The Threat to Life as We Know It: The View from Sri Lanka

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Ranil Senanayake at the Belipola Arboretum. Photo by Quincy Saul, September 2019

Ranil Senanayake is the originator of the science and art of Analog Forestry, and founder of the Belipola Arboretum and the International Analog Forestry Network. He is respected as the foremost systems ecologist in Sri Lanka, and has lectured and worked throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In addition to scientific papers, he also writes for the local Sri Lankan press. His book “Clowns and Jokers” chronicles these writings for the last “thirty years of attempting to affect change in Sri Lanka.” [1] This fall, while the Amazon and the Congo and the Sri Lankan hill country forests all burned, I sat down with him in search of answers to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.

In 1983 you wrote an article titled “A Threat to Life,” in which you argue that “there is a threat to life as we know it.” What is this threat, and how can we defend ourselves?

The threat that I point out is the consumerist growth oriented society. We are all a part of it. It’s going to take a human effort of gargantuan proportions if you’ ever going to control the banking and economc systems that demand growth at any rate. And as long as they do that, the threat to life accelerates every passing day.

Is there any alternative today in Sri Lanka that can save us from this threat?

No! Unfortunately in Sri Lanka like everywhere else, we’re caught in this dichotomy. We are an old country, you know – three thousand years at least of written and oral history. And we’re a hydraulic civilization. Our people have future-proofed us, by creating 32,000 tanks all around us: A country with no natural lakes to slow the flow of water to the sea, developed a complex system of man-made reservoirs, which over the course of two thousand years developed a locally maintainable network of small lakes (tanks), that total over 32,000.

But are we clever enough to use the capital that was left behind? Or do we run roughshod over it by creating these huge monster dams and constructions, which are merely a symbol the growth of quantity, as opposed to quality? With modern ‘development,’ the engineers ignored the value of this system to consider giant, concrete, technological, and expensive dams. And that’s this kind of economy promoted as modernity. All that they want is the fast movement of money to facilitate consumerism. This creates a mass of unthinking consumers, who are attracted to it – like a shoal of fish attracted by plankton – and this attracts the predators and parasites, of the gangster and political classes. As a biologist this certainly seems like what is happening with the current economic system.

In 1994, you wrote that modern industrial agriculture is “like the story of Aladdin: new lamps for old!” (Clowns and Jokers, p83) Tell us your perspective on the history of farming and agriculture, new and old.

In every country, everywhere in the world, farming and agriculture didn’t arise 200 years ago. Every country on this planet has a tradition of agriculture spanning thousands of years. Those that did wrong, failed horribly. Look at the deserts around Beirut; the cedars of Lebanon; look at the deserts of central China where there was a huge agricultural revolution at one time.

And there are also places on the planet that have sustained this thing for thousands of years. It could be benign management with little demand, like the Australian first peoples, or the Amazonian first peoples. Or it could be complete change of the ecosystem using high and developed technology, like Sri Lanka for instance, with the hydraulic civilizations.

But all of them had a history in a given place over a long, long period of time. And given this long interaction, both the creatures of the ecosystem and the humans learned to create and manage a system that was beneficial for the manager. This was the traditional system of agriculture, anywhere. If you look at it, that system of agriculture gives you probably not the highest, but probably the optimal yield you could get from a system without external input. Then, as we increase our level of external inputs – whether you bring in oxen, or whether you bring in a group of other people, or later on, a tractor, or fertilizer – as you bring in external imputs, the apparent productivity goes up, but the cost of that productivity is tremendous.

So this is why I always maintain that traditional agricultural systems contain within them codified information as to the ecosystem that they are operating in. The modern system does away with the ecosystem completely; they just want a blank slate, because that’s what a high energy system requires. You know, there’s an ecological axiom that says, energy flow through a system tends to simplify and organize that system. That’s true whether it be pouring garbage into a drain, or fertilizer into a wheat field.

