Backward Progress

In the plant world, most plants can fall into two different categories: perennials and annuals. As a child my mother, a certified master gardener, tried her darnedest to teach me the difference between the two, and eventually my adolescent brain simplified the definitions of annuals and perennials: annuals (most vegetables and domesticated crops) grow for one year, and then they’re done; perennials (trees, shrubs, some herbs, and anything with bulbs, like lilies, or extensive root structures, like prairie grasses)  come back year after year, unless you kill them. It was then that I decided I was only ever going to plant perennials, because I didn’t want to go to the work of planting something every spring. My attitude towards this had changed of course; the satisfaction of spring planting, and the promise that such an act holds, makes me sometime question why I’m in college. Looking back on it though, I have noticed a difference in the “ideology” per se of annuals and perennials. Annuals live only for one season, and therefore throw all of their botanical might into growing as much as possible in one season. Perennials, on the other hand, are still interested in growing fruitfully in season, but they also make sure to store enough energy to ensure their growth the next year.

As I have thought more and more about this, I have begun to think that our actions reflect whether we are are acting as perennials or annuals. A person who is acting perennially would make sure whatever they are doing would allow them to do the same action next year at the same level or better. A person acting annually, however, would only care about maximizing the results of that year’s actions. Economically speaking, we tend to fall in the annual camp, really the less than annual camp, since growth is measured in quarterly earnings. While this type of economic thinking can result in huge profits, it can also be environmentally devastating. Unfortunately, an example of this can be found right here in Albion.

On Van Wert Road, on the way to Sweet Seasons Orchard, you are in the presence of giants— oak trees, many of which have stood there for over 100 years and others for over 200. These trees provide food and cover for wildlife, act as a windbreak and erosion control system for the surrounding crop fields and provide shade cover and scenery for any pedestrians who choose to travel down it.

Well, that’s how it was before they cut those trees down.

Those 200+ year old oaks were cut down to make way for a powerline that was needed for the new Brembo Brake factory going up just southwest of Sweet Seasons Orchard. Brembo, after experiencing fantastic growth in the past few years, decided it was time to expand. The existing powerline, however, did not carry ample amperage to the factory so it was deemed that a new one needed to be routed from a Consumer’s Energy plant north of the factory. In order to perpetuate annual growth, Brembo destroyed over a century’s worth of perennial growth, that would’ve continued indefinitely.

The situation is simple enough, but I am not sure that the ends justify the means. Cutting down hundreds of trees to make way for a power line is not necessarily a net gain on our part. Yes, the plant created and will create many new jobs, both temporary ones during its construction and permanent ones once it gets established. And yes, I drive a car and enjoy it when my brakes work properly. I am not denouncing the principles that the new Brembo factory was built upon; I am denouncing the way they went about actually building it.

Brembo decided to build the extension of their factory on a piece of farmland adjacent to their existing factory. I can see the economics of this— they wanted to minimize transportation costs, but was this really the best course of action? Brembo could’ve chosen to use land that had been home to industries in earlier times, such as the sites of Gale Manufacturing or Harvard Industries here in Albion. But they did not. It seems far more reasonable to me to repurpose a parcel of land that cannot be used for agriculture, or has had its ecological services already negated, than to develop some of the best farmland in the world.

Professor Wesley Dick of the History Department, holds a view similar to this one. When I talked to him, he said, “The original plant already crossed the threshold of locating on farmland in the country.  The expansion doubles down on what I consider a mistaken location.  I believe we should be making every effort to build industrial factories in urban areas, including the redevelopment of brownfields and building in sites that previously housed industries.  Farmland should be considered too precious for the kind of development undertaken by Brembo.”

The irony of Brembo cutting down the trees must be noted as well. Carbon sequestering trees were cut down to make way for power lines (that come from a power plant that is most likely heavily reliant on fossil fuels) to make possible a factory that manufactures brakes for fossil-fueled, carbon-emitting cars. The irony of this situation is almost palpable; they destroyed the solution (carbon-sequestering trees) to the problem (excess carbon in the atmosphere), in order to further exacerbate the problem. Then again, what I may see as a problem, others may see as progress.

But then again, what truly is progress? Is progress an increase in quarterly earnings, in jobs, in quick profits, in the expansion of one’s market and in the outcompeting of one’s competitors? This is what society tells us– that progress revolves around growing ever bigger, selling more items, creating more jobs and building larger facilities. But perhaps this is not progress. Perhaps progress cannot be seen in a fiscal quarter, a year, a decade, a lifetime or even a century. Rather, progress can be found in the fertility that is built beneath an oak tree’s branches in the form of humus, the food it provides to wildlife, and the oxygen it produces from the same carbon dioxide that would kill us.

Why do we believe that cutting down trees that have been standing for over 100 years will result in a long term gain, when trees such as the ones cut down had hitherto endured 25 different presidencies (both republican and democrat), the Great Depression, Justin Bieber and seven different wars? Through all of this the trees continued to grow, disregarding the superficial fickleness of the world around them. To me, that is progress.

But all of that progress slowly created over a hundred years through the simple, yet complex process of photosynthesis, can be destroyed within hours, days or weeks by a few men with chainsaws and backhoe. The trees were felled to make possible a factory that may become irrelevant and out-of-date within 30 or 50 years. It wouldn’t be the first time. To a tree and to nature, 30 to 50 years is merely the blink of an eye, and any “progress” that was made in the form of earnings or jobs will long be forgotten by nature. Such shortsighted measures of progress, I think, will eventually come to naught.

What then should we do if we cannot measure our progress as modern society tells us to? There is a saying in carpentry that goes “measure twice, cut once”; we should begin to measure our progress measuring many more times than twice e before we cut, and think about the long-term legacy of progress that our actions are creating or destroying. Will what we are doing improve or at the very least sustain our children, our children’s children and their children after that? Are we operating for the short-term, marginal revenue or the long term, unforeseen good that we will likely not experience? Are we acting as annuals, or perennials? The cutting of the trees on Van Wert road does not fit these criteria—it was a rash, self-centered and hasty decision that negated at least 100 years of nature’s steady, unfailing work towards progress; it was a decision based as if annual accretion could somehow outweigh perennial progress.

Photo by Evan Reith 

About Evan Rieth 20 Articles
Evan Rieth is a mustached milkman. A senior at Albion majoring in Environmental Studies an English, you can find him milking cows, riding horses, and searching for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe.

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