How To Begin Creating Ecological Economies

How To Begin Creating Ecological Economies

What will come after industrial capitalism? In this piece, Kara Huntermoon envisions how to begin creating ecological economies through adaptation to place.


Ecological Economies

by Kara Huntermoon

Humans are ‘culture creatures.’ That means we evolve on two levels: biological and cultural.

Biological evolution is physical adaptation to environmental stresses. All life on Earth evolves biologically. A tree growing in a cold area must adapt to the cold or die. Those individual trees in the population with sufficient capacity to tolerate the cold are the ones who reproduce, eventually leading to a population of trees genetically distinct enough from other similar trees to be called a “species.”

Cultural evolution does not require physical adaptation.

A group of humans can build houses, grow or collect foods, make clothing, create tools, and organize waste management in many different ways. These different cultural adaptations also evolve. That means that as we take in information from the environment, we change our culture to adapt to the new information.

This ability makes humans highly adaptable to very extreme differences in climate and ecology.

The Inuit have developed a sustainable culture in the far north, in a place where the sun literally does not rise for two months in the winter, temperatures fall below zero for long periods of time, and the ground never thaws out, even in summer. On the other extreme, Australian aborigines developed a sustainable culture in a place where there is very little rain, summer temperatures regularly exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and soils are so low in nutrients that agriculture―even livestock grazing―cannot be sustainably practiced. The people of the Inuit nations and the people of the Aboriginal nations are not physically distinct enough from each other to be considered separate species. They did not need to speciate because their adaptations happened on a cultural level.

Humans can adapt to things that would not be found in nature.

Driving a car, flying in an airplane, watching television, and using cell phones all seem normal to us, because our cultural adaptations normalize them. When humans live separate from relationships with ecological communities, they evolve cultures that ignore ecological communities. This is what happens in cities, where entire groups of people do not have access to the plant and animal people who support human life. Water comes out of a tap, so we do not have the opportunity to watch how it flows through the rivers as we collect water to drink. Warmth comes from electric heaters, so we do not have the opportunity to collect firewood and notice the health of the forest that warms us. Our cultures evolve a kind of ignorance of life-supporting beings.

When human cultures engage in active conversation with ecological community relationships, they evolve ways to adapt to their ecosystems.

Thus a desert-dwelling people will evolve a culture of nomadic land-tending, where they travel over large distances to avoid having too big an impact on any one fragile area of the ecosystem. People who live in areas with regular summer rain are more likely to practice active agriculture. Mountain people often develop cultures of livestock tending that include moving the herds up the mountains to graze during the summer, and down into barns for protection from the winter. Any of these cultural patterns could be indefinitely sustainable, as long as they are practiced “in place,” enmeshed in their ecology of origin, where they can receive feedback from the generations-long conversations that happen between humans and their communities.

Humans need multiple smaller in-place adapted cultural groups in order to maintain diversity and resilience.

We decry the loss of genetic diversity in food crops, because when you plant only a few genetic lines, the crop becomes really susceptible to destruction. The Irish potato famine is a good example of this. Irish people had access to only a small percentage of the potato genetic diversity available, because their original potato stock was a small amount imported from South America. This small amount was propagated until it became the basis of the entire country’s agriculture. When blight infected the potatoes, all strains being grown were susceptible, and people starved. If more strains had been grown, there would have been some with resistance to blight.

Humans are the same.

When we have a world-wide monoculture, there is less resilience for our species to respond to challenges. US hegemony and colonialism, combined with genocide of native peoples worldwide, has made our species less adaptable. For example, there are many ways to manage human waste, and they are dependent on their local ecology. In some tropical areas, it makes sense to defecate in running rivers, because poisonous snakes are attracted to the insects that gather around human feces on land. Using the river to remove that risk works well as long as the human population is small enough, the river is big enough, and the animals in the river who eat the poop maintain healthy populations.

There are people living in Eugene who refuse to use a humanure sawdust bucket toilet. Their cultural expectation is such that pooping in clean drinking water and flushing it away down a pipe seems normal to them, and other options become unacceptable. For someone from a different culture, even from a different subculture of this culture, that seems strange. Why would you foul your drinking water, and create pollution by combining that slurry with millions of other flushes, and then create a sub-class of people who try to clean it with nasty chemical processes? When handled differently, that “waste” could enrich your soil and help you grow healthy crops.

The cultural aspects of humanure management are relatively easy to change. My favorite way is to use finished humanure compost in the garden while someone is helping me. People will hesitantly follow me up to the pile, and hold the wheelbarrow for me while I fork into the finished compost. Slowly their faces change as the wheelbarrow fills. It looks like finished compost, it smells like fresh soil, and they can tell that it is healthy. “Can I touch it?” asked one. “Of course. It won’t hurt you.” Soon they are raking their hands through the compost, smoothing it out on the top few inches of the garden bed.

We need to be able to experiment like this to find ways to adapt in place.

In the future, we will not be able to depend on large-scale infrastructure like flush toilets, underground sewer systems to transport the flushes, and wastewater treatment plants to process the slurry. This system also relies on electricity, regular paychecks for the workers, and fossil fuels to transport the processed slurry to its next location. There are too many opportunities for this system to break down out of our control, leaving us in the position of needing to safely manage our own feces without spreading disease. The risk of disease transmission after interruptions in waste management systems is really high, as for example in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Recreating ecological economies requires us to stay in place and commit to a single territory.

We cannot begin multi-generation conversations with our ecological communities if we are constantly leaving those communities. Even the difference between the West Eugene wetlands and the South Eugene hills is significant. We must start small, in our own neighborhoods, and then create a bioregional network of knowledge-tenders who can increase understanding of the big-picture patterns of our area. Learn the names and habits of the birds, insects, and mammals in your home. Look up ethnobotany for the plants, and start to use them for medicine, food, and fiber. Rebuild a local culture of dependence on each other (both other humans and other life). Get to know your neighbors and help each other.

The ‘homelessness’ distress pattern of colonialist dominator culture has infected all of us.

What would it take for you to commit to a place? To where would you commit? What would you have to give up in order to make that commitment? How would you cope with the experiences of loss when others are unable or unwilling to make that same commitment, and you lose relationships with neighbors that you have fostered for years? Who will you teach to stay, and how will you teach it? How can you create a local economy that has more resilience than the national one, and entices people to stay in place because “moving for a job” no longer makes sense? How can you love as big as possible?

Keep asking these questions.

Journal about them, talk with others about them, notice your feelings about them. Live with the questions.

Seek answers in all aspects of your life.


Kara Huntermoon is one of seven co-owners of Heart-Culture Farm Community, near Eugene, Oregon. She spends most of her time in unpaid labor in service of community: child-raising, garden-growing, and emotion/relationship management among the community residents. She also teaches Liberation Listening, a personal growth process that focuses on ending oppression.

Featured image by Christian Ziegler, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.


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