by William R. Rustem, Senior Vice President

This Advisor is adapted from a speech given on January 9, 1996, to the Michigan State Land Use Forum, sponsored by Michigan State University.

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
—Aldo Leopold, 1949

If the owl can’t adapt to the superiority of humans, then screw it.
—Rush Limbaugh, 1994

We are at a crossroad.

Philosophers, religious leaders, and politicians at all levels are struggling with the fundamental question of defining humankind’s role on the face of the earth. Certainly, this is not a new struggle. Indeed, the meaning of the Old Testament’s admonition to the first humans to “subdue” and have “dominion over all the earth” has been debated for centuries.

The difference is that today, with increasing population and resource demands, finding the answer is so much more critical than when vast landscapes of untapped resources were available for human use. These vast landscapes no longer exist. In exploring and developing our earth we are reaching limits. Humanity now has conquered the planet. Human beings are now one of its most ubiquitous species. Our effect on our world can be seen everywhere, touching the primeval forest, the tundra, the polar icecaps, and even the heavens.

The question facing us is whether, as conqueror, we will choose to plunder or choose to be benevolent to the forces we have subjugated. Are we prepared to accept the responsibilities that accompany the rights of the conqueror? For what does it profit us if we destroy the empire we have won?

In a 1989 essay published in New Yorker magazine, author Bill McKibben wrote:

We have changed the atmosphere, and that is changing the weather. The temperature and the rainfall are no longer entirely the work of some uncivilizable force but instead are in part a product of our habits, our economies, our ways of life.. . . An idea can become extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is “nature”—the wild province, the world apart from man, under whose rules he was born and died. We have not ended rainfall or sunlight. The wind still blows—but not from some other sphere, some inhuman place. It is too early to tell exactly how much harder the wind will blow, how much hotter the sun will shine. That is for the future. But their meaning has changed.”

If, as McKibben argues, the meaning of what is natural has changed to include the effects of humanity on natural systems, then it seems to me that we bear an enormous responsibility to ourselves, future generations of humans, and the other species with which we share this planet, to assure that our effects fit within the bounds of other forces.

  • Consider these facts:
  • World population is increasing at the rate of 86 million annually, doubling every 39 years. At the same time, 40,000 babies die of starvation every day in Third World countries.
  • At least 24 billion tons of invaluable topsoil—the result of tens of thousands of years of natural processes—are lost worldwide each year.
  • As much energy leaks through American windows every year as flows through the entire Alaskan pipeline.
  • Added to the atmosphere each year are enormous quantities of carbon—approximately 5.5 billion tons through fossil fuel combustion plus another 1.5 billion tons through worldwide deforestation, which is proceeding at the rate of about 50 acres per minute.
  • Many scientists believe that in our lifetime a larger share of the earth’s plant and animal life will disappear than was lost in the mass extinction 65 million years ago that included the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
  • By the end of this century, Americans will have paved the equivalent of all the cropland in Ohio and Indiana.

It is against this backdrop of international and national problems and the debate about humankind’s relationship to the earth that we come together today. I first want to commend Michigan State University for having the courage and foresight to convene this critically important conference to address an issue with enormous implications for Michigan’s future—both environmental and economic. The issue is how we treat our land. Virtually every fact I just mentioned involves land use (or abuse) and the great debate over whether humans have the right to do as they wish with the land.

I suppose that the Pilgrims must have talked about land use—certain acres for agriculture, certain others for dwellings—shortly after they strode ashore. I further suppose that they were subjected to some early rules and they griped about them. After all, they had made the perilous voyage to this “promised land” to escape the regimentation and restrictions enforced by the monarchs of Europe. This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of history. The Pilgrims were fleeing from many things—religious persecution and oppressive codes of justice, to name just a couple.

But one major reason early settlers came to this country was the proscription against land ownership by common, ordinary people in the Old World. In Europe, land belonged to the crown and to the nobility; the average man—and certainly the average woman—had no hope of owning a square foot of soil. He or she toiled on land that belonged to someone else. It is little wonder, then, that an ethic stressing the right of the landholder has grown up in this country: Our national heritage is founded, in part, on the principle that land is for the use of the individual.

The question with which we must grapple is: “What individual?” Are we concerned only with the generations of Michiganians alive today, or do we share a collective responsibility to future generations to assure that their rights to do as they wish with their land also will be protected? In a current movie, “Carrington,” which is the life story of popular writer Lytton Strachey, Strachey’s character poses a simple question that exemplifies the difficult challenge: “What,” he asks, “has posterity ever done for me?”

