Thursday, September 17, 2009

Carrying Capacity

An iconoclast by definition challenges cherished beliefs. One cherished belief is that "growth" is a given, and thus any discussion on restricting growth should be either outright prohibited or dismissed as irrelevant, inconsequential or seditious. However, the negative consequences of unrestricted growth are becoming ever harder to deny, ignore or mitigate. Like the child's observation in the Emperor's New Clothes, non-conversations about the obvious are most likely a sign of a kind of growth we wince to acknowledge: the growth of a collective failure to recognize (and respond appropriately to) the truth.

An early shot across the bow of controlling population growth in San Juan County might be to approach the topic by considering carrying capacity. Here we would presumably create a rational basis for limiting our "consumption" (and therefore population) of the county. Perhaps this is good. There is a but. Take water. If the carrying capacity of our water supply were used to limit our population, would it be surface water? rain water? drilled well water? or, say, de-sal water. Take food. If the carrying capacity of our county were based strictly on the food we could grow here, would that include barter? would it be any agricultural product (like trees) or simply those things normally called 'food'? What about fish? What about farmed fish?

I get a number of images when I imagine what "carrying capacity" might actually mean. I get the one-bag round the world traveler (that would be me) vs the Imelda Marcos semi-truck traveler. I get a lifeboat with less than rated capacity number of passengers vs one so loaded that the gunwales are an inch above the waterline. I get "living off the land" with what ya got vs one which is technology-assisted (and therefore always undefined). Bottom line: I get the question: "who is doing the carrying?" If it is just me, there is going to be a whole lot less carried. If it is going to be me with the assistance of a thousand information and fossil-fuel slaves, there is going to be a whole lot more carried.

In any case, the idea for carrying capacity would be likely viewed in terms of the maximum number of folks the islands could support. There is a Malthusian twist here. Sure we might be able to figure out some carrying capacity number (tho given the examples above there would surely be a lot of blood spilled...just look at the warm up saber rattling to the CAO), but is there a quality of life component? "We've figured out that SJC could support 150,000 people, but they'd all get 2343 calories per day and all the meals would be gruel". So it isn't just that we have finally decided the size of the lifeboat. We would also need to decide the lifeboat conditions. Who wants to use the image of a lifeboat to characterize a sustainable livable community? There are other issues here too (like democracy—we're all in this together—vs economy—"I've got more so I want more and money talks louder than votes--(otherwise known as) Let Them Eat Cake").

Is it fair or appropriate to see SJC as having to go it alone in terms of basing population on carrying capacity? Consider the notion that SJC is on mainland life support. We get power, fuel, food, money, ideas, entertainment, (and probably many more virtual and material commodities) from the Big East. It would be laughable to think we were independent in any meaningful dimension. As America goes, so goes SJC. If America's economy is toast, so is SJC's, in spades, because the economy here sucks the cream off of the mainland economy: tourism and construction. Those are discretionary expenses. They are the first to go when money and hope and inspiration and energy are tight. We're moving away from cream floating on top to skim milk or maybe to water. What we offer in exchange for mainland dollars has a soft underbelly. There are in fact other pretty places. With the economy down, there are other places that are even cheaper to buy your second home, if indeed there is a demand for this commodity any more. A rising tide may raise all boats, but a declining tide will generally do far more damage to the small ones first, since they get their crumbs from the big boats that abandoned them to deeper water. Exhibit A for this argument: the state of SJC's economy as I write.

My personal view on the lifeboat design and operation model is to design a high quality "reasonably sized" lifeboat that can handle virtually any weather and ensure that it is never more than half full (whatever "full" might mean). I like buffers. I like large margins of safety. I like freedom. I like options. The fuller the lifeboat, the more all of these qualities disappear. The law of unintended consequences is usually used to describe downside events—it is far more often shorted to the phrase "Whooops!" than "Hallelujah". Should we use the phrase "you only know a limit when you exceed it?" to define our approach to shaping the future of SJC?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Looking Ahead

San Juan County recently produced a Housing Needs Assessment, which looks at population demographics up to 2025. Bottom line: the population of the county will get significantly older. This older population will not be working (over half of the population will be over 55 in 2025); many of these people may well need care. As a consequence of this non-working population, the County planners expect that by 2025 (16 years from now), there will need to be over 3000 workers commuting daily to meet the service needs of the islands. Here are a few of the key findings:
* By 2025, the minimum of an additional 2,067 housing units will need to be constructed to house the projected population increase. Of these units, approximately 1,095 must be affordable to households earning $100,000 or less (1 1⁄2 x median household income).
* By 2025, the projected population will not contain enough working age people to fill the expected jobs in the county. In order to reverse this trend, a further 1,594 housing units will need to be built.
* To house the entire projected workforce in 2025, 2,689 affordable housing units will be need to be built.
* Median income earners in the county cannot afford to buy a house in the county.
* In order to purchase a median priced house in the county, a family would need to be earning almost 2 1⁄2 x the median family income, approximately $150,000, and possess a further $100,000 for a down payment.
* Wages in San Juan County are approximately 30% lower than they are on the mainland.
* Housing in San Juan County is the least affordable in the state.

