Reconciliation – The Ultimate Measure of Success
We’re told that “travel broadens”. My experience affirms the truth of this statement, but it also teaches me that the opposite is true. Travel, when accompanied by observation, questioning, and reflection, can also do just the opposite. As the following story shares, travel can constructively narrow, focus, sharpen, and concentrate our understandings of the challenges and responsibilities in the places we return to and call home.
Part One – Looking and Learning: At first the landscape we walked through looked idyllic, bucolic, and romantic. With our packs lightly loaded for our ten day circuit, our fresh muscles carried us up out of the Medieval period Italian village of Visso, via narrow, stone paved alleys, under the arched gateways through the surrounding stone walls and on across open and forested countryside. It was all so new, exciting, and interesting. In contrast to prior months of being too immersed in our working forests and their related politics at home in Oregon, the prospect of this two footed exploration of the circular route through the Sibillini Mountains of central Italy promised welcomed refreshment. Hidden, and not so hidden, clues to the history of human action on the land were all around us. Why was each village so densely clustered and surrounded by high stone walls? Who were these stone walls and stone fortifications punctuated by ridgetopped lookout towers designed to keep out? What wealth was being protected – and from whom?
As trail mile merged into trail mile, day into days, and another ridge was crossed into yet another valley and village, the excitement and engagement grew stronger, but the notion of idyllic and bucolic came increasingly into question. Viewed through the lens of ecology and history this landscape is dramatically different from what was once here. The forests that we walked through were made up of few trees larger around than my thigh, yet from clues of old, huge stumps and historical records we discovered that this region was once wealthy with large, diverse, valuable forests. All along the 120 kilometer circuit we looked hard for what economic outputs that this young forest currently provides. The highest value products we could find were occasional truck loads of small diameter firewood. The plant community looked green and vibrant from a distance, but we came to realize that much of the landscape was overrun by aggressive, alien species. Viewed through the lens of sociology and economics, the picturesque, medieval-age, walled villages presented a more complex picture. Over ninety percent of the structures were uninhabited and much of what life remained was dependent on the life support of federal subsidies intended to keep the places from dying all together. By trip’s end the four of us came to realize that our ten day circle had taken us through a landscape whose rich ecology had once supported a vibrant, resilient local culture, but that human choices had led to degradation of the land’s health to the point that the human economy and culture could not survive without regular transfusions of outside resources. How could this have happened? Why didn’t residents successfully protect the land-based wealth that was the basis of their livelihood? Did they try to get off of the road that led to this impoverished landscape by reconciling what they were asking of the land with the realities of what it had the capacity to provide without being degraded? If so, why didn’t they succeed?
Fifteen years earlier my curiosity was captured by a related puzzle. As the result of reading one book that then led on to a long sequence of related books – and eventually to a trip to look for answers in Nova Scotia on the edge of the Grand Banks – I became fascinated by the history of the relationship between the once rich fisheries of the Grand Banks and the fish-powered human cultures of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. We all know at least the rough outline of the sad story – the fisheries of the Grand Banks were once among the richest and most valuable of any in the world and they were fished to commercial extinction. As the conservation problems worsened, they metastasized into the serious economic and social problems from which the human culture of the Maritime provinces, like the cod populations, are unlikely to ever recover. My investigations turned up plenty of information explaining what happened, but very little about why it happened. If your economy and culture was built on rich natural capital why would you remove the foundation of your society by overexploiting your source of support? It makes no sense.
