Four articles* were published within 10 days covering the ecological collapse of the Everglades, Suez Canal blockage, Notre Dame Cathedral rebuilding and farmers who survived the Great Depression.
Each reveals the importance of systems-scale, the interconnectivity of all systems, and the resulting impact when we focus on siloed solutions based on the overwhelming commitment of our culture to short term efficiency as our single most important criteria.
I will be breaking this post into two sections; the first focused on stories of systems- scale regeneration of land, culture, economy and ecosystems. The second focused on the collapse of our ecological systems and the fragility of our global trading systems.
We start our first section with two regenerative stories. One, a farmer from the Great Depression of the 1930s restoring the health and productivity of his soil and his community. The second, the 230-year stewardship of the Royal Forest of Berce’ providing the structural timber for the restoration of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.
In our first story, Stacy Olmstead sees that in the mutual aid and stewardship of an earlier generation of American farmers there might be hope for our own communities. The pandemic revealed just how brittle our food system has become. It has also made her think a lot about her paternal great-grandfather, Walter Howard, a farmer whom she knew as Grandpa Dad.
When he started his own farm as a young adult, drought and economic uncertainty were ravaging Idaho — yet, somehow, he and his farm not only survived, but thrived. Unfortunately, the things my great-grandfather sought to foster in his lifetime — healthy land, resilient farms, a robust small-town economy — have suffered in mine. Farms and farmers have become isolated and specialized, and many rural towns have emptied out.
In this pandemic, we’ve seen some of the damaging consequences of these changes. The cost of our “efficient” meat production is revealed in the treatment of food workers: Many meat processors forced employees to continue working even as the coronavirus spread at meatpacking plants. Grocery stores struggled to keep their shelves filled while farmers were dumping milk and euthanizing hogs and chickens they could not get to market because of processing and distributing bottlenecks. But in the patterns of local rootedness and stewardship Grandpa Dad practiced, I believe there might be hope for our own communities going forward.
Many of the problems we’re seeing in rural America today stem not just from the struggles of individual farmers but from the collapse of the larger ecosystems that once nourished them: the towns, associations, neighbors and local industry clusters that encompassed and supported them.
During the Great Depression, family incomes in Idaho dropped by as much as 50 percent, and many lost their farms to local land banks. Grandpa Dad aided fellow farmers, helping form a mutually supportive community. He worked with and for his neighbors during harvest seasons, lent equipment and labor to those in need, and mentored younger farming couples.
Beyond farming, Grandpa Dad also supported his regional and town economy, investing in both its agriculture-related businesses and in locally owned shops and business owners. Grandpa grew crops for the cannery and creamery in town and the sugar beet factory over the hill as well as for friends and family. When we see ourselves as interdependent and part of every system that sustains us, we look beyond ourselves to the health of all that surrounds us long term.
In our second story, Saskya Vandoorne tells the story of French oaks, after centuries in the ground, which will soon form part of the new spire at Notre Dame deep in the former royal forest of Bercé, in France’s Loire region, a 230-year-old tree comes crashing to the ground with thunderous intensity. Just a sapling during the French Revolution, the 65-foot-tall oak tree is one of many being felled as part of ongoing efforts to rebuild Notre Dame.
The tree eventually will join 1,000 other oaks being used to reconstruct the wooden lattice of the roof and replace the base of the fallen spire engulfed by the blaze that devastated the Gothic building almost two years ago, in April 2019.
This winter, drones were used to scan a snow-dusted forest near Le Mans in search of the first eight trunks that would be used to support the spire. The drones, with the help of 3D imagery, were used to seek out specimens measuring 3 feet wide and over 60 feet tall, with no visible defects. The slender trees in Bercé have a slight curve that makes them ideal for the spire. The selected trees will be felled before the end of March and dried for 12 to 18 months to make sure the beams won’t shrink or move once in place.
According to the army general in charge of the reconstruction of Notre Dame, these trees were planted under King Louis XIV’s reign in order to provide wood to build the masts for ships belonging to the French navy. “We are poor people who only live 60, 70, 80, 100 years maximum. But the trees are here after,” General Jean-Louis Georgelin said. “We recognize the humility of the human being in front of the immensity of the universe.”
