Response to Pro Jo articles on the economy March 2012

I read your series on the Rhode Island economy in  the Sunday March 25 projo.  My comments will probably be  bit longer than a letter to the editor.  Maybe if your find them interesting enough  we might open the discussion of  how to fix the RI economy a bit wider.   You may choose to ignore what I say here.
Among my many projects is       a blog about the ecology/economy interface in Rhode Island and how to bring prosperity to our communities.
I especially recommend beginning with 2 essays
I begin my analysis where you do, that the Rhode Island economy barely functions today and that there have been repeated efforts to make it work better.  Where we differ is in what direction sustainable prosperity lies and what the obstacles to prosperity are.  My understanding of the economy, or rather the intertwined economies of the communities on the planet, begins with the ecology.  Maybe influenced by the trend that no civilization has ever arisen without an abundant supply of wood, and then immediately began to deplete its forests, ruin its soils, and despoil its fisheries.  When the job was done, especially when the forests and its wood products were gone, the civilizations then faded away. Now we are doing this on a global scale and we go through resources faster than ever.  Will we last the hundreds of years that the Maya survived?  Ponder a world without forests and ponder if you think you will be richer or poorer?   Resource use and resource depletion are key issues for our future prosperity.
Ultimately my concern with your articles is that in the current situation unleashing the engines of growth in the ways you suggest will only lead to greater inequality, greater ecological destruction, and a less prosperous populace.  We need another way.
That other way is ecological healing and focusing on the needs of the poor.  We have to heal RI ecosystems enough that they can provide a significant proportion of our livelihoods.  We can either go blindly over the abyss of a smaller economy or we can plan for it.  If we accept it and understand the implications as a community, we shall make smarter choices.
” You can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you can not end poverty without healing ecosystems”
If you look at RI today, the most vibrant sectors of the economy are dependent upon ecological healing, the building of soil, the clean up of the rivers, and the return of life. Agriculture has been almost the only thing growing in Rhode Island the last 10 years with the exception of the medical industrial complex.  Despite the pushing of the knowledge economy for umpteen years (I have been reading the reports from commissions on economic growth for 20 years), you change the names of the flavor of the week sectors, and it reads exactly same. Community gardens and commercial growing of food for local consumption is growing rapidly.    The revitalization of farmland and the production of green energy  (and not pseudo-green projects) is sparking the neighborhood.      In your articles you suggest that the knowledge industries such as the medical industrial complex and green energy are where RI needs to go, but you do not go far enough in your ecological analysis , thinking of the green economy as an add on to the real work of video games and high tech patentable life forms.  I would simply point out that the more dependent we become on the medical industrial complex for the job base of our community, the more people lose everything to medical bills. We need to rethink that one.
My experiences in forestry, soils, agriculture, compost, construction, activism,and politics have been combined with a background in ecology and anthropology.
These days my largest project is the RI Compost Initiative.  On February 27 I ran the 2012 RI Compost Conference and Trade Show.  I understand your frustration with regulation, but ultimately the best way to do anything is to do it with a totally clean process that restores an ecosystem while creating value for the community.  Right now in Rhode Island It makes more dollars and cents, but no real sense, to throw valuable goods and resources in to  the dump in ways that increases our carbon footprint and stink to the neighborhood. Compost does not work if you cut corners, nor in an environment in which to appease the towns and keep their costs low the price of landfilling garbage is cheaper than recycling it,  but it is a critical component of improving the economic health of our communities.  The legislature controls the tipping fee, so I am trying to figure out a strategy for changing it, which I see as a multi year organizing project. I am also advising JWU in their efforts to incorporate compost into their curriculum and campus . JWU’s hauling of food scrap to the dump is a major cost, and on site composting will allow them to teach future members of the hospitality industry about a future without garbage.  My next project may be an industry trade association to do a bit of lobbying for better access for composters, as well as banning compostables from the dump. It may not meet the standard of no investment in the future that our state seems obsessed by in its austerity kick, but  throwing stuff into the landfill sure is not helping our economy even if it is cheap.   I wish we were all going faster, but it goes as it goes.
Another facet of my work revolves around the reforestation of a vacant lot covered in an invasive plant, Japanese knotweed.    When the project started 13 years ago I had 15 years of woodlot management experience combined with many  hours of looking at the ecosystems I passed through.  As research director of Ban Clearcutting in Maine in 1996 I put that knowledge to use, then I moved to the urban forest and discovered a few things that made it seem possible that we can revitalize communities and suppress alien weeds by developing forests.  Japanese knotweed does not thrive in the shade, and we are creating a closed canopy forest, a semi natural new England forest, to suppress it.
Come see my forest.   It is officially a project of Friends of the Moshassuck
I learned much when I was an active participant in both the CSO stakeholder process and the Quonset Megaport stakeholder process.  When the NBC came to the table in the final CSO stakeholder event, they held in their hands a radically altered document from the preliminary plan they had presented two months before.  They agreed to the principle that the future lay in managing water, not building big tunnels.  They were stuck big time and were going to build the tunnel, but they were going to incorporate  more green techniques in the whole process.  They adopted the language I had submitted, and I was proud to support the document as presented knowing it was better and more forward looking than they had come to the table with the first time.
