Medieval woodland management. It’s not something that most people would think of as a go to for a modern life philosophy. As an undergraduate at University though, few other concepts had the same impact on me as did the wisdom behind this seven-hundred-year-old tradition. Life in the Middle Ages revolved around wood. Fuel for cooking and materials for furniture, utensils and buildings. Constant needs were accommodated by a two-tier cyclical planting regimen: the coppice, annually cut back to provide a steady growth of small scale, everyday use material; and the standards, large trees like ash, sycamore, sweet chestnut and oak, planted for a 30 to more than 90–year cycle to provide solid timber, the fabric of house building, transportation or communal infrastructure. What struck me most when I first heard about this coppice-with-standards process was that, during Medieval times (up until around 1400), life expectancy was only 30 years of age. If you lived to 20, it might go up to 45. Thus, woodland management was a trans-generational process, the parent planting so the child (or more likely grandchild) would be able to harvest materials to build a home, a cart or a boat. At a time when a five-year plan feels woefully long-sighted, 90-year planning is almost incomprehensible.
Playing for this long game, yet feeling empowered to make effectual decisions about the world is the last concept I want to explore in this three-part thought process. Having made the assertion that we might choose to see ourselves as a part of the whole of Earth’s ecosystem, and discussed what being a part or unit of a whole is I want to end with this final essay exploring how larger scale changes, changes we might still choose to make from within the whole, can be rationalised, even if we don’t live to see them fulfilled. Taking a lead from woodland management, whether in relation to the threat of losing the Great Barrier Reef, the fate of the polar caps, or addressing global deaths from infectious diseases, resolving any of these global challenges will likely require decisions whose rewards only resolve well beyond any of our individual lifetimes.
One area in which this is acutely meaningful to me relates to malaria. I have dedicated most of my career to date working on the parasites that cause this age-old disease. The last decade has seen a remarkable reduction in the number of annual deaths, yet the reality is that the parasite still kills around 500,000 children, mostly those under five years of age, each year. These children live in many of the poorest communities on Earth, many in sub-Saharan Africa. Such a magnitude of death – a child every minute – is unfathomable, though I quote the number almost daily. Who would not want to change such a statistic!
And yet, think of the impact that saving half a million lives every year would mean. Extra mouths to feed? Extra ppm of carbon dioxide? Won’t this mean more cars, more refrigerators and more carbon-intensive, fuel-driven destruction? The question sounds like a corrupted version of natural selection, with echoes of Nazism, suggesting that perhaps diseases like malaria are just nature’s way of keeping human populations in balance. Do we (the privileged) really dare rid the world of the mosquito vectors that transmit the disease or roll out the necessary cures (if and when we have them) to save so many lives? Perhaps being mindful of the balance of Earth’s finite resources we might actually choose not to try and change it? Or worse still, may be its just the way it is and we should actively engage in not changing it! I would quickly respond in the negative (before you ask)! Being part of the whole isn’t submission to doing nothing, or an embrace of the status quo. On the contrary it is a place from which we can find the courage to enact big changes that are mindful of their impact across scales of Earth’s ecosystems - our own included - they just take time that's all.
In fact, malaria is likely as much of our making as it is just another one of the microbial world’s mysterious killers. As agricultural communities expanded many tens of thousands of years ago, they likely opened up areas where water could stand. Malaria is insect borne – requiring the bite from an infected female mosquito. The mosquitoes that transmit the parasite are opportunists. They lay their eggs in standing water, whether this comes from stagnant pools left behind after agricultural disruption to the land, poor roads and tyre tracks, discarded tyres themselves, or myriad other short-lived bodies of water. And they are of course long-term inhabitants of swamps and marshes, the foul smells from which (mal-aria, ‘bad air’) gave the disease its name. As communities expanded the disruption of their environments with early agriculture, mosquitoes and their diseases also expanded and took hold. So, following this train of thought, it is easy to see some justification in redressing the imbalance in certain mosquito numbers, beneficiaries of our long-term destructive behaviours.
So, if we did manage to eradicate the disease, what would the impact be? Several estimates suggest that malaria alone holds many developing economies back, the disease literally stalling GDP at zero or even driving it into the negative. Removing the handbrake should then release growth, and it need not necessarily lead poorer nations down the same path wealthy nations of the world have blindly followed. First off, there is very strong evidence for an inverse correlation between income and birth rate across nations. With less sickness and less death, quality of life rises. As wealth then increases, birth rates (and possibly even fertility) drop – this is borne out in many of the world’s wealthiest countries. Less people. Less impact. And with so much investment in cleaner technologies, it should be a legitimate hope that as new economies flourish, they could bypass the inefficiencies of carbon-based energy production and instead, with foresight (!), move straight to sustainable energy, rising and leapfrogging their industrialised cousins. Ok – it's a long shot - but the concept is that decisions aimed at human health could quite legitimately reverse an impact that stretches from ice caps to clean air – that’s an Earthful decision. It just needs a long-range lens.
Last year, the UN and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundatio
n launched a program (‘From Aspiration to Action’) aimed at the global eradication of malaria by 2040. Conveniently for me, this coincides with a time when I should be thinking about retiring. That’s neat. Glass of wine, good book, global eradication of disease achieved. But reminding myself about coppice-with-standards, I’m also mindful that it will very likely be a longer game. This makes the action no less urgent. But it demands that the vision of change has to have an appropriate scale and a healthy dose of patience.
So, at a time when society seems to be moving backwards, when world leaders are making some of the most selfish, short-sighted decisions that I can recall, having the whole of Earth (and our part in it) at the forefront of our decision making process, recognising that we are part of a long journey played out over generations, that decisions by grandparents centuries ago provided the fuel for our growth and development today… taking all this on board, perhaps it can empower us to think about global problems with this very long, Earthful lens. And, if we reach the grand old age of one of the 90-year English oak standards, reaping the rewards of generations before us? We will still need to plant the next generation’s trees. If we don’t then the forests of our grandchildren’s age will be bare.
© Jake Baum, 2017. www.baumlab.com
First published on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/earthfulness-30-jake-baum