San Juan County, like most counties in the country, is running deep in the red. There is simply no money to create a system that can supply this quantity of housing, using the current ideas about the role of government, tax structures, and employment trends. Few citizens in the county know about this forecast (who reads "Housing Needs Assessments"??) Few will want over 3000 worker bee commuters coming daily. At wage rates paid in the county, very few of these folks will be driving their cars (the cost of bringing a car on the ferry today already prohibits uncompensated daily commuting). San Juan County will migrate from the romantic image of a self-sustaining rural community (since 1970 this image has drifted from reality to nostalgic fantasy) to a tourist, second home, and geriatric retirement community entirely dependent on the mainland for life-support. The county will essentially be a large ICU.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Brass Tacks

It's as lovely a day today (Saturday, May 23) here at the east end of Orcas Island as one could possibly imagine. If weather were the sole indicator of Paradise, today would define this place, this time, as The Moment. It can't get any better. Or rather, I can't imagine how it could get any better. The air is fresh, the temp in the upper 60's, there is a cloudless sky, a slight breeze off the water; it is silent save for the birds, the only human sounds were muted voices from a gaggle of kayaks lazily moving along the shoreline.
I suspect that the subtext of my vision of Paradise is the location of the balance point between human and the remainder of the natural systems that comprise life (and everything else) on earth. Right now, right here, the human presence is essentially insignificant in the landscape. What presence there is moves gently, by human power, with the goal (if goal is a concept that could be said to apply) to simply appreciate it.
I sense an impulse, certainly a component of my motivation to write Potholes, to preserve this balance, or at least to initiate a conversation. Who would sit at the table?
Decades ago, a law review article mutated into a book entitled "Should Trees Have Standing?" (Christopher Stone, 1972). Using the argument that to deny "nature" a voice in what is done "to" her just because she can't speak English is entirely insufficient to deny standing (a legal term which permits a plaintiff to press charges, analgous to the argument that children and certain disabled individuals need a guardian to represent them), I could see a whole host of characters (or their attorneys) at the table discussing how the entire variety of life, energy, resources and other "earth" players might "work out" a plan to accommodate everyone's desires. Imagine earthworms, fungi, bacteria, bugs, viruses, elephants, sequoias, wrens, blue whales, granite, coal, deep ocean water and magma (for starters) all having an equal voice with less than a handful of humans. I imagine the concensus would not (today) be human-favorable. In the context of The Garden (Eden, Paradise), we wouldn't need a Supreme Being to kick us out. We'd be voted out, or at least put on work release, probation, and required to do a lot of community service.
Anticipating this encounter, how would we prepare our arguments? What would we say? What would we offer?

Saturday, May 9, 2009


A commencement is at once an ending and a beginning. In my case it is the ending of the writing, editing, fine tuning, reviewing, submitting, authorizing and self-publishing period, and the beginning of the oh my period in which my first book, Potholes in Paradise, is brought into the public sphere. In perhaps an acknowledgment of my buddhist tendency, I find myself only distantly attached to this first offspring even as I proceed to go through unfamiliar motions like schlepping it to bookstores and somewhat awkwardly planning some kind of outing. I have no idea what kind of reaction I may receive: some may like it, some may dislike it, some may find it uninteresting or irrelevant. I suspect it will find its way into the eyeballs of those for whom it is meant. It is an offering. I felt an urge to create a record, as if to say, everyone, yes you, this is a precious place. Don't take it for granted. If you love it, protect it. Be proactive. A stitch in time saves nine. And so on. As if to say, (as my mother would say to me: put this on my tombstone): "It says here, I tried." Tried? To bring an awareness, in a cheerful (or mostly cheerful) way, of the difference between conscious stewardship joined with proactive attention and an enormous imaginative poverty by which most of us allow others to create (and change, or perhaps abuse) the world which we all share. Orcas is small—the effects of change are visible; the trendlines are transparent. There is much love here—perhaps my form of this love is to serve (I write on the day before Mother's Day 2009) as a tenacious protector of this landscape and what appeared, at the beginning of my life here, to be a balanced, sustainable way of being on the earth. Potholes in Paradise reflects the richness of being engaged in a complex, undefined, ongoing unfolding. I hope you enjoy it.