Green Infrastructure

Jake and Mark Srnec

Nature provides lots of valuable services. Unfortunately, it is often hard to value them and even harder to figure out how to pay for them. Most of us have come to believe that things like water & air are free and/or belong to nobody. That attitude is what gets us in trouble. Things that are free or belong to nobody get wasted and ruined everybody. We need to think more systemically. I just finished reading a good book called “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature” by Mark Tercek, head of the Nature Conservancy. I suggest you read the whole book, but I will expand on some of the ideas here.

The quote I liked is “Nature is not just something to preserve in a few places and degrade in others. Nature is everywhere. Yet nature is also not just a source of tangible benefits to people. It has a deeper meaning to people around the world.”

The main idea is that we can and should work with nature. Nature provides fantastic infrastructure, which the author calls “Green Infrastructure”. I will go into examples below, but first let me quote the other passage I found useful and true. “Contrary to popular opinion, companies can be better at making long-term plans for those resources than governments, which often get hamstrung by political divides and short term thinking driven by the next election cycle.” That is not to diminish the indispensable role of government, but often the point of leverage is working with businesses. I found this true when I worked in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. Governments talked and promised, but you could get things done faster in private spheres. Where private business was weak, as in communist countries, the environment was in the most miserable condition. He gave an example of Coca-Cola working to preserve water resources.

But the example I liked best, one I heard before, was New York City’s green infrastructure. New York has some of the best quality tap water in the world. They began planning for its water needs way back in 1837. The system depends on forested watersheds in the Catskill Mountains. Most of this land is in private hands. Instead of building more treatment plants (i.e. gray not green infrastructure) NYC worked with landowners upstream, providing them advice on stream and water protection and sometimes money to help them do the right things. As a result, almost everybody is happier. Money has been pumped into rural communities that allow them to maintain a way of life they want that also provides clean water to NYC at a price lower than it would have otherwise to pay. And it is good for the environment. Smart all around.

Another example of great green infrastructure is restored oyster reefs. Restoring reefs was one of the good uses of Federal Stimulus Money and the RESTORE Act. It costs about $1 million a mile to restore oyster reef, about the same as the cost of a seawall. But an oyster reef is better. A seawall is as good as it gets on the day it is finished, then it starts of deteriorate and needs maintenance. An oyster reef improves with time; it is self-maintaining. And all the time it exists it filters the water, provide habitat for aquatic life and even sequesters carbon and potentially provides food for people. If there is a choice, why would anybody go with a concrete seawall?

I have been interested in the environment for as long as I can recall. I studied ecology back in the 1970s. Much of what I learned then has been overtaken by new knowledge. There really is no such thing as a climax forest, for example. I also imbibed the error that humans are separate from nature and that as one gains the other loses. Experience since then has demonstrated that both nature and humans can benefit at the same time from smart activities based on understanding relationships. I have also concluded that humans MUST manage nature. It is too late to try to keep hands off. As the head of TNC says above, nature is not just something to preserve in a few places and degrade in others. I wrote a couple years ago something I think is a good close here too.

Human interaction does not always profane nature; the interaction done right can ennoble both. Conservation is a higher order activity compared with mere preservation, which is an abdication of responsibility in the guise of wisdom. Conservation demands that you apply intelligence and ecological factors to sustaining a system that works for man and beast. We humans live in this world. If/when there is a world w/o us, it really doesn’t matter anymore. As long as we are here, however, it is our job to do things right. .

The picture is me in the 1970s. My sister just sent me a bunch of pictures she scanned. I had to post it to show people who know me that I once had hair. Notice the long hair, confident smile and kick-ass boots. Back when I knew everything it was easier to make judgments.