Monday, October 15, 2007

Sustainability-A Blog Action Day view from the TundraGarden

Today is Blog Action Day. Although I usually stick to the TundraGarden itself, today I am looking at sustainability. Sustainability is a fairly broad topic, and there's an awful lot of discussion and information available about balanced, sensible, non-greedy use of resources in a locally appropriate manner. That's really important, and if we would all just do that, the giant experiment that we are all taking part in on an involuntary basis might run a bit slower, or even grind to a halt. That would be a really good thing, and if you're interested in trying to move things in that direction here are a couple of resources:

The Union of Concerned Scientists Greentips newsletter
The Nature Conservancy Carbon Footprint Calculator

In my non-gardening life, I'm an archaeologist. That means I tend to look at things over time scales much longer than even those of the average gardener. My particular professional interest is something called "Paleoeconomy" which is a fancy way of saying I'm interested in how people fed, clothed, and housed themselves in the past. One thing that becomes apparent very quickly when one studies this is that the world in which we live (topography, climate, biota) is continuously changing, and has apparently been doing so since well before human beings evolved. There are of course changes from day to night, from day to day, month to month, year to year. But there are also longer-term changes, at least some of which appear to occur on cycles of various lengths, from decades to many millennia. Just like waves in a wave tank, the cycles can amplify each other, or cancel each other out.

Unfortunately, as our society has become urbanized, and developed truly extraordinary engineering prowess, most people (other than the few fishermen, farmers, and hunters that are left) seem to have lost touch with this fact. The result is that many things are being designed as if we lived in a static world. Incredibly expensive houses and infrastructure are built on barrier islands (which by definition do not stay put), in areas only a few feet above sea level (which has been rising for some time to thermal expansion of the oceans), on top of faults or in areas where the soil is going to turn to Jell-O with the first serious earthquake, and other similarly silly locations. Once this happens, large amounts of resources are spent on trying to maintain this infrastructure, particularly when it belongs to the well-to-do and well-connected.

Great effort is put into protecting certain areas as "critical habitat" for threatened species, without considering that a few hundred years ago these areas were not the same as they are now (e. g. Izembek lagoon eelgrass beds). Sadly, no effort is put into figuring out where those endangered species found that habitat in the past, nor attempting to project where they might find that sort of habitat in the future as changes continue. Currently, it is all too easy to assume that an area is not important to a species (which it may not be at the moment), and that it is therefore suitable for some other use, and never realize that it may be the critical habitat of 300 years in the future. Thus, all this effort may be simply prolonging the decline of the species.

Current legal and regulatory frameworks tend to assume a static world. We really need to be taking a much longer view, and working to change those frameworks in such a way that people are able to move toward a more flexible, and yes, sustainable, way of living. For example, communities that wish to relocate after flood damage rather than simply rebuilding at their original high-risk location face huge hurdles. It is far simpler and quicker (although neither simple nor quick) to get assistance to rebuild in place, sometimes repeatedly. There has to be a better way. Changing the status quo is going to take a lot of pressure from a lot of people, but we've gotten ourselves into a bit of a hole, and the only sensible thing to do is stop digging now. It is not the time to be playing "after you, Alphonse."

2 comments:

Patrick said...

It's great to see you back! I had taken you out of my RSS feeds, and all but given up on you. I just stumbled on you now again by accident. I'm looking forward to reading your posts again, and this was a really good one for Blog Action Day.

AnneBrygger said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I'd just been writing so much for work that I waskind of burned out, and was really busy in the field.