Nature-empowered Liberation: A Pathway to Lebanese Political Reform

by Adib Dada, Maya Maroni

With a crack, tonnes of water rush down from the mountains; its tongues reach up the valley’s edges, lapping at life and land. As it moves down the valley it becomes stronger, engorged, no longer just water but a liquid body made up of the riverbank eroded: the nutrients leached, the trees uprooted, the small animals sucked from their burrows. This body flashes through the valley and leaves in its wake a landscape in ruins. And then, when the water subsides, the ecosystem begins to restore itself. At first, a few surviving trees remain, but soon new seeds take hold and animals, attracted by the water and new growth, return. You see, life is resilient. After catastrophe, it always finds a way to persist, often growing back stronger than before.

Many of us now are struggling. Struggling to survive in an unjust system. Struggling to imagine a future where this is not the case. Here in Lebanon we are in crisis mode. In 2019, people took to the streets, fighting for revolution. Most of the issues the people protested against have worsened since, rather than improving. So how does one resist the feeling of despair? If we look to the ecosystems that regenerate, time and time again, after disaster, we can find hope. To all of the incredible beings and systems that life has created. To the ways that they continue to thrive against even the most insurmountable odds. Indeed, I believe biomimicry could serve as a fundamental building block for Lebanese resiliency and liberation.

The practice of biomimicry is growing, and can be described as the emulation of nature’s elements and systems to help solve our human problems. In the words of Janine Benyus, biomimicry asks us to “quiet our human cleverness” and consider nature as a mentor. A certain set of principles are drawn from any number of nature’s creations and can be applied to a range of issues. Life has evolved over 3.8 billion years, continuously learning and persisting, and we can discover much from this time-tested knowledge.

How does nature organize? How does nature facilitate change? What can we learn from the trees that survive flash floods? From bird swarms and beehives and schools of fish?

Currently, the Lebanese political system is failing the Lebanese population. Since the land was under French mandate, no form of governance has ever truly been in service to the people. Like most of the world, the country holds deep scars from colonialism. Knowledge was destroyed, cultures forgotten, ways of life upended. Today, global governance and economic systems continue to perpetuate imperial power structures and inequality. Within the country, a self-serving political elite furthers this inequality and silences any opposition to a system that they have created; a system that they sustain through sectarian divisions of power and the inheritance of political dynasties from father to son. This system is a part of the global capitalist order, which prioritises profit over people through predatory international money lenders, resource extractivism, brain-drain, and many other means. As a whole, from sectarian politics and corruption, from armed militias to the IMF and the World Bank, this system stands in opposition to Lebanese liberation. Referring to it in its entirety, I use the Arabic word, Sulta.

After a flash flood, the landscape is open for new individuals to establish themselves. While this can help maintain a balanced ecosystem, the exotic and invasive eucalyptus tree is notorious for colonising the land and making it so very few other species are able to survive. During European colonial rule, eucalyptus trees were spread across the globe, including Lebanon, where they remain an incredibly invasive species and symbolic of the violence of colonialism. In a way, the Sulta functions in Lebanon similarly to the eucalyptus, draining water and resources from the land and releasing chemical toxins to deter native species from growing and gathering around them. No native organisms have evolved to break down the eucalyptus. When their leaves and branches fall, they form a very flammable biomass that can cause wildfire. This is the thing about ecosystems, each organism evolves in relation to one another. When invasive species establish themselves they are taken out of context, the native organisms unable to manage the invasive population, detritus, or unique adaptations to another system.

Similarly, the imperial systems in place, including local political systems such as Lebanon’s that exploit the global capitalist order to their own benefit, are resilient. And most of us trying to survive in such a system simply do not have the tools to break it down. Both the eucalyptus and the Sulta are opportunistic. They both maintain an ecosystem in which only they are able to thrive.

In biomimicry, we begin the process of looking to nature for answers by first identifying a challenge and asking how nature addresses it. For example, how does nature demonstrate flexibility and resilience? In the case of the prairie ecosystem, it is through seasonality and a diversity of organisms each performing different functions. We then identify which of life’s principles, drawn from patterns seen across nature, are a part of the solution. Integrating the unexpected, leveraging cyclic processes, incorporating diversity, cultivating cooperative relationships, etc. In the case of Lebanese liberation perhaps we need to ask: how does nature re-establish a healthy ecosystem?

