the perspective that humans are integral to and inseparable from the biophysical world. The richness of the interdisciplinary collaborations born from this work helps us better understand the complex web of human processes as they relate to natural resources. Such work strengthens the science of ecology and deepens impact of our discoveries.”

If we want to make better decisions about the environment, raise our collective ecological literacy, collaborate across fields and disciplines, then we must acknowledge our constellations and how they interact in our sociopolitical fabric to directly impact the environment.

How does our individual psychology contribute to indicators of soil health and ecological well-being?

There can be no divide between the personal and professional in this work, for it is all influence and impact on the environment. There is no insular professionalism; no work happens in isolation. No lifestyle happens in isolation. All is interconnected; all is interdependent.

How serious are we about making better decisions about the environment in which we are stewards?

How much do we want to survive the climate crisis? Do we want to survive in a way that is healing and joyful and restorative? Or do we want to perpetuate an apocalyptic nightmare of barely surviving a wasteland of our own making?

These are the options before us.

In my mind, there can be no true restoration of the ecology without deep inner healing of our personal psychology. I believe conflict resolution, true collaboration, and intentional community cannot be achieved without a deep commitment to inner healing. Without each individual committing to their own inner healing, community efforts will continue to fail in dysfunction and status quo hierarchies.

The science of ecology is all hands on deck. It is all inclusive. Whatever influences the indicators of ecological well-being is what needs to be addressed.

It is art, psychology, healing, communication, facilitation, collaboration, community frameworks, and restorative justice.

As human beings are not separate from our biophysical environment, our inner personal and spiritual lives have direct impact on our biophysical environment.

If we do not address our inner personal and spiritual lives, we will never achieve the goal and vision of true earth healing and restorative justice.

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Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork

My dream since grad school has been to start my own compost making enterprise. There are easier ways to do this, such as living in a rural area and working for the compost industry. However I am notorious for taking the difficult route, even with one of the most difficult industries to work in. I decided I wanted to live in the Los Angeles area, and as much as I wanted to pursue an enterprise, environmental justice was a much greater issue I could not ignore. In my pursuit of enterprise, I found justice work. Community composting is a much smaller scale pursuit, and most would scoff at its ability to generate any kind of livelihood for someone. But it is meant to be a decentralized network of small sites. This is obviously a difficult pursuit once again, as there are multitudes more people to convince that this is a good idea to try.

There are many barriers to community composting, such as policy limitations, hauling limitations, as well as stubborn perceptions of compost as a nuisance. So while I know how to make high quality compost, I am not a specialist in changing policy or wrangling waste management industries, which in my mind is much like the mafia in terms of its control over our waste stream as well as our policymakers.

So I have my knowledge and my practice, and it proves difficult to apply and expand that across a large enough base to effectively have a real business enterprise in making and selling compost. Add to that the fact that I have a debilitating autoimmune illness, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I am required to dedicate a significant portion of my life to addressing the painful inflammatory throes of RA. So I am not able to do the labor myself, nor am I able to change policy myself.

The truth is that teamwork makes the dreamwork. What I am good at is love, connection, compassion, and friendship. So I made friends with people who were good at policy work and potentially wrangling the mafia-esque policymakers and waste management controllers. I made friends with people who could convince large multitudes of people to start small scale community composting sites.

My role then became the tech specialist. I focused my efforts on teaching and soil science. Truly I am best at being a teacher. This may be my truest calling of all. Here to teach people about the *ecology* of soil and compost, not just how to make it, but how to make it healthy and well, so that it can provide for us again and again and again with abundances of fresh, clean food, clean water, and healthy bodies. This is the key to building healthy communities.

What I have learned on this journey is that environmental justice is the real work of urban communities, and community composting is one solution to the multitude of complex issues surrounding justice work. Within that realm of environmental justice, one learns about systemic perpetration of intersectional inequality, including economic and environmental inequality.

People in oppressed communities will never have the chance to uplift themselves in a system designed to exploit them and dump their toxic waste streams into their bodies. They need help from those with privilege to undo the political ties that keep them in bondage, and even then it happens very slowly, practically one person at a time.

The more I reflect on the barriers to my dream, the more I see our structures of society and culture as the real culprits of limiting the manifestation of my dream. For one thing, we are currently living in a difficult and terrible time of a viral pandemic with a fascist oriented leader chaotically guiding us somewhere, which is not quite mitigating the pandemic at all. And so, oppressed people continue to suffer under this system.

A few years ago, one could not even speak of Capitalism as a wrong thing. It was a highly charged topic, people were very offended at criticisms of this economic system we live under. Perhaps it is the difficulty of looking at oneself and seeing the ways in which we have been wrong about Capitalism, deluded into a dream of rags to riches and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

I have been wearing bootstraps my whole life and I have pulled myself towards some kind of livelihood in which I am still gravely dependent on external support to function properly, partially due to my chronic illness and disability.

I have found this external support through the cultivation of an interdependent, resource-sharing, generosity-centered community that is interested in mutual support and mitigating environmental destruction in our collective lifestyles. Not to mention, I am lucky to have a family that is willing and capable of helping me out. There is privilege there too.

