Loving Balance: Competition and Community

Recently I was asked to provide examples of competition in a grassland biomass and I have thought about it off and on for a while now. I could probably offer hundreds of examples, but the question itself bothered me.

Over the years I have grown to despise this type of compartmentalized thinking as well as the perception that the very notion of competition was somehow immoral or not evolved. That is certainly not the case in the natural world. We now perceive everything as stored neatly in its own little box. We view an idea such as competition as a satellite sitting alone in space rather than seeing all of Creation holistically. I wondered if such thinking was the outcome of a belief perpetuated for a long time that humanity was superior to all else, separated from the whole and viewed singularly. When confronted by something that tried to climb out its box we became miffed, wielding real or imaginary swords and making it clear, either get back in the box or else. We have displaced and slaughtered everything that did not bend to our will, plants, animals, and other people. After six, eight, maybe ten millennia of such behavior we have cultivated a new mode of thinking; that the moral high ground is to regard all displays of competition as distasteful and often outrageous. Tears come to our eyes when we watch sea lions going after penguins or mountain lions feasting on fawns. As a species we are clearly conflicted and confused, remaining as out of balance as we were in the days of Manifest Destiny and beyond. And even as we hold this moral high ground as the height of enlightenment we fail to view even clinically our horrendous over-population (now exceeding many times the carrying capacity of our beloved Earth) as the very trigger that spawns the most savage competition for resources. I could only conclude that the initial question was flawed and I went back to my understanding of the natural world to sort it out. I realized that I struck upon it in Ancestral Airs:

“Our conversation turned quickly to the tournaments that were to be held the next day. The games represented the sacred mandate of rivalry in natural order. All plants and animals exhibited one or more of these imperatives, driving away opponents with painful or aggressive tactics. Many birds, scavengers, and meat eaters competed fiercely with each other, as did we. It wasn’t uncommon for one to harm another in effort to protect its territory and the resources within it. From the mystery contained in the interchange was sprung the concept of community where the swing and sway of ideas and feelings, even when hostile, were held in loving balance.”

Community, that is what an ecosystem is, a community of plants and animals (including humans) that for whatever strategy might be employed, is held in loving balance. It is definitely not looking individually at two or ten plants and citing them as examples of competition. When we were Earth-worshipping Pagans we were the definitive experts of the natural world’s harmony and we lived within its dictate. We understood innately, and in detail we can only imagine now, that nature held it all in mysterious check and that is a mystery we have yet to resolve. I don’t think we ever will or will know again the complex mystery of the Primordial Mother Goddess the Earth. For millions of years, bands and communities of hunter-gatherers with their incomparable genius for all things Earth succeeded in living as simply one of countless species that made up a given biomass. We didn’t stand on the sideline watching, we were an intrinsic part of it. And yet not our relatives or we made a detrimental impact on our planet, most left without a single trace of having ever been alive.

Before I spin off into too much esotery I want to draw your attention to the book I regard as the finest ever written about ecology and its many facets of mystery. It is called The Machinery of Nature and is written by Paul R. Ehrlich. If you never read another you must read this one. He concludes, after explaining the laws of energy conservation, that “In any ecosystem the amount of energy available to each successive trophic level declines. Thus more energy is available to support plants than herbivores, more to support herbivores than carnivores, and so on.” He goes on to explain “that the biomass of grasses and other grazed plants is much greater than that of the grazers, and that the biomass of the grazers is much greater than that of the predators that attack them.” He further states, “About 10% of the energy that flows into one trophic level is available to the next. Thus if green plants in an area manage to capture 10,000 units of energy from the sun, only about 1000 units will be available to support herbivores, and only about 100 to support carnivores.” Too bad my inquisitor never read this book. Clearly, no two species competes with each other, not really. Each, plant, animal, or we, competes for needed units of energy to survive; we compete for sunlight.

Here, Ehrlich has made an absolutely eloquent case for feeding our ventricose population with plants. But even more intriguing is the fact that this is supported by the study of Paleo diets, a study decades old for me. It has been implied for centuries that our Stone Age ancestors were big meat eaters. That is a myth. Granted, our big, fat brains need a steady supply of protein, but all of the evidence points to the fact that we as humans (and our relatives) are and always have been omnivores where at least 85% of our diets were made up of vegetable matter. Statistically as Ehrlich points out, and esoterically with my insistence of hunter-gatherer genius of the world in which he lived, being a big meat eater is both impractical and probably impossible. But how might this have led to the concept of community?

In the idealistic hunter-gatherer world, population grew and declined based on the availability of food. The only way to protect what was then a fragile and fleeting population was to share equally all available resources. We held a cultivated view that in doing so reproductive imperatives insured the survival and longevity of the tribe via future generations. Over harvesting and over hunting stood in stark contrast to that and we knew it. Frugality quickly became the foundation of a community’s ability to endure and led to a level of Earth worship and mystical knowledge unlike anything we have seen since. Yes, we competed with every organism in the biomass but our wisdom prevented us from driving any species into extinction. We understood in intimate detail the loss of any species led to starvation.

In contrast to that and no doubt due to our notion of human superiority and our over-population we have been driven to compete for every scrap, every inch of soil, every glimpse of attention for which our fragile egos hunger. Any hunter-gatherer from any place or time would immediately recognize how profoundly out of balance his descendants have become.

Technology is now paraded as the measure of civilized society, the litmus test of evolution, even as civilization remains defined by the quality and care it extends to its community. As a species that same technology has driven each of us into our own individual bubbles of isolation even as we celebrate those technological breakthroughs. When once long ago our community held precedence over personal ambition and identity we are left with the identity of one and utterly alone even as our glutted population increases minute by minute. We are rutting out an existence devoid of companionship or sense of purpose, competing fiercely and failing miserably. No wonder competition as one of the sacred mandates of healthy ecosystems has gotten such a bad rap.

If we really want to catch the prayers of our shamanic ancestors, the true magic makers of our species, we must first step into the harmonic balance of community found in knowing the natural world. In principle at least we can take that wisdom and rebuild our sense of community in profoundly simple ways. When we have the resources to buy two heads of lettuce, give one away to our neighbor. When our gardens are particularly productive we can donate the surplus to our local food bank. We can donate time to feed the homeless or help our neighbor solve his problem, whatever that problem might be. There was a time when we continually assessed the needs of our community and took action to insure that all survived, and survived well. We now careen off into a lonely, virtual world that neither feeds our bodies, our souls, our neighbors, nor fuels a sense of mystery and wonder. And while we struggle to relinquish our notion of me, myself, and I, lets remember all those elders imprisoned and forgotten in facilities. They are our last link to comprehend our misguided path. Once revered as the wisdom keepers, we now view our elders with a shrug and a sigh. They and they alone can tell us their piece of the puzzle and show us where our missteps might have happened. Our elders who remain alive today have the long view and have marked the long calendar. With their help we can retrace our steps back to the shamanic view of community, founded in natural order and its sacred mandates, where everything is held in loving balance.

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