...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fish, Oil, and Trees: The Productivity Ratio

Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is, like in most communities, a dichotomy between “jobs” and “the environment.” Ours in particular revolves around forests, demonstrated by the decades-old debate between loggers and tree-huggers. I've lived in the most liberal, most urbane parts of the Puget Sound's big cities, wearing sandals with socks and all. I've also lived in rural Washington communities (still do) just a hop skip and a jump away from some of our finest lumber mills. In fact, the community in which I live now is economically dominated by two major lumber mills, and so I'm used to seeing the bumper sticker that reads “Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?”

I thought of this dichotomy the other day as I heard an NPR report on how much the oil industry is liked among many in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in spite of the latest and most deadly tragedy going on there. The oil industry, over the last few decades, has brought many jobs, lots of money, and many good deeds to the communities along the coast, and many there, in spite of the ongoing oil leak that may eventually kill their gulf, appreciate having it involved and hope for continued “investment” in the region. There may, of course, be some cognitive dissonance here, not only demonstrated by the conflicting values (economy vs. ecology) but also by the marginal effects the so-called economic “investment” has wrought – the oil is flowing but the fish are dying, the fish being one of the other (and probably older) economic mainstays of the region. And let's not get started on how devastating this catastrophic oil leak will be to the region's tourism industry. Oh, the horror!

Hearing this, and thinking of that tired old loggers vs. tree-huggers argument, I remembered an experience I had one of the first times I saw one of Western Washington's infamous clear-cuts, brought to us probably by Wheyerhauser – a company that invests in lots of community goodwill. I had been hearing the debate, with my main sympathies going with the tree-huggers (I had long harbored a secret desire to be one of those tree-sitters I had read about.) But I also had sympathy for the “other side” for I knew what it was like to have financial anxiety and a fear of losing one's job. Growing up in the Detroit area, I had also witnessed part of the long, slow, painful decline of a dominating industry in an industry-dominated town, and didn't know what to say to people living in a town where the mills closed down, or to people who made their livelihoods working in in the forests they were now forbidden to work. What to do?

So my experience, my epiphany, happened as I looked at those acres and acres of stumps, brush, and dead limbs scattered over an area that previously had been a beautiful forest. The epiphany was really quite simple, as most are, and came in the form of a question: “Why do we pay people to be destructive?” This, I believe, is the heart of the problem. Why do we pay people to be destructive?

Of course an economist would disagree. No, we don't pay people to be destructive, we pay them to be productive. Those who cut down and process the trees are “producing” something, something of value. We know it is something of value because people pay money for it. Lots of money. People like you Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging liberals who love to read newspapers and have jobs in offices fed by reams of laser jet-ready paper.

But my eyes didn't lie – the forest was destroyed. What the economist calls “productive” the ecologist calls “destructive.” True, the economist has money on his side as proof of his assertion. The ecologist? I suppose on her side are the hundreds or thousands of flora and fauna who once called the forest home, but those organisms don't have much of a say in our debates.

What my eyes told me was true. We pay people to be destructive. We also pay people to be productive, and sometimes they do both. The trick is, of course, to find ways to pay people to be productive without being destructive. One tool in this trick is better accounting, for all of mainstream economics is based on a flawed premise: that finite resources have no value until some human enterprise “processes” them. True, the timber company may have had to pay someone else (another human who claimed ownership) for the land on which the timber was harvested, or perhaps only had to pay the government a fee for taking the trees off land the government stole years ago. But paying another person for the land is not the same as paying for the forest, a forest that may have been several hundred years in the making. There is value in that forest, value not only to its denizens, but value in the ways it affects surrounding ecosystems, value in its aesthetic property, and, perhaps, value that we mortal humans simply don't understand. No, humans didn't “produce” the forest, God and Nature did. Humans don't “own” the forest, either. God and Nature created the genetic information that is wood, not to mention all the other millions of ingredients that go in to the making of “forest products.” Humans merely took what Nature produced and transformed it – a nicer way of saying we destroyed it. This is why I maintain that we pay people to destroy. In most cases, we pay people to destroy things that are not ours in the first place.

