By Donella Meadows
–August 18, 1994–
As they trawl the seafloor for groundfish in the Gulf of Maine, fishing vessels scrape up everything on the bottom, including sponges. Sponges are nursery habitats for young cod. Therefore one fishery is destroying another. That same fishery is overfishing, so it’s also destroying itself.
Hunting whales, says a new report, may do more than eliminate whales. It also keeps their massive carcasses from falling to the bottom of the ocean, taking down nutrients, especially sulfur-rich bones. Those bones feed sulfur-metabolizing bacteria, which form the bottom of the food chain for all sorts of other creatures.
Nature cycles nutrients around, from small creatures to the larger ones that eat them. When the great creatures fall, bacteria claim the nutrients and start the wheel again. When, focused on immediate profit, we overdraw one part of this cycle, the whole cycle suffers. Somewhere else or sometime in the future, profit suffers too.
If we clearcut a forest, chip up the trees, and carry them off, we divert a huge nutrient stock that would otherwise have returned to the soil. The same thing happens when we scoop up a fish population (the marine equivalent of a clearcut). We impoverish one nutrient cycle; then, when we dump the remains as sewage or garbage, we overnourish some other cycle.
In the case of trees, we don’t just take nutrients, we take the sheltering architecture of the forest. Sun and rain that used to be caught and softened by leaves now hit the ground. Temperature soars, humidity plunges. Soil washes away, baring the hillsides and clogging the streams. Hundreds of species, maybe thousands, lose their homes and livelihoods.
That’s why the forest dispute in the Pacific Northwest (and in the Northeast as well) isn’t about jobs versus owls. It’s about some people’s jobs versus other people’s jobs. Jobs cutting trees versus jobs catching salmon and trout, jobs from the hydropower whose reservoirs fill with silt, jobs from mushrooms, from deer, from tourism. Since the trees are being cut faster than they grow, it’s also a dispute about logging jobs now versus logging jobs later. And about jobs we can’t even foresee, such as the economic boom when an anti-cancer agent was discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew — a tree that had been considered worthless and had been burned in the clearcut slash.
Our traditional economics counts the profit from resource depredation, but not the cost of ecological impoverishment. Those who commit the depredation are rewarded; those who suffer from it have no redress. The cod fishermen can’t sue the bottom-trawlers. The loggers of tomorrow can’t demand compensation from the loggers of today. Except under rare, fragile laws like the Endangered Species Act, no one can plead on behalf of nature. Our system of justice, like our economics, is only beginning to hold people responsible for the radiating consequences of disturbing a complex ecosystem.
In a recent case the justice system failed to do that. Three University of Wisconsin botanists tried to sue the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of two Wisconsin forests. They claimed that the logging plan for the forests “abysmally misunderstood, misconstrued, or missed altogether all the information that was piling up out of ecology through the late 1970s and early 1980s.” The plan sent logging roads throughout the forest, fragmenting habitats and creating “edges” where forested and clear patches meet — thereby interrupting the natural cycles of both deep forest and open field ecosystems. The botanists suggested an alternate cutting pattern, which would, interestingly, have yielded as much wood, but which would have left large blocks of forest untouched.
The Forest Service ignored them. The scientists went to court, backed by the Sierra Club, the Wisconsin Audubon Council, and 13 of the most respected ecologists in the nation. Paper and logging companies viewed the case with alarm. They knew it could set a precedent that would widen the focus of every National Forest logging plan and every environmental impact statement.
The scientists lost. They intend to appeal.
Cases like this are often depicted as romantic bird-and-bunny lovers fighting sensible business interests. Actually they’re just the reverse. Practical folks, who understand how the planet works and how it can stay productive, are fighting swashbuckling romantics with 19th-century resource extraction habits.
It’s nearly the 21st century now. We have technologies that can scoop up ALL the fish, ALL the trees, the WHOLE mountainside. We are more populated, more crammed together; it’s easier for one person’s actions to interfere with another’s. Scientifically we understand much more about distant consequences of nearby actions. Swashbuckling — overfishing, overcutting, letting soil wash to the ocean, destroying 200 species in order to harvest one — is wildly impractical. Restraining our technologies, protecting ourselves from our neighbors’ shortsightedness, using our ecological knowledge is just plain smart.
Humans are part of nature too. We have always diverted part of the earth’s great cycles for our purposes, and we always will. What is required of us is not to go away or do nothing, but to take a reasonable, sustainable amount, doing as little collateral damage as possible, and returning our wastes in a way that nature can handle. To do that, we need to use our science, our heads, and our sense of justice to keep from stealing nature’s bounty from each other and from the future.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994