In Sri Lanka there is a millenial legacy of a sustainable hydraulic civilization, but by 1997, you wrote that “the farmer is reduced to a mathematically defined moron with no social or ecological context and made to cavort to the modeller’s assumptions.” (Clowns and Jokers, p64) You also quoted a farmers declaration which hauntingly reads: “we farmers… respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things”. (p78) What a long strange trip it’s been! Tell us how this happened.

This story happened at the end of the 1960s with USAID and the Green Revolution. And there was Norman Borlaug, reaching out from UC Davis, haha…

You were at Davis too?

I was there too, man. I didn’t know him. But they started that off. I was aware at the time that they were promoting the ‘Green Revolution’ – a wonder crop, a wonder technique – you could double your rice crop! What was wanted? The right hybrids and a heavy input of fertilizers. Of course, along with that, as the plants grew so rapidly, cell extension happened faster than normal, which meant a lot of moisture in the system – attracting the pests that required more chemicals to control. So then the insecticides. You know the story. It’s a treadmill. They got us on the treadmill pretty fast. But the thing is it became government policy. So that the agricultural extension of all government help to farmers happened only if they were participating in this program, because nobody valued the traditional varieties or the traditional ways anymore.

And of course what happens then is a whole cluster of events that is affected. You start losing not only the knowledge of the people, you start losing the knowledge of the ecoystem itself. And a very useful description of that is in Helen and Newton Harrison’s Lagoon Cycle… I’ll read that to you…

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“Sometimes I dream of the water buffalo in its wallow in Sri Lanka. The one that ran afoul of the gasoline engine, and is being replaced by the tractor. Now the tractor does not replicate itself freely, nor provide milk, nor utilize weeds as fuel, nor produce fertilizer and fuel with its dung. Yet the tractor maker would say that the tractor is a bold invention, an improvisation that will change the state of farming, it is more efficient, it can cover more ground in a day, it is modern and cheap, and helps bring people into the technological domain…

Yet in some places the buffalo and its wallow still continue their several thousand-year-old discourse, their collaboration. And one of the consequences of redirecting their discourse into the technological monologue will be a peculiar subtraction of possibilities. For gone will be the fish that eats the larvae of the malarial mosquito, while itself serving as a source of protein, and gone will be the vermin-eating snake that breeds in the wallow surrounds, while fertilizers will be added, and insecticides and herbicides.

And the wallow disappears, though the tractor is not graceful on the land, and the buffalo will yield to that tractor, although the buffalo finally is more efficient in its dialog with the land, more lucid. Clearly, there is something about technology that does not like that which is not itself. Yet this is not a necessary condition, this unfriendliness to the land.”

In addition to tractors, you have also been critical of seed banks, and other modern technological methods for the conservation of biological diversity.

Seed banks are fine; I mean they should be there. But they’re not the most valuable and important thing when it comes to conserving seeds – especially in today’s context. This is because every year the climate changes. If we use farmers as seed banks, and get the farmers to save the best seed of that year’s crop, then the farmers will select for the variety that performs best in their changing climate, and into the future. If that same variety were stuck in a seed bank for twenty years and then comes out to a totally changed climate, what are you going to do?

This is why I believe that our farmers are an amazing resource, and that we should be using them to stay abreast of the changes that are coming, so that we can have plants and varieties that have been tested in the field, to be useful in any given area.

Today the Amazon is on fire, and the Congo too, along with the remaining forest in the mountains of Sri Lanka. It’s not a new problem – in 1982, you wrote an article titled “Is Lanka Burning?” While few people listened to you then, now that the forests of the whole world on fire, perhaps the time has come. What is to be done? And has your answer changed since 1982?

A really hard one here, because we are forcing the temperatures to go up, which is really bad in terms of fire. We are also drying the soil out in many places, so the atmospheric moisture is being reduced, and there are no forests, no large vegetational complexes… so we are really painting ourselves into a corner in this sense.

