When I was young my family embarked upon a camping tour around the Great Lakes.  At one of the parks, the ranger told us about this incredible bird, the Pileated Woodpecker.  He told us it was a very rare species but we could see their distinctive square holes on the tree in front of us.  He said that the holes were made by the same bird I watched on the Saturday morning cartoons: Woody the Woodpecker. 

That particular journey, where we left the cultivated farmlands of Iowa for the Big Woods of the north, was my early introduction to the beauty of the wilderness.  It was perhaps at the same park that we watched a bear make its morning tour through our campground.  My experience of bears up until that time was the city zoo, which housed a bear in a 12 x 12 square foot cage that was next to another cage reserved for “Leo the Lion.”  This was the first time I had seen a bear wandering freely, doing what bears do so well: scavenging for food. 

On that same journey, I also learned about forests, how they grew and changed over time through a succession of phases from the point of disturbance (fire, lava flow, etc.) through a series of plant types, to a collection of trees that represent a point of stability or equilibrium in the forest.  When the equilibrium is disturbed, then the forest responds and changes.  This was my first introduction to the science of ecology, which recognizes that all life on earth is bound together by a self-organized complex hierarchy.  Sometimes, as we sit watching television in our comfortably heated homes, we forget that our activities and luxuries are also part of this complex interaction, including Woody the Woodpecker and Leo the Lion, may he rest in peace. 

“There’s bugs in that tree”

Twenty-five years later it is my first day on the job at the Kootenai Tribal headquarters in northern Idaho.  Outside my window is a huge Ponderosa Pine.  Judging from its size, it must be at least 200 years old.  Suddenly I see perched on the trunk, none other than the mythical woodpecker I had heard about as a child.  I run to the next office and ask one the council members to identify the bird.  “Hmm,” he says, and acknowledges that it is indeed a Pileated Woodpecker, “That is a sacred bird.”  At this point I think, “Wow! Something really important is about to be divulged.” After a minute of silence, he asks me if I know what that means.  Now I am sure that the reason for life, the universe, and everything will be revealed.  “No,” I say, dumbfoundedly. 

He watches the bird some more, as it hops about the trunk and then flies off.  “There’s bugs in that tree.” At which point the council member turns and leaves the room. 

“Humanity’s challenge is to live well, while living within the capacity of the planet”

Some people may wonder how bugs in a tree can mean anything other than bad news.  It might be bad news for the tree, but good news for the woodpecker.  If it should happen that the tree dies because of the bugs, or the woodpecker, then what remains is a perfect example of the self-organized hierarchy of functions we call an ecosystem; for the woodpeckers have created great nesting spots for other birds and the tree has become a home for other animals and insects.  At the same time, the tree is serving regular meals to the greatest recyclers of all time: fungi and molds.  The old trunk becomes food for future trees, and the cycle begins again.  If we take Woody out of his environment, then he is just a bird, albeit a beautiful bird and an amusing cartoon character.  But if we imagine Woody as part of an infinitely complex system of life, one that has a miraculously organized set of links and feedback loops, then the bird’s sacred nature becomes apparent. 

Woody the Woodpecker becomes a role model

Woody’s life is in simple terms a “Green Economy.”  The United Nations Environment Programme characterizes a green economy as one that “substantially increases investments in the economic sectors that build on and enhance the earth’s natural capital or reduce ecological scarcities and environmental risks.”   In this analogy, Woody’s economy depends on the bugs in the tree, and the bugs depend on a reliable source of trees to live in and that reliable source of trees depends on the ability of the ecosystem to recycle waste trees into a useable form.  All of this happens naturally without external economic investment.  Woody’s day-to-day existence does not leave him much time to ponder whether or not his behavior is adding to or decreasing his future supply of insects.  Fortunately for him his strategy is working.  The Pileated Woodpecker is a classified as a species threatened with extinction but its population appears to be increasing.

Unlike Woody, humans live a much different economic story. The earth is changing, and it is happening very rapidly.  In my lifetime alone, the demand on the Earth’s resources has undergone a radical shift.  According to The Global Footprint Network’s report, The Ecological Wealth of Nations, when I was born in 1957 (53 for those who are trying to do the math) the total global population was using up a little more than half of the Earth’s biocapacity.  In other words, back in those halcyon days of the ’60s, our lives on Earth (disparities in global distribution aside) were basically sustainable.  Sometime around 1980, a crossover happened. Global resources began to be consumed in amounts greater than the Earth can supply on a sustainable basis.  In the year 2006, the world consumed 44 percent more resources than the biocapacity of the Earth. 

