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Revenge of the Weeds

Today's big news stories - the wars, the eco-disasters - all seem to have the same gaping hole in them. This hole is lack of awareness, and its thrum, once you begin to hear it, soon becomes deafening: We can't go on like this.

We can't keep playing conquering fool, arrogantly ordering the world to our liking by killing everything that doesn't fit into it. We can't keep throwing more of the same at our problems. We can't keep fighting nature, or one another, and expect somehow to win in the end. We can't keep buying time at an increasingly horrific price. Time is running out. And petroleum isn't the only thing we're addicted to.

"Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers' near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds," the New York Times informed us several months ago.

"To fight them . . . farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides. . . ."

The Times goes no deeper into the matter than this, affecting more concern for Monsanto, the manufacturer both of Roundup and the genetically modified cotton, corn and soybean seeds that are resistant to it (and are now no longer must-buy products for frustrated farmers), than it shows concern or even curiosity about the environmental consequences of the practices it writes about, including monoculture - the devotion of vast tracts of land to single crops and completely at odds with the extraordinary complexity of natural ecosystems.

But time appears to be running out on monoculture and many other standard practices of agribusiness, just as it is on so many of the thoughtless ways the civilized world does business. One clue to this: When a problem arises, we fight back with more of the same, except in higher - more lethal - doses. Indeed, that impulse, to fight back, to turn everything into a war, rather than to study, ponder and revere our obstacles, is the ultimate manifestation of our unawareness.

Thus to eradicate the "superweeds" that have evolved in response to the widespread use of Roundup, other chemical companies are scrambling to develop alternative herbicides and genetically modified seeds that can resist them, including, the Times notes without irony, Dow Chemical Co., which hopes to market seeds resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange - the defoliant we used to ravage Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.

Yeah, we're still at war, and not only in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We're so hell-bent on maintaining our voracious consumption habits, that we'll engage the services of the defense industry," Firmin DeBrabander wrote recently, in an excellent essay published on Common Dreams. "We'll use Agent Orange to fight off weeds and ensure the delivery of cheap corn to Frito-Lay, Coke and Kellogg's. . . . All in the name of productivity, efficiency, convenience - profit."

This all reads so much like a war story, it's as though a template had been laid over the data, making it come out as another version of the Great American Myth: Once again, the valiant American little guy, in this case the noble farmer (and his ally Monsanto), takes on inscrutable evil, an herbicide-resistant form of pigweed that can grow three inches a day, reach heights of seven feet, choke out crops and wreck farm equipment. If we throw a little Agent Orange at it, we're back in another era, fighting commie pigweed.

As I read the Times story, which seemed like a dispatch from the front ("In an attempt to kill the pest before it becomes that big . . ."), I couldn't help but think about some words of Rupert Ross, who delves deeply into the Aboriginal worldview in his book Returning to the Teachings. The Lakota, he wrote, "had no language for insulting other orders of existence: ‘pest' . . . ‘waste' . . . ‘weed.'"

This starts to explain why we are the way we are, and how we've reached the zenith of our arrogance: Whether geopolitically, agriculturally or in the privacy of our relationship with ourselves, we come out fearful and fighting. (I will sometimes, for my own amazement, count the number of "wars" we're waging: on drugs, terror, crime, cancer, illiteracy, ignorance . . . weeds, etc., ad infinitum).

Is there another way? Can we retire the myth that we've created, and that has created us, which depends for its sustenance upon a perpetual enemy and dozens, maybe hundreds, of fronts?

Our transition to peace will be as slow, complex and backlash-prone as our transition from monoculture to sustainable farming practices, such as the permaculture movement, which seeks to partner with nature, not use it up and throw it away.

"Permaculture's sensible answer," writes Mary DeDanan, "is for humans to ally themselves with nature instead of trying to control nature. . . . Permaculture insists on the whole picture, from soil microbes to global weather patterns. It takes advantage of every relationship and synergy. It uses local resources, or grows its own. It wastes nothing."

Our transition begins with awareness, evidence of which I long to hear when I tune into the mainstream voices of my culture.

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