Friday, February 10, 2012

E Pluribus Unum: The Frontier Economy at Work

Originally published January 23, 2011

For a variety of reasons I’ve structured this blog as a chronicle that follows the course of a year on our semi-rural, 8-acre homestead. The seasons here in Maine are distinct, each with its own rhythms, particularly for a household that relies on the sun for its energy, heats with wood, and where employment involves a lot of outside work, as mine does. Winter days are short, and when night temperatures drop to zero or below and the weak sun is slow to warm the morning, time spent indoors is much longer than in any of the other seasons. I like the cold, but if I have a choice I’d just as soon wait until it’s at least 15 before getting going outside. This week two winter storms passed through, one at the beginning of the week and another at the end; snow falls outside as I write this. So it’s a good season for sitting by the wood stove during the long dark hours after an early dinner and trying to weave together the various strands of history, culture, ecology and economy that intersect at our forested homestead.

Between the storms I was back in our forest swinging an ax, cutting out trees: red maples for next year’s firewood, spruce for rafters for the addition we’re putting on our house. I’m still cutting out the smaller trees that will never break through the canopy of trees passed over when our property was last logged 30-some years ago. We’ve loosely adopted a plan from permaculture for our property, dividing it into four zones: Zone one includes our buildings and intensive edible forest gardens. Zone two is the next ring out and this is where I was logging. When we moved in eight years ago the forest was overgrown, with young, stunted spruce and fir trees growing as close as six inches together. Some of these were dead, others were dying. In most places there was no understory, and nothing growing at ground level. We’ve thinned repeatedly over the years, and now the smaller trees that remain are perhaps thirty feet tall, though the canopy is still overcrowded and the forest will benefit from this final round of thinning. In the meantime the increased sunlight reaching the forest floor and the release of nutrients has allowed life to begin reclaiming that space: mosses, bunchberry, and starflower; small wild raisin, highbush blueberry and winter holly shrubs, seedlings of oak and beech; and fungus that includes chanterelles, honey mushrooms, and various boletes. We happily gather and eat the blueberries and mushrooms. We’re also planting in this zone, and the long-term transition we have in mind is to a woodland with a canopy of nut and tall fruit trees (in addition to the mature pines, spruces, and maples already present), with a rich understory of mostly native smaller trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and groundcovers. This is the most experimental part of our project, one that draws on several different traditions, and I’ll discuss the particulars in much greater detail come spring and summer, but for now I want to focus on the forest we have, its past and present place in the frontier economy, and the effects of that economy on the various ecologies it confronts and colonizes.

I call it the “frontier economy” because it is an economy that has only existed—until now—in the context of ever-expanding frontiers, that cannot actually function without frontiers, and that has created an academic discipline (economics) that takes it as a matter of faith that frontiers are permanent. Like all faiths, this one is at odds with reality in some of the details, which explains the odd disconnect between official pronouncements about future prospects for the economy and reality as it is experienced by most people. The two main frontiers that have defined economic activity and opportunities in the West for the past five hundred years (and now also the East) are the western hemisphere and its huge stores of wealth in the form of previously mined gold and silver, fisheries, forests, grasslands, and arable land; and the discovery of a planet’s worth of fossil fuels and the minerals those fuels allowed to be mined. 

In last week’s post I wrote that an economy produces the people it needs. Different economies need different kinds of people, but every economy needs elders or priests or bards to store the culture’s wisdom and to tell the stories that keep the culture organized. The stories mostly contain the message that if people do the right things then the gods or elites will favor them. Our own class of such priests is enormous, given that a fossil-fuel based economy requires so few people to do the actual work of farming, drilling, mining and making things and therefore has the energy and resources to support thousands of less essential occupations. The sheer volume of the songs of praise they sing to the frontier economy and consumer lifestyle can be maddening. (Besides, the lyrics are so damned insipid). The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, all of the major media belong to this priest class, as do our economists and politicians. All are creations of the frontier economy. When a culture is stable, and the economy is not exceeding its resource base, the priests’ odes of praise for the status quo are taken at face value and the priests are esteemed. Dissenters are relatively few, and are quickly dispatched or ignored. But when the economy wobbles or falters badly enough, and the culture begins to lose its bearings, the apostates grow in number and their claims that the priests may be liars or fools grow bolder. More people are willing to listen and consensus begins to disintegrate. For the past five hundred years anyone betting against future growth and prosperity (at least in the terms understood by the frontier economy), even in the depths of the worst depressions, was making a fool’s bet. The frontiers were all but limitless. Many minor frontiers have closed over the years, barely making a difference to the broader economy, which always had newer, bigger frontiers to exploit. But the peak in conventional crude oil represents the first closing of a major frontier, and it’s no accident that parts of the economy wobbled at just the moment when the price of oil made the effects of that closing frontier obvious. At this point the question to ask the priests is this: Where is the next frontier? (Answers involving some mystical frontier of the mind deserve no response other than rude laughter).

