Hurricane Sandy 2

I am used to pretty wild storms.  After all, I have lived in the Midwest most of my life where storms can be violent.

I woke up to windier conditions telling me that Sandy was coming.  I needed to get out and do a few things this morning but it wasn’t bad at all.  I decided to go look at the beach.  The waves were building.  In the harbor areas the boats had been pulled in and out of the water, leaving the area looking abandoned.

By the time I headed home after working in my office around noon, twigs and leaves were on the roads, but people were still out jogging.

Now, at 3 p.m., it is getting crazy.  The leaves are being blown off the trees and my windows are covered with water blown against it the wind whistles like the winds of a big winter storm.  And I just got the message that one of the dormitories at Gordon has to be evacuated due to high winds and risk of falling limbs.  Students are being moved to another dormitory.

There is a clash between the two weather systems over the state of Massachusetts.  Temperatures remain quite warm meaning lots of energy.  So though we aren’t near the middle of the hurricane, it is now 1500 miles across.  Gusts almost 70 miles.  And more to come. Another dorm has just been evacuated.   I think I get to add to my life list of natural events.

Late morning–blowing trees


Hurricane Sandy

I am prepared.  I have found my flashlight and my candles.  I have been to the store and gotten food and filled up my gas tank.  I will fill up some pots and pans with water later today.  As I went down the road today, bags of leaves were along the road, being picked up by municipal trucks.  Instructions are to try to have your gutters cleaned out and limbs trimmed from your trees away from the power lines.  And don’t park your vehicles under trees.

And I have gone to the beach to experience the sea before the storm–all was calm.  But we are under a state of emergency.

Subsidiatiry and Being Place-based

It is the political season and I find myself turning off the news and withdrawing from conversations.  I remain frustrated by the lack of fiscal restraint, the elevation of either the market or the government, and the lack of focus on what really works on the ground.  The rhetoric at both political ends remains at a level that is far detached from the scale at which communities are built and maintained.

In the midst of my discouragement, it was refreshing to recently attend a lecture at Gordon College by Michael Gerson, a conservative, nationally-syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.  He was a speech-writer for President George W. Bush, but also works with Bono, serving as a Senior Advisor to ONE, a bipartisan organization that works to combat extreme poverty and preventable diseases.  Rather than mirroring the rhetoric that we hear in the public sphere, he reminded me of two concepts that have profoundly shaped my thinking—subsidiarity and mediating institutions—and how these two concepts and perspectives have the promise of moving American politics beyond the present political gridlock.
The concept of subsidiarity is a principle for societal design that calls for the movement of decisions affecting people’s lives to the lowest scale of capable social organization.   Under the subsidiarity principle, the higher authority has the burden of proof about the need to centralize.  And the higher authority has an obligation to strengthen the capacity of the lower level institutions to manage responsibilities.  It is about capacity-building at the lowest levels wherever possible (Curry 2002:  Community on Land).
The obligation to build capacity—rather than to take control—leads to the strengthening of what are called “mediating structures, ” the institution that exist between the individual and the state.  Mediating institutions include everything from non-profits, to the church, to community groups.  In my book Community on Land, I argue that the strengthening of these mediating structures is essential for ecological and social health because they exist and work at the scale of many problems, and their solutions are often more sustainable—it is the scale at which results are monitored and observed.  Mediating institutions also emphasize local knowledge and context and build trust across political differences because they reflect a common shared commitment to a place.
I recently spent time conversing with people about these issues and their story of public response to a recent incident when I visited the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand.  On October 5, 2011, the cargo ship, the Rena, a Liberia-flagged 235m vessel, heading toward Tauranga, New Zealand crashed into the Astrolabe Reef, twelve kilometers off shore and within view of the harbor.  The cargo ship was carrying 1900 tons of fuel and 1386 containers (11 of which contained hazardous substances).  Of course, Liberian-flagged ships are common—I think you could argue that the free market leads to a tendency toward the migration of registration toward the countries with the least regulation and cost for registration for cargo ships. 
After the crash, Maritime New Zealand, the government agency responsible for responding to such incidents, attempted to identify the owner and begin to address the potential problems.  In the meantime the anxiety and concern of the local people in Tauranga increased—it was their beach that was threatened.  Soon a slick was seen, stretching like a narrow ribbon.  Dispersants were used but quickly proved ineffective in rough seas.  Four dead birds are found in the water near the ship so a bird cleaning and rehabilitation center was established.  By the third day, heavy oil began to spill into the sea.  The anxiety of locals increases with the arrival of a little blue penguin in trouble on local beaches.  Unease increased as a storm approached with little action to empty the ship. 
The arrival of heavy seas made action impossible and by the sixth day, globules of oil were found on the beaches and foul fumes were in the air.  Many locals were speechless and a local Maori leader cursed official over their lack of action. 
Local people, grieving and upset over the lack of government action to protect their local environment, began to wander onto the beach, ignoring the warnings to stay away. Out of desperation and a need to respond, they scraped up contaminated sand, leaving little plastic bags of the stuff dotted on beaches.  Local lifeguards took upon themselves the responsibility of keeping people off the beach, but soon realized that it was affecting their relationships with their communities.   
Al Fleming from Forest and Bird spelled out what is at stake. 10,000 grey-faced petrels, thousands of diving petrels, white-faced storm petrels and fluttering shearwaters breeding on nearby islands, several thousand gannets, 200 to 300 little blue penguins.  Shorebirds such as endangered New Zealand dotterels, and oystercatchers and white-fronted terns were starting to nest on sandy beaches just above the high tide mark.  There was also danger to finfish, shellfish, crustaceans, filter feeders and other seafloor life.
About the 7th day, Environment Minister Nick Smith told a crowd in Tauranga that oil has been pouring out and would continue to do so for weeks.  The locals asked:  Why have we not been allowed to be involved?  While they talked, a wandering albatross was found dead, so covered in oil it could barely be identified. Two hundred birds had died and more than 1000 would succumb to the effects of the oil.  Debris was strewn far and wide, including thousands of meat patties scattered on one beach.
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
 Finally, Maritime New Zealand began to engage with the public as a partner, coordinated through the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.  An information network was established, volunteers were trained, and community action and engagement was finally allowed to be funneled into positive action.  More than 8000 people volunteered.  This was their beach and their responsibility.  Their story is one that needs to be told more broadly.
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
Maritime New Zealand
This tragedy occurred in a specific place.  It emotionally and physically affected the community that inhabited that place, a community that collectively felt responsibility for the environment around them.  And decision-makers at each level had to learn to work across scale collaboratively to respond effectively and honor and build the capacity of the local community.
 So why do we get caught in the dichotomy between market and government?  The market needs oversight by government, particularly in the areas of environmental concern that involve the common good, non-market resources such as clean air and water, and in areas that involve the commons.  The market alone cannot protect the world’s oceans and the adjacent beaches from the environmental destruction that comes from the migration of registration of cargo ships to countries with the lowest possible safety measures and training in place.  The market is not a perfect instrument.  But if we put a market price on the cost of oil and included the cost of such accidents, it would certainly help.  The market can help us signal real costs.  The federal-level government needs to work in partnership with local institutions.  Otherwise it can undermine local government, local initiative, and local ownership over the stewardship of its resources.  When it does, it undermines its own ability to fulfill its duty.
Subsidiarity—it is about the responsibility of higher levels of authority to build capacity at the lowest levels possible, leading to the strengthening of the mediating structures that are essential for the sustainability of ecological and social health in the places where we live.  It is about being on the beach and close to the ground when crises strike.

