A walk in the woods

Posted Wednesday, December 5, 2012 in Sustainable Maine

A walk in the woods

Photo courtesy Sierra Club

by Paul Kando

Viewing the devastation in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, I can’t help thinking that the root of such problems is the self-aggrandizing tendency of humans and the difficulty of giving up myths that support it. Take our perceived destiny to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over every other living thing. Our mindless reliance on the limited supply of yesteryear’s fossils for today’s energy needs is part of this delusion: We think we can buck nature with impunity by virtue of our prowess with technology. In our quest for money, we fill wetlands as “useless swamps,” destroying the natural defenses of the seashore, and build expensive houses on fill and flood plain. So, where marshes throve for centuries, young communities like the Rockaways, Red Hook and Mantoloking, N.J., get washed out and blown away. So much for life as a war game with mankind in a fancied role of an upstart warrior against nature!

A walk in the Maine woods points to a hopeful alternative. In the forest there is no austerity, there is only abundance. Everything runs on sunlight and nothing uses more energy than it needs. Green plants don’t produce non-degradables. Nature recycles everything and its chemistry is water-based. Nature thrives on diversity and avoids monocultures. Leaves, trees, ponds, bugs, salamanders are at once beautiful and functional; nature fits form to function. 

A handful of soil is a plethora of tiny organisms working together — nature banks on cooperation. Birds and squirrels know how to build nests. Leaves convert sunlight into the chemistry of combining carbon dioxide and water to make sugar. Flowers provide sugar to bees that pollinate the next generation of plants. No need to import anything from China; nature relies on local expertise. Nature curbs excesses from within. When milfoil or kudzu take over, it is a sign of something out of whack. Those plants are alien, the result of human meddling.

In nature there is growth everywhere, yet there is no overload. Growth is simply a part of repeated cycles of birth, growth, death and re-birth. Contrast this with the linear resource flows of our own economy, from extraction to dump. What hubris (or woeful ignorance) to assume an infinite supply of energy and raw materials at one end and an infinite sink on the other to contain wastes, often toxic, from the over-consumption of needless one-time-use products! What self-deception to “externalize” responsibilities on a finite planet! Do we really think we can endlessly grow, bouncing from Black Friday to Black Friday or starting the Christmas season on the Fourth of July, all the while fretting about fiscal austerity?

The forest inspires an economy consonant with nature; one of abundance, not austerity. There is plenty to go around. Indeed, it is only money — a medium of exchange that somehow got puffed up into the chief arbiter of value — that seems always to be in short supply. Born with the capacity to think, analyze, imagine, and create, can we imagine a new economy that counts on the creative genius of every member of society, instead of hierarchies of “experts”? Can we create an economy that, consistent with the original meaning of this Greek term, “manages [mankind’s] household,” instead of just money?

Why not? We can build houses that use zero energy and even produce a surplus. We can travel using electric vehicles running on rail and road, on power supplied by sun and wind. We can make wall to wall carpets completely recyclable back to raw materials. We know how to recycle almost anything or devise alternatives for things we cannot. We can retrieve and exchange knowledge at will from the Internet and collaborate worldwide without leaving our chair. We know how to produce food, clean water and indoor comfort on urban rooftops and manufacture useful objects by three-dimensional printing.

It takes re-thinking the customary and applying old skills in new ways to create an economy harmonious with nature. It takes recognizing that making money is one thing, creating better ways to solve a real-world problem is another.

Germany and Spain are well on their way to displace their fossil fuel and nuclear industries with solar electricity, ending the dominance of companies that ruled the economy for a century. A tired old extraction industry is being displaced by a modern electronics and technology industry, the third wave of a revolution that brought us personal computers and the Internet. Solar, like nature, is essentially decentralized and based on a world-wide commons: sunlight. With fossil fuels and nuclear displaced, the new energy economy becomes a major counterforce to global warming and wars of resource extraction.

Stay tuned. There is more to come.

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