7.1 Regenerating Life

In an inspiring lecture at TEDx Amazonia in Nov. 2010[8], Prof. Antonio Donato Nobre was explaining the "Biotic Moisture Pump" that keeps the Amazon rainforest so lush. If there is a forest on land and a sea nearby, the moisture evaporating from the sea is sucked up by the air above the forest, condensed due to the microbiota that the forest emits, resulting in rain over the forest.  The forest then purifies the rain water from the soil and returns it back to the sky through transpiration completing the pump action. Conversely, if there is a desert on land and a nearby sea, the air above the desert is sucked up by the moisture evaporating from the sea thereby keeping the desert trapped in that condition. This is why, after a certain level of deforestation, scientists predict that the Amazon region will be driven to desert conditions as the Biotic moisture pump shuts down and reverses course, perhaps making the region unsuitable even for GMO soy cultivation. On the other hand, if we can regenerate forests even in desert regions, we can establish the biotic moisture pump working in other parts of the world and not only undo the damage done to the biosphere but reverse climate change as well, since forests sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Later, in that same talk, Prof. Nobre speaks of an encounter with a member of the Ianomami tribe, Davi Copenaua, who said in essence,

"Doesn't the white man know that if he destroys the forest, the rain will end? And, if the rain ends, there will be no drinking water or food?"

Prof. Nobre continues, "I heard this and my eyes welled up in tears. I've been studying this for 20 years, with a super computer, with tens and thousands of colleagues to reach a conclusion that he already knows. A critical point is that the Ianomami have never deforested. How could he know the rain would end? That bugged me and I was befuddled. How could he know that? Some months later, I met him at another event and said,

‘Davi, how did you know that by destroying the forest, the rain ends?’

He replied, ‘The Forest Spirit told us.’

For me, this was a game changer. I said, ‘Gosh, why am I doing all this science to reach a conclusion that he already knows?’ Then something absolutely critical hit me. It is that,

Seeing is believing. Out of sight, out of heart. This is a need that we have in our culture, that we need to see things. We live in ignorance. Then it hit me, what if we turn the Hubble upside down, to see down here rather than the ends of the universe? We now have a practical reality, that we are trampling on this wonderful cosmos that shelters and houses us, in ignorance… Then, let's turn the Hubble around to look at the Earth, to look at the Amazon. Let's dive in and reach out to the reality that we live in daily and look at it, since that's what we need. Davi Copenaua doesn't need this. He already has something that I think I missed. I was educated by television and I missed this, an ancestral record, a valuation of that which I don't know, which I haven't seen. Davi is no ‘doubting Thomas.’ He believes with veneration and reverence in that which his ancestors and the spirits taught him. As we can't, let's look into the forest with our telescopes and understand what sustains us."

Prof. Nobre captured in essence what the Butterfly culture is all about. It isn't about everyone in the industrial world returning to a hunter-gatherer, back-to-Nature lifestyle, to become once again the Ianomami that we sprung from. If 7 billion humans all begin to lead hunter-gatherer lifestyles, we would most definitely wind up hunting each other as in the multi-player video games that are popular over the internet. That would be catastrophic. The planet simply cannot support 7 billion predatory hunter-gatherers, especially in its present damaged state.

Instead, the Butterfly culture is about using the tools that we have developed towards a larger common purpose, the purpose of healing the wounds that we have inflicted on the biosphere during the Caterpillar stage of our global, industrial civilization. It is about using those tools to look inwards instead of peering outwards. It is also about realizing that the scientist is just another blind man describing the Elephant that is Truth and not the only man who can see the Elephant. Besides, due to intense specialization, the typical scientist is only peering at the very minutest part of the Elephant these days, a toe nail here, an eyelash there. In our scientific and engineering community, we need to develop a little humility about that, just as Prof. Nobre exemplified.

I was on an airplane returning back to San Francisco from Chicago and seated next to me were a mother and a daughter. The daughter was on a semester break from college and she was talking to her mother about her college life and the courses that she was planning to take, etc. I was busy working on my laptop until I heard the daughter say to her mother in a dejected tone, "Mom, we all know that the planet is screwed, that when I grow up to be your age, I'll be living in a Mad Max world." Then I spoke up and said to the daughter to keep the faith that she won't be reduced to such a violent lifestyle if, as a Miglet, she takes steps today. But it was difficult for me to convey the gist of this book to them in just a few minutes with the result that the mother became very defensive about the American way of Life and about consumerism in general. She retorted,

"Well, I notice that you are flying in a plane and you are typing on a laptop. Aren't you being hypocritical to use the products of our culture while criticizing it?"

I replied, "Actually I am part of this culture as I designed the communications system that connects this laptop to the internet. But, nowadays, I use these products for my purpose, which is to help regenerate Life. And for that purpose, I think that we must use every tool that our technologies have developed and to also develop new tools as we need them.”

We must not simply discard the knowledge that we have accumulated and the technology that we have developed, but we must learn to use them wisely, as we have plenty of clean-up work to do, to regenerate Life back in most environments.


[8] Prof. Antonio Donato Nobre, "Talk at TedXAmazonia," Nov. 2010. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxAmazonia-Antonio-Donato-Nob