Monday, September 7, 2015

Human-Built Ecosystems in Two Different Worlds. Or are they?

Here in New England, which I'll be leaving in a few days for nine month Fulbright in Sri Lanka, our natural environment has been supplanted by a human-built environment. Europeans who arrived here centuries ago found an incredibly rich stage on which to grow. Ocean and freshwater resources, lush forests, and and an equable climate meant that production, and food production in particular, was a pretty sure success. Navigable river valleys and deep coastal harbors meant trade could flourish. The result was wealth. Lots of it. And the rampant growth and development of the built environment would only seem to make sense. With so many resources at their fingertips New Englanders built a new world. What we see here now may not be so new and it may not be so pretty. But it tells us a lot about patterns of wealth accumulation and distribution. It also tells us of the fraught relationship we in the West have developed with nature. 

In a few days I'll be in the deep countryside of Sri Lanka, where humans developed a much different relationship with the natural environment. The ancestors of today's Lankans, who settled the island some 2500 years ago, found an environment in the Dry Zone that was radically different from what Europeans who came to America found. Most notable was an inhospitable climate with extended dry seasons punctuated by monsoon periods of extremely high rainfall. Over time, the settlers found ways to cope with these conditions. They built a human-mediated ecosystem that maximized the benefit of rainwater and runoff. In collaboration with various plant and animal species they put together a sustainable agricultural landscape based on water impoundment and distribution that is still in operation after 2000 years. 

I don't write about this with stars in my eyes. The ancient sustainable agricultural environment is neither static nor pristine. Much of it fell into disuse for 700 years and was only rebuilt in the last century. It is threatened by development, invasive species, agrochemicals, deforestation, and more. Also, it's an easy argument that more people live at a higher "standard of living" in our corner of New England than in all of Sri Lanka. We have more conveniences, better access to clean drinking water, and get around much faster than rural farmers in Sri Lanka. Whether our diet is better is a matter of conjecture. They eat well over there and I have seldom had a meal of rice and curry that wasn't exquisite. 

But one thing is for sure. The spectacular infrastructure that we have built around water in the United States depends on very plentiful water to start with. We see that water supply and the way it's used being degraded every day. As I write this post on the front steps of the public library in Cambridge I'm watching in-ground sprinklers irrigating the lawn with drinking water. Do we realize what a luxury that is? All over the American West, and especially in California, water issues are critical today. I will be presenting examples of some of our water problems: aquifer depletion, salinization, and subsidence to students at Rajarata University in just a few days. What will they think?Do we have the tools and resources to maintain our style of water use? Do we need to use water the way we do. Do we have the wherewithal, politically and economically to maintain our water systems? Can we learn something from the small scale approach to water management in Sri Lanka? Better put, what can we learn from it?

I think for starters we have to see our relationship with water in a more nuanced fashion. We need to see water not just as single extractable resource but as part of a larger set of environmental systems. We need to reevaluate our use of agrochemicals (Roundup was just banned in Sri Lanka). And we need to rethink the way we use and degrade our soil, our forests, and our waterways. This is a huge challenge. But it's also a huge deal. 

I'd like to see us hack our way to some solutions. Not solutions like "biomimicry." But solutions that allow us to evaluate our water culture in a new perspective: a perspective that takes into account other cultures and the way they have built their human ecosystems with water. 

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