It seems to be a trait of Western industrialized society that if two people perceive value in the same thing, which they also perceive to be in limited supply, they will compete to possess it even if such competition destroys the very thing they value and with it the environment for every other living thing, present and future. To heal our sickened, degraded environment, we must first consciously heal our society and ourselves. The health and peace of each person reflects into society, and society in like measure is made whole. As society is made whole, so the environment is made whole.
I was indoctrinated in science with the notion that competition is necessary in Nature if this individual or that, if this species or that is to survive. Much later, when I began learning to garden, I also began to question and reevaluate the whole concept of competition.
I began to question and reevaluate the idea of competition because, if I allow my garden to lie fallow, to follow its own dictates as it were, I would likely find a changing, but not as complicated, progression of plants over time, much as I do in a forest. This progression is called “autogenic succession,” which means self-induced progression or change.
There is no direct competition in autogenic succession. Rather each group of plants changes its habitat enough that it actually eliminates itself. Consider a forest that has burned. The first plants to come in are grasses and herbs, which begin in some way to change the soil just by living there. Given time, they change the soil enough so that their offspring may germinate but do not survive, which leaves open spaces for the next group of plants to come in, the shrubs.
The shrubs do the same thing that the grasses and herbs did; namely, they gradually change the soil simply by living in it. At some point, their offspring cannot survive either. Thus, while the parent shrubs continue to live, the failure of their offspring to survive leaves open spaces for trees to move in.
There is no competition—as I learned the concept—in this whole process. Instead, one group of plants lives out its time in a given area and changes its habitat in the process. It cannot do anything else. Nothing can live without somehow changing the habitat within which it lives. This is equally true in my garden and in human society.
The whole concept of autogenic succession is changed, however, when we introduce a human discipline, such as forestry, which is really no more than trying to grow and control timber as a commodity. As soon as the idea of a commodity is introduced into a forest, people who stand to gain financially perceive anything that appears to get in the way of producing pure cultures of trees as fast as possible to be in competition with them. This is not a real competition between thistles and trees, however, but rather a perceived competition between thistles and people.
Thistles are there because it is their time to be there, and space is available. But the people who see value only in trees, and hence plant trees on a site before it is the time for trees, think of thistles as weeds. “Weeds,” in turn are merely plants growing where you don’t want them. In other words, people plant trees when it is the thistle’s time and then accuse the thistle of competing with the trees. In reality, however, the people are competing with the thistle, whereas the thistle is not competing with either the trees or the people.
The same scenario is true in my garden. It is I who compete with those plants I deem weeds, not the weeds that compete with me. I am competing with the weeds for the space they take up in their growing because it is the space in which I want to grow the vegetables, flowers, and fruits of my choice. Be that as it may, the weeds are just doing what plants do—living as best they can.
In this sense, a rodeo is not unlike my garden. The animals, which are forced to take part in a rodeo, are not in competition with either one another or the people. In fact, the animals would most likely prefer not even to be there. But they have no voice in the matter even though they suffer great abuse by unconscious humans. The people, on the other hand, are in competition with both the animals and one another.
Competition between and among people is different from that in either my garden or a forest. Athletic competition, such as a rodeo, has a purposefully limited prize for which to compete. Although there are elaborate rules of human conduct that must be agreed to for the protection and dignity of humans before one is allowed to compete in an athletic event, in the case of a rodeo, the rules of human conduct expressly direct and encourage the abuse of the animals, the reward for which is money.
Unlike athletics in which one knows the rules and must agree to them before the game is played, there appear to be few rules governing competition in life itself, and those that do exist are often ignored. In our Western industrialized society, for example, it is assumed that competition is not only good for everyone but also necessary for personal achievement and economic health. The former is equated with being superior to someone else, and the latter is equated with continual linear economic growth in which the strong, the ruthless, and the wealthy have the best chance of survival. Entire societies are run by the same set of standards only on a larger scale, hence the drive behind empire building.
Because our sense of personal and social survival is linked to economic gain, competition in Western society is geared almost exclusively around the amount of money we can each garner unto ourselves. Competition between and among people is thus born out of a perceived threat to a person’s “right of survival,” however that is defined. In turn, the perceived security of our right to survive is weighed against the number of choices we think are available to us as individuals and our ability to control those choices—the more money we have, the more choices we have, the more control and social power we have.
Perceived choices are ultimately affected by the real supply and demand for natural resources, the source of energy required by all life in one form or another. The greater the supply of a particular resource, the greater the freedom of choice an individual has with respect to that resource. Conversely, the smaller the supply, the narrower the range of choices we have available. But we can, of course, steal choices from other people to augment our own. And scarcity, real or perceived, is the breeding ground for competition and environmental and social injustice, both of which come clearly into focus each time someone steals from another rather than taking responsibility for his or her own behavior by sharing equally.