When friends heard that I had a unique chance to explore a section of southern Chile, many, who knew both the place and my interests, all were quick to say: “you have to go check out their remarkable tree – the Alerce”. The quest for information about the tree’s qualities proved easier than the quest for a living tree. Some describe the Alerce as having the qualities of our local douglas fir, western red cedar, and coast redwood all rolled into one tree. Tall, beautiful, straight, and once common, the Alerce was the foundation of one of the world’s most vibrant, wood-centric cultures in the channels of northern Patagonia and the island of Chiloe. From impressive, all wood churches to beautiful, seaworthy fish boats, to furniture and artistic shingles, Alerce did it all and is the region’s signature species. As our southbound plane swooped out of low clouds for its landing in Puerto Montt, I scanned the landscape in hopes of seeing a forest, or, better yet, a fabled Alerce. Given the pattern of the previous two tales, you know where this is headed. The upshot is that the once plentiful and still amazingly valuable Alerce are essentially gone. The largest one we could find was a two foot tall seedling. The most accessible mature trees require a six mile walk from a remote road head; cutting one will bring you a $10,000 fine. And Alerce is not the only valuable, commercially extinct tree in this region. As we walked over the rolling, now grassy, hills of Chiloe’ and considered the rich forests of Alerce, Guaiteca Cypress, and other trees that not long ago dominated and brought wealth to this place, we discussed the economic and ecological wealth that could be generated today if even 1,000 acres of the forest had been conserved. As the people of this region headed down the road of liquidating their forests, did someone suggest that there was a fork in that road that might lead to an alternate pathway – where natural capital would be conserved and used as ongoing support for the communities? Was reconciliation a priority? If so, why did they fail?
Working from these three examples, on three continents, it is easy and important to add more cases to flesh out the global picture – the once “fertile crescent” now a poster child of desert, the degradation of the once widespread forests of Greece, the fall of the ecology and culture of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island). I myself am mindful that the funds that allowed me to not worry about how I’d pay college tuition were the result of my great great grandfather’s role in liquidating the White Pine forests of the upper Mississippi. Because he followed the pattern of “seeking opportunity” on the way to achieving the American dream, by converting land wealth into transportable personal wealth, I have opportunities today. Over and over we can ask ourselves the same questions: did they recognize what was going on and the probable consequence? Did they try to build a conservation off ramp from the highway they were travelling down? If so, why didn’t it work? The timeless writings of the likes of George Perkins Marsh and John Perlin educate us about the “what” and “how” of these stories of landscape impoverishment but fall short in their analysis of the all important “why”.
A pair of experiences soon after my return from the mountains of Italy reminded me of something important. As I traveled through the forested landscape of the northern Oregon Coast Range in which I work, I notice characteristics with refreshed eyes:
- These lands were once covered with a multi aged, multi species forest with wood volumes averaging over a remarkable 100,000 board feet per acre, yet today nearly all have been converted to single aged, single species plantations averaging less than a tenth of that volume. Much of the forest is owned and controlled by distant owners and are cut at rates well beyond the rates of growth in hopes of meeting unrealistic rates of economic returns.
- Where some of the continent’s strongest runs of salmon once thrived in cold, clear waters of the region’s streams and rivers, pumping economic and ecological vitality into this landscape, remnant, federally listed populations struggle to survive in waters that run too hot, low, and oxygen limited in the summer and too high and muddy in the winter.
- Driving down the valley I pass through a string of once lively and now abandoned small towns, complete with the sagging fronts of old groceries, derelict post offices, and boarded up school houses, homes and farms. Loaded log trucks barrel past the vacant sites on which once productive sawmills used to stand, headed for the log export docks of the lower Columbia River.
- Human communities show many signs of poverty and options for both the land and the remaining people seem to become fewer with each passing year.
Meanwhile in a stuffy board room in the state capital, my six fellow members of the Oregon Board of Forestry and I discussed how we should respond to the report we’d recently received on the status of one of our own Indicators of Sustainable Forestry. The recently compiled data showed us that the condition of Oregon’s forest plants and animal species at risk is “poor”, the trend is “deteriorating” and the data are “adequate”. If the forest lands of our state were a truck, the situation the board faced is equivalent to having the “low oil” warning light come on. Do we keep driving – or take the off ramp? Will these appointed leaders choose to reconcile demands on the land with their capacity to provide? One board member weighed in with his belief that if he was confronted with the choice of saving a river’s salmon run from extinction or maintaining the payroll at his mill, he would have to choose the mill as his top priority; the immediate needs of people must come first. The discussion concluded with a commitment to take three small actions. One year later, none of the actions that were committed to have been taken and the focus is on finding ways to further increase harvest levels on state forests. These experiences and others remind me that the questions of whether the drive to care for land can be strong enough to counter act the opposing force to draw wealth from land are much more than intellectual questions about other places and other times; they are central to today, to this place, and to each of our lives. Whether it is played out in our local forests, in world fisheries, or in the rising carbon levels in our shared atmosphere, the fundamental questions are the same: how can and will we value and care for the wealth of nature on which we depend? When the powerful forces focused on converting the common wealth of the land drive us down the highway toward depletion of that wealth, how will we muster the will, creativity, and power to build and choose to take the conservation off ramp instead of continuing down that dead end highway? What will it take to achieve reconciliation? At the same time that I am often discouraged by my neighbor’s too often being willing to make short term, human comfort more of a priority than longer term reliable prosperity, I never have to look far for reminders that much of my home region’s natural capital remains and that we have many pieces in place which aid in efforts to maintain and rebuild it. This is the ideal place and time to prove that reconciliation is possible.
