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July 20, 1996

A New Language for Sustainable Development

[Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Dr. Peter Warshall's presentation at the recent Harbinger symposium on sustainable development. Dr. Warshall is a biologist, linguist and anthropologist, and his visit to Mobile was made possible with grants from the Alabama Humaninities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Mobile Bay Chapter of Sierra Club.]

I want to start with some comments about who I think were really the disciples of Christ. As we know, some of them were fishermen, and as fishermen their education came largely from their activities as fishermen. They walked along the beaches and saw the good news and the bad news coming from upstream. And from it they could tell the moral and spiritual condition of the upstream society, and they could also tell what that meant for future generations since it determined the health and plentifulness of the fish born and growing inside the estuaries, and also the plentifulness of the catch offshore. This ability to interpret the health of social conditions from the health and plentifulness of fish is one of the reasons the symbol of the fish became associated with the early Christians.

The disciplines of Jesus Christ became fisherman of people as well as fisherman of fish. The Buddhists would have called them Boddhisatvas. They were trying to relieve the pain and suffering they felt was coming downstream from harms or diseases upstream. The fishermen understood they had to be fisherman of words and thoughts as well as fisherman of people and fish. So they went out and invented a new language, a language to heal the sins of upstream people, to make them aware and believe that there were such things as pollution and that harms could be caused by not paying attention to the watershed.

Tonight I want to talk from my experience about how the language is changing rapidly so that people can feel safer about the future, feel less harmed in the future, and, most important, so they can feel there is some value in the future. Anyone in touch with Generation X is familiar with that generation's cynicism, which believes there is no future at all.

I want to start with the old definition of economics that is guiding the thoughts and realities of what was good for people. That old definition was based on the idea of having sustained development in conventional goods and services for the increased welfare of many. This kind of economics has backfired because supplying the good and services meant taking so much from nature -- be it mussels, shrimp, petroleum, dams for hydroelectric power, forests, dredging of channels for transport, etc. -- that at some point diminishing return sets in as the harvesting of the ecological matrix reduces the improvement of people's welfare and increases their cost. We can see this in the lack of certain edible food normally produced by a healthy ecology. Periodically the newspapers alert us of bans on oysters or some other seafood. We can see it in the lack of clean water and decreasing productivity of forests, and we can see it in the worries people have about just having a relaxing time on the beach.

We can see this failure very clearly by looking at two other words -- customer and consumer. In the old economics, the customer and consumer were the endline for sales people. You made some kind of product, you sold it to customer/consumer, and then you forgot about it. In the new sense of economics, the customers are not the endline; they are viewed as receptors of a market offering. As a receptor, they can refuse the market offering. There is no final product over and done with once in the hands of consumers. You can see this more and more in the number of suits seeking large settlements due to accidents caused by faulty products or health hazards caused by harmful products. It is becoming very clear to business and industry and to consumers that they are not just the receptacle of some products but that they are the transformer of a product and that there is no end to these cycles. We are all connected by cause and effect to the market system, including the ecology and economy.

If we watch these words -- customer and consumer -- we become aware of a new transition because now we are getting words like "green consumer," or "eco- consumer"; everyone wants to feel good about the products they purchase. The important thing is that the change in language is indicative of a real change in consciousness that is going on. I don't know what is going to happen to the words customer and consumer. Eventually those with a gift for words will coin new terms that capture the new awareness that we are not just garbage pails consuming an endless production of brand names that leave behind mounds of waste we don't know what to do with.

The new goal then is reflected in new language. Sometimes you will hear the phrase "sustainable development," other times you will hear the phrase "conservation based development," or the phrase "managed growth," and then there is Paul Hawkin's term, "restorative economics." All of these are part of this new transition, this time when many people are trying to find the language we need to speak our new needs and concerns. All of them mean, though, that we are going to conduct our economic activities in a fashion that preserve long-run production of goods and services, and that we are going to maximize the use of natural systems and minimize the destruction to the service that natural systems provide.

For example, any river or water basin like the Tombigbee-Alabama basin serves as an anti-erosion device. The plants and trees along the edges of the rivers and the meadows in the estuaries keep things from eroding. The trees act as a pollution filter and as a carbon sink fighting the greenhouse effect. They also act as soil regenerators; you can see that on cotton land where the topsoil is slowly being regenerated by leave litter. The river basin also acts as a flood control structure; the bayous and the flood plains are a cheap way to flood plain insurance. River basins also act as guardians of information encoded in genetic material. All of these watershed services have never been priced; they are not even included in economics, they are ignored. However, the fact that these services of the river basins and services of nature generally, previously thought supplied "free" by nature, are now being priced for the first time is another powerful indicator that we have a new understanding of our natural world. This pricing of nature's services is one of the things I do when I work as a consultant.

We should understand that the phrase "sustainable development," which was coined in Sweden by the Brentling Report, is both a good phrase and a bad phrase. On the one hand, it suggests a sustained illness or sustained stock losses or sustained hardships. Nobody like these suggestions connected with sustainability. But on the other hand, the word also has the connotation of keeping a person's spirit up, especially in times of stress. It suggests in this sense sustainable health. The phrase has been in use for about 12 years, but no one is qutie sure if this is the final language used in a capsule form to describe this new kind of economics. We are in an embryo period, and the idea is to look at something that provides equitable returns to labor and management, provides goods and services, and directs the public budgets and the corporate capital to provide environmentally friendly and equitable production, and educates and cajoles politicians, civilians, labor and management to long-term mindfulness. I will keep on stressing long-term mindfulness.

