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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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Transcending Cultural Identities for Community Healing

We are at a threshold moment of climate crisis right now. Our science is great and it hasn’t been able to move the political and economic machine to stop global warming. Words from environmental leaders such as David Korten and Joanna Macy have also expressed the limitations of science and technology, calling for a spiritual transformation.

I believe this to be true, that the real shift we need for environmental regeneration is one rooted in values and culture, as well as political economy. But I wish Gus Speth didn’t say, “We scientists don’t know how to do that,” because it so incredibly limits the purview of scientists, and locks them in to an intellectual box where they can only be valued for their technical expertise, and cannot be seen as whole, nuanced, complex human beings with emotional values, creative instincts, and transformative life experiences.

Holding onto these cultural identities too tightly ultimately limits our collective potential. The idea that because you are a scientist, you cannot be a good artist, leader, facilitator, activist, or community organizer. Or if you are an artist, you cannot be a good scientist. If you are a city person, you cannot possibly know anything about soil and plants. If you are a country person, you cannot know anything about fine art and culture.

Art and writing have been my blood and bone since I was born. I grew up in urban areas on Windows 32 and Super Nintendo games. I have a master’s in compost biology, and I am taking this knowledge and scholarly skill and applying it to my work in the field, in developing urban-scale, community-based integrated ecological compost farm and garden systems.

The thing about this work is that it is ultimately about community well-being on all levels – mental, emotional, physical. People come to the garden to heal – from depression, grief, loss, chronic illness, and the simple isolation that runs rampant in our world today. So these spaces we are creating are not just about ecological regeneration and sustainability, but they are also about facilitating meaningful connections and providing healing sanctuaries for the people that need them.

In this work, all hands are on deck. All of your skills, resources, talents, gifts are wanted, necessary, important. Your whole self, with all of its broken bits and hurting bits and shining bits, are wanted at the table. It doesn’t matter what your professional identity is, we are here to heal whole communities. And that means the personal is professional, and the professional is personal.

There are really no limits to the human potential. To think that because you a technical person you cannot have the capacity to understand values transformations in people is incredibly limiting and disempowering.

The calls for a spiritual transformation by these environmental leaders have inspired my journey to embrace my creativity and explore earth-based spiritual practices. To always have my whole self along for the ride in pursuit of a career in soil making and community healing. To always pair my intellectual exploration of the ecology with a reverence and respect for the land and its communities.

Part of the challenge with science education is that it doesn’t engage people who are not naturally inclined to be technical thinkers. For a creative person, thinking technically could possibly be a great challenge. Why should they expend the effort to understand the material? Why is important for them to dig in deeper? Addressing these deeper why’s help to facilitate the scientific learning experience. This is what inspired me to begin opening my soil and compost ecology classes with art, poetry, and history, as a way to create connection and generate cultural context for the deep dive into technical knowledge. When we feel inspired, when we understand why this is important on a visceral, body level, then it is easier to do the hard work of understanding scientific information.

The article contains an interview of Gus Speth’s life and career at the nexus of race, environment, and politics. He talks about how he got started with the NRDC and the environmental movement during the civil rights era because they were inspired by the black community. He said they did not work to include the black civil rights movement into their environmental work, and he considers that a great failure of theirs. He goes on to say that the source of the ills affecting black communities and the environmental movement are the same – the political economy and inequitable power dynamics of capitalism.

This is where the work of racial equity is not any different than other types of non-profit or community transformation work. It is the work. Environmental justice is the movement that brings both pieces together, acknowledging the intimate relationship between the two. Working in marginalized communities alleviates their burden. Engaging in social and restorative justice is environmentalism. Empowering disadvantaged communities is environmentalism.

Sometimes it can be easy to think that to call yourself an “environmentalist” you have to have a zero waste farm to table off grid lifestyle, and leave the smallest footprint possible. But focusing on lifestyle has its limitations. For one thing, it can continue to feed into an isolationist, competition-driven mindset that is more about cultural status than real community transformation.

It is harmful to engage in competitive comparison of who is more green, and we squabble over plastic bags and plastic straws. The real issue at play though, is a messed up system of design, production, and distribution that generates plastic waste. These are controlled by powerful corporations. The real issue at play is inequitable power dynamics. Corporations have too much power – we the people can do very little to sway their design and production decisions.

We the people need to discover our inherent power, we need to learn how to trust each other, love each other, connect, collaborate, organize, and otherwise work together to build the structures and systems that truly benefit us and the environment. Our professional culture does not require such things as love and trust, but these are the things we need to do this work. They are the real roots of the work. Otherwise, we continually end up in the same grooves of oppressive hierarchies leading to power inequity.

Understanding power and leadership as a lens of love and trust is part of the transformation that needs to happen. Power and leadership are a means of facilitating and stewarding the vision of ecological regeneration and community healing. In that sense, they are not characteristics unique to an individual, but rather they arise in relationship with community.

When people ask me what my advice is for them to do their part in saving the planet, I tell them to go out into the community and do their work there – build collaborative relationships and work together to make your community a better place for everyone. Because if we have strong collaborative relationships in the community, we can do so much more for each other than just using metal straws. We can organize and advocate for better policies, we can develop community programs that teach zero waste practices as a communal responsibility, provide opportunities for composting and growing chemical-free food, as well as safe spaces for all members of the community to visit and gather.

And so I work with science and spirit hand in hand, empowering everyday people with ecological knowledge, with loving encouragement for them to grow and be their best selves, so that we can work together better and collectively create more powerful transformations. When I teach science, I want laypeople to know that this knowledge is for them too, and it’s not just about science – it’s about love, healing, equity, justice, and empowerment.