If this trend sounds a lot like the history of your bank account in the past few years, then you are understanding the principle of what is happening.  Basically, we are drawing down the Earth’s bank account.  It doesn’t take much in the way of math skills to figure out that without radical changes in behaviors, the account will become empty.  It is estimated that if current trends continue then by the late 2030’s humanity will need the equivalent of two Earths to keep up with demand.  The consequences of Earth’s bankruptcy are ominous. Questions of resource allocation will become humanitarian issues.

What it really means to be sustainable

One look at the advertisements in the Sunday newspaper and we find that “sustainability” is now marketing’s latest buzzword.  While I will give major corporations credit for trying, many act as if the real meaning of the term “sustainable” refers to the economics of staying in business. There is an underlying reason for this. Today’s corporations are part of a system that is tied to the demands of the shareholders. If they can create supply and demand by flooding the market with new green products then we continue to consume without questioning the fundamental basis for our consumption. The corporation and the shareholders benefit, but does the Earth?

Businesses have a tough go at being truly green when measures of success, or sustainability, are limited to the same timeframe as the business’s quarterly or annual report.  Shareholders, for the most part are interested in short-term gain. Investing in a portfolio that can be cashed out at retirement is far more beneficial than waiting for a dividend that will pay out in 100 years. This is indeed narrow and short term thinking, but today’s economic systems make it a necessity. 

Woody, if he could do so, will be the first to tell you this: if his favorite tree is providing quick profits for him today, it is only because its seeds were sown a hundred years ago, perhaps as a result of the persistent efforts of one of his ancestors. 

It is not about Red States vs. Blue States

It is a known fact that more than half of the planet’s biological capacity is controlled by only eight countries. The United States is blessed with the largest biocapacity in the world but it also has the largest ecological footprint, and its use of resources is the most unsustainable. If we continue our current American lifestyle we will, if we have not already, be a catalyst for global unrest and tensions. To quote Wolfgang Sachs of the Wuppertal Institute, “The world will no longer be divided by the ideologies of ‘left’ and ‘right,’ but by those who accept ecological limits and those who don’t.”

I wish I could say there is a quick fix for this predicament.  But there is not.  There is a slow fix that starts with awareness.  For example, I was not aware in 1980 that by living my American dream I was actually driving the exponential curve towards unsustainability.  But now I understand.  And hopefully so do you.  If you are as uncomfortable as I am about it, so be it.  I actually find that to be a good thing.  Just like the dying tree, the process of transformation happens when as individuals we strip the old notions away, digest what is left, and replace our mindset with new thought. 

Let me leave you now with a set of new thoughts:

  • Learn to think in Earth time.  Earth time is circular, not linear. The process of life gives way to decay which becomes the foundation for new life. This is a difficult concept for Westerners, who think within the boundaries of time that they personally control: their career, their lifetime, and maybe their children’s lifetime.  But forward thinking is essential if we want to understanding how our resources are used and renewed. 
  • Rethink the meaning of a healthy economy.  We need to reframe our economic systems so they accurately reflect Earth’s model of consumption and supply.  If I remember my environmental economics class correctly, this also means “internalizing” the “externalities;” that is, ensuring that our businesses properly account for their real environmental costs and benefits. As Herman Daly, the ecological economist says, “We’ll have to take from the natural world resources at a rate at which the natural world can regenerate and we’ll have to throw back the wastes from using those natural resources at a rate the natural world can assimilate.”
  • Advocate for change that supports a transition to a Green Economy.  This means supporting policies, regulations, tax incentives, and development that fosters methods of using and replacing natural resources in a sustainable manner.  For example, wind farms alone are not green technology. But they can be if considered in the context of replacing dirtier technologies. New energy supply projects, therefore, should have energy conservation goals as part of their permit conditions to mitigate their impacts and discourage rampant consumption.
  • Seek change in your personal life.  Educate yourself about these topics and, if you can do nothing else, use less energy. As my husband says, on the count of three, post your last Facebook post, and then put your computer to sleep.
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