Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What We Can Learn from Plants (and the Bible)

Here is part of the final chapter of a new book I am working on.

Botany, the study of plants, can help us understand the laws of nature, including the laws that govern everything we do in our economic and personal lives. For our prosperity, and perhaps our survival, we need to let the plants teach us how to live.

To learn from the plants, we have to look closely at them. They do not yell in our faces like presidential candidates or preachers. Most people do not so much as glance at plants. But if you are reading this book, you are obviously an exception to this pattern.

There is a long tradition of us who have allowed plants to teach us how to live. Ancient Biblical literature tells of King Solomon who gave lectures about “the hyssop that grows out of the wall,” a plant that not only grew but was beautiful even when it did not have access to rich soil. And this same literature says that Jesus of Nazareth was also a close observer of plants. He said, as if he had read Chapter 2 of this book, “Except a seed die it cannot be born.” He said, as if he had read Chapter 9, that no matter how the weather changes from day to day you know that spring has come when the fig tree opens its buds.

One of the most famous pieces of literature attributed to Jesus is Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, in which he said, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” He referred to the lilies of the field, the ephemeral spring wildflowers that grow briefly in the springtime in climates such as those of the Middle East or California. Actually, he referred to just one of the lilies, of which there could be ten thousand in a field: Solomon was not arrayed as one of these. Whatever other legends may have accreted to the story of Jesus, it is clear that he must have been a man who was willing to get down on his knees and look at, really look at, a flower.

Perhaps Jesus realized that a flower is an investment. He is recorded as speaking disapprovingly of fruits that bear no seeds, that is, which have no return on their investment. While it may seem that a tiny plant could not possibly be making a profit by producing a flower that was more beautiful than any splendid human garment, the flower actually is an investment in attracting pollinators. Solomon’s royal robes were also an investment. Neither Solomon nor any other king actually needed all of those royal vestments. But those vestments were an in-vestment in prestige, which brought all of these kings ample rewards in power and wealth.

As explained in the final chapter, long-term investments (the tree strategy) are not always better than short-term investments (the weed strategy). However, our entire economy seems to be based on short-term investments: quarterly earnings rather than visionary investments, postponing necessary expenditures indefinitely into the future, and perhaps worst of all, making a killing rather than making a living. To make a long-term career, you need to create a support network and please your customers. But to make a short-term profit, these are not necessary: you will be gone before anyone notices that you misled them or provided an inferior product. Our entire economy, more and more each year, is a weed economy rather than a tree economy. The weed economy should fill in the gaps between economic forests, but repeated disturbances (everything from terrorist attacks to politically-motivated government shutdowns) make the tree economy less attractive. And many people in the business world, much to the embarrassment of the others, make a virtue out of short-term killings and proclaim themselves patriots while doing so. “Durable goods” used to be defined as those items that lasted at least three years; now they seem to be items that last no more than three years. As Vance Packard decried in The Waste Makers back in the 1950s, many companies make a lot of profit from built-in obsolescence. This is the tragedy of modern times.

We are not the first people to make nearly all of our investments weedy rather than perennial. Old Testament literature (the ninth chapter of Judges) also tells the story of a man named Jotham, who spoke from a hillside to the people of Shechem about how they had chosen worthless, selfish men as their leaders, men who cared only for immediate advantage and gratification. But he spoke in a parable. The trees of the woods and orchards, he said, wanted to choose a king. First, they asked the olive tree to be their king. But the olive tree was too busy making oil. Then the trees asked the fig tree to be their king, but the fig tree was too busy making fruit. Similarly, the grape vine was too busy making wine. So the trees of the forest asked the thorn bush to be their king. The thorn bush lived fast and died young, and instead of offering shade and creating rich soil, the thorn bush turned dry and brittle, and promoted wildfires, which destroyed the forest. Have we learned anything in the last three thousand years about how to prepare for the future?

No comments:

Post a Comment