What should and could be done is to recognize the landscapes, and identify the parts of landscapes in areas of this world now, that are not going to be habitable in the near future. You start looking then at the areas of land which could be spared the repetitive extreme temperatures, and begin to use things like evaporative cooling: One large tree gives you the cooling equivalent of eight room-sized air conditioners running ten hours a day. Which roughly is about 1 million 228 thousand British Thermal Units of cooling. You multiply that in a valley by thousands of trees and that valley will stay at least a couple of degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. This is the thinking we need to move out into the future.

The forest fires … well how to we stop them? Well if you are planting a response, and you are aware that there are fires that could come towards you, you very carefully design your fire breaks, or grow species that are fire resistant or fire retardant, etc. We have to deal with this at a landscape level! And at the moment we haven’t. We’ve planted everything willy-nilly. So one corner catches fire and the whole thing burns through completely. No, the time for that is gone. We have to look at the world now in terms of landscape, in the context of that landscape, and begin to design.

Is anybody doing that well now?

Nobody I know of. It’s not that nothing is working. It’s that whatever is working is being swamped over by arrogance. That’s the problem….. You know what I fear about the Amazon? It’s a problem they created for themselves, with their greed to supply the cattle and soybean and corn. That’s the bottom line, we all know that. But now the next thing is, what the hell are you going to replace that with? Is it going to be bloody pinus monocultures and eucalyptus monoculutres? So right now we have to start asking those questions. Right now, before the big plantation companies move in and start giving us solutions…

There is a directory of environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Sri Lanka which is over 280 pages long. [2] It seems like there has never been more money or more organizations devoted to the defense of nature and wildlife, and yet things have never been worse. In your book you write about how the president of a very prominent wildlife conservation NGO here “was also the head of one of the largest importers of pesticides into Sri Lanka.” (Clowns and Jokers, p69) How do you understand the paradoxes of environmental NGOs?

In the 1950s and 1960s, some people were complaining and making demands that there must be some environmental responsibility for wildlife, etc. There were a few people doing this; some of these folks were rich, some of thse folks were poor. But all of them had this burning desire: they loved the sea, or they loved the river, or they loved the forest. Then, around the 1970s, the Rio Summit thing happened, and money was flung at the problem. And overnight, there were literally dozens of NGOs that sprung up. And there it goes!

It’s very similar to taxonomy… you know, the number of new speices being discovered is absolutely correlated to the amount of money that’s coming in for research on that particular taxa… It’s like that – you create the NGO because there’s money! So everybody says “I’ll do the job, I’ll save the planet, I’ll save the whales, I’ll save the water, I’ll save the walrus,” – whaterver they’re going to do, “give me the money I’ll go do it.” That’s what happened. So the guys that were dedicated and working towards something because their hearts were in it and they wanted a change – they were swamped. And the bureaucrats took over.

The civil war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. In 2013, I met an ecologist in Batticaloa who said something which shocked me – that from the perspective of ecosystems, war was better than peace. Because since the end of the civil war, deforestation has drastically increased, along with many kinds of destructive ‘development’ projects… Can you explain this to me, and to everyone?

Yes, anywhere. Heck go into the desert in Syria. You’ll probably find that in a lot of the desert, lizards and animals and insects have come back, right, because there are no people to work the land. Nature comes back. That’s all, simple as that.

Yet you’re certainly not saying that people are bad for nature?

Heck we are a part of nature, man, that’s what we are all about!

So what happened? All over the world, humanity once lived in equilibrium with the rest of the natural world. Now, humanity at peace, in some cases anyway, has been even more destructive than at war. If what has happened in Sri Lanka is a lesson for the rest of the world, then even what we most strive for – peace on earth – still means war on nature. How can we understand this?

OK it’s simple, it’s very easy. The Buddha says it very clearly: Greed! Krodoya, Thanha. Thanha is what brings pain and suffering. Greed brings pain and suffering, because at some point your greed cannot be fulfilled, and the moment that happens – pain and suffering begin. Alright? Greed.