Today’s frontiers are well known: the tar sands of Alberta, the oil fields of Iraq, the mountaintops of West Virginia, the deepwater oil fields, and other remote locales that are too often now where the remaining fossil fuels and minerals are to be found. These are difficult frontiers, requiring extreme technological sophistication, huge investments of capital and energy, and risking significant ecological damage or accepting such damage as a given cost of doing business. Frontiers always involve high risks and therefore high costs, and the frontier economy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, centered on the East Coast of North America was no different. The risks and costs of that time involved military competition among the nations vying for control of the frontier and dispossession of the natives by main force who called the frontier home. It’s worth following several stages of the frontier as it moves up the Maine Coast on foot, rides down the Penobscot River on a logging drive, and then travels down the Atlantic Coast for trade with Barbados, the British empire’s wealthiest colony in the 17th century and one of the purest incarnations of incipient capitalism.

The frontier economy arrived in Maine at the beginning of the seventeenth century, same as Massachusetts (of which it was a part until 1820), but unlike that colony, which grew rapidly after 1630, it was settled sparsely and hesitantly until the eighteenth century. (Just offshore was a different story, where the cod fishery was already a valuable component of Europe’s frontier economy in the century before New England was settled). Maine, like the rest of New England, was fully inhabited at the time of European settlement, as it had been for more than ten millennia—in this instance by the various tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy. The economy of these tribes was different from those of southern New England, the crucial difference being that corn cultivation, if present at all, was of limited importance. The Wabanaki made their living hunting, fishing, and gathering mollusks, fruits and vegetables. They also created one of history’s great transportation technologies: the birchbark canoe.

The Wabanaki economy was entirely dependent on the native ecology of woodland and coast. The English settlers, on the other hand, brought with them the economy of fields and pastures that formed the lifeblood of their culture. The economic distinction then is only superficially between Native American and European; the essential one is between field culture (agri- in agriculture is from the Latin for field) and forest culture. The same distinction can be found in Europe, though it is buried more deeply in the past. The family farmers who settled the coastal regions of Maine were small players in the frontier economy. Maine absorbed the excess people from the rapidly growing colonies to the west, an excess that in Europe would have been absorbed by famine, disease, or war. But their impact on the ecology of the forest was extreme, and from our vantage at the beginning of the twenty-first century, permanent. The typical farmer migrated northeast from Massachusetts alone or with his young family, cleared five or six acres of forest, burned the land and planted corn, wheat, English hay, and rye, and pastured cows, sheep, pigs, oxen, and perhaps a horse. The forest they cut was old growth, the immense size of the trees a matter of historical record. One farmer boasted of standing his team of oxen on the stump of a spruce he had just cut. Some of the trees were used to build houses, first a log cabin, and then later a framed house if the farmer could afford it. The farmer continued cutting trees, many for firewood, since a typical farm household burned 15 to 20 cords each year. Other trees were sold, often as clapboards or timbers to the West Indies, which was an important trading partner to New England.

The reconciliation of a mixed farm economy of grain crops and pasturage for grazing animals and a forest ecology is not an easy one. Grasses are annual plants that grow on disturbed ground; forests are perennial polycultures that can persist for centuries without significant disturbance, particularly in the moist coastal climate of New England. The farmer’s solution then, as now, was to simply remove the forest and all of the life it supported, using or selling off those parts that had some economic value. And the forest fell quickly. With the threat from natives and the French removed by the 1760s, Maine’s population exploded, from less than 30,000 in 1770 to just over 151,000 in 1800, a fivefold increase in less than 30 years—a rate of growth only possible in a frontier economy. There are 19th-century paintings of the Blue Hill Peninsula, from where I write, that show a landscape almost entirely devoid of trees. It looks more like a pastoral scene from the English countryside than a landscape that had until recently been forested for 10,000 years. The effect of the early frontier economy along the coast was to level the forest and replace it with the field culture of small farms imported wholesale from England. Our own forested property, four miles outside the village of Blue Hill that was established during the population boom, was probably first cleared in the middle of the 19th century, when the farmhouse up the road was built. The barbed wire I found embedded in an old cedar stump suggests that it was used for pasture. 

By that time Maine was a state and its economic frontier had moved north, up the Penobscot River to the small city of Bangor, gateway to the state’s vast forested interior, the justly famed Maine Woods. Here the frontier economy accelerated from the subsistence and modest income of small family farms along the coast and rivers to the pure commodity economy of timber. By 1830 Bangor was known as the “Lumber Capital of the World,” with the speculative frenzy that all frontier boomtowns seem to attract. One participant noted: “Broker’s offices…were crowded from morning until night and frequently far into the night by buyers and sellers. All were jubilant, because all, whether buyers or sellers, were getting rich. Not one in 50 knew anything about the lands he was buying, nor did he care to know as long as he could sell at a profit. Lands bought one day were sold the next day at a large advance. Buyers in the morning were sellers at night. The lands were bought and sold over and over again, until lands which had been bought for a few cents an acre were sold for half as many dollars. As is always the case when speculation is rampant and inexperienced men become speculators, dishonesty was in the ascendant.” If that sounds like the most recent real estate craze and mortgage fiasco, it’s no coincidence. All frontiers close, and all booms go bust. Today Bangor, which once spoke of “Boston and New York as sisters,” is a small unassuming city renowned for nothing so much as being home to the popular writer Stephen King. 1872 was the year of “peak wood” in the city, when 246 million board feet worth $4 million were carried down the river. Maine still produces a lot of timber each year, but the frontier moved on and timber harvests are stable or declining. As a matter of ecology, only 6,000 acres of old growth remain in the state—everything else was clearcut at least once. Maine’s giant trees are gone (though the forests in the parks and preserves are slowly recovering), and the industrial “forests” are now often planted in single-species stands sprayed with herbicides and cut on 30-year rotations. 

