Thinking local and sustainable makes economic sense, says Tom Wessels

Research ecologist argues a healthy economy and a healthy ecosystem go hand in hand.

Cathryn J. Prince
Market forces can conserve forests and farmlands, says forest-management expert Tom Wessels. Consumers want to buy wood from well-managed forests, he says.

If Dr. Seuss's Lorax speaks for the trees, Tom Wessels speaks for Earth’s entire intricate ecosystems: After all, without forests and farms there wouldn’t be any food.

As head of the conservation biology department at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., Mr. Wessels isn’t against chopping down trees or clearing land to farm. He just wants to see more people embrace sustainable forest and land management practices.

Wessels, trained as a research ecologist, says economics plays as much a role in protecting the environment as does saving energy. Think how the adoption of fair trade principles for growing and selling coffee have changed the economics of that industry. Forests can benefit in the same way.

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Adam Smith, the father of modern economic theory, wrote about this in ‘Wealth of Nations,’ ” Wessels says. “People will act out of self-interest, but they can support each other doing it. The blacksmith makes the knives the butcher needs to earn his living; the butcher makes the meat the blacksmith needs to eat.

"Now we have too many corporations selling everything. We need to re-localize, re-regionalize, and become more resilient.”

Market forces can help to conserve forests and farmlands, says Wessels, who also serves as chair of the Vermont-based Center for Whole Communities. Banking on the idea that consumers want to buy wood from well-managed forests, Wessels worked as an ecological consultant to the Rain Forest Alliance’s SmartWood green certification program. SmartWood accredits timber operations that protect biodiversity, the rights of workers, and the lives of local people.

So far SmartWood has certified more than 108 million acres of forests globally.

Wessel has also helped draft green-certification assessment guidelines for forest operations in the Northeastern United States and Canada.

Sustainability isn’t just a job for government, says Wessels, a  resident of southern Vermont. It’s a job for each and every citizen. The more people who shop at local farmers' markets and local bookstores, and bank in local banks, for example, the more local economies will flourish, along with a growing sense of community, he says.

In Wessels’ world everyone has access to, and a healthy relationship with, the land. To promote his views, he spends a lot of time visiting communities across the United States, large and small, urban and rural. He talks about how people, regardless of race, income, or background, can live in a sustainable way.

To protect the environment people need to embrace what he calls three foundational principles: People should try to limit growth, become more energy efficient, and organize themselves.

“We are incredibly frivolous about our energy use,” Wessels says. “Any organism or population that is energy wasteful gets selected out of the system.” Charles Darwin explained this when he wrote about survival of the fittest, he says. Survival of the fittest also means survival of the most adaptable, and the most energy efficient, he says.

To that end, communities must become more like the acacia ant and acacia tree, Wessels says. Living in hollowed out thorns on the acacia tree, the acacia ant attacks and repels any invasive, leaf-eating insect that could harm the tree. In turn the tree nourishes the ant.

That’s the idea behind The Center for Whole Communities in Fayston, Vt. As chair of the center's board, Wessels has brought together CEOs and cab drivers, schoolteachers and firefighters. Partnering with more than 400 organizations in 47 states, Whole Communities aims to help create communities where people rely on each other for their food and other needs.

For example, Wessels would like to see Detroit become a different kind of urban jungle. The city has lost about 50 percent of its population since the late 1980s. Empty lots abound. But now community gardens have begun to fill these open tracts with food crops. The Detroit Food Policy Council and the city government want to make Detroit food secure by 2020 – meaning that everyone will have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food.

“A lot of our focus is around food security,” Wessels says. “Detroit will become a model for other urban areas.”

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