Consider here an example from my garden. When I have an abundance of vegetables and/or flowers, I willingly share rather generously some of each with those wee creatures, such as pill bugs and slugs, which like to consume them. As my lettuce, Swiss chard, and snapdragons wane, however, I become progressively less generous with those same creatures.
On the other hand, while I daily examine and remove the eggs and larvae of the cabbage butterfly from my broccoli in spring, summer, and autumn, I am more generous in sharing my kale late in the season with these same larvae because I know that frost will soon come and kill them before they can do too much damage. Of course, I could always choose to augment my supply of broccoli from somewhere else, and in the process become more lax in controlling the larvae of the cabbage butterfly on the broccoli, as well as the kale. Thus, even my generosity or competitiveness in my own garden is based on my sense of abundance and array of choices or on my sense of scarcity and loss of control.
The variety of available choices dictates the amount of control I feel I have. This consequently affects my sense of security about my survival. What happens when I perceive my array of choices as fading or when they have been suddenly ripped away? Have you ever been told that you can no longer do something you have always done and therefore have taken the doing of it for granted? How did you feel? Was it just?
How would you feel if you were suddenly plucked from whatever you are doing without warning and for no apparent reason, thrown into prison without explanation or recourse, and held indefinitely against your will? Are such innocent people behind bars now? The answer is a resounding “Yes!“
How would you feel if you were jerked out of the only life you know, smuggled into an alien country, and sold into the bonds of slavery, never again to see anyone or anything you knew or to enjoy the rights you once had as a citizen of your own country? This is not a far-fetched scenario; slavery in its various facets and guises is very much alive in the world today!
How would you feel, as an average citizen with no political desires, if civil war suddenly erupted all around you, and you had nowhere to go while your family, home, and town were being blown apart? I had a small but terrifying taste of this powerless, helpless feeling when held at gunpoint on more than one occasion in Egypt while the country was under the fist of Nasser’s dictatorial reign, and again in Nepal under the unofficial tyranny of the Communist Chinese.
I ask these questions in the hope that you can imagine how you would feel deep inside if you were suddenly to lose your sense of safety and well-being—your sense of choice. I ask because I am convinced that destructive competition arises from a deep, albeit usually unconscious, sense of potential loss.
This sense of loss may either be a chronic or acute fear of the future based on a disaster mentality. “Fear,” American singer Marian Anderson once said, “is a disease that eats away at logic and makes man inhuman.” Thus, when I am unconscious of a material value, I am free of its psychological grip. But the instant I perceive a material value and anticipate possible material gain, I also perceive the contrary psychological pain of potential loss. It is not surprising, therefore, that fear of loss is also behind the notion: if I don’t get my share of it now, whatever it is, someone else will get it. They will win, and I will lose.
There is in the course of life, however, at least for gardeners, a time when the psychological pain of potential loss, hence the perceived need to compete, diminishes or disappears altogether as they approach their journey into the Great Mystery. As I move beyond sixty years of age, for example, I can foresee a time when I may no longer want to, or even physically can, take care of my garden as I now do. With relinquishment of the desire or the possibility of gardening, my perceived need to compete with the creatures that eat my vegetables and/or flowers will progressively diminish until it no longer exists, for this will be my time of letting go as I prepare for my own journey into that which lies beyond.
But outside my garden, the story is different, particularly for those who are still young in years. Here, the larger and more immediate the prospects for material gain, the greater the political power used to ensure and expedite exploitation, because not to exploit is perceived as losing an opportunity to someone else. And it is this notion of loss that many people fight so hard to avoid. In this sense, it is more appropriate to think of resources as managing humans rather than the reverse.
Just as my garden is the mirror of the harmony and consciousness of my personal journey, so the greater environment is the mirror of the harmony and consciousness of our social journey—a reflection how we treat one another and the world around us . If we continue our insatiable competition to control one another and the economics of exploiting the world’s natural resources, we will surely destroy the ecosystems that produce the resources and ourselves in the process.
Of this notion, Wendell Berry makes the following comment: ”There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. By some connection we do not recognize, the willingness to exploit one becomes the willingness to destroy the other.”
If, therefore, we can grow beyond our fear of one another as competitors, and we can learn to cooperate with one another by sharing equally and prudently the world’s resources, then our growing sense of mutual love and trust shall heal our environment and cast a different reflection in the mirror—a reflection of harmony, peace, and sufficiency. I am firmly convinced that this is possible because I have an unbreakable faith in the basic goodness of people. In addition, I believe the state of our emotional and spiritual health as individuals is mirrored in how we treat one another and ourselves, which translates directly into the care we take of our environment as the legacy we pass to our children, their children, and beyond.
Text © by Chris Maser, 2009; Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2009. All rights reserved.