Commentary for NPR’s “Living On Earth” May 2001
In my forest where Hurricane Fran in 1996 blew down tall trees and allowed sunlight to pour in a slow kind of fireworks or green explosion is taking place. Grasses, weeds, brush, vines and young trees compete with each other now for the light whose energy they need for growth and reproduction.
The older forest around this chaos appears more ordered, more decisive. The old trees are uniformly spaced. The oaks, beeches, and hickory have formed a ceiling, which is to say each has established its claim to a well defined share of the energy arriving from that nuclear power plant called the sun. Below the old trees scattered sourwood, dogwood, and red maple lift crooked trunks upward, having bent first one way, then another searching for light that escaped the big trees. Here and there a red cedar is slowing dying, its low crown as thin as the hair of a patient starting chemotherapy. In the deep shade on the forest floor only a few plants lift a green leaf here and there.
The process which created the comfortable order of the old forest was neither fair nor unfair. It was and is much like the process that created the best economy and character of the United States—I call it natural capitalism. The capital of my forest is its store of mass and energy. The successful green residents are those who best exercised their self interest to gather, horde, and transform the nutrients of the soil, the carbon dioxide and nitrogen of the atmosphere, and the energy of the sun into useful products, not for the forest as a whole or any of their neighbors, but first and foremost for themselves. Scientists can describe this achievement by neat hypotheses. One day science may even arrive at its Holy Grail—a unified theory of matter and energy. This kind of thinking requires meticulous and tedious work and considerable brilliance. It does not, however, create anything, nor does it contain the power to predict anything but statistical generalities. It cannot say which grass, shrub, or tree sapling will triumph in the clearings made by Hurricane Fran. Neither science nor its hypotheses created the order described. The forest can be described by centralized description, but it was not created by central planning.
The forest clearing has become a market place. Energy is the money here. The bidders for space and thus sunlight are freer than any corporate raider or manager of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. Most pour their investment into building the stiff fiber of wood that raises their living tissue toward the sky. Most of these investors, however, will grow poorer as fewer and fewer competitors get richer. Most of today’s small rich will become the big rich. Unlike the human world, the poor cannot move. The future for the poor is in waiting or in dispersing their seed or in the biological bankruptcy called death. After six or seven decades, of course, the chaos and competition will subside and the new tycoons and oligarchs of the forest will have negotiated fixed places and most changes will be trivial. It will be an old growth forest, a mature market.
Nor can science predict when and how this forest will fall any more than scientists could have predicted the strength and exact path of Hurricane Fran even after it had set its course for the continent. When the counterclockwise winds from the storm passing slightly east of my forest rushed into these hills from the north, they caught the biggest, oldest and most successful trees with their full late summer crown of leaves, and those crowns were heavy with the same rain that was loosening the soil around their roots. Everywhere in the north-south hollows and the bed of Morgan Branch that runs in front of my house the winds seized the crowns of the big capitalist trees 80 or 100 feet in the air and pushed on these great counterweights and tore the grip of the roots from the wet earth. Many still hung on to boulders that they lifted free from the soil as the tops fell and roots rose.
By the next spring the big trees were beginning to rot. Shiny rhinoceros beetles were boring under the bark and eating the dying sapwood. Grasses and saplings were springing up where little summer sunshine had touched earth for a hundred years. Nature was imitating capitalism now—downsizing, divesting, diversifying, acquiring and merging.
The day after the hurricane when I wandered out into the devastation of old trees I had known for decades, I was angry that nature had impoverished my life. Yet here too, the more your understanding of the market grows, the richer you get.