Upstate Identity and the Upstate Environment

It is easy for us to understand how regionalism can benefit our communities economically and socially. One often overlooked benefit to regionalism, though, is the effect it can have on the environment. Over the past few decades, there has been a growing trend amongst environmental social theorists to advocate for local answers to environmental struggles. In his recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond explains the basic rationale for this approach:
“Small societies occupying a small island or homeland can adopt a bottom-up approach to environmental management. Because the homeland is small, all of its inhabitants are familiar with the entire island, know that they are affected by developments throughout the island, and share a sense of identity and common interests with other inhabitants. Hence everybody realizes that they will benefit from sound environmental measures that they and their neighbors adopt. That’s bottom-up management, in which people work together to solve their own problems.” (277-8)

Simply put, when we are able to wrap our heads around and understand a place, we are better able to comprehend ecological problems within it. Regionalism implies not only an understanding of a place, but also a deep attachment and love, which is the fuel that allows us to protect it from destruction. In a mobile modern American society, people often lack a sense of belonging to a place, which means that if ecological problems compound, the easiest solution is to simply leave. Regionalism seeks to counter this option.

We must also remember that environmental protections that grow out of the local need and concern are often the strongest. On the other hand, those imposed from without become things of local hatred; just look at the reputation of the federal land management agencies with many Westerners. Some of the most successful environmental solutions are those that emerge from within a community, taking into account the people’s social and economic needs.

When outside environmental concerns impose ecological regulation on a community without concern for the local situation, they create a recipe for disaster. This form of political imperialism, which breeds hatred, jealousy and despair. We all know how it feels that have the events and laws affecting your daily life are completely out of your control. It also breeds contempt for environmentalism itself, which is counter-productive to the cause of environmental protection and revitalization.

Small local initiatives are not nearly as flashy and exciting as the mighty preserves that are created by the great governments. Yellowstone, ANWR, Death Valley and similar projects draw more attention and funding than, for example, a 705-acre expansion onto Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. However, the history of the slow growth of the Adirondack Park shows that landscape protection can be done much more organically by communities (New York) that don’t have the tremendous resources of the Federal Government. Also, the Adirondack Park has shown a resilience that might or might not be true in newer parks and preserves. The very fact that 6 million acres has been set aside in the busiest, most crowded corner of the country (not to mention another 700,000 in the Catskill Park, 65,000 in the Allegany Park and tens of thousands in the 201 other parks and historic sites) shows that small scale protection can achieve results, albeit in a more patchwork form, that would be the envy of any environmental central planner.

Local identity goes further in environmental protection than simply aiding in the establishment of parks and preserves. Buying local not only helps protect local jobs, but it also decreases our reliance upon and use of oil. Why import apples from Washington State when New Yorkers grow them so much closer to home? Local breeds of plants and animals give local flavor to food, preserve precious genetic diversity in domesticate crops, and are often uniquely suited to local conditions (weather, soil conditions, etc).

The desire to enjoy local foods, protect local jobs and build local community can be fused with, and strengthened by, a deep love of a place and the mission to protect it from ecological destruction. In this end, the desires to protect our communities and our environment should be seen as natural allies and part of a greater push to create the type of Upstate that we would be proud to leave to our grandchildren.

Posted by Jesse


baloghblog said...

Devil's Advocate post:

I am reading "Collapse" right now too (thanks to Santa!) One other point that he makes is that left up to completely local solutions, that communities will pick progress over protection in many cases. He gives the example of Montana where farmers no longer have the resources or generations of children to help out on the farm. All that these retirees have is their land which they feel they have the right to sell off to developers for top dollar. Others want to prevent sprawl and protect the pristine beauty of the open land. Montana residents are typically libertarian, and don't like anyone from the outside (or even locally) to tell them what they can and can't do. Recently however, as the mountain valleys have been filling with McMansions, and non-functional "ranches", and 50% of the income in the area comes from government programs (social security, medicare, medicaid) they have started to see that they must strike a balance. The book is very interesting, and a bit depressing (what, I didn't get that from the title you ask?).

