The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future
for ourselves and for the planet

** Section (7) is now released! See below. **

This page is sort of an experiment.

I wrote the first draft of The Monterey List in 2003, and immediately set it aside in order to complete Ogallala Blue, which was already under contract. By the time I had finished the contracted work, three years later, I'd forgotten all about this one.

In the spring of 2016 I ran across it again. I decided it was worth sharing with the world, so I tidied it up and sent it to my agent. She had no luck with it. Twenty-two publishers turned it down.

This was a bit - ah - discouraging. I still think it's worth sharing with the world, though, so I'm going to share it here. One small section at a time.

The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. For the book, I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), numbered them, and expanded them into essays. I plan to release all of those essays on this page - one at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. Partway through the process, assuming enough interest has developed, I will publish the whole thing as an e-book. If you purchase the e-book, you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Until then....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.

Enjoy! And please let me know what you think. You can enter your comments at the bottom of this page.

* * *

So here's how I expect this to work. Each Saturday (the good Lord willin' and the crick don't rise), I will post a new section of The Monterey List in this space. The previous week's section will be removed and replaced by a link to a .pdf version of the same material. In this way, the book will be built, piece by piece, over the course of 111 weeks.

This week's section is No. 7, "Humans have simplified natural systems." This is the third section of Chapter II, "On Environmental Damage." Next week: section 8, "'The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts."

A link to previously released material may be found at the bottom of this page, directly above the comments section.


7.Humans have simplified natural systems.

Nearly everything we have thought of as "progress," through all of human history, has resulted in some form of ecological simplification. The first great simplification was the agricultural revolution. During this sweeping technological change, which took place in at least three separate places - in Arabia, in Mesoamerica, and in China - diverse natural plant communities were replaced by single-crop fields. Animal diversity dropped as well, as insects tied to particular plants disappeared with the plants, and as domestic mammals and birds were given a selective advantage over their wild relatives. Crop pests and predators were "controlled," which usually meant eradication to the extent possible. Other agricultural models exist - most hunting and gathering societies alter the landscape to improve game habitat, and they plant the seeds of favorite food plants near their regular encampments to ensure a steady supply, two complexity-retaining practices which clearly qualify as agriculture - but the simplification model has become overwhelmingly dominant. Each "improvement" to this model has simplified things a little further. Today's agribusiness is the epitome of ecological simplification: giant monocultured fields, aggressive pest and weed eradication programs, and artificially fed livestock and poultry confined to small areas in such great densities that there is no room for any other living thing. The diverse mix of life one finds in the wild has been replaced by what may be thought of as individual biological boxes, each containing a single species.

The simplifications brought by the agricultural revolution have paved the way for others. Forestry, for example, has traditionally followed the agricultural model, with monocultured tree plantations and aggressive pest control. In this "individual boxes" concept of the forest landscape, wilderness preservation is not so much a revolution as it is a logical extension. Conceptually, a wilderness preserve is just one more box, filled with "nature" instead of with crops or with livestock and kept that way in the same manner: by aggressively patrolling the bounds and keeping out everything that doesn't belong inside.

The built environment - cities, freeways, farmsteads - is an overwhelming simplification, pared down to fake rock, dead wood, and a single species (us) plus a few plants and animals (pets; birds) which we permit to share our realm. The suburban lawn is a simplification, reduced to a few varieties of grass and kept on a single water regimen year-round. The internal combustion engine is not a simplification - it interrupts the natural sequestering of carbon, and it puts gases into the atmosphere which are rare or absent under natural conditions - but its overall effect is to simplify, by allowing or encouraging such practices as suburban sprawl, agribusiness, and the concentration of industry into areas which then become ecological dead zones due to pollution, paving, large buildings, and heavy machinery.

All this is important because nature does not ordinarily simplify. Overall, over astronomical time, it is true that the universe is running down and is therefore simplifying: the Second Law of Thermodynamics guarantees this result. The tendency of living things, however, is toward more complexity, not less. Biologists refer to this process as negentropy, the negation of entropy - "entropy" being the disorder introduced into systems by the Second Law. Life is negentropic because living systems are niche-driven. Niches - an ecological term which refers to what animals do for a living as well as to where they live - proliferate as life proliferates. There could be no predators, for example, until there were creatures to prey upon. Intestinal parasites could not develop until animals developed intestines. Bark beetles could not exist without bark for them to drill into.

Human simplifications reverse negentropy. This makes them profoundly anti-life. Note, however, that it is the simplifications - not the technologies - which are referred to here. To state that agribusiness (or forestry, or markets, or urban sprawl) is anti-life is itself a simplification. It is possible, for instance, to conceive of large-scale agribusiness based on sound ecological principals. Though nothing like that exists today, there is no compelling reason why it could not. It is the way we do agribusiness that has been creating problems, not the concept of agribusiness itself. As we seek to dig ourselves out of the hole we have dug ourselves into, it is important to keep the true character of the hole clearly in mind.


Comments? Compliments? Criticisms? Please share your thoughts (your name will not appear unless you add it to your comments).

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Diane, you will see my views on that question developed in this space over the next few weeks - William Ashworth

Dave Forman, in his book, Take Back Conservation, (I have an autographed free copy thanking me for all of my work), says that we need to retain the idea that we value natural places and preserve them for their own sake, not for human-related reasons. I agree with that, while still recognizing that we need to maintain sustainability.We need both views.
Diane Newell Meyer

Looking forward to the next installment.