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Trading Sheep for Grass and Fish in Patagonia

The big brown trout I was fishing for yesterday on the Limay River in Patagonia was nowhere to be found but I did manage to come across an old hang out of Butch Cassidy.

Being from Montana, where the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang pulled off their last job—a holdup of a Union Pacific train—before fleeing to South America, I was happy with this historical catch.

Legend has it that Butch became friends with Jarred Jones who ventured down to Argentina from Texas in 1887 to make his fortune. Jones didn’t find gold but he did manage to open a general store at the mouth of the Limay. The old store, which is now a friendly restaurant, still holds the shops books, old photos, and a frontier atmosphere of a century ago.

Jones earned enough money at the store to purchase two big ranches, which he fenced off with barbed wire—the first to be seen around these parts. Today, barbed wire is strung across much of the 98 million hectares of the Patagonian Steppe to enclose vast quantities of sheep.

Unfortunately, a flock of sheep can gobble up great expanses of native grasses, and in southern Argentina, they’re clearing some serious vegetation. In addition to vegetation loss, overgrazing equates to lost habitat for other animals, and damages waterways with runoff and silt from erosion, which affects the fish, which affects tourism.

Paradoxically, sheep—the slayers of grasslands—could become the saviors of the same landscapes and in turn protect fish and other species. It turns out that because the plants of the grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, such as guanacos, a little munching is good (and necessary) for the flora. It is also true that companies that have environmental components to their business plans and seek to create goods from natural products, including merino wool, would like to see grasslands flourish for the long term. And tourists like me who want to fish and recreate in Patagonia would be willing to pay a price premium for this outcome.

Enter The Nature Conservancy, Patagonia, Inc. and Ovis XXI. Armed with scientific knowledge and market tools, this trilogy is working to conserve more than 15 million acres of land in Patagonia by 2016. Ovis XXI works directly with the woolgrowers. These consultants know the industry, and how to raise sheep without destroying grasslands. The Nature Conservancy brings its science-based knowledge and environmental credibility to help build the sustainable grazing standard through planning and subsequent monitoring of conservation outcomes. And Patagonia Inc. brings the market perspective—buying the wool, networking with others in the supply chain, creating the final products, and using its brand strength to help publicize Patagonian wool.

The majority of the land targeted by the Patagonian Grasslands Conservation Project is privately owned, and remains in large and undivided properties of intact native grasslands. Because most landowners face ongoing political and economic challenges that affect their ability to stay in business, an incentive is needed to gain commitment from landowners to manage resources sustainably. In this case, the carrot comes in the form of a payment to ranchers for grazing less sheep and or for using more modern and environmentally friendly grazing practices.

In November 2011, the first shipment of sustainable wool (29 tons) left Patagonia for Asia to be turned into socks for Patagonia, Inc. So far this scheme has worked to place two million acres under sustainable grazing agreements. Time will tell if the environmental protection purchased by conservationists from sheep ranchers will protect grasslands and associated waterways in the future, but signs look promising. Stay tuned…

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Brainless Sustainability

One of the envirobuzzwords of the 21st century is sustainability. I recently googled the term “environmental sustainability” and there were over 11 million hits. The National Science Foundation makes grants for sustainable engineering which “typically considers long term horizons.” More generally, most people think of sustainability as the capacity to endure.

There can hardly be any doubt that the word sustainability has captured the envirolandscape. Here is just a trifle of a list to make my point:
www.sustainablefoodsystems.com (food)
www.sustainableabc.com (architecture)
www.sustainableagriculture.net (ag)

I could go on for a looooooong time, but you get the picture. Sustainable is certainly enduring, if in nothing more than the word. People worry about sustainability for a lot of reasons, and I would say mostly good ones. Pondering and preparing for the future makes great sense. However, being brainless about it seems odd. And I choose that word for a very particular reason.

If you asked most people what the most important natural resource is today, you would surely get a variety of answers. Some would say water, others oil. Some might say air, others sunlight, and who knows what all else including wolves or even snail darters. But there is a modern school of thought in economics and elsewhere that uniformly gives one answer, human brains. One of the architects of this movement, Julian Simon, liked to say, “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands.” Matt Ridley has written extensively about this in his latest work, The Rational Optimist. Following these giants, I take the position that human minds are the world’s greatest natural resource.

Ponder the sustainability question from a slightly different slant. Who really deeply, truly cares about whether buggy whips are sustainable, or candle tallow, or firewood? Isn’t what we really care about being sustainable are the outputs of these inputs: transportation, home lighting, and warm houses? A hundred and fifty years ago, whales neared extinction owing to their fat for lighting lamps. We have light at night today not because whale oil is sustainable but because our ingenuity is sustainable and some smart fox invented kerosene; and who really cares whether kerosene is sustainable so long as we have nuclear, or solar, or wind energy to light our homes. The concern over sustainability is real and important, but leaving the human brain out of the equation, brainless sustainability, makes hardly any sense.

I too am concerned about whether we will have all the things we care about tomorrow and into the future for our kids, but I truly don’t care whether our trees are sustainable. What if some genius figures out a way to make housing lumber out of corn cobs or waste water? I will then care less about certified wood products. Forest sustainability isn’t important to me. There are lots of services that forests provide besides housing lumber, such as, clean air, animal habitats, luxurious views, and hikes to name a few. It is reasonable to care about having an ample supply of these into the future too, but don’t neglect our capacity to build spaceships or other ways to achieve the same ends. There is almost always more than one way to skin a cat, and human energy and other resources that we dedicate to maintaining the status quo are resources which could have been used to help us advance.

Just imagine if 150 years ago society had gone on a crusade to create whale oil sustainability. It is entirely possible that the geniuses who created and brought kerosene to the world would have been sidetracked into trying to find ways to make whales procreate faster or to have certified sustainable whale oil. That’s brainless sustainability to my way of thinking.

Let’s get behind brain-powered sustainability and figure out ways to build houses out of non-wood products, and electricity out of non-fossil fuels, and eat food which uses less land, water, and labor. Let’s create human, mind-based sustainability instead of land or nature-based sustainability.