My point is this: If you took a economically depressed area, such as Rome, NY after the air force base closed, and asked residents if they would support a large non-enviromentally friendly company to come in and replace the relatively high paying jobs associated with the AFB, how do you think the residents would have voted? Would they choose to protect the area for future generations and forego the business development? Or would they rather have jobs and security to protect their family's financial future?

Therein lies the rub: Local solutions are needed for the myriad of difficulties facing upstate NY as we head into the middle of the 21st century, as you eloquently put it. However, don't underestimate "the locals" to make short term decisions that negatively affect the environment to protect their family's way of life either.

baloghblog said...

Non Devil's Advocate post:

I highly agree that consumers choosing to purchase food and other items from local farms and businesses would have a huge effect enviromentally (no more 3,000 mile caeser salads), as well as economically (more workers hired at Camillus Cutlery if more knives are purchased from there).

I went to the Regional (farmer's) market in Syracuse on Saturday. Here was a great selection of locally grown food. At this time of year there were plenty of potatoes, onions, root veggies, squash, leafy greens, and cabbage. Even though it is winter, there are many crops that survive the "cool weather" and there is plenty of good local veggies to be found. 1/100th of the fuel needed to ship these veggies in from the west coast was used, and on top of that 100% of the revenue is going directly to the farmer or local distributer instead of a corporation. Check in your area if the farmers' market runs year round.

Readers should also challenge local supermarkets to do the same. Wegman's prides itself on buying from local farmers, but look closely at what you're buying. For example, the only "NY state apples" I could find there were sold in 5-10 lb bags, the rest from Washington state.

I think that we should continue to personally make purchasing decisions that support local businesses, but should also put pressure on supermarkets to do the same. Maybe a letter writing campaign of some sort in 2006?? Or a chamber of commerce supported "eat local" campaign?

What do you think?

Jesse said...

I am responding to bahlogblog's first response here. Coming out with all guns blazing, eh? The key to understanding Diamond's book is in the subtitle: "How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail." It's very true that often times the locals choose short term "progress" (I really don't like that term) over long term sustainability. He details numerous examples and asks poignant questions like: "What did the Easter Islander who chopped down the last tree think while he was doing it?" Rome, or any other Upstate City, can choose to shoot itself in the foot. I think many of them already did when they built their economies upon big corporations that had no trouble abandoning them. The key, though, is that we have to think about these problems, articulate alternatives, and perhaps if we do it right, if we pull ourselves together, we can choose to succeed.

baloghblog said...

Well I must admit I was in the mood to "stir the pot" this morning. I didn't mean to put a damper on your very positive post. For the record, I am one of the proponents of local solutions to the problems facing us in the near future - progressively higher "record" fuel prices, the rise of the multi-national corporation and the outsourcing of valuable jobs, and the coming burden of the baby boomer generation entitlement costs.

I however also believe that there are discussions that need to be made alongside altruistic ideals of community or regional self sustainability. Some of these include:

how do you convince people to have faith in local government again, when many feel that the leaders of the past have made decisions that have affected the state and region negatively over the past 40 years? or how do you convince others to begin participating (and voting) in local elections?

how do you convince someone that is living in the lower middle class to middle class not to purchase progressively cheaper goods from China, or abroad in order to support the local economies?

what steps can upstate New York take in order to reshape and revitalize communities, while working towards a sustainable future - in order to provide jobs and preventing "brain drain"?

how do you "brand" or make sustainability enticing to the 50-75% of the population that is struggling to make ends meet in our communities?

I will say that I am very encouraged at the number of people that are beginning to speak out about regional solutions to our problems. Blogs and websites such as yours, NYCO's blog, and my own help bring the optimistic attitude that we need to take steps forward. Newspaper columnists such as Sean Kirst of the Post-Standard are beginning to take notice of our blogs and give more exposure to our causes. I truly believe that the influence of regional blogs will only continue to increase over the coming years.

So how do we take our message to the masses? How do we get others involved in the conversation? How do we take it from ideals to actions? How can you do it on a budget of $0.00?

I believe that we can succeed as well. There are brilliant people out there working hard everyday - that care deeply about the community that they live in.