A Water Ethic | Scale of Economics

“A Water Ethic:  Cure for the Coming Crisis” is the title of author Kirpatrick Sale’s June 2nd lecture for the Great Barrington Land Conservancy. Mr. Sale will speak about how for centuries humans have attempted to have control and dominance over the forces of nature, most especially of water, but in the 21st century we have come to the point where our control and use of water has reached a crisis. We depend upon water even more than we do oil, but what isn’t being polluted and defiled is being used up, in this country and around the world, at a disastrous rate. It is no exaggeration to say that the wars of the coming century will most likely about water, and when they are over there still won’t be enough to go around.

The only way we can escape from the coming crisis is by developing a ‘water ethic,’ similar to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, but about this precious and vital resource.

Mr. Sale’s talk is part of a weekend of festivities dedicating the William Stanley Overlook on the Great Barrington River Walk.  The Observation Platform for the Overlook is directly across the Housatonic River from the site of the historic Horace Day rubberwear factory. It was here in 1886 that Stanley successfully transmitted high voltage alternating current electricity. Interpretative signage tells the story of Stanley’s experiments and his role in Great Barrington’s industrial history.

Great Barrington is proud of its River Walk, which also features the W. E. B. Du Bois River Garden, honoring Great Barrington’s native son. The River Walk is demonstrating the potential for developing riverfront access along trashed and abused areas, so that more pristine riparian areas may remain forever wild. River Walk has shown how public access need not compromise river ecology and water quality, by creating vegetative buffers of native species, mitigating non-point source pollution with drop inlets, installing a rain garden and permeable trail surfaces, and addressing degraded soils with “compost tea”. Most important, the process of building the River Walk trail (now counting over two thousand volunteers) continues to strengthen Great Barrington’s own “river ethic”.  It is appropriate that Mr. Sale’s Water Ethic address will be made in our town!

Kirkpatrick Sale is a contributing editor for The Nation and the author of nine previous books, including Human Scale, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and Columbian Conquest, Rebels against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution, and The Fire of His Genius: Robert Fulton and American Dream.  He was named by Utne Reader as one of the 100 Living Visionaries.  He makes his home in Cold Spring, New York.

In 1980 Mr. Sale was appointed a founding board member of the Schumacher Center.  He was responsible for suggesting the creation of the Schumacher Center Library with its stellar collection of books on local economics.  Mr. Sale’s essay “Economics of Scale vs. the Scale of Economics” is printed below for your information.  It was first published in the February 2006 “Re-inventing Economics” issue of Vermont Commons, guest edited by Susan Witt. Additional talks by Mr. Sale may be read online at the publications section of the Schumacher Center’s website.


Economics of Scale vs. the Scale of Economics: Towards Basic Principles of a Bioregional Economy by Kirkpatrick Sale

Economics of scale is what conventional industrial economies are all about, finding ways to more profitably and efficiently exploit nature.  But the scale of economics is what the new economies of the future must be about, finding the ways to live so that healthy communities may foster a healthy earth.

There are only two essentials to consider in coming at the problem of the optimum scale for an economy to produce and distribute goods and services: the natural ecosystem and the human community.  An economy that does harm to the natural world—depleting resources, extincting species, maltreating animals, producing pollution, piling up wastes—has grown too large; an economy that is out of democratic and humanitarian human control—where decisions are made by a few distant corporate individuals and a polity whose choices are beyond individual influence—has grown too large.

Let us take the economic scale that is optimum for the earth’s systems.  It would be based on conservation, stability, sustainability, recycling, harmony.   That means, for starters, an economy at a bioregional scale—that of a watershed or river valley, or a mountain system, or a lakeshore—for it more or less dictates the economy appropriate to it: an economy based on a watershed, for example, automatically considers downriver populations as well as headwater ones.  The human constructs would adapt to the environment rather than be imposed, and human uses would be confined to those the bioregion allowed.

In Vermont terms, it would be possible to think of the western watershed of the Connecticut River, with all the rivers running eastward from the Green Mountains, as a bioregion (though it would of course demand cooperation with the New Hampshirites, who share the Connecticut).  Another bioregion would encompass the watershed to the west of the Green Mountains, to Lake Champlain.