I am lucky too that I have only had one direct moment of coming face to face with intersectional inequality as a young Chinese-American woman working in this field. At an event where someone was expecting to meet a soil science expert, they were surprised to encounter a colorful young me, black hair, pearl faced, youth ridden as is the curse of Asian peoples. They said to me, “I was expecting an old white man,” as though old white men are the only ones worth trusting as experts in soil science. This was a real fear I expressed directly to my graduate school coordinator when I was graduating and about to leave to embark on this new adventure in my life. I said to him, “I hope it’s okay I’m not an old white man.”

I experienced this when I applied for a job at the compost industry, they told me I was at the top of the list, perhaps the 2nd in consideration. In the end, they went with the old white guy.

My dream still lives, as I am lucky to work with incredible people who are able to build out networks of community compost sites with my support. One day, we will carve out the niche, seize a slice of the pie, in the world of policy and waste management and grant making, in which we have the funds to have the sites we need to build our collective enterprise.

Teamwork makes the Dreamwork.

To escape the Capitalistic nightmare of intersectional inequality and perpetual oppression is to discover, learn, try, and embrace the shared power of collective collaboration and cooperative governance. This requires you to give up your potential for dominant power over others, to make space for true collective power that comes from a number of people committed to a shared purpose and shared vision in their lifetimes.

Choosing a life commitment is not easy, but if you are open to the idea that we are not just human beings, but souls that could potentially compost upon our earthly death and reincarnate as other organisms, and have a chance at another life, then it is like a video game. Death = Game Over. But the system can be reset, and you can try again.

The nice thing about these days is that you can criticize Capitalism, and many people are doing it with a vengeance. They have every right to, for Capitalism is a system built on violence, defined by oppression and inequality. Colonization, genocide, slavery. Say it like it is.

There is no escaping societal structures, or at least, it is extremely difficult to drop out of society. We are all victims of Capitalism, and so we are all at fault, we are all perpetrators, and we are all oppressed.

So while I am still on the journey to achieve my dream, I have found a way to stick with it by cultivating a livelihood that allows me to traverse both worlds of Capitalism and something better. That something better is still elusive to me, it may be socialism or communism. In practice it has meant I devote part of my time to non-profit and volunteer work, and the other part of my time to building a business centered around education, consulting, and other skill sets I have such as art, gardening, and crafting handmade goods.

As many of you know, the non-profit world is ridden with many of the same issues perpetuating the status quo of inequality and oppression. It is by no means a solution to the issue, though it offers much help to many people, it is still much more like a band-aid on an endlessly bleeding wound.

Why is the wound still bleeding?

Can we stop the bleeding?

This is the real question. Can we stop creating wounds? Can we start creating healing and wholeness instead?

I chose a hybrid model for my own self, sort of like social enterprise for creative entrepreneurship. It was a way to maintain some level of pleasurable livelihood while working on discovering that elusive something better.

I have come across cooperative leadership structures as one of the better tools to fall into that category of something better. These are not perfect either, but we continue to learn, grow, and evolve. My team and I want to create a better version of cooperative governance, we want to walk away entirely from any kind of perpetration of status quo nonsense.

Our world is in flux, and so too are our financial systems. For so long we have valued money above all else, to the point of our cosmic demise. We could destroy our whole universe if we wanted to continue following the lure of the dollar sign. We are nothing but molds, feasting infinitely, not knowing how to stop until we’ve reached our limits and have no choice but to die and be feasted on by some other organism. That is how ecology works. If we want to evolve beyond a mold, then we must do the difficult work of self-reflection, learning, growing, research, education, and experimentation. We must evolve or die. That is how life works.

Freedom and pleasure are the true motivators of my life. I am not well motivated by money, other than knowing it can bring me more freedom and more pleasure. Money for the sake of money, though, is too abstract for this earthly Taurus.

I am a water buffalo, and my greatest pleasure is soil and water.

There is not much money in that.

And so to survive, I too must learn to evolve within a Capitalistic framework and learn business skills. I am lucky too to have grown up in a time where self-employment has become all the rage.

Again, though, I am a stubborn water buffalo and I refuse to do anything I don’t like. And so I carve out a complex path for myself. I commit to certain types of work, but I burn out easily on any one thing for too long. I need complexity and multiplicity, many different types of projects to intrigue my creative senses.

What is the purpose of life if not to experience the earthly delights this reality has to offer?

I am a soil scientist, and I am an artist. I am a composter, and I am a community builder. I am an ecologist, and I am a social and cultural systems analyst. Right now I am making candles and balms because the hands-on work feeds my soul in this time of isolation and quarantine. They give hope and healing to those who receive them, they support the post office, and candle magic is a prayer for something better to come along.

I am a writer too, and an oracular diviner, I am a healer and a seeker.

But above all, I believe my greatest gift is that I can be a friend to just about anyone. Friendship has been my greatest empowerment and my greatest salvation.

And so I advocate for that in anything you want to do, whether it’s building a business, making compost, changing the world, or creating community. Find out how to make friends. The kinds you can keep in true trust for all of eternity.

Because no matter what is going on, Teamwork makes the Dreamwork.