Munsell McPhillips – Guest Speaker 10-08-06
The Seventh Principle: Rising Up Where We Least Expect It
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This is the last of the seven principles for living that we as Unitarian Universalists share. Here we affirm our understanding that we are a part of a greater whole of existence. This open and celebratory acknowledgement is what drew me to this church. That we are part of a greater whole on some cosmic level is something I believe as a matter of faith. That the fates of living beings are interconnected is something I know as a matter of fact.
We have no shortage of grim forecasts regarding our planet. Threats to our well-being from global climate change, species extinction, human population pressures, shortages of energy and even worse water are well supported by evidence and it is reasonable, even imperative that we be concerned and work harder to find a more sustainable way to live. Indeed, there is so much alarming news that it is tempting to despair; to enjoy the comfortable life we live now and try not to think about the fast-approaching future. But despair is cowardice and to give up is to doom future generations to suffering. In the face of so much bad news, however; it is certainly tempting.
This morning rather than add to the doom quotient, I’d like to share some hopeful thoughts based on recent experience. I should first confess (I guess that some aspects of Catholicism never really go away) to a cultural bias. As a 1st worlder and professional scientist, I unconsciously labored under the assumption that the rich, developed nations would eventually solve the world’s environmental problems through money and technological skill. If challenged, I would have denied this arrogance but it wasn’t until I saw first hand how people in emerging nations develop smart solutions to environmental problems that meet their own needs and honor their own culture that my perspective really changed. Amid all the poverty and injustice in the emerging world, there are some remarkable things going on. I think most of us are familiar with the sustainability concept called the Triple Bottom Line. It means that for a given action to be sustainable, it must make social, economic and environmental sense. It is a good test to apply to any proposed action.
I’d like to talk today about Panama and China. Despite being half a world apart and the fact that Panama’s entire population would barely fill a good-sized Chinese village, they have a couple of things in common. Both countries have environmental challenges that could devastate their economies and the welfare of their citizens if left unattended. Both countries are paying attention.
In Panama’s case, a 1.35 million acre watershed supplies fresh water to the Panama Canal. The canal itself, that bit between the Atlantic and the Pacific is filled with fresh not salt water. Without adequate, sediment-free water the linchpin of the entire country’s economy will fail. This watershed is, like much of the country a rainforest, full of valuable tropical hardwoods. Panama also struggles with poverty; about 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Most of the poorest Panamanians live in rural areas – the areas nearest those valuable and very tempting rainforests. The pressure to cut the rainforest is intense and understandable– people are hungry and really do need the income. Moreover, though Panamanians are proud of the great beauty of their country, they also value working in the forests and consider it honorable. Panama has done some things that wealthy countries do; it set aside some of the rain forest as a protected area, about one third of the country. Although Panama is proud of its effort to protect its natural resources, the national government does not have the money to enforce the logging bans so illegal logging continues even in the Panama Canal Watershed though to a much lesser degree than elsewhere in the country. Making matters worse, previously cleared forests now lie abandoned in some areas benefiting neither people nor wildlife. So banning logging in primary rainforests may make environmental sense and over to long term, social and economic sense. However, it has not proven effective and the short term damage to the people is too great. They need a more complete solution.
What to do? There is an old and effective strategic planning tool that came in handy here. What does Panama need and what does it have? Panama needs 1) jobs for its rural population 2) to protect its rainforest 3) a way to pay for both preferably without hitting the treasury. What it has is a highly desirable place to live. Panamanians figured out how to put these two together. Part of their solution is to reforest the abandoned areas and establish mixed stands of tropical hardwoods for rotational harvest with roughly a quarter of these new forests set aside for habitat and water quality. This supplies a traditional livelihood and income, replaces lost habitat and takes some pressure off the primary rainforest. All well and good so far but the most interesting part of this idea is who provides the capital investment – foreigners who want to establish residency in Panama. One of the easier ways to get permanent residency in Panama is to buy a reforestation visa. The applicant underwrites a government approved reforestation project and shares in the profits at harvest time. Since Panama has no shortage of people who would like to immigrate they have found themselves a ready source of investment capital. This idea is by no means perfect; the government shut the visa program down because of fraud a few years ago (it seems some scoundrels made a fortune selling reforestation land under the sea). It has just been reopened again this time with much stricter oversight. So far about 100,000 acres have been replanted. This isn’t much - but for a country a little bit smaller than Florida, it is enough to make a difference. And if the early results hold up overtime, this approach might meet the triple bottom line challenge – social, economic and environmental benefits.
