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Thomas L. Friedman: Kansas prairie offers lesson for Middle East

  • New York Times
  • Published Tuesday, August 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

I’ve spent the past few months filming a Showtime documentary about how climate and environmental stresses helped trigger the Arab awakening. It’s been a fascinating journey because it forced me to look at the Middle East through the lens of Arab environmentalists instead of politicians. When you do that, you see the problems and solutions very differently.

Our film crew traveled to Salina to look at the connection between the recent drought in Kansas and the rise in global food prices that helped to fuel the Arab uprisings. But I stumbled upon another powerful environmental insight: the parallel between how fossil fuels are being used to power monoculture farms in the Middle West and how fossil fuels are being used to power wars to create monoculture societies in the Middle East. And why both are really unhealthy for the air, soil, forests and water.

My teacher was Wes Jackson, a MacArthur award winner based in Salina, where he founded the Land Institute. Jackson’s philosophy is that the prairie was a diverse wilderness, with a complex ecosystem that supported all kinds of wildlife, not to mention American Indians – until the Europeans arrived, plowed it up and covered it with single-species crop farms, mostly wheat, corn or soybeans. Jackson’s goal is to restore the function of the diverse polyculture prairie ecosystem and rescue it from the single-species, annual monoculture farming, which is exhausting the soil, the source of all prairie life.

“We have to stop treating soil like dirt,” he said.

Jackson maintains some original prairie vegetation. As we walked through it, he explained: This is nature’s own “tree of life.” This prairie, like a forest, “features material recycling, runs on sunlight, and does not have an epidemic that wipes it all out. You know during the Dust Bowl years of the ’30s, the crops died, but the prairie survived.” Then he pointed to his experimental perennial grain crops: “That’s the tree of knowledge.” Our challenge, and it will take years, he noted, is to find a way to blend the tree of life with the tree of knowledge to develop domestic prairies that could have high-yielding fields planted once every several years, whose crops would only need harvesting and species diversity could “take care of insects, pathogens and fertility.”

And that brings us back to the Middle East. Al-Qaida often says that if the Muslim world wants to restore its strength, it needs to go back to the “pure” days of Islam, when it was a monoculture unsullied by foreign influences. In fact, the “Golden Age” of the Arab/Muslim world was when it became a polyculture between the eighth and 13th centuries.

What is going on in the Arab world today is a relentless push, also funded by fossil fuels, for more monocul-tures. It’s al-Qaida trying to “purify” the Arabian Peninsula. It’s Shiites and Sunnis, funded by oil money, trying to purge each other in Iraq and Syria. It makes these societies much less able to spark new ideas and much more susceptible to diseased conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies. To be blunt, this evolution of Arab/Muslim polycultures into monocul-tures is a disaster.

Pluralism, diversity and tolerance were once native plants in the Middle East – the way the polyculture prairie was in the Middle West. Neither ecosystem will be healthy without restoring its diversity.

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.

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