DNA for a Conservation Economy

By Stuart, Cowan | Whole Earth, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

DNA for a Conservation Economy


Stuart, Cowan, Whole Earth


I grew up in the heart of the 2,000-mile-long coastal temperate rainforest stretching from Big Sur, California to Kodiak Island, Alaska. My hometown on Vancouver Island was a quintessential resource town, built on salmon, forests, and minerals.

During the summers, camping trips would take us past lunar clear-cuts and abandoned logging equipment, scars from an extractive and volatile economy. The salmon that once fed my family year-round are now endangered; the old growth mainly gone; the mines outcompeted by cheaper labor costs and minimal environmental safeguards half a planet away.

I am haunted by a hundred-year-old photo of a Kwa'kwa'kwa woman. She is wrapped in elegantly decorated cedar-bark garments. She is gathering clams on the tidal mudflats, not far north of my childhood home, even as the diseases of contact decimate her people and legal shenanigans shoehorn their land into arbitrary reservations.

Her grandparents lived in a complex biocultural mosaic, from the Alutiq and Tlingt to the north to the Pomo and Wappo to the south. The coastal Northwest bioregion was filled with dozens of distinct cultures and languages, some dating back 10,000 years, holding a wealth of story, art, and ritual. These were cultures of permanence, predicated on an intimate knowledge of local ecosystems.

During the next few decades, this bioregion, like others across the planet, faces a design problem. As Version 1.0 of the industrial economy loses its social mandate--as its cultural and environmental costs become insupportable --what shall we replace it with? How can we grow a post-extractive conservation economy that honors culture and place; restores landscapes and stabilizes ecosystem services; enhances social equity; and provides diverse, meaningful, and stable livelihoods?

A Japanese teahouse, an Italian hill town, or a New England commons are responsive to the particularities of their sites and users, yet have a built grammar of materials and geometry making them instantly recognizable. In the same way, a conservation economy in the Pacific Northwest, in the Colorado Plateau, or in the Amazon ought to be alive to place and culture, yet recognizable in its underlying structure.

Since the 1970s, Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at UC Berkeley and the Center for Environmental Structure have developed a powerful methodology for getting at the underlying structure of wholeness of buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. In their best-selling book, A Pattern Language, they present 252 patterns, ranging from "Light on Two Sides of Every Room" to "Window Place" to "Identifiable Neighborhood."

Each pattern is carefully described, justified, illustrated with case studies, and placed in the context of other patterns, providing grammatical glue to the language. More recently, pattern languages have been used extensively in the software industry.

Two years ago, I joined Ecotrust, an innovative nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, with the task of extending the rigorous pattern-language approach to the bioregional scale and social complexity of a conservation economy. Our team of web designers, database specialists, researchers, and writers identified dozens of candidate patterns and case studies, tested their relationships, and ultimately developed a draft conservation economy framework with sixty-two broad patterns (see Resources, page 35). Each pattern solves a recurring problem in a way that yields simultaneous ecological, social, and economic benefits.

The team relied significantly on the Natural Step (www .naturalstep.org) system conditions for sustainability; drew on disciplines ranging from conservation biology to industrial ecology; and examined technologies spanning hydrogen fuel cells and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

The conservation economy framework includes patterns like "Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services"; "Resource Efficiency, Product Labeling and Certification"; "Phasing Out of Toxicity"; "Product as Service"; "Connected Wildlands"; "Sustainable Agriculture"; "Awareness of Consumption and Its Effects"; "Community and Civic Society"; and "Cultural Preservation. …

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