Saturday, November 28, 2009

Rays on a Bleak Economy

By Bob Ferris

During the early 1980s I had a professor in California named Ray Dasmann who was an eminent wildlife biologist. Ray evolved a lot during his career and eventually morphed into a sustainable development expert. Because our intellectual pathways seemed to click, Ray and I used to have long discussions about various things. And one of those things we used to talk about was globalization and the US’s switch from living within our own ecosystems to exhausting ours and exploiting the ecosystems of others. As a result of those discussions, I often speculate about what it would take to become what he called “ecosystem people” again.

Flash forward a quarter of a century and we are seeing other folks thinking and acting along these lines. Where, you ask? Well, farmer’s markets and the localvore movement are certainly steps forward in the process of living within one’s ecosystem. But distributed power generation via solar panels, small wind turbines, and micro-hydro is as well. The same is true for localized investment such as the slow money movement advocated by Woody Tasch, community supported agriculture, and many credit unions. (I like to think of the latter as investing within arm’s length where you can actually see your money at work.)

But I couldn’t possibly live without my Brazilian coffee, Italian shoes, Russian caviar, and New Zealand apples, you argue. My answer to that is that I once did a radio interview with a nearly ninety year-old state senator from a rural area in Vermont. It was a rambling discussion about a number of topics but eventually we started talking about sustainability and the economy. And that line of interchange led to his view of life during the Great Depression. The bottom line being that he could not understand what all the hoopla was about because life did not change much for him in his isolated valley. They ate what they always ate. Wore what they always wore and were happy. They did import certain items so they were not living absolutely within the carrying capacity of their ecosystem, but they were a lot closer to that ideal state than most other places in the US.

Was it all good in the valley ecosystem during the Depression? Certainly not. Folks did not manage wastes like garbage and sewage very responsibly. Pesticides, oil, and fuel were casually dumped on the ground and made their way into wells and ground water. And diets got a little monotonous towards the end of winter when the root cellar contents were mostly straw and sand. But at the same time, tin cans were often used for roof or barn repairs and machines and appliances were fixed rather than discarded. They were also very cautious in their purchases and often made do without.

Our challenge, therefore, in our quest for movement towards an ecosystem existence is to learn from our past and present to build the future. Part of this would be building more diversity into our local systems so we are less vulnerable to external fluctuations. That means bringing home more manufacturing jobs and developing stronger relationships with the folks who bring you goods and services. But it also means not throwing the baby out with the bath water in that imports are and will be a necessity but common sense should dictate that tea might be a better import from China than sheetrock and baby toys.

I would also argue that a movement towards localized production and consumption—under today’s lens of environmental awareness—might lead to greener product stewardship and decreased waste. Making something in your own backyard will also cut down on environmental injustice and start the process of breaking our habit of importing goods and exporting the impact of products and our lifestyles—though we are already getting some karmic feedback in terms of Asiatic air pollution in California.

Ray has been gone and missed for many years, but his ideas live on. And in the time honored tradition of teacher and student I have tried to absorb what I could of Ray’s wisdom, add my own spin, and pass it on to a new generation (or two). Ray certainly did this too as he was Starker Leopold’s last student at Berkeley and Starker assumedly passed on much from his father Aldo Leopold who wrote the seminal conservation work A Sand County Almanac and actually developed the concept of an ecosystem’s carrying capacity.

Ray’s early recognition that a drift back towards an ecosystem type of existence might be advisable was critical—directly and indirectly—to many of us who now work for hopeful resolution of our current set of economic, environmental, and social crises. Hopefully, the logic of this idea and the associated actions will continue to spread. The trends are positive and the results are very promising—little rays of sunlight on the backdrop our sketchy economy. Let there be more.

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