Thinking Like a Watershed

The concept of a watershed has long captured my imagination.  A watershed is made up of the area that drains to a common waterway.  I don’t know why this has always been of interest to me.  It may go back to when I was quite young and my mother took us me to play along Little Cottonwood Creek near where she grew up in rural southwest Minnesota.  She taught my brothers and me to skip rocks.  She told us how she used to play along the creek and think about how the creek drained into the Cottonwood Creek which drained into the Minnesota River which drained into the Mississippi River, which emptied into the Gulf of Mexico.  I later took my daughters to play along the same creek.   

Much of my life has been shaped by the Mississippi River watershed.  I grew up in Illinois, not too far from the Mississippi.  I lived in Louisiana in the delta of the Mississippi.  Afterward, I lived in Minnesota for quite a few years and daily crossed the river to get to the University of Minnesota.  One summer I finally got to the headwaters of the Mississippi, in Ithasca State Park.  There I walk across the mighty Mississippi, thinking about how this stream connected with the river I crossed in the Twin Cities, the Mississippi I knew that separated Iowa and Illinois, and the river whose sediment created a landscape just above sea level in Louisiana.
This is what attracts me to rivers and their watersheds.  Even the smallest creek flows somewhere—it has direction to it.  My grandmother’s high rise apartment building, in Windom, MN overlooked the Des Moines River.  For more than a decade I lived in southeastern Iowa within a couple of miles of the Des Moines River.  Every Sunday I would take a long walk along the river, always thinking of being connected with my grandmother upstream. 
When I received a Fulbright Fellowship to the University of Guelph, in Ontario, I left my Mississippi watershed behind.  In southern Ontario, the land drains into the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River into the Atlantic.  Soon after my Fulbright, I actually moved to Michigan, leaving the Mississippi watershed to remain in the St. Lawrence watershed.
Several weeks ago I recognized my on-going connection with the St. Lawrence in a public event.  With a grant from the Canadian Fulbright Association, a group of volunteers planted rain gardens in the Plaster Creek watershed of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I lived for 16 years.  These rain gardens increase the infiltrate of rainwater.  This reduces storm water from rushing into the stream and also allows for the natural filtering of the water to decreases pollution.  I began this effort in 2004 with others in what was called the Plaster Creek Working Group.  Others are now leading what has grown into the Plaster Creek Stewards which involves the public in on-the-ground restoration activity somewhere in the watershed (e.g. labeling storm drains, planting rain gardens). To date seven churches, two businesses, two schools, and over 100 residents have been involved in activities related to Plaster Creek.

This particular effort was funded by the Fulbright Foundation of Canada, in recognition of how the lives and actions of those living in the Plaster Creek watershed affect our Canadian neighbors downstream.  Plaster Creek is part of the Grand River Watershed which empties into Lake Michigan and drains through the Great Lakes and out the St. Lawrence River.  The waterways and their watersheds connect us and make the need for a mutual commitment to each other necessary.  It is a reminder that rivers lead “somewhere” and that others live in that “somewhere.”
Wes Jackson says in his book, Alters of Unhewn Stone (NY: North Point Press, 1987: 155):
What if we employed our rivers and creeks in some ritual atonement?  Their sediment load is largely the result of agricultural practices based upon arrogance, tied in turn to an economic system based upon arrogance…but perhaps we need an annual formal observance in the spring—when the rivers are particularly muddy–a kind of ecological rite of atonement, in which we would “gather at the river.” Maybe we should ally ourselves by virtue of a common watershed…for a watershed can and often does cut through more than one bioregion.  There would be nothing abstract about a common covenant among people of a common watershed.
My hope is that each of us may move beyond the abstract in how we live each day in our watershed.
Photos by Gail Heffner
Dennis Moore from the Canadian Consulate in Detroit