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Ecological Intelligence


Ecological Intelligence

A new awareness for our time

by Daniel Goleman

For over a thousand years Sher, a tiny village in Tibet, has clung to its existence despite its dire location, perched on a narrow shelf along a steep mountain-side. This site on the dry Tibetan plateau gets just 3 inches of precipitation a year. But every drop gets gathered into an ancient irrigation system. Annual temperatures average near freezing, and from December through February the mercury can hover below that mark by ten to twenty degrees Fahrenheit. The region's sheep have extra-thick wool that holds heat remarkably well; locally spun and woven wool makes clothes and blankets that help villagers endure the excruciatingly cold winters with little heating other than a fire in the hearth.

The stone-and-wattle houses need to be re-roofed every ten years, and willow trees planted along the irrigation canals provide the roofing. Whenever a branch is cut for roofing, a new one is grafted to the tree. A willow tree lasts around 400 years, and when one dies a new one gets planted. Human waste gets recycled as fertilizer for herbs, vegetables and fields of barley—the source of the local staple, tsampa—and for root vegetables to store for the winter.

For centuries Sher's population has stayed the same, around 300 people. Jonathan Rose, one of the first green planners and builders in the U.S. and a founder of the movement for housing that is both green and affordable, finds instructive lessons from the clever ways native peoples have found to survive in perilous niches like Sher. Says Rose, "That is true sustainability, when a village can survive in its ecosystem for 1,000 years."

Tibetans, of course, are not unique in their remarkable ability to find simple solutions to the daunting challenge of surviving, even thriving, in the most dire of environmental surrounds. From the Arctic Circle to the Sahara Desert, native peoples everywhere have survived only by understanding and exquisitely attuning to the natural systems that surround them, and designing ways of living that best interact with those systems. At Sher there are three forces this tiny hamlet depends on for its survival: sunlight, rainwater, and the wisdom to use nature's resources well.

Modern life diminishes such skills and wisdom; on the threshold of the 21st century society has lost touch with what may be the singular sensibility crucial to our survival as a species. The routines of our daily lives go on completely disconnected from their adverse impacts on the world around us; our collective mind harbors blindspots that disconnect our everyday activities from the crises those same activities create in natural systems. Yet at the same time the global reach of industry and commerce means that the impacts of how we live extend to the far corners of the planet. Our species threatens to consume and befoul the natural world at a rate that far exceeds our planet's carrying capacity.

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