Ecological economists are assigning a price to watersheds
and other biological factories
· photograph by Colin Faulkner
When I was a boy, our family owned a summer cottage on Georgian Bay. It was a small, glass-fronted box set on a sweep of grey-pink granite scoured smooth by long-gone ice. Juniper and Scotch pine dug their toes into the rock in front, and behind us a few hardy oaks held arthritic fingers to the wind. It was there that I first heard the dry buzz a massasauga rattlesnake makes when it vibrates the hollow scales at the tip of its tail. My father promptly beat the unfortunate serpent to death with a shovel.
Over the next few seasons, other rattlesnakes met a similar bad end on our property. But then our perceptions began to change. In addition to their being endangered, it dawned on us that these elegantly garbed reptiles helped control the mice whose annual winter break-ins left rice-sized black droppings to be swept up each spring from kitchen drawers and cupboard corners. We began, that is, to appreciate the snakes’ service as well as their menace (more theoretical than real, in any event). By the end of my youth, any rattler that visited was captured gingerly in a bucket and relocated deeper within the island.
A similar change of outlook is occurring across our entire society. We are rethinking our perceptions of nature, and our place in it. It is dawning on us that we are neither masters of nature nor its victims, but merely another of its artifacts; that its fate is ours. The dark forest of folk tale, the bottomless natural bounty of Canada’s founding myths, are being revealed for what they are: a biophysical web as essential to humans as to any other animal. And when we look, we see that this web is rapidly unravelling.
Sometime in mid-September, our species will blast through “Earth Overshoot Day,” the date when we will have consumed all of the natural goods and services, from fish to trees, that our planet takes twelve months to produce. For the remainder of 2008, we will live off the dwindling stock of earlier years’ production. We’ve been doing this for a larger part of every year since the late 1980s: living on eco-credits, giving scant thought to reducing our ecological spending or paying down our overdraft. Now the bill has come due. Drought ravages a third of the planet; deserts annually devour twice as much farmland as they did thirty years ago. Bio-diversity is fraying, and the fresh water that sustains both it and us can no longer be taken for granted. Our species is hurtling around the sun on a spaceship whose life-support system is grinding toward meltdown. Houston, we have a problem.
Are we at least enjoying the ride? As it turns out, not so much. During the past half century, rising incomes have brought the rich world no measurably greater joy in life. For some groups, notably women, the sense of well-being has actually waned. As wealthy as we may be in North America, people in Nigeria and El Salvador report greater contentment. To the amusement, no doubt, of long-departed sages, we are discovering yet again that man does not live by iPod alone, that no amount of stuff can fill that gnawing hole in the soul where happiness might take root.
This is causing even some of the hardest heads among us to question whether the metrics on which we have gauged our communal and corporate progress for more than fifty years now, those abstractions variously labelled as the gross domestic product and the bottom line, are leading us toward paradise or perdition. A few visionaries even posit an altogether new measure of how we’re doing, one they have the temerity to call an “index of genuine progress.” If they are right, almost everything we thought we knew about keeping track of our economy, businesses, politics, and relationship to nature may turn out to have been seriously misguided. The good news is that we may at last be on the right track.
None too soon, a group of dissenters has stood back from balance-sheet fundamentalism and adopted a new approach. They call it “ecological economics,” a phrase acknowledging that in terms of social, economic, biological, and environmental matters, we really are all in this together. Canada has been slower to act on this insight than some other countries. But even here the facts are becoming undeniable. Despite our vast landscape, it’s clear we have few fresh fields to plow or lakes to pump. Especially in our most populous regions, we must now learn to work with what we have — perhaps with less.
Plainly we have been counting the wrong things and putting our efforts in the wrong places. What, then, if we counted things differently? To see where that might lead, I travelled first to one of the most remote and superficially backward places on the continent: the Sierra Gorda in central Mexico.
GOING LONG IN GOOD WORKS
You could fly from Mexico City to the heart of the Sierra Gorda in forty-five minutes, if only you could land a plane anywhere in its 3,800 square kilometres of buckled mountain ridges and plunging ravines. Instead it’s a four-hour bus ride from the nearest city, Querétaro, over a blacktop that climbs through corkscrew turns and hangs over vertiginous scenery until it drops into Jalpan, the Spanish mission town at the heart of the reserve. Near the highest summits are stands of Douglas fir and aspen; along the sierra’s eastern flank, jaguar and puma prowl one of Mexico’s last old-growth stands. Scores of other endangered species, from salamanders to dazzling macaws, find refuge in cloud-forest waterfalls and the many species of oak in its drier western cascades. Mexico designated this magical region a national protected area a decade ago, and the United Nations conferred world biosphere reserve status on it. But actually preserving the Sierra Gorda’s ecology has been much tougher. Some 100,000 people live in the region and own 90 percent of it, most scratching a bare subsistence from its worn-out western slopes. In large measure, it is a private property reserve, a place with special status and international recognition, but one where ground truth is still driven by the prosaic needs and interests of its inhabitants.