Monday, December 20, 2010

Putting the Economy Second

George Perkins Marsh was such an avid reader that he damaged his eyes at a young age, and for a time he was forbidden to read. With hundreds of acres of forest and fields surrounding his home, he learned to "read" nature instead, and went on to write the 1864 work Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. He is credited with being the first modern geographer, and certainly the first environmental geographer. His Vermont home is a national park that I sometimes visit with students, and about which I have written a brief article.

I was reminded of all this by the opening of Steve Curwood's interview with David Suzuki, an environmentalist who was separated from Marsh by a century and most of a continent. For very different reasons, Suzuki was isolated from language and immersed in nature at a pivotal age, and his lessons in "reading" nature were the foundation for a lifetime of learning. In his case, he was exiled to the Canadian Rockies as part of the Japanese internment during World War II, but did not speak Japanese.

Some of the lessons that began in that period have emerged in Suzuki's new book, The Legacy: An Elder's Vision for Our Sustainable Future, which is the basis for his conversation with Curwood. Although I listen to Living on Earth as often as I can, I had missed this segment, and I'm grateful to my friend Marilee for pointing it out to me.

What most interested her is Suzuki's understanding that we suffer from a lack of integration in our approach to economic, environmental, and social problems. Certainly as a geographer I find this to be the case; as Sierra Club founder John Muir observed, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." I found Suzuki's analogy for the growth of human consumption to be quite compelling as well; even as the rate of growth of the human population slows a bit, the rate of growth in consumption is, if anything, increasing. His test-tube analogy does not offer a lot of hope, but it may very well define where we are headed at this stage in history. The "environment" will, as he points out, eventually recover from our abuse; the problem is that we very well may not.

My favorite part of the interview is his explanation of how, as he puts it, we came to "elevate economy above ecology and we think that everything's gotta be done to service the economy." He ties this faulty but all-too-common attitude to the post-War thinking of Victor Lebow. Economic growth has become the engine of prosperity, but it has been based on economic theory that assumes infinite resources. More integrated thinking would be grounded in the assertion of the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who helped to establish Earth Day: "The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment."

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