Saturday, February 7, 2009

mushrooms and our purpose in life

I just read Paul Stamet's book "Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World", and there was a inspirational paragraph describing the mushroom's role in repairing the forest after a fire by working together with all the other lifeforms that share the same forest.

Here's the paragraph, slightly edited for better reading:

"Using mushroom mycelia as tools for ecological restoration is a new concept borrowed from the age-old methods of nature. After forest fires, when burned habitats begin to recover, the species that appear amid the ash and cinders are mushrooms, particularly morels and cup fungi, which can appear in a matter of weeks. The fast-growing and quick-to-decompose mushrooms emerge where seemingly no life could survive. As these succulent mushrooms mature and release spores, they also release fragrances that attract insects and mammals, including mushroom hunters.

A biological oasis emerges as new species gather around the postfire fungus. Flies deposit larvae in morels, and as the larvae mature they attract birds and other maggot lovers. Birds and mammals coming to eat morels defecate seeds of plants eaten far from the fire zone. All these critters scour the burnt wasteland searching for mushrooms.

Each mushrom-seeking organism imports hitchhiking species from afar with every visit, essentially carrying its own universe of organisms, an ecological footprint of flora and fauna. Then, with every mushroom encouter, each animal is dusted with spores, leaving an invisible trail of them as they wander on."

This got me thinking, if all the other living beings are helping to repair the earth by simply living, then what is our role here on earth? And why are we damaging and destroying the earth by our actions? What is wrong with us? Are we doomed to extinction by our shortsightedness?

We live in this great technological society, but what's the point if it isn't going to last? Is there another way to live? A life that exists, while repairing and improving our "home" at the same time? This is what I am searching to find out. I believe it is possible. Like Geoff Lawton says, humans can be the most repairative function on earth. We can help nature on its natural course of repair and speed up the process. This is what excites me and inspires about permaculture. There are other ways to live, but first it takes courage to acknowledge this and make a choice to change. To wake up from our habits and become conscious of our every day choices in how we are living and treating eachother and our home. Either we can be proactive and change now, with some time to adjust if we make mistakes, or we can be forced to change soon enough with much suffering endured.

There are limits in this world and we are running into them. Not all things are limited however. If we design our civilization around using the sun's constant daily input, then we can count on increased energy and sustainable "growth" for millions and billions of years to come. However, our society is running on stored ancient sunlight. Millions of years of compressed energy, spent in a few generations all in the name of progress. Now that the "economy" is failing, we must fundamentally look at what our motives are. What exactly are we doing? Why are we in this rat race, where are we headed to and why are we in such a rush?

Its time we start looking at the bigger picture. We all know about our dependence on oil but not many are talking about our dependence on natural gas as well. Natural gas is used for many things, including fertilizers and pesticides for farming, electricity generation, heating homes and cooking food. Not too long after oil peaks we will be peaking in natural gas as well. We are encountering serious problems with our North American supply, and the answers are moving to importing liquid natural gas from the Middle East and Asia. But this is very dangerous and expensive and will only be a transitional solution as eventually the world will peak.

So the future is more than simply switching our cars, changing light bulbs and going organic. Yes we know it is also about changing the way we generate energy and growing our food. But we also need to start thinking about how we are going to be cooking our food and heating our homes. There are solutions to some of these but not for all. Some in my opinion are best solved by living in a different climates where we require less energy and resources.

Further down the line from oil and natural gas we will have less and less coal available, its been researched by Richard Heinberg and other energy experts that we have reached peak coal in the US (in terms of energy density, not quantity of coal extracted). Globally, peak coal will be occurring around 2025. Many countries are reducing their reserves of coal drastically, for example Germany last year reduced their reserves of coal by 90%! We use coal not only for energy but for generating metals and other many uses. Its possible to have a dedicated copicing forest to create charcoal to make metals but this will seriously limit the amount of energy we can use.

Without magical new technologies, we are in for a much lower energy future. A much more modest and closer-to-nature lifestyle. I do not think this is such a bad idea. I think those of us who live the western lifestyle are out of touch with reality, with what is real, such as the natural cycles of life and how we fit in and depend on it for survival. We have nature-deficit disorder on a massive scale.

If peak oil, peak natural gas and peak coal weren't enough we have problems with peak water, peak topsoil, peak food and peak economic growth climaxing with subsequent peak population. The game is over. It's been a fun ride but now it's time to change the rules of living on earth. We must evolve or die.

Our life depends on the life of the planet. We eat what grows from the earth. We are the earth. We really have a lot to learn from the Native Americans and those who live more "primitive" and "poor" lifestyles. These are people who can live off the land in a sustainable way for generations. The Native Americans thought ahead seven generations before making major decisions. We need to start becoming responsible for our actions and care about our future generations if we want them to exist at all. I think soon enough our collective egos are going to be gut-checked, forcing us to humble ourselves and ask for help from the 3rd world, not the other way around.


Travis said...

Very moving piece Zack, nicely done. I can only hope more people start thinking as critically and deeply as yourself. As for mushroom's selfless role as regenerating catalyst, we humans should definitely be taking notes on its harmonious nature. Capitalism, although responsible for positive things such as research and resulting innovation for improvements in quality of life, is based on competition which at its core is dis-harmonious. We seem to have over shot our necessary level of technology, and we must come to realize that we should throw it into reverse, taking with us all the best and most simple of our technologies. We really should do a test study of a community (real or theoretical) and see how many and what materials are necessary for an acceptably good quality of life with the use of minimal resources. Can we collectively pull our heads out fast enough? Hoping,


Julie Stowasser said...

Hi Zach,

Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post. Nature-deficit disorder! No kidding. Keep writing, please. It helps to lift my head up off the mundane details of getting through the day, surviving, and and onto the bigger picture. It's difficult sometimes to realize what a state we are in, and to know most of us will just turn our head the other way...

I enjoy learning from you. Thanks again. Julie

Anonymous said...

Zacky, dingdang those red injuins wern't so crazy after all....!!

good point about natural gas, very overlooked by the general pop. very unstable fertilizer and related product futures. were pretty fucked right now, but keep yelling and somewhere someone may listen!


garykirkland said...

Hi Zack,

Over 99% of all species that have lived on earth are now extinct. Did they forget to "repair" the earth so they could survive for millions, even billions of years?

The result of evolution is extinction. Humans are just like any other species. One cannot harm the earth, only change it. Venus is going through global warming. Are the species up there saving their planet?

Every species has limiting factors that restrict the amount of their population. If you wish, I will lecture you about the difference between density dependent and density independent species. I'll just say here that density dependent species' populations grow until they run out of space. Density independent ones grow until they run out of something other than space, such as: food, air, space to store waste. It is still unclear to me whether humans are density dependent or independent. You seemed to accept the latter.

Zachary Stowasser said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!

Travis - I also want to live in a more co-operative environment. But I'd like to make sure there is a good healthy dose of freedom. Part of my worry about the future of america is that many will become even more enslaved to the system - be it governmental or corporate.

I also agree that most of our technology is not needed for true happiness. Happiness is more of a state of mind rather than a measure of stuff. I've learned to really appreciate the small things in life and enjoy each day. We really are lucky to live in such abundance on a beautiful planet. I'd like to help keep it that way!

Gary - we do not have to go extinct just yet, do we? it is our choice, right? or are you in agreement we are doomed to extinction?

Also, we can adapt to changes, this is the test of evolution, isn't it? how are we going to adapt, or are we? Do we chose to adapt or chose to hold course?

I'd like to let those who want to die or those who do not think ahead to die, those that wish to live and evolve can come with me and I will be like the mushroom to help rebuild a better world after the forest fire.

Of the species that went extinct, well yes obviously they weren't smart enough to figure out how to live, so they disappeared. Is this the fate of humans? are we fundamentally flawed? Will the ones who survive be called by another name? maybe ecosapiens?