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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Natural Capitalism

Air Date: Week of

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In the wake of a hurricane that brought down his tallest trees, commentator Wallace Kaufman muses about the winners and losers in the economy of his backyard.


ROSS: Hurricane Michelle is just a memory now in the Caribbean where 17 people were killed on islands battered by heavy winds and rain earlier this month. Michelle spared the U.S., just glancing south Florida, and coming nowhere near North Carolina, where commentator Wallace Kaufman remembers a lesson in economics from an earlier storm.

Kaufman: In my forest where Hurricane Fran in 1996 blew down tall trees and created sun-drenched clearings, every spring ignites a green explosion. For the first two years I could walk freely in these clearings. Not any more. Rioting brush and vines compete now for the light. Sycamore and gum saplings grow six inches apart, racing each other up toward the sky.

As I survey the tangled battle, I'm watching natural capitalism. The successful green residents are those who best exercise their self-interest to gather, hoard, and transform the nutrients of the soil, the carbon dioxide and nitrogen of the atmosphere, and the energy of the sun. They do it for themselves and they're freer than any corporate raider or manager of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street.

But most will grow poorer as a few get richer. Today's small rich will become the big rich, and for the poor who can't move, their future is in waiting or in dispersing their seed, or in the biological bankruptcy called death. After six or seven decades the chaos and competition will subside and the new tycoons and oligarchs of the forest will have negotiated fixed places, and most changes will be trivial.

It will be an old growth forest, a mature market. It's no accident that the words economy and ecology come from the same Greek root, "oikos," or household. One day these new trees will also fall, though no science can predict how or when, any more than meteorologists could have predicted the strength and the exact path of Hurricane Fran.

When the winds rushed in from the north they caught the most successful trees with their full late summer crown of leaves. Everywhere in the north/south hollows, the wind seized the crowns of the tycoon trees, 80 or 100 feet in the air, and pushed on these great counter-weights, and it tore the grip of their roots from the wet earth. By the next spring, the big trees were beginning to rot. Grasses and saplings sprang up where for a hundred years scant summer sunshine had ever touched the earth.

By the third summer, everything alive was downsizing, divesting, diversifying, acquiring, and merging. The day after the hurricane, when I wandered out into the devastation of old trees I had known for decades, I was angry that nature had impoverished my life. But then I began to intervene in its marketplace. I thinned competing saplings, whacked the brush, and clipped the suffocating vines. My selected partners will grab the sunlight, and all the sooner, I will enjoy their shade. Here, too, the more your understanding of the market grows, the richer you get.


ROSS: Commentator Wallace Kaufman is author of "Coming Out of the Woods: The Solitary Life of a Maverick Naturalist." And for this week, that's Living On Earth.



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