And now for something completely different – China is grappling with a staggering population, rocketing economic growth and pollution problems that are literally breath taking. Having just returned from a project in China I don’t think its possible to overestimate the scale of the challenges facing this country or the energy and determination of its people to overcome them. Robert Prager and I were asked to go to Tianjin in northeastern China to work with another engineering firm, the largest developer in China. They are building what they call a new development. It’s what we call a new city. Housing, commercial, recreation and all the assorted infrastructure for 50,000 people is under design and construction in one fell swoop. My American colleagues and I were brought over to help them design a water treatment wetland that sits right in the heart of the city. Its purpose is to receive and treat all of the water that falls on the development. The wetland was required by the government as a condition of the building permit. Water quality wetlands are well understood in the US (though I have not seen any sterling examples here) and are both common and effective. But outside of Tianjin, we have less than 12 inches of rain each year to feed the wetland, lots of polluted runoff to treat and very salty groundwater, a problem inherited from four thousand years of intensive agriculture. A saltwater marsh is no problem here on the coast but Tianjin is 100 miles inland. This is not going to be easy. Our counterparts in Tianjin are superb engineers in their own right; our purpose there was to fill in a very specialized gap in technology. We had asked our Chinese clients for some time to truly understand what they are trying to accomplish. My job was to try to figure out how to make the wetland sustainable over the long term. I asked the architect about wildlife habitat. This is an important requirement in any wetland design here in the US. She helped me understand that in her culture, agrarian for thousands of years, animals were for eating or for pulling a plow. When the people are so crowded, making room for animals was just not in the cards. Since animal life is important for any wetland I gave it another try a few days later. This time a panel of senior academics who are advising the project responded that animal habitat is ridiculous – no one living in the city would want it and no human could possibly know how to build it anyway. The subject should not be raised again. That was the polite translation; I shudder to think what they really said.
Robert had a harder job – he had to understand the engineering process for this whole complex design. He insisted that the team stop drawing, stop pouring concrete until the designers could articulate exactly what they were trying to achieve. He kept asking “what must you do to make this new development a success’? With all respect to my fellow techno-geeks, we engineers do not like questions like that. It is so much more comfortable to answer questions like how big should the drainage pipes be, or how should we align the roadways. The whole vision thing just gives us the willies. Finally the entire project team told us there are two things that are absolutely necessary, without which this new city will be a failure. They said “We must create beauty and we must protect society” That is a great place to start a design conversation but it is not at all what I expected. I don’t think that is quite what our Chinese colleagues had in the forefronts of their minds either. In the rush to build, these larger goals had lost a little focus. Once they had said out loud that their purpose was to create beauty and protect society, the project changed. The wetland was never a trivial part of the project or they would not have brought a bevy of foreign consultants over to help. But it was mostly understood as an aesthetic feature to help sell houses with a dose of water quality treatment thrown in. However, once we all started talking about beauty, the previous notions of that concept that had been limited to pretty paving stones and nice kitchens expanded quite a bit. On the construction site in the midst of all the heavy equipment, exhaust pouring from tracked vehicles and earth movers everywhere, a black-necked stilt landed in a muddy pond. We wetland folks noticed the bird, admired it for a few moments then turned back to the festival of pointing, waving of drawings and shouting over equipment noise that characterizes a pack of designers on a construction site. But the chief engineer, the guy in charge of all this didn’t turn away from the bird. One of us handed him a pair of binoculars (don’t leave home without them) and there was a silent, mutual understanding that the rest of us should just be quiet for a minute. The lead engineer watched the bird for a long time before saying finally, “Its pretty, maybe the people would want to see it” He regarded us with a take-no-prisoners stare and said “Do you really know how to make birds come here?” Of course we don’t; we don’t know how to make a wild animal do anything. But we sure know how to give the birds a good reason to be here. Suddenly the wetland didn’t just have to look good; it had to be good. The wetland then became about life – all life. What do we have to do to keep the water clean enough to support fish and birds and insects. It’s a snap to support mosquitoes; the water’s got to be a lot cleaner to support the critters that eat the mosquitoes. We also had some interesting discussions about a bird’s need to be left alone. The idea that we would build nesting islands and design the wetland to deliberately prevent people from accessing them was a shock. When you have 1.3 billion people to house it isn’t easy to choose to share the space with avian neighbors. Nevertheless, the latest version of the wetland drawings includes some hummocks labeled “bird privacy areas.”
Our clients then surprised us. I can’t imagine what happened next occurring stateside in a private development though I heartily wish it would. Our Chinese colleagues said build a science station at the edge of the marsh so that everyone in the city can understand how it works. Build an exhibit to show how we can recognize the plants and animals and show how each depends on the other, show how wetland processes clean the water and put in testing equipment so the people here can make sure that the wetland is working. Show the mathematics so the children can learn the science and engineering behind treatment wetlands because many, many more wetlands must be built to help clean the polluted water in China. They explained to us that the Chinese people fully understand the magnitude of the environmental problems they face and will quickly adopt and adapt new ideas that will help them. When this wetland is finished it will not be the product of some imported westerners. We will have supplied some necessary technology but the overall sense of the place will be Chinese. In most of my work, the principles of plant ecology, hydraulics, hydrology and landscape design guide my selection and placement of plants. Here, my new friend the architect explained that according to Feng Shui traditions, some of my plant groupings actually symbolized death! That’s not very good for home sales. She will take my technical suggestions and blend them with her cultural insight to create a landscape that makes sense in Tianjin.
Upon reflecting on the past couple of months, my understanding of our world’s environmental challenges has changed. I now believe that science helps us understand the problem; technology can help with the solution but technical wizardry alone will not suffice. No amount of increased fuel efficiency, clean coal power plants, carbon trading schemes, or even the most elegant wetland design will secure our future. What will and the only thing that will is a fundamental change in how we understand our place in the natural world. When our actions reflect our understanding that our fate is bound to that of the living world, we will prosper with it.
I’d like to close with words attributed to Chief Seattle:
All things are connected.
This we know.
The earth does not belong to humans; humans belong to the earth.
This we know.
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.
All things are connected.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
Humans did not weave the web of life; they are merely a strand in it.
Whatever people do to the web, they do to themselves.