By Will Evans
As the sun crossed the equator this equinox, day and night were approximately of equal length. The water flow in the river is low and slow. Patterns of flowing current around rocks are smaller, quieter and a yellow leaf is swirling in an eddy. Does balance between light and dark in our “watershed democracy” call for a poignant moment for reflection?
Is this not an ordinary equinox? Are we in the midst of a strange global pandemic, not an ordinary plague? A question may be: are we at a paradigm shift, an inflection point, a tipping point? As we reap the consequences of an earlier era, are we entering a new era? What happens at a tipping point? What happens when a period of explosive expansion ends and a time of modulation manifests as limits are recognized? What happens when local limits change: population increases, precipitation shifts to less snow and more rain, or less total precipitation?
If we see what is happening and continue learning, will we benefit from knowing a directional change is moving and have an opportunity to proceed wisely? If we are trapped in tunnel vision, will there be risk in traversing this transition? Jacob Lieberman, a former resident — knowledgeable about the human eye and light — reminds us risk can be significant if we are so busy with our ideas and beliefs about how life was or is supposed to be that we are overtaken by surprise in a paradigm shift. Will it be possible to miss a new reality until it is already upon us? The reality is: our atmosphere is warming; the temperature of the river water is increasing, the air-water temperature combination is approaching the upper tolerances for critical local species. When will it be appropriate to behave as if we understand?
Over time, ideas and beliefs grow and eventually the harvest of these fruits reveals whether a way of living is life-sustaining. In 1998, Katrina Blair founded Turtle Lake Refuge in Durango to celebrate the connection between personal health and wildlands. She is adamant about water quality, insisting we not lose sight that river water can be drinkable — words that remind us of the Federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972; words that today seem forgotten.
The carrying capacity of a watershed can hold steady over years or it can shrink and contract, no longer able to support a resident population. As Intermountain West residents, we are within the “Arid Regions of the United States” identified by John Wesley Powell, director of the United States Geological Survey. He warned the House and Senate Committees on Irrigation in 1890 that lands west of the Hundredth Meridian receive far less precipitation than lands in the East. Water is life.
What are we growing in Carbondale? Are we growing for the benefit of a few or are we growing a living world story for children? Optimal relationship between land and population known as the “carrying capacity” is defined as the population of creatures, people and plants an ecosystem can support with life-sustaining resources. If water quality is good, everyone benefits. As the quantity of water decreases, the watershed toxins concentrate. Contaminated water reduces overall healthy carrying capacity. The 2015 Carbondale Source Water Protection Plan wisely focused its concerns on reducing “source water susceptibility to contamination.”
In 1890 no one listened to John Wesley Powell. The West was settled as if his words were never spoken. Ecological carrying capacity means an environment will limit the size of population an ecosystem can support. We inhabit an economy obsessed with growth. Our economic impetus is to outgrow our watershed. The American Economic Association explains, “Economics is the study of scarcity, the study of how people use resources and respond to incentives.”
Was Colorado settled with “contempt for the carrying capacity of watersheds” because economic power can buy and sell water as a commodity, use it, dismiss it or divert it to feed urban growth east of the Continental Divide? Although the politics of abundance values balance, does the politics of scarcity funnel people into tunnel vision? Has our nation construed a belief in continuous growth into an assumption this will be continuously beneficial?
Our economy teaches it makes no sense to voluntarily limit one’s growth and profits. Consequently calamities accumulate; our belief in perpetual growth ignores our interdependence with water and assumes we will always have enough drinkable water.
Ranchers calculate the carrying capacity of their land. Brook and Rose LeVan of Sustainable Settings are well-acquainted with the big picture and know how many cow calf pairs of their dairy herd they can support. A pasture produces only so much forage. Animal demand is the amount of forage required per head. Exceeding those limits with too many, too much will never be enough to yield healthy milk and land. Brook explains that with knowing how much is enough and affirming relationships within the farm, they have everything needed “to heal the land, harvest nutrient-dense food and milk, and delight in all the flavors.”
Ancient wisdom reminds us: there is no calamity like not knowing when is enough. And yet, a short distance downstream from Brook and Rose, questions about “carrying capacity” in a drought prompt puzzled looks.