Michigan long has been recognized as a leader in protecting the quality of the environment, but this was not always the case. The philosophy of the early timber men who harvested the state’s forests was “Cut and get out.” Early farmers cleared land, harvested crops until the soil was exhausted, and then moved on, to repeat the cycle somewhere else. Similarly, Michigan’s wildlife was slaughtered and its habitat destroyed, fisheries were depleted, waters were polluted, and the air was befouled.

Only in the early part of this century did we begin to come to our senses and realize that the resources we were ruining were not limitless—they have to be constantly and vigilantly husbanded and renewed, if we are to survive and prosper as a people. It was then that the conservation ethic was born. For some resources, like the passenger pigeon and the grayling, reason dawned too late. One of the uglier blots on Michigan history is that one of the last great killing grounds of passenger pigeons was in Emmet County, near Petoskey. Certainly, Michigan residents did not wipe the species out single-handedly, but they and others killed enough of the birds and destroyed enough of their roosting habitat to prevent them from maintaining a successful breeding population, and so they dwindled into extinction.

But Michigan has taken many positive steps. It was the first state in the nation to ban the use of DDT and to implement a ban on PCB. It was at the forefront of efforts to protect inland lakes and streams and the quality of water in the Great Lakes. It was the first state to be granted the authority to implement federal wetland-protection measures, and it is one of only a handful of states to have implemented a bottle deposit bill.

It often is said that Michigan has done more because we have so much more to lose. Surrounded as we are by one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water, we bear special responsibility for our abundant resources. Michigan’s forests, beaches, streams, and lakes have intrigued, soothed, and inspired us for generations.

But while we have done a pretty good job of protecting and improving the quality of our air and water, we have not applied the same ethic to our land. In 1992, the State of Michigan completed an historic document that clearly lays out the challenge before us. Michigan was one of the first states in the country to complete a “relative risk analysis,” which set environmental priorities for the future. I am very proud to say that our company, Pubic Sector Consultants, helped in the process that resulted in ranking twenty-four important state problems. At the top of the list is “lack of land use planning that recognizes the integrity of ecosystems.” Right behind it is “degradation of urban ecosystems.”

Taken together, those two issues represent a powerful and compelling need as Michigan enters the new millennium. Responsible land use and rebuilding our cities are not just environmental issues. They also are critically important to our economic future. Four industries in Michigan are absolutely dependent on the land: agriculture, tourism, forestry, and mining. To judge how important those industries are to the health of Michigan’s economy, here are some facts.

  • From the 46,500 farms in the state, Michigan agriculture annually generates $4 billion in direct economic activity. When the indirect effect is factored in, the production value balloons to $40 billion a year. According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, one of every eight jobs in the state is linked to agriculture.
  • Michigan tourism provides direct employment to about 130,000 residents, and in 1994 it generated $8 billion in economic activity in the state, including nearly half a billion dollars from foreigners traveling in our state.
  • Through lumber and wood products, our forestry industry annually accounts for about 17,500 jobs and $657 million in economic activity; through wood furniture and fixtures, we gain another 30,000 jobs and $1.3 billion; and from pulp and paper manufacturing, we benefit by roughly 21,000 more jobs and $1.2 billion.
  • Mining is another way in which our land-based resources serve us well: The U. S. Bureau of Mines reports that in 1992 Michigan generated $1.6 billion in nonfuel mining and employed 9,000 people. In 1994 the state’s oil and gas industry contributed $599 million to the economy, providing jobs and income for 11,500 Michigan families. Twenty-one minerals are mined here, making this one of the most diverse mineral-producing states in the nation.

Agriculture, tourism, forestry, and mining are cornerstones of the Michigan economy, and all absolutely depend on a land base. We cannot mine gravel in a parking lot or grow crops in a high rise (whether new or abandoned). As we change the surface use of land, we preclude access to a resource that is critically important to our future.

Ever since the Ojibway, Pottawatami, Huron, and Chippewa plied Michigan waters, natural resources have fed our economy. It was the value of these resources that brought the fur traders and trappers to a wild territory, the lumbering industry to our forests, and the farmer and the industrialist to settle this state. In Michigan, perhaps more than anywhere else, the quality of the economy and the quality of the environment are inextricably intertwined.

For literally decades, leaders in Michigan have been emphasizing the need to diversify the economic base to reduce dependence on the automobile industry. We have made great strides in that direction, but as we continue to scatter development across the landscape, we daily threaten the land-based industries that have provided precisely the kind of diversity so badly needed.

Is it true that we are scattering development across the landscape and threatening our land-based resources? Well, the recently completed Trend Future Study, an historic undertaking by the Planning and Zoning Center for the Michigan Society of Planning Officials, should give us all pause if we are concerned about the future of our children and this state.

The Trend Future Study reports that the Michigan Department of Management and Budget projects that from 1990 to 2020, the state population will grow by 1.1 million. For the same period, the University of Michigan forecasts an increase of 900,000 jobs.