As a result of long-term planning and stewardship over 2 centuries, these trees are available to restore one of the most important spiritual and cultural landmarks in the world.
Our second section has two stories of collapse. The ecological destruction of the Everglades and potential atonement and the container ship stuck at the Suez Canal which precipitated a global shipping crisis.
We start with NYT Editorial Board’s framing of the restoration of the Everglades as one of the most ambitious ecosystem recovery projects ever, not just in the United States but anywhere, and it has the added virtue of being an act of atonement for past government failures.
The project is essentially a vast re-plumbing scheme aimed at replicating as nearly as possible the historical flows of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee — flows that a pioneer advocate named Marjory Stoneman Douglas called the River of Grass — that once made South Florida a biological wonderland. These flows slowed to a trickle starting in the late 1940s when Congress ordered up a massive flood control project to protect Florida’s booming cities, which looked like a smart idea at the time.
The Army Corps of Engineers responded by draining a half-million acres south of the lake with a vast web of levees, canals and pumping stations — an impressive piece of engineering that flushed Lake Okeechobee’s copious overflows out to sea and away from the cities instead of letting it move slowly and naturally southward, as it had for centuries. This made Florida’s eastern coast safe for development and its midlands safe for agriculture, in particular for the big sugar companies, but it was also an environmental disaster, robbing the Everglades and the fishing grounds of Florida Bay of their traditional sources of fresh water, and nearly killing both.
Our second story by Peter S. Goodman chronicles a story of fragility and the result of ignoring the weakest link in any system.
The Ever Given is one of the world’s largest container ships, with space for 20,000 metal boxes carrying goods across the sea. And the Suez Canal is not just any waterway. It is a vital channel linking the factories of Asia to the affluent customers of Europe, as well as a major conduit for oil.
The fact that one mishap could sow fresh chaos from Los Angeles to Rotterdam to Shanghai underscored the extent to which modern commerce has come to revolve around truly global supply chains.
In recent decades, management experts and consulting firms have championed so-called just-in-time manufacturing to limit costs and boost profits. Rather than waste money stockpiling extra goods in warehouses, companies can depend on the magic of the internet and the global shipping industry to summon what they need as they need it.
The embrace of this idea has delivered no less than a revolution to major industries — automotive and medical device manufacturing, retailing, pharmaceuticals and more. It has also yielded a bonanza for corporate executives and other shareholders: Money not spent filling warehouses with unneeded auto parts is, at least in part, money that can be given to shareholders in the form of dividends.
Yet, as in everything in life, overdoing a good thing can bring danger. An excessive reliance on just-in-time manufacturing helps explain how medical staff from Indiana to Italy found themselves attending to Covid-19 patients during the first wave of the pandemic without adequate protective gear like masks and gowns.
Health care systems — many under the control of profit-making companies answerable to shareholders — assumed that they could depend on the web and the global shipping industry to deliver what they needed in real time. That proved a deadly miscalculation.
The same dependence explains how Amazon failed to provide adequate stocks of masks and gloves to its warehouse workers in the United States in the first months of the pandemic. As of March 2021, “Masks remain in short supply globally.”
Some experts have warned for years that short-term shareholder interests have eclipsed prudent management in prompting companies to skimp on stockpiling goods.
“As we become more interdependent, we are even more subject to the fragilities that arise, and they are always unpredictable,” said Ian Goldin, a professor of globalization at Oxford University. “No one could predict a ship going aground in the middle of the canal, just like no one predicted where the pandemic would come from. Just like we can’t predict the next cyberattack, or the next financial crisis, but we know it’s going to happen.”
CityCrafting is essentially an optimistic pathway believing in our ultimate capacity to heal what we have damaged for the long-term. These posts give us a view of human activity as a destructive force as well as a healing holistic force capable of regenerating the social, economic, and the ecological fabric of our communities and bioregion.
It is a choice, which should be governed with this understanding;
“An organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life.” Hidden Life of Trees
3 – Reviving the South Florida ecosystem enjoys bipartisan support and deserves federal funding by NYT Editorial Board and Photographs by Damon Winter – March 27, 2021
4 – In Suez Canal, Stuck Ship Is a Warning About Excessive Globalization By Peter S. Goodman Published March 26, 2021Updated March 29, 2021