He faced 33 people. They had settled in the back of the trailer-size church, the only place large enough to hold a group called together. The metal chairs were still screeching and clucking on the linoleum floor covering as others arrived.
Three years ago he had been asked to make some suggestions to the questions of: What do you do with a lot of land that you bought years ago in order to mine coal, and then the coal runs out? What do you do when you live in an area, work there and love the place, but the work runs out?
He had already run through the simple statements that sound like answers to these questions. You can tally the land as a loss like a piece of depreciated equipment. Maybe it's like a tough piece of meat and you've chewed it 'til you've "gotten all the good out of it" and then you lay it aside. But land is different. You do not lay it aside. You might give it to the government (as done in the past) but the government is "full up" with land and having problems with that which they have. They don't want poor, used-up land. It makes them look bad, and besides, it's expensive to patrol and to try to manage. Beside that, the government is people and they are our families and they have been with us on the trip to the present soulful situation. Of course we know human agony, but many will survive "as best they can," or move out.
He had faced early on in the project that these are not real answers for corporations, individuals and families, and certainly not to society. People are all linked together, but it is rare that we think of how closely. We need each other as we need the fire crew, the first aid crew, the people that taught us, the newspaper folks, the grocers, sign painters, the school janitors, the snowplow crews, the doctors and the hospital support staff. We need help when old and moving hurts. We need them all as part of a reasonable life together. Things easily fall apart when one or more move out when the land (or whatever the resource base) no longer provides necessary support. We need a new sense of community, connectedness ... a collaboration with a corporation core.
The coal was nearly gone; the real estate taxes were still levied but the income taxes had disappeared. The children still had to go to school, taking trips that are unbelievable costly when people are spread throughout a region. Members of local boards are stressed. People on the move in troubled areas rarely produce many votes for regional legislators. Agency staffs are now (and still likely to be reduced in size) inadequate to address the complexities of most sites. The staff members are totally unable to visit the hundreds of sites (e.g., forests, wetlands, eroding abandoned mines, or ponds) throughout a region of the state needing specific attention. Agency interest or delivery of services, influenced by leadership, funds, and political pressure, was even more fickle.
Around the world there are situations like this. Mining areas are the most commonly affected but the disease seems to be creeping. The manufacturing plants have shut in some areas. Lumber mills have shut in many small communities; the large and so-called virgin trees are gone. North American Indians continue to wrestle with life on some lands. Prize crops throughout the world (tea, coffee, tobacco, and bananas) change in price, use, or acceptability and the people that planted, grew, and harvested them are yanked to and fro by the changes. In a few areas the land has been eroded and so badly used that any future use seems hopeless. Drastic changes have taken place in coinciding with the fall of the Berlin wall, NAFTA, the European Monetary Union, GATT, the Collapse of Communism, the loss of many travel and trade barriers, the passage of many environmental laws and regulations, the emergence of knowledge about "green gold" the rise of the Internet and e-commerce. Not just mining jobs but jobs everywhere are being rapidly transformed, downsized, streamlined, or made obsolete by globalization. And the university?! It now lives in an era of unplanned and unstable grants and contracts and single-tract self-agrandizement. There had to be a better way than begging or waiting for gifts at random to answer the researchable-question part of the problem. There was no way to stabilize funds for a "sustainable"research "program."
The questions are the same. What do we do? Where do we go? What can be our future? Carl knew that no one in the group before him could hardly imagine, certainly not believe, the horrors of the likely future condition. The sociologist called it anomie, a kind of learned helplessness. They had been pawns most of their lives. The company or the government had taken care of them. There had been massive financial helper programs and projects and surely more would be coming. "Things" just can hardly get worse; "bad" is the normal and accepted condition.
The question is: What do we do before the coal runs out? There are no easy answers, certainly no acceptable ones for the people who know and love a place, have family and roots, and have advanced age in a discriminating, youth-loving society. There is no clear place to which to move. Everything seems "full-up," pricey, too new, and very uncertain. What to do? is repeated in despair ... What to do? We cannot think of what to do after it runs out. How can be think of before?
