After the Storm: What nature teaches about boom and crash

A late-January ice storm that caused much destruction in the Midwest began with stunning beauty, as the landscape was transformed into a lovely glass statue of itself, glinting in the dying light of evening. In the darkness, however, the glass began to shatter. I lay awake, hearing the eerie and sickening sound of crack upon crash in the woodlot of our farm.

Soon after the storm, I hiked through the woods, anxious about what I might find. The damage was appalling. When I bought the property a decade ago, the woodlot had just been cut over, heavily and carelessly, but by now it was beginning to recover. The poplars, black walnuts, hickories, maples and oaks that were spared by the timber cutter had grown back to a respectable size. The ice storm, however, had been almost as merciless as that earlier logging. Large limbs and entire tops of trees had come down, and the denuded trunks looked like sloppily sharpened spears. Several large trees had snapped at their base. Others had toppled over along with their entire root ball. These stood throughout the woods like 10-foot-tall earthen tombstones.


A Different Storm

The current economic crisis also had an auspicious beginning. The booming housing market heralded a rising tide of prosperity, and it brought profit and the privilege of home ownership to millions. When subprime mortgage holders began to default, however, many over-leveraged investment banks that held supposedly rock-solid mortgage-backed securities discovered themselves to be as fragile as glass, burdened with bad assets. In a crash heard around the world, they collapsed into insolvency, froze credit markets and brought down much of the domestic and global economy with them.

It seems that destructive events, from within and without, are inevitable in both natural systems and the world of human economics. I have been thinking about how differently damage and recovery play out in both these arenas: in the tangible economy of my woodlot, for example, compared with the current economic downturn.

Giants have fallen in both the economy and my woodlot, but with vastly different effects. The failure of behemoth financial firms like Lehman Brothers set off a chain reaction of destruction. While most high-level executives in failing companies have retained plenty of cushion—and in many cases, even their bonuses—the domestic and global poor are suffering the most, despite having little or no responsibility for the financial wreckage.

In the woodlot, however, the reverse was true. The older, larger trees buckled under the weight of accumulated ice, and they had no golden parachutes. The younger, smaller, suppler trees withstood the storm, except for the unfortunate few in the path of the falling elders.

Recovery has begun, and it too looks vastly different in the two realms. I marvel at the boldness of our president and the obvious intelligence of the experts he assembled to put the United States on the path of economic recovery. Not being one of those brilliant economic experts myself, I have no idea whether the government’s economic stimulus is too much, as most conservative Republicans believe, or not enough, as the liberal economist Paul Krugman warns. Regardless, I am astounded at the incomprehensible sums of borrowed capital the government is committing to it. Judging from the wildly varying opinions and predictions about the stimulus, I also suspect that no one really knows to what extent it will work. I think that one reason the government is acting so dramatically is that we all have a psychological need for something to be done so that we can reassure ourselves that we have some measure of control over the unpredictable animal our economy has become.

Woodlot Resurrection

I too wanted to take charge and to make order out of our woodlot chaos. Since the storm I have been at work with a chainsaw. I am sectioning and splitting the limbs and tops for many years’ worth of firewood and hauling the butt logs to a local mill, where they will be sawn into lumber for my various woodworking projects. But as glad as I am to put the fallen trees to good use as fuel and to resurrect some as furniture, I still can’t help but feel a bit rueful about my clean-up efforts. I have filled the quiet with the noisy snarl of my saw, polluted the air with the stink of its exhaust and rutted the soft ground with my tractor. As I have done so, it is never far from my mind that in time, the woods would have recovered just fine on their own, patiently turning the downed trees and limbs into soil-enriching humus (providing shelter and food for innumerable creatures in the process) and repopulating the sunny canopy openings with new saplings—all with no expenditure of human energy or effort.

President Obama has framed our country’s radical deficit spending as an investment in future growth and security: putting a new foundation under the economy. I hope he is right, although I cannot help but worry that we are mortgaging our future simply to ensure the least possible disruption to our present. In natural systems, on the other hand, the present always ensures the future, even amid damage and destruction. Nature does not borrow; nature builds. Nature does not use “leverage” or “spread” or, God forbid, engage in “naked short selling.” Its slow but steady rate of return is the expanding girth of the trees, the gradual accretion of soil, the sunlight and rain that become grass in the field, grain in the ear, flesh on the bone.

What might the human economy look like if it adhered more closely to nature’s principles, so that instead of using up and degrading the natural world, we continually improved and enriched it? So that the inevitable destructive periods would not cause so much suffering? So that recovery would not risk, borrow from and burden the future? What might it look like if the little economy of human artifice fit harmoniously within what Wendell Berry termed the great economy of the natural world, which is shaped by God’s hands and within whose rules and bounds all human economies must exist? Discovering this would be a true economic recovery, far more profound than the mere reinflation of the Dow and the Standard & Poor’s calculations. The need for it is urgent, as human activity displaces and disturbs more and more of the natural world, from which we so desperately need to learn.

A World Without Waste

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins have tried to imagine a better melding of human and natural economies in their fine book, Natural Capitalism. They build their ideas on three fundamental principles of natural systems, which Hawken introduced in his earlier work, The Ecology of Commerce, and which, if followed, would make for a more sustainable human economy.

First, in the natural world, there is essentially no waste. Even amid damage and destruction, natural capital is always recycled. If our human economy truly recognized that we live on a finite planet and that there is ultimately no “away” place to throw our garbage, we would follow suit. Manufacturing would take a cradle-to-cradle approach, making durable goods that at the end of their useful service could be transformed into new products with minimal energy input.

Second, nature runs on current solar income. Mimicking this, a more sustainable human economy would wean itself from the ancient, stored solar energy of fossil fuels and meet its energy needs through photovoltaic cells, solar thermal, wind power and other renewable systems that ultimately depend on the sun.

Finally, natural systems are complex and diverse in a way that increases their resilience and durability. Sustainable human economies would avoid oversimplification (as with monocrop agriculture) and impenetrable complexity (like financial derivatives)—both of which make them vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and human weakness.

Instead, they would be smaller in scale, with more decentralized and diverse networks of production and consumption. This would demand intimate and detailed knowledge of particular locales, since one size never fits all. It would also recognize the limits of human knowledge (and virtue), and therefore act with greater caution and humility in order to avoid large-scale ecological or financial destruction.

I am neither clever enough to imagine exactly how such economies might evolve, nor influential enough to implement a vision even if I had one. What does a man in the field like me do?

First, I pray. Only by God’s grace will the human family overcome the greatest communal challenge it has yet faced: learning (quickly!) to survive and thrive peaceably within the limits of the divinely designed great economy. Only God’s grace can help and heal our inevitable failures and mistakes—especially as natural systems become more volatile and less predictable because of climate change. Only God’s grace can keep us from despairing at the difficulties these challenges entail.

Then I work. Faith without works is dead, and practice is both a means and a measure of prayer. The sphere of direct influence for most of us is near at hand, where we can rediscover the sacred, satisfying task of reshaping our own household and community economies to emulate better the economy of the natural world. On our farm, I face a lifetime of challenge to make my efforts in the fields echo the elegant work of nature in the damaged but recovering woodlot. Wherever we might live, there is work to do.

All of us can begin to take small steps in our homes and local communities to meet our needs for food, water, shelter, energy, transportation and livelihood in a way that learns from and cooperates with nature. These steps toward genuine sustainability are signs of a true recovery, not just of our economy but of our sanity, safety and security. Then we, by will and knowledge, as the rest of creation is by instinct, shall truly be orthodox, giving right praise and glory to the Creator.

View pictures of the storm's aftermath.

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