The Ecology And Economy Of Xylella Fastidiosa

What is happening with Xylella in the olive groves of the Salento is part of a much larger and deeper problem

Both the word ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ are built on the Ancient Greek word for house, oikos. This makes ‘ecology’ something like ‘the logic of the house’, or oikos plus logos, while ‘economy’ can be rendered as ‘the norm of the house’, or oikos plus nomos. An ecology is all of the elements of a place, and the relations among them, as arranged by nature, while an economy is those elements and relations as they have been rearranged by human beings, to suit their needs. An economy is an ecology that has been modified to meet human desires.

Natural elements never stop acting as nature intended, even when they have been ensnared in an economy; in fact, our economies depend on these elements to follow their natural instincts. Farmers count on bees to pollinate their crops, but they do nothing to teach these bees what to do, who are just ‘doing what comes naturally’, as the song goes. Beekeepers, when they are involved, merely move bees from one field to another; they do not direct the bees in their activities.

So when one of those elements within an economy decides to act on its natural impulses in such a way that does not fit human needs, when an element serves the needs of its ecology irrespective of the needs of an economy in which it has been enmeshed or from which it has been excluded, it can have a disruptive effect on an economy that has been so nicely arranged by humans.

We could just turn this discussion on its head and say that it is all just an ecology or it is all just an economy, since humans are just elements of nature as much as nonhuman beings are, and that nonhumans act in their own interests to rearrange ecologies into economies just as humans do, but because we are human beings we look at the world from a human perspective and think that we are somehow unique, special and privileged agents in the world. And of course, by many objective measures we are, but these measures — production, consumption, trade, agriculture, urbanization — are just part of the story. In our ignorance and arrogance, and to our peril, we leave out other measures, all of the other things that nonhumans do that we either take for granted and dismiss, or about which are ignorant and unaware.

It is worth quoting the plant neurobiologist, Stefano Mancuso, the director of the Laboritorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale, located in Firenze, at this point, even though I have already used this quote in a previous piece:

“Plants have all five senses possessed by humans: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, each of them in vegetal form, but no less reliable because of this. Is it therefore reasonable to think that from this point of view they are similar to us? Quite the contrary: they are extremely sensitive and, in addition to our five senses, they have at least another fifteen.”

And Michael Pollan, also, a journalist who has written multiple seminal works on ecology, including commentaries on Mancuso’s work, this quotation taken from a piece he wrote for The New Yorker:

“[Plant neurobiologists] believe that we must stop regarding plants as passive objects — the mute, immobile furniture of our world — and begin to treat them as protagonists in their own dramas, highly skilled in the ways of contending in nature. […] It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success.”

Most remarkable of all is this quote from Monica Gagliano, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Western Australia, taken from her recently published book, Thus Spoke the Plant:

“In this state of neglect and disregard, the cultural construction of plants as objects becomes an indispensable distortion — wheat, oats, and barley are reduced to slavery as crops on production lines and eucalyptus and pine trees tamed and confined in plantation camps, often far away from home, while the unruliness of a natural rainforest is burned or bulldozed to be deplorably eradicated — to support our utilitarian exploitation and monopolization of these vegetal beings as ‘resources’ and to justify our misappropriation and misuse of the knowledge they have brought to humanity.”

Although each of these scholars, Pollan holds teaching positions at both the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University, speak in defense and in support of plants, they do so within a greater concern for ecologies and human economic engagements with them.

I present their work as a long prelude to my empirical interest in this piece, which is the recent activity of the Xylella fastidiosa in the fields of Olea europea, particularly in the Salento region of Puglia. If Puglia is the heel of the Italian boot, the Salento is the tap or plate on the heel, or perhaps a bit more. Xylella fastidiosa is a bacterium that has its origins in the Americas but has recently entered Southern Europe, having hitched a ride inside of one or more species of insect. Olea europea is the European olive, and the presence of Xylella fastidiosa in local fields has devastated the local olive oil economy. The bacteria are just ‘doing what comes naturally’ since they have a two stage reproduction process, with the first stage occurring inside the insect, and the second stage occurring within the plant upon which the insect feeds, during which the bacteria transfers from one host to the other.

Unfortunately for the olive trees and the humans who have used them to build an economy, the presence and activity of the bacteria causes what is known as olive quick decline syndrome, caused when colonies of the reproducing bacteria obstruct the xylem structure the tree, particularly in its outer fruiting branches, interrupting the flow of fluid through it and therefore the growth of its fruit and leaves, ultimately causing the death of the tree.

So that is what is happening. When Homo sapiens enslaved, to use Gagliano’s representation, the Olea europea, by transforming its ecology, to establish an olive oil economy, it did not predict the disruption that would be caused by Xylella fastidiosa. Unfortunately, there is no system of jurisdiction that can be engaged to resolve this conflict, because humans and nonhumans still live outside of any mutually acknowledged contract that prescribes and regulates their interaction. Such a contract exists, or should exist, according to the philosopher, Michel Serres, which he calls a ‘natural contract’, but it is no longer recognized, especially on a global scale. Such contracts once existed, among local populations, a point made also by Gagliano, but they are now few and in decline.

A natural contract needs to be established among all species on a global scale. This is the most urgent task facing the world today. What is happening in the olive groves of the Salento is a small but important part of a much larger and deeper problem.