I took my two boys to The Green Legacy Tree Nursery yesterday morning. I ran across this operation when I was looking for seed-grown Red Mulberry trees a month or so ago, and I thought that the boys might enjoy seeing how trees are grown, so we borrowed a car and went to volunteer for the morning. We enjoyed our time very much. The boys mostly chased the resident dog and cat or played with the daughter of one of the nursery’s employees, while I helped transplant seedlings that will be kept in the greenhouses for another winter.
On our way into the nursery, however, and on our way out, I was startled to see a number of signs that a neighbour had posted along the edge of the nursery’s property in plain view from the laneway. The signs aggressively abused the nursery, describing it as a waste of tax dollars and discouraging people from volunteering there. The signs were professionally made and had clearly cost a significant amount of time and energy and money, and they were a disturbing reminder of how much remains to be done in changing the way that people understand the significance of naturalization and reforestation in our communities.
I found the signs doubly disturbing in light of a similar situation that I had encountered the previous week while the boys and I were vacationing on Manitoulin Island. The beach at Providence Bay, where we spent much of our time and where I have gone frequently since I was a child, has become increasingly vegetated over the years, whether because the boardwalk has kept walkers off the dunes, or because lower water levels have allowed better conditions for the plants, or because warmer weather has allowed a longer growing season. Though I find this naturalized dune habitat very beautiful, many of the local residents see it as destroying their biggest draw for tourists, who provide most of the town’s income. They would like to dredge the beach to remove the encroaching plant material, but several threatened species now grow there, so dredging is no longer permitted, and the residents feel that the future of their town is being threatened.
I am not unsympathetic to the feelings of those in Providence Bay who are trying to protect their livelihood. They have already seen their shipping and fishing industries disappear over the years, and they may very well be right in thinking that a second stage dune ecosystem will not attract tourists nearly as much as a pristine sand beach. The situation, however, need not be as insoluble as they suppose. Though it may no longer be possible to advertise their beach as a vast stretch of unmarked sand, it has now become possible to market it as a unique ecological habitat, to offer guided tours of the dunes and its flora, to make effective use of the already existing interpretive centre, and to build a local eco-tourism industry. This approach would allow them to qualify for various government grants and would position them well for the future. It would require, however, a substantial shift in the attitudes and the expectations of the local residents, both in respect to what the relationship between the economics and the ecology of tourism should be and also in respect to what it means for a beach to be attractive.
In the case of The Green Legacy’s neighbours, I am not sure whether their concerns are as valid as those of the Providence Bay community, but I think that the situation is likely structurally similar. I suspect that the conflict has arisen, as it usually does, because environmental idealism has contravened long-standing assumptions about how tax dollars should be spent, communities should be built, businesses should be run, and priorities should be determined. I also suspect that the solutions would be similar to those of Providence Bay as well, involving a better integration of economic and ecological needs in order to produce a relationship between the environment and the community that sustains both.
The shift in attitude that is required, I think, and often in both parties, is away from the assumption that economy and ecology are necessarily opposed. While I would suggest that a balance between the two will often come at the expense of economic efficiency, simply because of the degree to which these kinds of concerns have come to dominate ecological ones, ecological change will only be sustained if the people who are driving it can sustain their own livelihoods as well. It is difficult to convince people to work for environmental change when this seems to mean the loss of their jobs and of their communities. It is much easier when there seems to be a possibility for new jobs and more vital communities.
An ecologically aware economy will almost certainly be less effecient than an ecollogically absuive one, but this does not imply that we need to abandon either ecological or economic sustainability. It means only that we need to understand the goals of an economy to be other than mere effeciency, to be the creation of both healthy environments and healthy communities.