There are many other words that are being used now that I am aware of from the consulting work I do all over the planet. Of course, the word ecology is one of the better-known buzz words in current use. To die-hard environmentalists it connotates doom and gloom -- the ecology is dying, the world is dying. To others, especially in the West, it has connotations of a kind of mystical harmony for a noveau paganism. Of course, it is the whipping boy, especially for the Newt Gingrich crowd; and usually in that sense it is an excuse for greed and thoughtless exploitation.

To a biologist, ecology usually means the web of organisms -- how organisms network with other organisms and also network with the structure of the environment. Traced to its roots, it comes from the Greek oekos and logos. Oekos just means house and logos means discourse or thought, or speech or words. To the Greeks these terms used together actually meant a kind of regulating principle in nature, in the part that humans were able to see. So there was no separation between the nature of nature and the nature of human nature. Essentially, it also means domestic chatter; it means how you talk about your household -- where you live, the rules in your household -- and it means that you agree to remain open to change in the household, be it the watershed or in the larger household of the planet. The goal of the new way of thinking is a productive household.

For a biologist who subscribes to intelligent rules about our household, this means organic fertility; such a person wants fertile soil because that's the source of most of the food we eat. Also, such a biologist wants a bank account. The best bank accounts on the planet are old growth forests and the rainforests in Latin America, because they accumulate carbon and take it out of the atmosphere, and that helps regulate heat. As you know, more and more hurricanes and tornadoes are occuring, probably from heat inbalance and maybe from the acculmulation of greenhouse gases. We will know for sure in about 20 years. Also, for a biologist a productive household means solar energy. People forget that the original industry of the planet is the industry of plants taking solar energy and turning it into photosynthetic products, and we are eating those photosynthetic products. This is directly contrary to how the word production is used in business. To a biologist this photosynthetic production is depositing energy on the earth, whereas a business uses up the planet's saving account to sell something to satisfy immediately and temporarily insatiable human desires.

This is a major challenge, I would say it's a religious challenge for the business community, and they are having a hard time with it. Should maximum return on labor be the standard for understanding production? If it is not, then what is that standard? If production is supposed to be a social good for all of us, working ultimately to help each other, how do you include things like good health, safety, the longevity of the machine and the longevity of the worker? How do you include creativity and wisdom in the Gross National Product? How do you include freedom from fear, including the fear of losing your job and other kinds of household disarray? Because you cannot calibrate these things, there is an identify crisis going on in economics. And it is not the one being promoted and pushed by mean-spirited environmentalists. It is a crisis arising from something inherently wrong in the way we are tending our household. That is, there is something wrong with our economic theory, forgetting that in its origin economic theory was for social good.

From the tour around Mobile Bay that Tom Brennan gave me this morning, I have been thinking about Mobile Bay as a household and what kind of chatter is going on. The one thing I knew before I came here was the bay basin and the river basin of Mobile have the most diverse mussel population of any place on the earth except perhaps the Mekong Delta.

Alabama has 175 species of mussels, the most of any state in the United States, and on top of that it has 118 species of snails in the river basin. And so this is a very unique river basin on the planet. Just two years ago -- my last data for this -- about 4,000 tons of mussel shells were ground up into little beads which were then sent to Asia to culture pearls. They were sold for about $6 a pound. It is still a highly productive business. The other thing I had learned before coming here was Mobile has the highest level of organic contaminants of any major river basins in the Southeast and has the highest level of residual DDT left over from the 1960s.

What is also very clear is that there is a wonderful dialogue going on between your community and Asia. Noticing that the most diverse area for snails besides here is the Mekong Delta, it was no surprise to me that you have new communities of Cambodians and Vietnamese. In a way they didn't go very far from home. They went to the exact same kind of ecology that they were used to. And interestingly, an economic exchange exists still with Asia. Beads made from mussel shells from Mobile are used in Asia to culture pearls and then the pearls come back to the United States. So there is a dialogue going on between Mobile Bay and Asia.

The third dialogue has to do with what could be viewed, like the Asian migrants, as exotic invaders. There are two clams, the Asian mussel and the Zebra mussel, both of which are spreading through the river basin very rapidly that are undoing this bio-diversity. Here in the interaction of mussels and plants and people is an example of how species of an ecology seem to be very heavily interconnected and intertwined with the economy of a particular area of the planet.

In fact, one of the things that I always promote, especially in a watershed community, is for that community to look for an indicator species, what used to be called totemic creatures of a particular area, something to take its temperature with. It seemed to me the mussels and the snails are your totems, the totems of the Alabama-Tombigbee basin.

And the degree to which you commit yourself to the preservation and health of these creatures is also an indication of your commitment to the health of the population in the communities that exist in this river basin. YouÊthe downstream community must, whether you like it or not, report the news back to the upstream people.

The other thing I was thinking about today is that when I work in Africa and there is a drought in the Sahara, there are also more hurricanes in Mobile. The reason is that they are connected through what is called the intertropical cell; you are both inside the same climate cell. So when droughts happen in the Sahara, hurricanes happen here. At one time before the two continents moved away, the bulge in Africa was adjacent to the land mass of this area. Being in Mobile, I am in a sense not far from the area in Africa where I love to work most, and I can see that in the plants left over from the time when the two land masses moved away. Similarly, you also get more fires here during the El Nino effect, which is another Asian connection. The El Nino is simply a sloshing of hot water up into the Pacific basin, changing the whole climate of that basin and causes droughts here that in turn creates conditions for fires.


Excerpts from Dr. Warshall's presentation continue in the next issue.

-- July 20, 1996


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