Is this the year we will eventually clarify what we are sowing? This summer we were blessed with rain and a harvest; gardeners in our community gratefully stocked produce into their cellars. At the same time, others work to dismember source, buying and selling water rights and issuing building permits.
One noticeable consequence at this moment is divisiveness. Have any of us ever experienced so much divisiveness in life?
A transition is preceded by deviations from the norm moving within systems. As temperature increases, there is an acceleration and magnification of changing patterns.
Woody Morrison, a Vancouver lawyer and Haida elder observed there are two types of societies: command structure and common mind structure.
These yield two very different outcomes, because a command structured nation follows the mandates of authority — even if the authority lacks wisdom — whereas a common mind structured nation can change direction instantaneously without mandates or orders. When people learn to think cooperatively, all activities can focus on the wisdom of a living world story. They know and live in unity. How a society deals with change may determine its future. In a command structured society, no one seems responsible for knowing when is enough. In a common mind society, everyone knows when is enough.
Communication is a solution. This is how balance has been cultivated for 10,000 years in the Western Hemisphere by cultures committed to maintaining salmon runs in the rivers and herds of buffalo, deer and elk on the land. Ongoing balance is harvested from a container of communication that holds the diverse perspectives of a community.
This balance and unity is cultivated in councils and talking circles.
Is it possible for our command structured society to come into balance with the carrying capacity of our watershed? Can a watershed democracy grow a living world story? Can exploitative value systems of an earlier era be limited by wise balanced values in a new era?
Because there is an epidemic of change now, people are frightened. Heart rates are accelerating, our ability to hear and listen impaired, our vision constricted – we do not see where we are and are unable to see where we are going. We don’t see our inseparable connectedness, we don’t see our unity. When our unity is not visible, we are confronted by the expression: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
More than ever, we need to come together with our life-sustaining skills and voices to navigate this transition. And yet, more than ever there is divisiveness, the perspective of a balanced carrying capacity is perceived as “different” and excluded. Inclusivity is lacking — it is dangerous. Why is that?
Are we in a confused public discourse created by design? Are we inundated with weapons of mass distraction? Richard Manning, an environmental journalist from Montana, observes we reside on a Tower of Babel with some people working assiduously to create confusion. Money is expended lavishly in keeping people continually confused with conflicting studies and false reports. Confusion is important to corporations because all they need is to protect the “status quo.”
People know too much growth reduces the quality of life for residents. Carbondale has strong, high-quality water sources and a good Source Water Protection Plan. The question is, why doesn’t our governance have interest in a wise balance with our watershed and the quality of life preferences of our people? Even robust water sources can become uncertain when times are changing. Do we need to update our Source Water Protection Plan to reflect limits changing within our watershed?
Are people so confused that we have lost our political will? Is this fine with developers because they only need to operate under the current conditions, under the status quo? To maintain the status quo, all that is needed is for “we the people” to do nothing which will not restore enough balance to hold those skilled with money and power in check?
When we hold disparate perceptions in our hands and hearts, will we remember our relationship with source is also about our relationship with each other? As we pass through this inversion of our reality we need to hold on and to hold each other. If we do not see each other as facets on the diamond of our humanity, then there is the potential for something just the opposite to happen.
Jonas Salk, a respected physician, reminded us 50 years ago that wisdom is a form of strength necessary to maintain life. Wisdom implies making discernments in advance rather than retrospectively. If we see the big picture, can we become the survival of the wisest?
The cold hand of frost has touched our plants – signaling a limit to our outdoor growing season for the year. Relationships are changing. Are we wise enough to adapt and live with our local carrying capacity? Can we focus on what needs to be done?
A long tradition of experience, wisdom and know-how exists on this land for living in balance with the local environment. Can we pause, regain our balance, reflect on our relationships and craft wise town planning during a drought with no visible end in sight?
Will Evans is a retired medical doctor and resident of Carbondale. He published “Circulating Source Water” in 2020, a monograph about humanity’s relationship with source. The book in available online and at Mana Foods in Carbondale.