My part in the Megaport controversy was multi faceted.  One thing I did was put a great deal of heat on the way RIEDC director John Swenn ran public meetings.  My other role was to regularly point out the very destructiveness of global trade, and the very real implications for Rhode Island depending on which specific goods come here.  The vehicle I used for the work ended up as an essay called Containerships and Cannibals, but the original is lost to time and an unfortunate computer crash many years ago.
The argument was as follows.  The containerships were loading up all the goods and resources collected in what were once the forests of Southeast Asia and were now plantations and sweatshops, with Singapore being the hub, as it has been for 2 centuries.  The deforestation and sweat shops were not the only part of the story.  It was the violent repression and killings of people by the armies of Indonesia, and other countries to keep opening up more forest to exploitation.  This was the cost of the container trade, made explicit in the story that I found in Utne Reader about how the islanders of one of the islands the Indonesian government was flooding with immigrants from other islands to turn into palm plantations and sweat shops tried to stop the flow and retain their land.     They fought back, and one of their traditions was that if they ate the hearts of those they killed in the war they would absorb their strength.  Of course that only worked against the villagers who were colonizing their forest, but not against the automatic weapons, often subsidized by the US, the Indonesian army carried.  Reminded me very much of the Ghost Dance on the northern plains  when the Lakota put on their sacred beads and dance the sacred dance in an effort to find the strength to keep their freedom.  Of course they were slaughtered and put in cages and on reservations.  And it was happening in Indonesia to feed a megaport in Rhode Island.
You should have had the opportunity to talk to Kho Tararith when he lived in Rhode Island last year.  He was a recent refugee from Cambodia for human rights activism and was staying at Brown as a Watson Scholar.  One of the leading poets in Cambodia and the former head of the local chapter of PEN.  He had to leave town.  We talked as I saw him waiting with his 7 year old for the school bus on my way to work several times a week and we started talking.  Now we email about Cambodian forests and the corruption that is leading to their destruction, and the sorrow and poverty that brings to the villages all to feed the Chinese sweatshops and fill the coffers of corrupt officials.
What eventually killed the Megaport was that it needed huge subsidies to be built, was guaranteed to not be profitable, and the state was sold a bill of good s by the two con men who whipped Lincoln Almond and his fell travelers into a megaport frenzy.  The con men had been throw out of ports around the world with their lines that they could get funding and shipping contracts.  And given the recession the US went through, about the time the construction would have been finishing up, it is a good thing my friends stopped the port.
The point that  what you import through a port matters, tends to get lost in the quest for volumes and anything goes if it ships.  But it does make  a difference.
A thing about healing ecosystems, is that it requires actual democracy in order to occur.  No place in which the rich and connected can run rough shod over a community with no due process and no ways to legally protect their community will ever have an economy that works for the long term.  Communities must have the right to say no, that is not appropriate for a variety of environmental and community based reasons.  All over the world it has been shown that communities that control their forests, instead of turning them over to global logging conglomerates, have a higher per capita income in the community and healthier diets.
In the USA the issue has turned into environmental justice.  In most of America healing ecosystems is the only way the poor will survive.  We can not poison the air and the water and expect prosperity.  When the 99% get .2% growth it is funny money and they are poorer, as the statistics show. Giving all the money to the one percent slows growth, as countries with fairer and more equitable income distributions than ours show quite readily.
One key observation is that people who are poor almost always live in degraded environments.  This is shown by the  millionaires on the beach with the poor folks in the swamps or ghettos , and it is shown  by people who have enough forest to feed them well, but despite being out of the cash economy,  do not feel poor.
A thought to ponder is that as we are not seeing any real growth, only funny money growth for the 1%, maybe we ought to acknowledge that growth is really no longer possible in a world of ecological collapse, and that if we are to have prosperity in a shrinking economy, we need more justice and an equitable distribution of resources , underlain by healthier ecosystems,
I am thinking that Americans are going to the a lot happier at the global mean income using our fair share, then we will be if  global homogenization and rising inequality continues.  Where climate change and resource wars do not devastate communities, it will be because justice prevailed. No one cleans brown fields properly except when the community is actually part of the process, so lets do it right.
Sorry for the jumping around, but I am trying to give you a flavor of the breadth of information about where the RI economy is headed that y’all have not yet considered and why the road to prosperity may not run through the standard methodology and ideology.    Rather than bore you more now, If you write back I will continue the dialogue and offer  resources.  But first a short list  of some of the elements to be considered in planning for future prosperity in Rhode Island
A very short plan.
Restore fish runs on all rivers.
Collect and compost all food scrap
Increase recycling to 90%
Eliminate fossil fuel use
Turn all vacant lands into gardens and forests to sequester carbon and provide resources to the community.
Grow a lot more food
Practice preventative health care and turn payments in the system to reflect prevention and community health rather than the greater profit of the giants.
While we are at it, single payer is the only thing that is going to fund a prevention based system. And a health care system we can afford.
Accept a reduction for the retirement incomes of the one percent of same percentage that union workers for states and municipalities are being cut.
Focus on community revitalization through ecological healing, with a prime example being Olneyville in which the Greenway lead the way.
Cutting taxes for the rich will only increase inequality, so do not do it.
Regulations can be nightmarish.  Simplify them but require any project being built to demonstrate that all relevant ecosystem services will be enhanced rather than degraded.  If all relevant standards and systems healing requirements can be met, the methodology does not matter much.
Greg Gerritt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *