In Favor of Ecological Disobedience

May was a challenging month for life.

Despite the full reawakening of plants and animals that coincides with the beginning of spring, there was the devastating news of yet another comprehensive, scientific-consensus report linking human activity directly to environmental destruction. The UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services announced that one million species would go extinct in a very short period of time. One of the main drivers of this larger-than-life trend is land-use change for food production – a.k.a., agriculture.

As a farmer, I am at the frontlines of managing resources. In my specific case, the resources I manage include soil, land, water, and to a much lesser degree, air. In my small corner of the world, the choices that I make can contribute to or help to reverse trends that seem unstoppable and unapproachable. Is there a way to live and produce food that doesn’t threaten other life and actually makes it thrive? Can agriculture and biodiversity help one another? How do we support life?

I grapple with these questions in my fields.

May also is rice-planting season. This year was unseasonably cold and rainy. Most mornings, I was out in the fields with a wool hat and scarf and feeling like the tropical climates where rice production is abundant were very distant.

It takes months to prepare a field for organic rice production, and the final steps are always the most precarious. Timing is everything during a successful planting season, especially in organic rice production. Because herbicides are prohibited in organic agriculture, we are balancing planting preparation with mechanical weed control practices. If we’re too early or too late with our weeding strategy, in a short amount of time there will be more weeds than rice. Add to that equation that we have to flood the fields before planting, and the two months required for the final stages of field prep begin to feel like not much time at all.

When we have done all of the field prep – tilling the cover crop into the ground, leveling the field, digging the main and secondary drainage ditches, and passing multiple times to remove weeds mechanically – we begin to flood the fields. I open a hydrant and the production field very quickly transforms into a habitat. As the fields are flooding, aquatic and shore birds begin showing up. Herons, egrets, storks, ducks, and big, fat seagulls. (I don’t know what it is about the seagulls, but they are plump.)

Once the fields are flooded, the amphibians and crustaceans begin to show up. It seems as though the insects are the last to arrive, but they come in droves. We get everything from pesky, water-loving mosquitoes to the beautiful dragonflies that feast on them.

The addition of water isn’t the only factor that attracts so much wildlife to the fields. Because I farm organically, I have removed all toxic and synthetic chemicals from the production cycle. In my second year of practicing organic methods, I started hearing, and then seeing, all of the animals that find a home in and around our rice fields. In non-organic production, because of the use of chemicals, the fields always felt sterile – while the rice would grow, there wasn’t that feeling of vibrancy, that humming that happens in a life-filled ecosystem. With organic, the whole system has changed. It’s as if all of the wildlife in the area now knows that they can come hang out in our rice fields because they’re safe (chemical-free).

The action steps outlined in the UN’s report on biodiversity match the scale of the problem. Species extinction is a global problem, and the solutions are global in nature. Nothing but dramatic shifts in our economic and political systems can change the trends, the report says. There are more details than that, obviously, but for an individual, the steps to addressing the problem can seem enormously out-of-reach (after work tomorrow, I need to do the groceries, pick up the kids, and overturn our economic system).

In an effort to find a story of ecological hope, I recently listened to the insightfully inquisitive Krista Tippett from the “On Being” podcast interview Wangari Maathai, the environmental activist, biologist, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. With extreme courage and conviction, Maathai challenged corrupt institutions, environmental degradation, and entrenched economic interests by organizing women to plant trees in Africa. It can sound quaint, but it was revolutionary. With such a simple act, she did start to challenge the political and economic status quo.

During their interview, Tippett used the phrase “ecological disobedience” to describe the tactics of the tree-planting women. They realized that the roots of their poverty and disempowerment had to do with the mismanagement of the natural resources around them by political and economic institutions that aimed to exploit those resources. Those institutions wanted to clear-cut areas of forest – forests that provided the clean water, fuel, and food for the communities around them. The main tactic in the fight against the institutions was to work with nature and restore the resources. And so they planted trees.

(It seems important to note – given this moment in time – that the ability of women to reclaim and restore natural resources and, therefore, their livelihoods and wellbeing, is closely linked to the economic empowerment of women, which in turn relies on their ability to access the full range of family planning services.)   

Ecological disobedience may be the prerequisite for sustainability. Because how humans live leads to the destruction of so much other life, disobeying the way we are supposed to live may be the first step in changing how we live. I’m not talking about the Silicon Valley definition of “change,” aimed at adding convenience to what we already do. I’m talking about the change that comes about when you begin to grasp that the demise of one million species will mean the demise of ours as well.

And so I plant rice, organically.

My rice fields will be full of weeds. And full of birds and amphibians and insects. And if I did my job well, full of rice. But most importantly, the fields will be full of life.

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