In this case, dairy and general truck farming would naturally be at the heart of the bioregional economy, although if a truly ecological sensibility informs it, those farms would not allow the disastrous sort of waste runoff that now so badly pollutes Lake Champlain and other waterways.  Nor would they use artificial chemicals and fertilizers.  Nor would they have factory farms of 1,000-plus cows and 100,000-plus hens. An ecologically based agriculture would depend on solar power appropriate to the region, on human-powered machines, on organic and pest-management  systems, perennial polyculture and permaculture, with markets geared to seasonal and regional foods.

And the economic scale desirable for the human community would be one in which decisions about the economy—what is produced, from what resources, by whom, for whom, how distributed, how recycled—are made democratically by the various units, from towns to bioregions.  Most power would locate at the level of the community, and it is there that we can imagine effecting some basic economic justice—specifically, practices of workplace ownership by the employees, workplace democracy for decision-making, and workplace commitment to the immediate surrounding populace—all of the things that are impossible with large scales and distant chainstore corporations.

And here we come to an essential element of a stable economy that dictates much of its scale: self-sufficiency.  If the farms of Vermont were part of a self-sufficient economy, feeding the 620,000 people within its borders as its primary mission, there would not be such a concentration on dairy farms (and the resultant pollution problems) and there would be a far greater diversity of animal products and crops, ultimately to the health of the ecosystems.

Self-sufficiency is operable only at a limited scale, where humans are able to understand the resources at hand, can perceive and regulate the variants in the economy, and be sure that production and distribution is made rational and systematic.  It is certainly possible at a bioregional scale, at least bioregions conceived as no bigger than 10- and 20,000 square miles (depending on the size necessary for resource variables), and in fact state governments right across the country even now calculate much of their operations on geographic areas of such a size, though they usually think in terms of watersheds or forests or deserts rather than bioregions.  (Although in fact the Federal government has begun to calculate at this scale, with a bioregional map recently put out by the Bureau of Land Management.)

In terms of population, too, there is a limit at which rough self-sufficiency can be achieved.  I did a lot of analysis of this for my book Human Scale some years ago, and I found that historically self-sufficient communities with economies of some complexity tended to cluster in the 5,000-10,000 population range—one urbanologist, Gideon Sjoberg, has said that “it seems unlikely that, at least in the earlier periods, even the larger of these cities contained more than 5,000 to 10,000 people, including part-time farmers on the cities’ outskirts.”  Medieval trading centers commonly held up to 10,000 people for centuries, and even when larger cities grew in the 13th and 14th centuries to 20,000 or even 40,000, they were typically divided into quarters–literally four parts—of 5-10,000 people.

On a modern American scale, then, we might imagine a mixture of somewhat self-sufficient cities within more self-sufficient counties within mostly self-sufficient bioregions within a totally self-sufficient state, and then the economy of self-sufficiency might be quite complex indeed.  In terms of Vermont, this might be a mix of relatively self-sufficient cities (Barre, Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington (divided into quarters), Essex, Hartford, Middlebury, Milton, Montpelier, Rutland, South Burlington, and Springfield are obvious candidates), within ecologically determined more self-sufficient shires (an Otto River shire, say, and shires for the West, Black, White, Winooski, Lemoille, Passumpsic watersheds), within the two self-sufficient bioregions on either side of the Green Mountains, within the state—whose economy, if independent, could be just as self-sufficient as it desired.

Such self-sufficient units would need to be guided by certain maxims to provide a full range of goods and services, and they would need to adhere to them with some ingenuity. But the maxims are all simple and thoroughly practical.  They would include the principle of sharing, at the community level, an adherence to recycling and repairing (or at a more complex level, remanufacturing) almost everything,  an emphasis on handicrafts and bespoke production rather than manufactures and mass production, a commitment to using local raw materials instead of imported (and especially local foods, cheaper, fresher, safer, better-tasting, healthier),  a nurturing of local ingenuity without patent and copyright restrictions, and an agreement to abandon as unnecessary and undesirable almost everything manufactured at the factory level anywhere and anyhow.  All of which is no more complex than the old New England adage:

Use it up, wear it out,
Make it do, or do without.