Yes, the travelling I have been fortunate enough to do has broadened my perspectives and understandings, but, more importantly, they have also done just the opposite. The most significant adventure is in the place I return to enriched by a more refined, clarified and narrowly focused commitment to what Aldo Leopold called “the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” How will we build and choose the conservation off ramp, whether it is on the micro scale of one family’s forests or the overwhelmingly macro scale of our shared atmosphere.
Part 2 – Causes, Opportunities, and Examples:
There is hope and opportunity, and we’re surrounded by inspiring examples of innovative, creative examples of people working together to achieve reconciliation. Meaningful solutions must sit on a solid foundation of critical thinking about the root causes of the problems. There can never be a simple map showing the road to reconciliation. Successful examples exist, but their approaches are both complex and uniquely adapted to their local context. Never the less, since I lack the stomach to leave you on the depressing note of articulating the problem, I will make an effort to concisely to demonstrate the reasons for my hopefulness in this final section. Since solutions must be linked to the causes of problems and be supported by tangible examples, in this section the three will be linked together. Because I know that the causes and solutions are both complex, and that I don’t pretend to have the answers, please look on what follows as a simplistic starting point for discussion – as one person’s broad brush outlining of causes, solutions, and examples. Before going on, I’ll share two final caveats and disclaimers. The following distillation of eight items is completely interrelated and interdependent, and my perspective is heavily influenced by circumstances in the forested hills of my home region.
- Cause: Lack of Commitment – It should come as no surprise that our species has had so little success in reconciling what we ask of natural systems with what they can provide given that historically this has not been a priority for those who have the most power to shape outcomes. As individuals strived to be successful, unfortunately their definitions of success did not include success in maintaining those things we share in common.
Our Opportunity – The foundation of successful reconciliation is developing a shared commitment to making this a societal priority. History shows our ability to accomplish remarkable things once we become committed to shared goals.
For Example – Examples include the impact of the successful alignment of US citizens behind common goals during WW II, and the shared commitment that supports the long lived successful commonwealth examples described below.
- Causes: Distant Ownership and Transient Culture – When ownership and decision making is in the hands of people distant from the land, they are less likely to be mindful of the full range of consequences of their decisions. History indicates that in these circumstances, short term economic return is a top priority while longer term health of land and related communities is a lower priority. Similarly, the more transient the human population, the less likely people are to pay attention to and advocate for the longer term possibilities for land and people.
Our Opportunity: Work with people who see themselves as having a long term, interdependent relationship to the place to localize ownership and decision making. Create environments where decision makers live directly with the full range of consequences – economic, ecological, and social – of their decisions.
For Example: The rapid and well thought out development of community forests on public lands in British Columbia is an example of this shift being made.
- Causes: Poor Tracking and Communication – Those who seek to convert common wealth into their personal wealth have an incentive to discourage the tracking and communication related to the status of common wealth. In many cases they have been, and continue to be, successful in limiting the flow of information. Governments and non profits struggle to find and maintain the resources needed to reliably complete this essential work. Reconciliation depends on keeping track.
Our Opportunity: Build the commitment necessary to develop, support, and learn from systems for tracking, analyzing, and communicating about land health. Build societal commitment to the importance of this work. Tell the stories honestly, clearly, and fairly while there is time to understand and address problems before they become worse.
For Example: The Oregon Department of Forestry’s Indicators of Sustainable Forestry, referred to above, is one young, underappreciated, but ongoing effort to do this. A macro scale example are the commonly accepted systems for tracking levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
- Cause: Failure of Governmental Leadership – One basic responsibility of government leaders is to ensure that pursuit of individual freedoms does not result in degradation of those things we share in common. Too often success in raising the funds needed to get elected comes at the cost of elected officials becoming beholden to funders seeking continuing or increased freedom to make money through activities that degrade the common good. For example, appointments to public boards and commissions overseeing natural resources – such as a state board of forestry – must be approved by the state senate, which is beholden, as a result of campaign contributions, to forest products companies who in turn are committed to ongoing ineffective government leadership on too many aspects of the maintenance of our common wealth. One US Vice President captured the dilemma wellwhen he said of his efforts to address climate change: “the maximum that is politically feasible falls far short of what is ethically required”.
Our Opportunities: Degraders of our common wealth only have the political power that they do because too few of the rest of us make the choice to understand and politically engage with these issues. There are three pieces of low hanging fruit. The first is to use effective communications to educate and motivate enough people to put the pressure on elected and appointed officials necessary for them to fulfill their leadership responsibilities. They need to hear “this is not acceptable”. A second opportunity is to use litigation as a tool to help leaders understand and obey laws designed to protect common wealth. And a third is to apply the lesson from history that in most cases “government doesn’t lead, it follows”. Use alternative routes of leadership, such as market-driven incentives for conservation, as a way to work around ineffective government leadership.
For Example: Recent successful litigation by a trio of conservation groups on the issue of protecting federally listed birds on state forest lands, demonstrates one unfortunate, but necessary and effective, route to address failure of government leadership.
- Cause: Relationship With Nature Based on Power, Not on Ethics – Though our species has successfully made some progress learning to treat our fellow humans based on what is ethically right to do instead of continuing to base relationships on what one has the power to do, we have been slower to make a similar transition in our basis for our relationships with either other species or future generations of humans. Paraphrasing Aldo Leopold, in too many cases, land is treated as a commodity with which we will do as we please, as opposed to treating land as a community to which we belong and have responsibilities. If abuse of land makes short term economic sense, then, in most cases, it continues to be judged prudent and socially acceptable.
Our Opportunity: The conservation off ramp must be built on a shift in values and ethics where a land ethic, working in partnership with an equally important consumption ethic, expands society’s ethical universe to include treatment of both other species and future human generations. We must shift for our current acceptance and celebration of greedy behavior to treating it as unethical and unacceptable.
For Example: Builders and renovators of buildings make the choice to only use wood in their projects that they can verify came for commonwealth positive, local forests. Though many communities of native people in the Pacific Northwest had the technologies that gave them the ability to fish the salmon runs they depended on to extinction, they made the choice, over thousands of years, not to do this. One key to their success was the belief that the salmon, during their ocean migrations, shifted into human form. By doing this, the community’s ethical basis for treatment of fellow humans was expanded to include another species.
- Cause: Market Failures – We value many things, but we price only some things. Does this matter? Yes it does. Here is an example: society values a wide range of things that our family forests provide – clean, cool, reliable water; storage of carbon, wood, wildlife habitat– yet current economic markets only financially reward us for providing just one of them – wood. It should be no surprise then that our forested landscape reflects managers being rewarded for maximizing wood production and having no – or negative – incentive for providing the others. Since many of the unrewarded goods and services that forests have the ability to provide are features that we all depend on, but no one can own, the powerful impact of this disjoint between what we value and what price should be clear.
Our Opportunity: We can and should support credible efforts that are making progress toward better aligning markets for nature’s goods and services with what we value.
For Example: Serious markets for storing carbon are emerging as a result of Californians choosing to cap levels of carbon emissions in their state.
