I cannot recall the last time I experienced silence - the complete absence of sound.
Sure, there have been times that I would describe as “quiet,” even very quiet, but not silent. Even late at night when Harvard is asleep, I can hear the train engines idling a mile away.
The lack of silence in our lives is a health problem that also affects our mental capacity. This fact was first recognized over a century ago. Florence Nightingale, famous British nurse and activist, declared back in the 1800s that noise inflicted on patients was “cruel,” as it hindered their recoveries. Additionally, her American contemporary, writer Herman Melville wrote: “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
When conservation groups burn natural land, does it disturb wildlife species? Simply put, yes.
Then why do we do it, and how can we call it “ecological fire” if it may harm some species?
Historically, fire was a natural part of the ecology of the Midwest before the land was settled by European-Americans 200 or more years ago. As settlers moved into the area, they did their best to suppress wildfires. After all, fire is dangerous and destructive, especially to human settlements that might be in the path of a fast-moving inferno.
I heard a story the other day about a situation where one neighbor did not like another neighbor’s pine tree because the branches grew over part of his yard and he thought the roots were going to crack his foundation. So, the fellow cut all the branches on his side of the tree back to the property line, and then dug a trench along the property line to sever the tree’s roots.
I heard an amazing speaker at MCC recently, Jon Erickson, Dean of the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources. Erickson is an economist, which would normally have kept me away from his talk, but he is unlike any economist I have ever heard, and I am very glad I went.
The field of economics has focused largely on measuring “economic” growth – things like sales, production and jobs. A term you may have heard is “GDP,” or Gross Domestic Product, which is the traditional way of evaluating a country’s economy. In the GDP system, things like hurricanes, pollution and crime all end up being positive for the overall economy because they lead to increased spending.
That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Maybe so, but that has been the dominant economic measuring system since the 1950s!
Back in those days, Americans didn’t think about pollution, or things like “running out of oil.” We were building the Interstate Highway system, encouraging every American to own a car and buy a home in the suburbs. We were spraying mosquitoes with DDT, and pumping new-fangled chemicals over our farm fields to increase crop yields. Bigger and faster meant better. Gasoline cost 15-cents a gallon, and one could stick a straw in the ground in Texas and oil would flow!
Starting in the 1960s, the environment began to degrade as a result: eagles nearly went extinct, rivers caught on fire, Love Canal was brought to light – along with thousands of similar (but less well known) toxic waste dumps.
And, yet, forty years later, and the field of economics is only now starting to officially recommend ways to factor in the costs of “growth” – costs to our quality of life today and costs to the ability of future generations to have a good quality of life.
Erickson explained that there is a growing movement among economists to replace the old focus on measuring financial growth as an indicator of success with a system to measure resilience.
In the new system, one calculates the GPI (Gross Progress Indicator) for a state, city, country or business by taking the traditional measures related to how much money changes hands (buying and selling goods and services), and factoring in the social conditions (crime, education, war, volunteerism, divorce and health) as well as the environmental costs and benefits that include pollution, resource depletion (e.g. coal and oil extraction) and the effects of climate change.
Imagine an economic system that doesn’t treat a hurricane – or a war – as “good” for the economy. That’s crazy!
In 1979, author John Fowles released his non-fiction book "The Tree." Coming from the author of The French Lieutenant's Woman, this sweet little book must have surprised many.
The writing style is pure Fowles - densely packed with sensuous descriptions of his life in England - but the subject matter is unexpected.
Using his experiences with trees growing up and living in both urban and rural England, he expertly tells a story of the interdependence of humankind, art and nature.
Thirty years ago, he was asking questions that we have yet to answer. How do we heal the disconnect between people and nature? Are doing nature a disservice when we try to explain it using science, rather than appreciating it as we do great art?