Environmental Accounting & Poverty

In my last post, I spoke about the Old Norse concept of a tun, a farm yard constructed at the intersection of social and physical earths. I argued that tuns created the foundations of economies because they were places of creativity. Kind of like this saskatoon bush, really:



Saskatoon on the Bella Vista Ridge

There are not many tall bushes on the grasslands, but each one is a centre for bird, animal and insect life, that comes to it from the grass and goes out to the grass from it again. They are places of commerce and energy exchange, far exceeding the energy they bring to the grasslands in the form of berries. Without saskatoons, there would be neither flickers nor magpies. They help move energy, without drawing it down. In fact, they increase it. That’s what a tun does, too. Rocks like this also act like tuns:


Moss and Hoarfrost

Spring for sure! Well, for the cold-lovers, at any rate. By the time the heat comes, these mosses will be dormant. In the meantime, they remain as islands of environmental resilience, scattered through the grasslands and ready at any moment to seed it with cold-loving organisms, should the weather get permanently icy. Tuns are resilient like that. Unlike forms of investment based around capital, they react instantly to changes in the energy yield of a farm. That’s because they are locations of energy exchange, not locations of energy consumption.

I also suggested that creativity is not a human quality, but one created through the qualities of a space, including human reactions to it. I think that’s the main point: a tun brings forth creative energy along its own model, as do other basic technologies such as a string, a field, a barn, a highway, a city, a harbour, a town square, and so on. The whole discussion is here on my Icelandic blog. This week, I’ll be showing how this principle is active here in the grasslands of the Pacific Northwest, in both natural and created spaces. So let’s begin. First, a couple houses. The neighbours, you see, have been renovating.


Magpie Nest in Black Hawthorn (red variant), Bella Vista

I met some walkers the other week who suggested that these were the ugliest nests in the world. “Not at all,” I answered, with my usual enthusiasm. “They have a door, and a roof, and are totally protected by thorns. These are most beautiful nests!” By the look on their faces, I think they thought I was stark raving mad.

Mad or not, I can spot a tun when I see one, and that hawthorn is one for sure. It is a place of doing (i.e. tun.) Oh, and up the hill, new neighbours are moving in.

house“Sagecroft at the Rise” Subdivision

This house will likely cost $650,000 once it is finished. It has a wooden chimney and a, well, like the magpie nest, a wooden everything, but that’s where the similarity stops. The magpie nest draws no energy from the natural system around it. The hawthorn still hawthorns, the rain still rains, the hawk still hawks, and the pheasant still pheasants.

P1060190Pheasant and Human (and dog)… at Cross Purposes

The new house on the hill is also a place of doing, especially for the six months during which it is being constructed out of ground-down mountain and chainsawed forest, except this doing is a subtraction from living systems. It is, I think, a clever means of turning $600,000 of environmental debt (carbon emissions, water acidification, water degradation, habitat loss in mountain, forest and grassland locations, and so on) into $600,000 of social debt, which, once paid (to humans, not to the earth) becomes wealth. The flow of this energy, from earth to tun to humans who create from it a social energy engine of wealth based upon debt, is the foundation of Canadian economy. The only thing is, the debt never gets paid. It’s a trick. Here, maybe this will show you what I mean. Here’s a particular piece of technology even older than a tun:


A Field!

How romantic, eh!

This field has a human social value of approximately $1,000,000 (I know, I know, Canadian dollars, but, still, eh.) Now, watch carefully. First, a lush grassland, capable of producing tons of food annually on every hectare. If cared for, it can produce both a surplus for human use and support thousands of microbial species, a hundred bird species, dozens of mammal species (small and large), even more dozens of butterfly species (you won’t find them anywhere else), as well as easily a hundred species of grasses and succulent flowers, most edible, some medicinal and a very, very few ridiculously poisonous. To repeat, careful husbandry creates a living profit here: by improving the natural system, humans make it more productive, and live within that created, productive space. That’s the original model. Then comes colonization. The land is given to settlers, who immediately clear that entire living infrastructure off of it, creating a massive debt to the earth, but, and here’s the magic again, the clearing of the land counts as a human social “improvement”, as does a fence erected around it, like this:


Does This Look Like an Improvement to You?