* * *
"Ladies and gentlemen. We have a problem," and Carl went on to outline the above ideas. "I have the solution and I'm trying to sell it. You have to believe me. You just have to. I know about checking and testing and being skeptical but this time, you need this solution. I compare it to "look out!" and when we hear that, we duck. We do not sit down to discuss the meaning of "duck!" and whether it's true or not. I thing this solution is needed now and we have to get busy or if we do not, the solution will float away in the vapors of a hundred committee meetings, a thousand "well, but...s", and ten-thousand bright graduate students saying or thinking and asserting that "my opinion is as good as yours."
"I'm presenting this solution because I have studied it and and thought-it-through and looked at thousands of alternatives and selected the one that best balances all objectives, risks, values, and constraints for a period for us over the next 150 years. I've already been to the committee meetings and have seen the dead camels, elephants, and giraffes ... the "horses" ... that they have designed. I've seen time pass and the warnings about the declining coalfields ignored. Plans made to prevent crises are now dusty and their dust flames up in the fires of the present...the present crisis. People suffer now; time's up!
"There's a need for a departure from conventional ideas about the future of the coalfields of southwestern Virginia, the forest communities of the Pacific Northwest, the desert lands of the Southwest. There is no need to physically leave, to depart. The need is to move into a new realm of thought and action. The move will not be easy but it is very clear that doing nothing, which is pretty easy, will not solve the problems or reduce the sharpness of the pain that some of us now experience or see on the near horizon.
"We need a different way of doing things, a different way of thinking about our future, and ourselves a way to work together. We need a new way of seeing ourselves as the center of a vast, important activity. We may need a radical departure from the way we've been thinking and working. We may not like it, but we don't like thinks as they are, and I guarantee you, you'll like things less in the near future unless we grab this solution.
"I call it the Rural System strategy. At its core are three things:
We've formed a company, a conglomerate corporation that has about 40 groups or companies all working together and managed as a system. Many of these groups will work on private lands, under contract, and there the land will be improved, profits made, employment stabilized. The real business at hand it making profits over the long run, tending and improving the land so that it will continue to produce profits. The strategy is American capitalism at its best, savvy entrepreneurship, indoor and out, for the good of the people here in the region, your land, your "place."
"I'll tell you how I reached this solution, the Rural System enterprise, later. Tonight, just let be give you the details. I want you to invest in the enterprise. That will come from anyone - membership pays off in proportion to the amount of money paid in. I want you invested in a real way in the region. No more words, committee meetings, plans. I want team members, each of you interested in your membership funds. Everything in this organization is driven by personal incentives and work performed. We'll not discuss the past, just the future and real dollars gained from real work. We're working for the land and our families. You get back your investment based on the financial success of Rural System, your company. You get back amounts in proportion the number of citizen members and the net annual income of the new company.
"Of course the land (forests, pastures, ponds lakes and streams, everything) is not a "factory," but a good comparison can be made. To make profit from a factory you have to tend it well. That's the way we have to see the lands and waters of the region. Paint it, tend it, keep it ship-shape. Restore, protect, and manage ...those are the requirements. It will cost, but that will be our productive base.
"This new business, the real rural business, takes a systems approach to comprehensive, sophisticated natural resource management. It has outdoor and indoor business components. Many are not directly soil or land, crops or livestock, oriented. It pulls together into one group many small enterprises that have not been able to be successful alone. Its clear objective is profit, but behind that are the secondary goals of land conservation, stable employment, human health, and a high quality of life. Make no mistake ... profits... but stable and for "over the long run.""
Carl grabbed handouts on color paper. On them were listed the suggested enterprise groups. (See Chapter 1). These are the suggested groups. They all work together. There is one service center, one marketing group, one computer center, one transportation system - together called System Central. That is where we get our greatest economies. These activities do not have to be duplicated for each little business. We use powerful computer optimization. We pick up 10% gains on investments by simple uses of business computing, 10% on wood valuation, 15% on pasture productivity, brand-new gains in the fishery and outdoor recreation, and new gains from commissions on sales and group buying.
