March 25, 2010
Building a World that Works
Scientists like to gain perspective by pushing trends to the extreme to see the full dimensions of any issue. I have dealt throughout my life with various aspects of biotic impoverishment, causes and extent, and what I thought might be extremes, even end-points. I have dealt personally as an ecologist with agriculture, grazing, forest harvests, toxic substances, chronic mechanical disturbances, effects of ionizing radiation, effects of nuclear weapons, even "nuclear winter", and climatic disruption. In each instance I have looked at extremes, seeking insights as to how to avoid them by early action.
The experience was critical as I began writing about the new campus of the Woods Hole Research Center, where my ecologist colleagues and I tried to bring together the principles we develop in science and to apply them in building a campus as an inspirational example for the new century as we move past the fossil fueled age. To emphasize the imporance of making that transition I sought an example of the endpoint of current trends, where we are headed if we fail to make the change? Haiti stands as the singularly most powerful example of a failed nation in the western world. It is in political, economic, and environmental chaos and has been there, sinking decade by decade into greater depths of poverty through two centuries. There, the honors paid to growth in population and the free market system, led, not to economic nirvana, but to a poverty so severe that here was no hope of recovery without a massive infusion of money and plan from outside the country. Without a working, functional landscape, capable of supplying essential needs such as a reliable water supply, no governement and no economy could stand.
That was all before the earthquake of January, 2010 when Haiti’s miseries were compounded a hundred fold, almost beyond comprehension. And they are not over. Before the earthquake Haiti was in dire trouble and should have had the attention and extraordinary interest and support of all the western nations to restore a landscape, once a tropical dreamland, now barely more than a gravel pile at the mercy of tropical rains. It could, and should, have been a model for the restoration for the world. Now that objective is only more acute, but buried in the continuing emergency of ten million people trying to live on ten thousand square miles of largely mountainous land, virtually totally deforested, eroding and crowded with habitations, many now in ruins.
Haiti must be rescued. It must be rescued immediately from the devastation of January with massive gifts of food and housing, schools and public services. But in the only slightly longer term it must be reconstituted as a functional landscape, capable of supporting a finite population, yet to be determined, indefinitely.
I referred in the book to the Haitian Abyss, an example awaiting an unsuspecting world. The earthquake has brought the seriousness of the Haitian example home to all. We owe it to ourselves, and to the world, to take the example as a lesson and by common will restore that nation to prosperity with an environment that works in support of all, a wholesome and attractive example, a complement to a world in transition to the post-fossil fuel age. It will take imagination, and billions of dollars. But the big new point is that the first steps must be the reconstitution of a functional landscape capable of supporting both an economy and a government. Civilization requires all three. And recovery from the Haitian Abyss will take a monster effort, much money, and years of attention from a coalition of governments, all of whom will benefit from the experience of rebuilding Haiti. It will be tough work but a far, far better investment than war.
Woods Hole, MA
* G.M. Woodwell. The Nature of a House: Building a World that Works. Island Press. 2009