If current land development and density trends persist, that expected 11.8 percent increase in the population will result in an increase of 63–87 percent in “urbanized” or developed land. Even the low estimate means a whopping 64 percent escalation in the number of parking lots, buildings, roads, and other types of development. Put another way, to accommodate the 1.1 million new people and 900,000 new jobs expected by 2020, it will take nearly as much land as was used to support 9 million people and 3.5 million jobs in 1978.

Think about the implications these predictions have for Michigan’s cornerstone land-based industries and for the remaining habitat in this state. Think about what the additional runoff from those developed lands will do to water quality. Think about the problems we leave behind in our cities as perfectly usable infrastructure is abandoned. Think about the additional paving and widening of roads, the extension of sewer and water infrastructure, and the construction of new utility lines. And think about who will have to pay the cost for that infrastructure and the services required for an increasingly dispersed population. The answer is obvious: You will. I will. And—to an even greater extent—our children will.

The cartoon character Pogo said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” In terms of our relationship to the land, it could not have been put better.

For the last two decades, there has been no more important or defining environmental issue than land use. Yet, during these same twenty years, no debate has been more contentious than that having do with property rights, local control, the organization of state government to protect special areas such as wetlands, and rebuilding of urban centers.

In the 1970s Michigan began to see its relationship to the landscape. State government focused attention on land use, and comprehensive planning laws were considered by the legislature. Unfortunately, they did not pass. Instead, in the 1970s and 1980s the state adopted a series of piecemeal environmental laws, followed in the 1980s and 1990s by a series of piecemeal economic development legislation.

Certainly, the legislation that did pass had some positive effects for our state, but never was the important link between our environment and our economic future recognized.

Today, there are about 70 local planning, zoning, and capital improvement statutes on the books in Michigan. But because they were adopted independently, they differ in regard to the kind of plan they put into place, who implements it, and whether intergovernmental or interagency cooperation is expected.

More than 1,800 units of local government make planning and zoning decisions in this state.In addition we have DDAs, LDFAs, TIFs, road commissions, school districts, EDCs, and countless other local entities that are charged by law with some role in determining how and where the face of the Michigan landscape is changed. There is no requirement that these agencies coordinate their decisions.

And where is the quality of life in this state headed? The Trend Future Study predicts that from 1990 to 2010, the number of workers traveling 10 or fewer minutes to work will go up only 13 percent, while those traveling 45 minutes will jump 38 percent. If one measures the quality of one’s life by the time s/he spends in an automobile, then we face a real problem.

We are engaged in a vicious cycle of changing land use that brings congestion that creates a demand for bigger and better roads that leads to increased access and capacity that lead to new opportunities for development that change the land use and lead to more congestion. And around and around and around we go.

A thousand years after the collapse of Mayan civilization, modern technology enables our generation to examine the reasons behind its collapse. Paleoecologists have determined that Mayan civilization expanded continuously over 17 centuries, doubling in size every 408 years. Then, suddenly, it declined. And within a few decades the population fell to less than one-tenth its previous level. Core samples from two lake beds in the area reveal that as population pressures grew, soil erosion gradually accelerated, draining croplands of their productivity. Researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Florida conclude that population-induced environmental stresses, including deforestation and mounting demands on croplands (that is, land use problems) led to the demise.

In his book Building a Sustainable Society, Lester Brown asks: “If environmental stresses undermined earlier civilizations, whose population-doubling times were measured in centuries, what is their impact now, when population doubling time is measured in decades?”During the time I have been speaking, worldwide almost six acres of tropical forest were destroyed, two to six species became extinct, and 2.5 million barrels of oil (a nonrenewable resource) were used. In Michigan, ten acres of farmland were converted to other use, another family moved from an urban area to a rural part of the state, and because of our dispersing population, we drove 27 miles farther than in the previous hour (to say nothing about the time we lost while sitting in traffic jams).

My former boss, Gov.William Milliken, was fond of saying: “The 37 million acres that are Michigan is all the Michigan we will ever have.” It is, of course, all the Michigan our children and their children ever will have, and unless we change our ethic, our legacy to them will be one of limited opportunity.

For the sake of our environment, for the sake of our economy, for the sake of each of us as taxpayers, and for the sake of our children, we have no greater challenge than to find new ways to become appropriate stewards of those 37 million acres.

Let this conference be the clarion call to each of us here, and to everyone in Michigan, to ask the tough questions, engage in the appropriate discussions, and listen with our minds open to the techniques and ideas being tried elsewhere. Above all, let this conference be a way to cultivate the common ground that exists between the farmer and the urban dweller; between the industrialist and the environmentalist; between our generation and our children’s. After all, our common ground is 37 million acres.

“. . . all the Michigan we will ever have.”

Copyright © 1996

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