When locusts swarm, they embody the life principles of self-organisation and the use of feedback loops. They usually live as lone individuals, but when they see, hear, or feel other locusts nearby their nervous systems produce serotonin, a neurochemical linked to happiness in humans. Once they reach a certain serotonin level, the locusts begin to swarm, the group functioning as a whole to consume acres of plant life. Often ecosystems rely on some form of disturbance to maintain balance and biodiversity. A flash flood, a volcanic eruption, a wildfire. Even vomiting helps to restore balance in the community of bacteria living in our stomachs. Although these disturbances can kill many, they create space for new individuals to establish themselves. After 9 months on the ground, the Lebanese political system remains. However, the revolution was undoubtedly a disturbance. It helped to catalyse the slow change of mindsets and culture that is needed for our liberation. Our disruption need not continue in the same way, but it must continue to be led by all of us, with these principles in mind.

As we faced the Sulta in 2019, we saw how great our numbers truly are. There is hope to find in our collective, and with it a power and joy. We cannot return to the siloed existences that we and the Sulta have created for ourselves. Though we may not all agree on a path forward, can we be inspired by the locusts’ serotonin and find ways to foster happiness in our interactions? Develop connections between one another and create community?

The Lebanese have always survived successive shocks and stressors, prompting their likening to the rise of the phoenix. But this is not a matter of a single entity regenerating. Perhaps, a more apt metaphor for the resilience of Lebanon is that of ecological succession; after a disruption to the landscape, the ecosystem must re-establish itself. Often the composition of organisms changes as new ecological niches open up. With this framing, we can view the future of Lebanon as an ecosystem, made up of many different organisms, yet to emerge. There are unhealthy ecosystems primarily composed of opportunistic or invasive species, in which very few individuals thrive at the expense of the collective. However, a truly thriving ecosystem rests on the interdependence of a diverse range of species. It relies on a certain set of principles that build towards the idea that “life creates conditions conducive to life.”

After the sky has cleared of smoke and the flames of wildfire have subsided, the darkened mountainside is enriched with carbon and other nutrients necessary for a growing ecosystem. Not only does the fire disrupt the landscape, but it readies it for the succession of new species. As we dismantle the Sulta, maybe we can break it down into components beneficial for our shared future? Can we be intentional about creating a landscape livable for all of us?

One way the Sulta has leveraged their power is by selectively rewriting Lebanon’s history. Colonial powers imposed their own belief systems and their own ways of living, robbing the country of much of its generational knowledge. Under the current political system, the history of Lebanon ends at the civil war, which began in the 70s. All of this serves to wipe from our collective memories that there is an alternative way of living. An ecosystem where Eucalyptus was kept in check.

Forests often rely heavily on memory while regenerating. Though we tend to think of memory in individualistic and human terms, the remaining living and dead trees, buried roots, nutrient pools, and underground networks of microbes and fungi in a forest all form “ecological memory.” As a forest reorganises and adapts and as new individuals establish themselves, especially after a disturbance to the landscape, they are guided by this, by principles of self-organisation and the replication of strategies that work. In our move towards Lebanese liberation, it is imperative that we draw on our ecological memory. We can never return to the pre-Sulta landscape, but we can use the knowledge of it to build a new landscape for ourselves.

The first species to return to the land after disturbance are called pioneer species. Their roots stabilise soil, draw up water, and foster the community of microorganisms that are so vital to soil health. With this, the land becomes more hospitable to a greater range of species. Healthy biodiversity becomes possible once again. As we move towards our liberation and build the landscape we want to inhabit, we need to be aware of our individual strengths, energies, and abilities. Two of the primary principles that ecosystems rely on are that of diversity and resource efficiency. Not all of us will contribute to the building of a new landscape in the same way, but we can all be of support to one another. In a forest, each tree, shrub, herb, grass, fungi, along with a host of birds, insects, microorganisms and bacteria work together, sharing information and nutrition to the benefit of the ecosystem as a whole. In a cooperative ecosystem such as this, there is little hierarchy. Dare I suggest an alternative model of leadership? Eschewing the traditional hierarchy at the source of so many of our problems, and allowing for a more inclusive and cooperative governance?

What if instead of countries being run like companies, they were instead run like ecosystems?

Ultimately, by paralleling our struggle for liberation to these processes drawn from nature, we are asking whether our undertakings are allowing the greatest number of us to thrive. We have an incredible mentor in nature. We can find examples that inspire us to create or adopt new processes, which are better adapted to benefit us and the other organisms we interact with. Let us remember that the Sulta encompasses more than just Lebanese politics. And that we can use biomimicry to break down and build up more than just our political systems.