The fence, and the barrenness of the land (a few species of grass) are called improvements, because they represent the point at which the land has been made into a human artifact. Before that, it was deemed to be “unimproved” and nearly valueless. The “improvements”, such as the fence above, are written down against their capital cost until they have no value at all. After that, the land can be improved again, with a new fence (The post above is from one of these second generation improvements.), and the whole cycle of transforming human debt into wealth continues again. The only thing is, the economical calculations miss the actual source of the wealth here: life, drawn from the sun. The small amount of hay cut from this field has a debt to pay, not to bankers and investors, but to all the species, and all of their energy, that was written off to remove this land from natural production. That is not only an energy debt, but an ethical debt as well. One of the neighbours is dealing with it in his own way:


Great Blue Heron Mouse Hunting

The obvious signs of written-down natural debt are the weeds, the ornamental trees that are turned into bonfire kindling, the abandoned fence, and the lousy state of the hayfield. A less obvious sign is the human cost: all of this represents debt that some man or woman is unable to pay or willing to take on in the hope that scarcity of “improved” land will result in a rise in land prices exceeding the rise in debt. This is what happens when a technology (in this case a field and a line that bounds it) that flow freely through a tun are converted to an economic system unconnected to the earth. It’s kind of like using an eggbeater to mow your lawn.

P1060104Heron in the Grass, Airport in the Heron’s Fishing Hole

What could be more clear?

The earth fixes problems with life and adaptation. Humans attempt to fix them by removing systems even further from life. Either that or in some way applying absolutely the wrong technology. For instance, weeds heal the soil by drawing up deep nutrients, and they’re alive, so they must be good, right? In fact, most citizens of the Okanagan are unaware that the brown grassland hills are actually brown weed hills. Does this matter? Yes. It’s like putting sugar in the gas tank of your car. Here, this is what I mean:

P1060207Chinese Elm Tree  Causing Global Warming

No, this is not a tree. It is, however, the leaves of an invasive chinese elm on a dirt roadway. In the absence of leaves, the roadway was reflecting sunlight and keeping the soil frozen in the winter, as it should be. Because of the leaves, that fall after the snow instead of before it, the leaves darken the snow surface, heat up the snow, melt it, and cause spring weeks before it should be here. This is murder on the natural economy. Literally. Snow, too, is wealth.

P1060211These Leaves Are Not Valuable Green Manure

They are in the process of changing the climate so that food plants will not grow wild here, and only a few crops, in fields, fed by expensive water piped down from the high country, will remain. That represents a human power relationship. It is not ethical.

If it were ethical, it might look a bit like this:

P1060189 Ring-Necked Pheasant and Human Tracks.

And the dog, too, of course. 

Pheasants are also an introduced species, but they fit into the natural system and enrich it. As the image above shows, they do this by going one way while the humans go another. At the moment, we’re crossing paths. It’s time to turn to the right, and follow the pheasants. And the heron, of course.


The alternative is unpayable debt (which, by the way, is poverty.) This is poverty:

P1060150Harold! What on earth is that?

Thanks for asking! That’s two houses (improvements), a bunch of coastal junipers (improvements) and in back a grassland and sagebrush steppe in which all the plants are piled up to be burnt … and abandoned, for five years now, because the real estate development paying for the vineyard as a lure for increasing house prices (improvement) and causing more human debt (and, for other humans, wealth), went bankrupt. Well, duh. What did they think would happen if they piled the wealth of 3.5 billion years of increasing complexity onto a heap and burnt it?  And the cause of that? An accounting system. Look:


Capitalism Doing Its Worst

The productive grassland at the top of the image has been “improved” by digging it up with a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment (a most admired improvement), which replaces human labour (this is called good business management), in order to plant a single species crop (this is called efficient agriculture), which is harvested, pressed and sold as a luxury product (wine, which is called a food), of which there is too much in the world already (which is called marketing). The market that matters is the one conducted with the earth and the living world.


Fabric Dye priced out of the market by Big Oil.

We have been depreciated.

3 replies »

  1. Brilliant thinking and analysis – re the true economy of relationships – modern “civilisation” is addicted to creating crisis stage ecologies – which underly the collapse of all historical civilisations as this is a mining process that is unsustainable – it is a relic of genocidal colonialism – as we recognize the rights of nature we have the creative opportunity to create new alliances with ancient ecosystems that have evolved with their own dignity and creative assertions left to flourish – problem is we need human eyes to see this and move ourselves toward a respectful relations – this kind of seeing thinking and witnessing is helping us to realize the wealth and strength of spirit in this possibility – keep growing our eyes good man….


  2. Thanks! I was walking out in the grass today and wondering why I was the one out there, and the children of this city were sitting in classrooms learning about the past. That was sobering. Classrooms of grass, that would be a grand thing. Say, any news on Celilo Falls?


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