What drives modern society? Greed. You have one , but it’s not enough – you gotta get two. And then you ask yourself, how did this come to be? Who makes this happen? And then you go read the Bible, and find out: Jesus Christ, the most tranquil person on the planet, lost his temper only one time. And who did he lose his temper with? The money changers, the bankers. The same people today who are pushing for the rapid turnover of money to increase their wealth, wealth which is merely a construct we’re supposed to believe in. But to do that, they want us all to consume more and more and more, and call it development. That’s what happened!

In 2011 in Havana, Cuba, you first put forward the radical idea that a real value could be put on photosynthetic biomass, and that this could and should be a basis for a new economic paradigm. [2] This is also the idea behind a new company you have launched this year EarthRestoration. Tell us about your vision and the ideas behind it.

Let me read something to you from Macchu Picchu in Peru. Translation reads:“O Sol, help us. We who are the manifestations of your energy, to know our mothers, the plants. They intercede with you on our behalf.”

All life operates on the capture of energy released by an electron, excited by a photon of light, as it falls back to its original state. The source of light on this planet is the sun, el sol, suriya. It is the energy of the sun that propels life on this planet. All biota, including humans, are comprised of the energy captured by life from that falling electron. Because plants, through the phenomenon of photosynthesis, are the agents of this capture, they are critically important to our well being. All of the energy that powers life within us was originally won by a plant somewhere, sometime. Everything solid that is within us was also made solid by a plant somewhere, sometime. Trees are a symbol of this relationship. They are the hightest order of beings in the kindgom which provides for the wellbeing of others.

Photosynthetic biomass is what it is. It is what powers all life on this planet. It is a part of the global commons that keeps us all alive, and because it is part of the global commons, it suffers form being common to all. As Aristotle says, “that which is common to all is that which is the most neglected.” And thereby comes the tragedy of the commons. And the only thing that can save us or mitigate the tragedy, is to increase the photosynthetic biomass that keeps the commons alive. That’s why it is so important to recognize the value of photosynthetic biomass and ensure that more and more and more of it is produced on this planet through our actions.

Finally, tell us a little about your lineage – where are you coming from in terms of your approach to science and life?

I’ll give you a story that will illustrate my take on it. I’ve had some brilliant teachers in the US. Michael Soulé, Bob Washino, Robert Rudd, Peter Moylethese were luminaries in terms of being teachers. And I had some excellent teachers I must say when I went to school.

But before I went to school I used to run around… I was a beach comber, and a snake catcher, along with frogs, lizards, and fish… The guys I used to go around with were pretty adventurous and pretty wild! One was a man named Vicky Atukorale, he was Sri Lanka’s first free diver. Sri Lankans traditionally never did any diving – Atu as a young man was taught reef-craft by a man named Fui Fui Mui, who was a Samoan who had come to entertain the troops during the second world war. He taught Atu Samoan reef-craft – how to dive at the reef, swim under the reef to hunt for fish, and etc. From Atu came all the Sri Lankan diving tradition. Once I remember I came back from the US, and I was almost finishing my degree… we were out looking for frogs, stuyding frogs at the time, and Atu asked me: ‘Ranil you’ve gone out and learned – what have you learnt?’ And my response was the truth, and I responded, ‘Atu, I have learned a new language with which to say that which we have already experienced.’ A new language – science – to state our experience with, and which gives us currency to transact with the rest of the world.

It was very clear what was important to me from the start: Nature. If you’re interested in something you learn about it. The more you know about it, the less it’s possible for you to compromise.

You are alive. You breathe. The air you breathe was made breathable by plants. The way that you integrate this truth into how you lead your life, will determine the course of our world.


[1] Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, And here I am, Stuck in the middle again! Thirty years of attempting to affect policy change in Sri Lanka, by Ranil Senanayake, Neo Printers, 2010

[2] Sri Lanka Directory of Environmental NGOs, compiled by Dharman Wickremaratne, Sri Lanka Environmental Journalists Forum, 2004

[3] “Realizing the Value of Photosynthetic Biomass: The Role of Analog Forestry,” by Ranil Senanayake, 5th Congress of Forestry, Havana, Cuba, April 27, 2011