Most Americans seem to know at least the official histories of colonial New England and Virginia, but few seem to know much at all about Barbados, England’s third Atlantic frontier. It’s unfortunate, since Barbados’ sugar plantations of the 17th century reveal the workings of the frontier economy in its purest, most unrestrained, venal, and pathological form, the one that helped to usher in modern capitalism. Sugar cultivation, harvesting, and processing required more capital and labor than any other colonial crop. It was a rich man’s game, but the profits were so great that virtually every living thing and every human life on the small island of Barbados became subservient to sugar. First, the native forest was cleared, taking most of the wildlife with it. The whole island was planted in cane, a vast monoculture where no room was spared even for subsistence crops. Food and wood were both shipped in from New England, even at high prices. Labor initially was English indentured servants, then criminals and political prisoners, finally African slaves. The brutal working conditions, tropical diseases, overcrowding, and poor diet killed them all by the thousands. Average life expectancy for newcomers to the island was about seven years. Even the plantation owners died, but the promise of quick riches kept them coming. In 1700 Barbados had a population density four times higher than England’s. The majority were slaves. Threats of rebellion were constant, and the planters lived with a siege mentality, relying on torture, castration, and execution to maintain order. Sugar was an insatiable maw that consumed almost every living thing and spit out money. A new kind of ecology was created, unusual in its purity: sugar was a super-predator, enslaving and consuming all other life-forms. It was the frontier economy in its purest form, for sugar represented nothing but profit, the opportunity to increase capital year after year.

On the face of every American coin is the Latin phrase e pluribus unum. It means “from many, one” and refers to the United States. But it is also a concise description of how the frontier economy works in the world. It could easily serve as the frontier economy’s motto and rallying cry, and it should come as no surprise that it is printed on our money. The frontier economy is above all a great leveler and a great simplifier of both cultures and ecologies. Confronted with any undisturbed ecology, the frontier economy selects the element or elements that can be sold at a profit, and discards the rest. If the element is profitable, trees say in Maine, it will cultivate them. If a valuable commodity is hidden beneath the ground, copper or coal perhaps, it will simply expunge the aboveground ecology wholesale. While this is not something entirely new in the world—all expanding economies require frontiers—the scope of the process is. For it now encompasses the entire planet and impacts all ecologies. The line on the graph has gone vertical. The frontier economy has altered the atmosphere and changed the climate. It is eliminating human cultures and languages at a rate never seen. When it appeared in North America there were more than 400 distinct languages and native cultures. Individual ecologies are no longer being pushed aside or plowed under, now the entire diversity of life is being set back, and we have a species extinction rate last seen 65 million years ago, when a meteor smashed into the side of the planet and brought the Age of Dinosaurs to a close. This is not just another historical cycle that will soon revert back to a trend line. This is irreversible, epochal change on a geological timescale.

This is the most salient feature of the frontier economy: it is opposed to the most basic processes of life. For if we wanted to sum up the whole 4-billion-year history of life in a phrase, it would go something like this: from one, many; from many, more. (The same phrase might serve as well for the history of the entire universe). A movement toward diversity seems woven into the fabric of life. This is how ecologies work. This is how life works. It may be the closest we ever get to the elusive concept known as progress. It is the process that produced the millions of species that science still doesn’t have a number for. It is the process that produced forests and grasslands and estuaries and oceans of indescribable diversity and complexity. And it is the process that produced us. 

We don’t just need to adjust to an economy no longer able to grow. We don’t need new “green” technologies that will allow the growth to continue. We need to develop habits of thought and stories and cultures and economies that are not inimical to the basic processes of life. And sooner or later, I think we need to sharpen the long knives and kill the super-predator in our midst. If it were anything but our own economic system, we would have done it long ago.


A History of Maine Agriculture:1604-1860 by Clarence Albert Day and A Long Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England by Howard S. Russell were my sources for colonial farming in Maine. The quote and statistics about lumbering in Maine come from The Interrupted Forest by Neil Rolde. 

The sugar economy of the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries was so important to the early development of capitalism and provides so many useful insights into the present-day economy of oil that study of it is amply rewarded. Two books I recommend are Sugar and Slaves by Richard S. Dunn and From Columbus to Castro by Eric Williams. American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor is an outstanding general history of the Atlantic colonies that includes the Caribbean. 

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