Lately there have been many thinkers and writers that I admire – Bill McKibben and David Korten come to mind – who have been asking us to question, or better still, reject, the value of unending economic growth. They are asking us to do this mainly because open-ended growth is something of a mantra among economists, a sacred cow that most shudder to think we the people would ever have the guts to question. But if economists feel that unending growth is somewhat sacred, there is something else that would be a lightning-rod of blasphemy among those who populate the business schools and universities. That thing is productivity. Virtually every economic model I see begins with the rather dubious assumption that the objective of economics is to maximize productivity. I agree that we should be rejecting the economic model of unending growth, but I don't think we should stop there. I think that the deeper we go into this question, the more we end up seeing the problem of productivity. Or more specifically, the problem of “hyper-productivity” or how we “produce” too much. Way too much.

Wait a minute, you say. The stuff we produce has value, right? It is useful. And there are people in the world who are hungry, not sheltered, not cared for, etc. The more stuff we produce, the better off people are. How can it be possible to say that we produce too much? Are you (another) one of those sandal-and-sock-wearing liberals who has all the stuff you need and then decides that nobody else gets to have the stuff you have? Good questions. Yes, as I already admitted, I do wear the sandal-and-sock combination, but only purchase used sandals and socks made from organic cotton in my own country. I will also admit that I probably do have all the stuff I need, and probably then some. But my objective is to continue to try to live with less than I currently have, not more. Hopefully, as the years go by, I'll continue to purchase fewer things all the time, not only fewer durable goods like sandals and cars and wood for houses, but also less everyday sustenance such as food and socks. I hope to produce more of my own, and to get what I can't produce from my immediate community.

But most importantly, the people in the world that don't have enough basic “stuff” to live safely – food, housing, health care, and sanitation, for examples – lack these things not because we don't produce enough for them. They lack them because we produce too much of them, and in the process lessen their value. When their value is lessened, that means that people in poorer communities can't compete in the global economy by producing the things they need most. They can't take care of themselves, and therefore come to rely on more “developed” economies to take care of them. Economics needs to abandon its obsession with both growth and productivity and learn how to measure and set as its ultimate goal the creation and sustaining of independent local economies. Global interdependence, of the sort promoted by “free trade” institutions, is the very antithesis of what economics should be striving to achieve.

Some may say that is crazy. But we all know it to be true. Take oil, for example. For all of their wildly divergent obsessions, I doubt there is a single politician in all of Washington that doesn't agree that we should strive to end our “dependence” on foreign oil – a position they take at least in part to please their constituents. Yet the vast majority of these same politicians proclaim the virtues of this globally interdependent economy. What gives? Don't we know that oil is the lifeblood of the global economy, and to talk of promoting economic interdependence while trying to achieve oil independence is pure loony tune talk? I wish they'd all stop talking about that, and maybe instead start talking about achieving independence from all oil, which is what we need. But let's not get our hopes up too high just yet. What is more important, and probably much more achievable, is for all of us, our nation, our regions, and our local communities, to declare our independence from the global economy. Our fear of being dependent of foreign oil is misplaced – probably because of the fact that this particular dependence is upon people we see as having dark skin, speaking funny languages, and practicing this weird and dangerous religion we can't seem to understand. But that is not what we should fear – what we should fear is dependence in general, not a particular dependence upon a particular people. Truth is, our dependence on this ultra-complex and labyrinthine global economy is far more threatening to the viability of our communities and the safety and well-being of our families than any sheikdom halfway around the world could ever hope to be. 

Note: just as I am posting this, I hear of a new edition of David Korten's book "Agenda for a New Economy" is coming out, and I read this article on Commondreams.org.  This stuff is spreading!

1 comment:

  1. Here, here. You write the truth. It is nice to hear your voice and yes, this message is out there for those who will hear but it needs to be said again and again.
    Maybe you can help us (good old Paul, mainly) build and install the solar panels. In the meantime, I am fasting from car travel, although some friends are driving me to Canada and I am paying my share of the petrol and who knows what petrol based food I will have to eat while away from home.