"Rural System takes a poorly-known total realistic system of management, all aspects of the rural environment from high above the ground to far below the surface. The Rural in the title symbolizes all systems, concentrating on the land and the region, not just the current products seen there (such as logs), but rather the total products and services of the tracts now covered by ownerhips in the region. No longer begging, we see responsible citizenship including the business of soundly managing the land well for the long term (which we define as 150 years, sliding forward a year each year). We include with this managing many small related businesses together for efficiencies. It is a lasting business proposition, making gains, reducing losses, protecting our investments, discovering new uses and products, resisting government intervention, caring for employees and their families, responding to demand ... but building through rational investments for the future business profits ... and those for our great small communities.
"There are few people who comprehend the economic importance of our small rural communities in the near future. They have national importance, real survival value.
"There are hundreds of absentee land owners in this region. We're going to contact them and suggesting that they enroll their land with us as enterprise environments. Some of you may want to enroll your lands and I hope you will. I have full details in a pamphlet I have for you. The essence is that land units are "rented" and brought under contract into a unit like little "parks" or "state forests and rangelands." Somewhat like share cropping, these areas are brought under "sustainable forestry" management ... picking up about 6% extra value in the firsts year of joining us. We, conduct surveys and improve roads and trails, develop a plan with computer maps, and begin using the land for the purposes for which it is best suited. It costs owners nothing. They can sit on the porch and do nothing (but we hope for more). They make more money from the corporation than they make now from their acres; their lands become more productive; and we all become better-off for the future. "The way this works is that we have a Land Force to help work on the land. We work from a cluster of nearby enrolled farms or ownerships. We have the right equipment for efficiency. We buy in bulk. We have prescriptive plans from our computers. We have satellite information and results from millions of dollars of research that feed those plans. We use it for profits for you, for employees, for the land owner, and some for us... for the long-term good of us all. "There is much to discuss but this is a big, complicated undertaking and I need your understanding, help, and participation. I'm going to be writing in the newspaper and will have people in the office available to answer questions and discuss potentials with you and for you and your lands. I want each of you to think about what I've said this evening. There are no "sure things" in the business world and I have no real guarantees. I can guarantee that if we do not take action right now, things will get worse than they are "right now." That may sound negative. I prefer to think about the potentials of the future of a new business within the region. I want 1 dollar from every one of you including every child (who needs to rake leaves, make beds, do the dishes, etc. until they have a dollar; don't you give it to them; this is a working proposition only!) That's the base membership. I want more than a dollar from most of you tonight. We can discuss more down at the office. The more you add, the larger your membership, the greater the returns, the faster the regional gains for all of us. As profits are made, they will be shared based on the size of your membership. Other allocations will be made based on the acres and quality of each ownership under contract. Of course the owners of land profit greatly.
"Here's a handout of the list of membership benefits as we start out our business. They will increase as we develop and become successful.
We start at the top - citizens and their children of the region.
We're working for them, legally, for the long-term, with profit incentives toward lasting employment, community stability, and improving resource benefits. Not just "goods and services," we work for $ from many benefits:
"It's getting late, but we need to answer a few of your questions.
"Let me summarize. From tonight on, you will hear a lot about the Rural System, a conglomerate that is in the business of making money, not just existing or achieving some peculiar set of goals. It will turn the world of conservation, wildland and natural resource management on its ear. You'll know it's in the nature business, developing and optimizing advanced rural systems of many types for lasting profits. It's a private-enterprise approach to the big problems of our region. Of course it has selective, superior preservation and enhancement strategies. We use research results; this is not an experimental plot. Successful, it will expand rapidly in other regions."
Carl always seemed to talk too long, and most of the audience was ready to leave. They had not dozed off on him, though many had had a long, rough day. Many bought the dollar memberships; four picked up the pamphlet. One stopped by to tell Carl that they were going to contact their grandparents about signing-up their land. There was the usual chair arranging, and folding, and confusion about the locks and lights, but the doors were closed, and Carl stood alone in the non-rural glow of the farm night-light on a cloud of gravel dust and pickup-truck exhaust.
Robert H. Giles, Jr.