Aftermath Of The October Snow Storm: Can we afford not to think about soil?

The Oct. 29-30 storm downed scores of trees and utility wires, leaving 3 million homes and businesses in the Northeast without power.  Hardest hit was Connecticut, where a state record of 850,000 outages was set only two months after Tropical Storm Irene caused a then-record 830,000 power failures (Collins, Dave and Haigh, 2011).  Both events brought over a week of power outages to residents in central Connecticut, due to downed power lines, trees, and branches.  The unusually early October snowstorm hit trees particularly hard as many were still covered in leaves.  The heavy wet snow broke branches, limbs and took down entire trees.  For the past several weeks there has been a steady stream of trucks offloading piles of brush, which are ground up at the Trout Brook parking lot at the UCONN campus in West Hartford, CT.  A mountain of chipped biomass sits steaming and decomposing as officials try to figure out what to do with the material.

The looming mountain of chipped biomass tells two stories.  The first is a story of the aftermath of two unusually powerful storms that impacted the residets of Connecticut.  The second story is one that is more complex, but equally important.   This story is clearly visible if you choose to look deeper, from the lens of soil and our earth systems.  Natural systems brought the wind, rain, snow, and ice that was ultimately responsible for the devastating and disruptive events.  On the other hand the same complex natural systems also bring positive things like sun, water, and earth which together, sustain life on this planet.

Ironically, the unusual storm event may be as much our own doing as our lack of preparedness and understanding of how connected and reliant we are on the natural world.   If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t spurred to realize the urgency or importance of soil and earth systems then one might have reason to be pessimistic of our future.   If we can see this event as a powerful reminder of our inherent connection to the natural world, and through a broader worldview there is hope and optimism for the future.

Perhaps the importance of realizing the significance of soil can be illustrated through the following question.  How can understanding soil offer creative opportunities that look beyond the immediate challenges and extend to bringing a broader systems approach to addressing our immediate and future needs?   I am of the mind that the answer to this question lies in what I see in the heap of decomposing biomass.  This mountain of energy represents social, ecological and economic opportunities rather than the perceived financial liability in the aftermath of the storm.

The devastation left behind by the storm is awe-inspiring.  The clean up which followed is estimated to cost over $6.8 million dollars.  Ironically, the challenge of what to do with all the downed trees caught local, and regional leaders off guard.  Ill prepared for the emergency at hand, the crisis that unfolded was dealt with as a technical problem.  First, the clean up effort was contracted to out of state contractors, the lowest bidder, rather than coordinating with local businesses who could have benefitted from the work in a sluggish economy and keeping federal and state funds local in the clean up effort.  Secondly, instead of viewing the downed trees as a liability, could understanding of soil and earth systems offer a broader perspective?  Instead, a new paradigm might view downed tree limbs as an incredible energy resource.  The emense biomass accumulated, instead could have been harvested, composted and redistributed to the community as a value add rather than an liability.  The Intervale project in Burlington serves as a good example of how we can turn food scraps and organic matter into vital aspects of making our communities more sustainable, resilient and connected.

In conclusion, broader understanding and complex systems thinking illustrates that we can’t afford not to think about the importance of earth systems and soil.  Soil is our foundation for life, a critical component that affects the energy budget, water exchange, nutrient cycling and ecosystems productivity (Juma, N. G., 1999).  While critically important the challenge in asking organizations to think about soil in this way, risks significant hurdles of acceptance, however it seems a crucial ingredient in order to begin addressing the challenges of climate instability and increasing pressure on our natural environment.  A more tangible solutions is to look at organizational successes like those that have been achieved by organizations like Interval which can successfully illustrate and beauty, fulfillment and vibrant beauty that lies in our natural world through compost, food, and community.  Connecting these elements in this model can offer a powerful example of the value of balancing people, planet and profits.  In this manner, complex systems thinking and a triple bottom line strategy may offer greater value in its benefit to society, the environment, and the economy.

Noah Tuthill

Antioch Organizational Management, MBA 2013

November 16, 2011

References

“Connecticut Snowstorm Highlights Problem With Utility Companies,” Collins, Dave and Haigh, Susan, Available online, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/12/connecticut-snowstorm-utilities_n_1090009.html, Nov 16, 2011.

Juma, N. G. (1999). “The Pedosphere and Its Dynamics.” A Systems Approach to Soil Science. Volume 1: Introduction to Soil Science and Soil Resources. Salman Productions Inc.

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