Learning from Nature to Create a More Peaceful World

interfaith peace

On the eve of International Women’s Day, I had the honor of attending and speaking at the Interfaith Peace Symposium, an event to unite women of diverse faiths and backgrounds on the theme of ” Women as Architects of Peace.” It was graciously hosted by the women of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (AMC) (GA Chapter) organized under the banner of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Auxiliary (AMWA) (GA Chapter).

AMC believes in building bridges of understanding and promoting peace and tolerance through discourse, interfaith dialogue and service to community. It’s members consider loyalty to the country as part of faith and strive to live by its community motto: “Love for All, Hatred for None.”

Some people asked me for a copy of what I spoke about so I thought I’d share it here.

I am honored and grateful to be a part of this event and represent Unity Atlanta and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light. It is GIPL’s mission is to engage communities of faith in stewardship of Creation as a direct expression of our faithfulness and as a religious response to global climate change, resource depletion, environmental injustice, pollution, and other disruptions in Creation.

When we protect the environment, and hopefully slow down climate change and all of its’ harmful consequences, we are investing in peace.

However, there is enough bad news out there these days, so rather than spend the next fifteen minutes talking about the negative effects of climate change and the need to act, I thought it would be more interesting to look at a few of the ways in which we can learn from the nature about how to work together to create a more peaceful world – which is not just the absence of violence. It is about creating and sustaining harmony, balance, and conditions conducive to life.

Throughout history, humans have been inspired by nature’s models – whether it was studying birds to learn how to design airplanes, or more recent endeavors, such as analyzing spider webs – which are ten times stronger than a steel strand of the same weight- and may be used to create suspension bridge cables or artificial ligaments for medicine. What then, can some of the laws – or at least the ways of more than human nature, teach us about working together peacefully on earth?

One lesson in peace from nature is to rise above our egos and let go of the story.

In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle observes that, “After two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float on peacefully, as if nothing ever happened. If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making. [The] duck’s lesson is this: Flap your wings – which translates as “let go of the story” – and return to the only place of power: the present now. Imagine what our relationships would look like if we learned from the ducks example and didn’t hold on to our anger or resentment – or ask the rest of the flock, “Did you see what she just did to me?” Conflicts would no longer come with all of the usual baggage of past hurts in tow. Rather, we could listen authentically, respond appropriately and then walk away gracefully.

Another principle in nature that we can learn from is that there is strength in diversity.

In a 2006 study, ecologists found that “in forests throughout the New and Old World tropics, older trees are more diverse than younger ones. In other words, diversity is actually selected for as the forests matures. This means diversity does matter and is an essential property of these complex ecosystems. Monoculture forests, where the trees are all of one particular species, are highly susceptible to diseases, and the trees are in direct competition with each other for the same nutrients. In diverse forests, however, the threat of animals, fungi, and bacteria are spread out, there is less competition for certain resources, and there is more productivity and overall abundance.”

Unfortunately in many cases it seems that the human tendency is to be wary of diversity, fearing the unknown or perceived threat to their place in society, seeing the world as “us” v. “them,” stereotyping the “others” and somehow forgetting that we are all people, who for the most part, are doing their best to live a good life.

However, if we learn from the strength in diversity model of the forest, we would see that a wide array of interests and beliefs create a beautiful tapestry of our humanity and that we are wiser – and healthier – for these connections.

This leads into another of nature’s principles – the importance of our connections and that we thrive on cooperation not competition.

I’m sure you are all familiar with the theory of “the survival of the fittest.” The idea that only the strongest of a species survive. That phrase wasn’t even introduced until Darwin’s 5th edition of On the Origin of Species, after it was coined by Herbert Spencer and applied to his own economic theories after reading Darwin. By “fittest,” Darwin did not mean the strongest – rather “fittest” as in most adaptable and that which is most likely to “fit” in with the environment and successfully reproduce.

