I remember seeing the bumper sticker “Coexist” for the first time sometime in the 90s. I thought then, and still do, that forging all the letters from spiritual symbols was pretty clever, while still being meaningful and respectful. You’ve seen the bumper sticker before, you know you have.
It’s often paired with the popular classic “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost,” or (on my Top 10 List) “You Cannot Simultaneously Prevent and Prepare for War.”
And I think that different faiths are fair examples of things that should be able to coexist. Faiths are abstractions by definition. They exist in the spirits, minds, and hearts of the adherents, and so ought not be able, in and of themselves anyway, to jeopardize the existence of another. I have heard the phrase “competing faiths” before, but really it’s people who are competing, not the belief system.
The reason that adjacent spiritual beliefs are such a good example of things that can coexist is that they fall under the category of things that can demonstrate “mutual tolerance.” This idea of a shared agreement not to seek injury against, or advantage over, one another is central to pretty much all the definitions of coexistence that I’ve come across in dictionaries and on the Web.
What is missing from most of the discussion on the subject, though, is the acknowledgement that the two coexisting entities must willingly forgo the potential benefit that triumph over the other in competition would incur. No two entities are so evenly and continuously matched in strength that one never possesses a competitive advantage over the other. Put another way, coexisting entities choose to avoid aggression no matter how great the opportunity, nor how slight the risk.
When we consider the proposed coexistence of different human lifestyles and livelihoods, however, we immediately encounter problems.
Competition, violent competition, can surface when two individuals or groups perceive that valuable, necessary resources are in short supply. I say “perceive” because the basis for competition can be fraudulent, or even illusory. The sheepmen and cattlemen of the late 19th to early 20th Century American West might not have slaughtered each other in the “Sheep Wars” had they understood that running an equal number of sheep to cattle in the same pasture rotation system tends to dramatically improve grazing for both sheep and cows. Instead, battles over grazing territory led to bloody competition instead of the coexistence that could have altered the personality of the nation for the better.
Both groups believed that they occupied the same narrow niche in a less than generous agri-system. The sheepmen and cattlemen expected that the fight for resources was worth the risk of annihilation.
Today, the social fabric of the United States is currently experiencing a profound level of stress due to the competition for material and social resources perceived to be dwindling. The 113th Congress, our current slate of national legislators, suffers from such bitter divisiveness that it has come to be known as the “do-nothing Congress” by the media, and the worst Congress of which to be a part, according to some of its own senior members.
Individuals who identify with historically powerful groups may view themselves as incumbent niche-lords in an increasingly competitive system. Whether or not an actual shortage of territory, security, or productive capacity exists, members of some groups are willing, like the cattlemen of the Wild West, to take an antagonistic, even threatening, posture toward their imagined rivals.
The attitude, summed up pretty clearly in this bumper sticker, that peace will be at the expense of the weaker party’s rights, has crept not only into politics now, but into policy.
In nature, when two unique species occupy similar niches, coexistence through mutual fear of injury or death is predictable, if somewhat mysterious. Even the mountain lion and the wolf will generally avoid crossing each other’s paths. The opportunity just isn’t worth the risk.
But now, with the explosion of biotech, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) stand the very definition of coexistence on its ear. The agricultural niche of traditional corn or soybeans isn’t similar to that of the genetically engineered (GE) variety—it is exactly the same.
Coexistence between varieties of the same species of plant has to clear a higher bar than simply the “shared agreement [by human proxy] not to seek injury against, nor advantage over, each other.” Coexistence requires that the genetic identity of one variety cannot be eradicated through cross pollination with the other over time.
Because agricultural buffer zones have a poor track record of preventing cross pollination entirely (although bees typically do not fly more than two miles, they can fly considerably farther if they must), the traditional crop is under constant threat from contaminant genes from neighboring farms. For years, farmers have discussed crop plantings with their neighbors. Families attempt to avoid unintentional breeding of varieties that are incompatible, that cannot coexist without mutual destruction of the genotype.
Cross pollination of different varieties of squash can produce completely inedible gourds in the next generation. Field corn and sweet corn offspring may produce an ear of corn with kernels that are a dilution of both sets of expressed traits into each other. They may instead produce ears of corn with alternating kernels that preserve the characteristics of the source genetics. This might be fine with two kinds of sweet corn, giving us “Butter and Sugar” varieties, but wholly unacceptable when cow corn shows up at a family barbecue.
The danger of GE varieties goes way beyond the expression of undesirable flavors or textures. With the introduction of so-called “terminator” genes into staple crops, an engineered variety of plant produces seeds that are incapable of germination, of sprouting and reaching maturity. Even if every other aspect of GMOs could be proven safe for human consumption (a position not unanimously held), this one engineered feature represents a danger to food democracy and food security such as the world has never known.
Introduced into the world’s most common annual food sources, these genes have the potential to spread to neighboring fields, corrupting the purity of the non-GMO DNA. If the farmer whose fields have been contaminated cannot reliably save seed for the following year’s crops, he or she must then purchase seed from one of the dwindling number of independent suppliers.
What if ALL the seed of a variety of a particular type of grain, Glenn hard spring wheat, for example, were to be corrupted with terminator genetics? Who would be able to supply the United States with seed for one of the most popular bread wheat varieties? Only the corporation that controls the propagation of the engineered variety.
Democracy of wheat production could be wiped out in a matter of years, either by accident or by design.
Now what if, after all the hard spring wheat had been contaminated with terminator technology, the genetic composition of the GE variety became unstable? What if some type of wheat super-blight took advantage of the homogenous DNA of the engineered strain and wiped out the world’s supply.
The security of wheat production could be wiped out in a matter of a few short years, either by accident or by design.
The individuals and entities who would have you believe in coexistence between traditional and GE varieties of crops should know that this relationship cannot exist. Even more outrageous is the assertion that farmers who raise traditional, non-GMO crops should be responsible for protecting their own fields against infection by contaminant genes.
The latter necessarily precludes the former. The nature of coexistence, as we have discussed, stipulates that one species, or variety, does not need protection from another.
The in-depth exploration of the meaning of the word “coexistence” cannot be skipped in the haste to silence the furor. A common interpretation definitely should not be assumed in the political battle leading up to policy creation. A meaningful discussion of the basic premises must take place before policy dictates practice. Otherwise, GMO crops will, through human proxy, decimate their traditional counterparts in a war that will ultimately yield untold numbers of casualties without a single shot having to be fired.