- Cause: Hopelessness and Complacency – Ranging from the micro scale of the individual and family to the macro scale of a nation or continent, a lack of confidence in our ability to have a meaningful impact is a significant impediment to addressing declines in common wealth.
Our Opportunity: When we look closely, we find that we are surrounded by positive stories that serve as the most powerful antidote to understandable feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. As author Alex Haley encouraged “look for the good and celebrate it”. The smaller a project one chooses to commit to, the more likely you are to discover one’s power to make a difference.
For Example: Recent Nobel laureate, Elinor Ostrom documents in Governing the Commons inspiring and diverse examples ofpeople successfully working together, over long periods of time to use and maintain shared resources. From coastal fisheries in Turkey to common pasturelands in the mountains of Japan, it demonstrates that reconciliation is both possible and desirable.
- Cause: Anonymity – Caring about the impacts me have as a result of our choices of what we will and will not buy is a good thing, but having a positive impact depends on knowing the stories and true costs of our purchasing decisions. Our current mainstream economy depends on anonymity – consumers not knowing or caring about the products they buy. Did an Italian cabinet maker consider or care that he might be working with lumber from one of the last oaks to be cut from the Sibilini region? Did a patron in a Paris restaurant care that she was eating her way through one of the dwindling number of cod being caught on the Grand Banks? Did shareholders in the companies that produced impressive profits from the mining of Chile’s last stands of old Alerce consider their responsibilities as they headed to the bank with their dividend check?
Our Opportunity: An increasing number of consumers believe that one of their most powerful points of leverage is the decisions they make about what they will and will not purchase and invest in. Before buying or investing, they insist on knowing what impacts their choices will have. Whether it is food, wood, or a wool sweater, the growing movement toward relocalizing of markets is making it easier to shop and invest with confidence that your benefits do not come at the expense of degraded common wealth. Consumers and investors are putting their shoulders to the wheel of reconciliation.
For Example: In response to growing demand from both consumers and investors, increasingly effective and credible systems of certification are being actively used to provide an assurance that products are being produced in ways that maintain, or better yet, rebuild commonwealth.
The view into the valley below stops my steps and draws my attention. Walking along the ridge top from my lunch break in our hilltop cabin back to our family’s micro scale sawmill, I turn to appreciate and consider the remarkable landscape stretched out below. Forested fingers of the Coast Range stretch out to interweave with fertile farmlands punctuated by towns and cities. Because my life is interdependently linked with these human and more than human communities, I know that within my field of view there are many committed and capable people and organizations taking leadership to prove that reconciliation is both possible and the right choice in this place. They include:
- Young farmers and foresters buying land, staying put, and searching for ways to both grow good products and restore land health,
- Scientists – both professional and citizen – tracking and telling the story of how this landscape is doing,
- Activists determinedly pressing for accountability and leadership by government leaders on land issues,
- Writers, filmmakers, reporters and other artists telling stories central to reconciliation,
- Organizations, such as the Willamette Partnership, the Farmer-Chef Connection, and the Build Local Alliance, bringing powerful innovation to the challenges of building new markets for both products and currently unvalued ecosystem services,
- Hopelessness and complacency being beaten back through the creation, telling and sharing of stories of success, and
- The barriers of anonymity between growers and consumers being broken down through farmers markets, CSAs, and local wood links.
The combined power driving reconciliation within this landscape is impressive and inspiring; I know the names and faces – and the determination and dreams – of these leaders. But it is more complicated than that. I know equally well the drive, strategies, and power of leaders committed to maintaining this region’s tradition of allowing individuals and corporations to build exportable wealth through activities that degrade our commonwealth. This fertile and fortunate corner of the world is a crucible within which opposing forces of reconciliation and exploitation do battle. What will determine the outcome? I believe that the determining factor is deceptively not in the hands of the leaders of these efforts, but in the much more numerous hands – and hearts – of the many citizens of this region. The outcome hinges on what they will pay attention to, what they will care about, what they will grow, what they will consume, how they will vote, what they will or won’t find acceptable. These choices, in turn, are fundamentally shaped by the levels of affection we each have for this place and its future and by our individual assumptions about what it means to lead a successful life. Which path will we choose?