The documentary I AM, shows that contrary to conventional thinking, cooperation and not competition, may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle. Footage shows consensus decision-making is the norm amongst many species, from insects and birds to deer and primates. The film further shows that people function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions, such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude, versus their negative counterparts; anxiety, frustration, anger and fear.

In 1981, Lynn Margulis, published a book called Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, in which she stated that the simplest of bacteria formed symbiotic relationships—relationships that benefitted both organisms—which eventually led to the evolution of new life forms. Her theory is called endosymbiosis and is based on the fact that bacteria routinely take and transfer bits of genetic material from each other. According to Margulis, symbiosis, or the way different organisms adapt, to living together, to the benefit of each, was the major mechanism for change on Earth.

In Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Keltner writes that evolution has given us remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups. Recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, is built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices. One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism is the vagus nerve, which is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s kindness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music, or the videos of a parent returning home from military service and surprises their child at school. Scientists are beginning to question if a branch of our nervous system evolved to support compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.

Darwin himself, who was misunderstood to believe exclusively in our competitiveness, actually noted that humankind’s real power comes in their ability to perform complex tasks together, to sympathize and cooperate.

The benefits of cooperation are also seen in the forest. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben writes:

“When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbors in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

He goes on to say:

“But isn’t that how evolution works? you ask. The survival of the fittest? Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate. Even strong trees get sick a lot over the course of their lives. When this happens, they depend on their weaker neighbors for support. If they are no longer there, then all it takes is what would once have been a harmless insect attack to seal the fate even of giants.”

Forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard discovered that in a single forest, a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees. And they found that mother trees will send their excess carbon through the mycorrhizal network to the understory seedlings, and we’ve associated this with increased seedling survival by four times.

She then wondered, could Douglas fir recognize its own kin, like mama grizzly and her cub? So she set about an experiment, and she grew mother trees with kin and stranger’s seedlings. And it turns out they do recognize their kin. Mother trees colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom – carbon and defense signals to the next generation of seedlings.

In humans, these survival and protection instincts are often reduced to the idea of either fight, flight or freeze. But, like trees, women often protect themselves and their offspring by choosing to tend and befriend.

“In a review of rodent, primate and human studies, Dr. Shelly Taylor made the case that evolutionary biology led males and females to develop somewhat different responses to environmental stress. While fleeing from a predator may be an adaptive behavior for males, running away may not be tenable for a nursing mother, or one who is taking care of infants, she said. Because our ancestors left the bulk of infant care to females, she explained, females have evolved stress responses that protect not only themselves, but also their young.

Behavior and biology both suggest that females respond to environmental stress by redoubling efforts to care for offspring and creating social support networks.”

My friendships with women have helped me navigate the ups and downs of motherhood, marriage and careers, and have kept me sane during these challenging times. We have commiserated over lunch, gathered for discussions and town meetings, and marched in demonstrations. Rather than channeling our stress into fighting or turning away and putting our heads in the sand, woman excel in making authentic connections and tending to each other.

This brings us to the last example of how we can creating conditions conducive for life – by being open to emergent properties. This is a scientific term for hope!

Emergent properties are the unexpected phenomena in materials and in living creatures that arise from the collaborative functioning of a system, but are not found independently – or in other words, when the whole is greater than sum of its the parts. For example, no one could have guessed that hydrogen and oxygen would combine to make water.

I have been involved in environmental activism for over 25 years, and in the last decade, I have seen a major shift in activist spaces to not only be more diverse, but to center minority voices who often live in frontline communities, and are most affected by air pollution, contaminated water, and the effects of climate change. Yes, there is a learning curve for many white people to overcome their fragility and understand the systemic racism which exists in our society, but as we do our work, and come to the table better prepared and ready to listen, what can emerge from our work together is a much deeper understanding of the root causes of social, economic and environmental injustice and a more holistic response to these challenges.

Howard Zinn wrote, “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” These surprises emerge from gatherings like this, so keep showing up and connecting with other architects of peace.

One Comment on “Learning from Nature to Create a More Peaceful World

  1. Pingback: We can do it – Traveling at the Speed of Bike

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