Blue Skies and the COVID Spring
By: Vincent Stanely, Director of Patagonia Philosophy
A few days after the governor ordered us all inside, I noticed the color of the sky — a deep blue, somewhere between marine and cobalt, of a particular shade I’d never seen in Southern California. In my youth our state had only half its current population, engaged in about a fifth of today’s economic activity. Times were slower, but the skies never deepened this way in the days when gasoline still contained lead. The current muffling of freeway traffic (social isolation for cars!) means a quieter neighborhood by day and more brilliant stars by night. And the spring unfurled beautifully. Wildflowers, mustard first, a sprinkle of neon yellow, dotted the hills. Soon came the lupine and poppies, and my favorite, Indian paintbrush. For a month the creeks ran clear and full because we’d had enough rain, and the last of the blackened earth from the Thomas Fire burst into green. It still means so much more to be outside and walk among the living trees than when, a few weeks ago, you could go anywhere, anytime, without thinking.
The natural world was not the first topic of conversation over the phone or laptop or on the porch during the early days of isolation. We talked about the virus — its long chains of RNA as ridiculous as a Dr. Seuss hat, its threat as an aerosol in the human breath. We talked about handwashing, the threat, potential or realized, to our loved ones, the lack of tests. We spoke of Wuhan and Bergamo and Brooklyn, of the presence of Andrew Cuomo and oddness of Donald Trump. We talked about zooming with kids in the room, how to fetch groceries — and unpack them — without falling ill. Only after running through most or all that would anyone say, tentatively, Did you see the stars last night? Did you see the moon?
Years ago, decades ago now, Patagonia assigned me to do some work for the Kennebec Coalition, a group of environmentalists and anglers working to take out Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine. Edwards was a crib dam, some 900 feet long and 24 feet high, built in 1837 of logs and stones, each stone big enough but also small enough for one man to carry. For 150 years, Edwards Dam powered a textile mill on the river’s bank, but by the time it burned down in 1991 the mill had been closed. Its owner kept the profitable dam in operation even though its 3.5 mega-watt capacity met only one quarter of one percent of Augusta’s need. And the structure itself continued to block — as it had for 150 years — 17 miles of spawning grounds for ocean-going fish: shad, striped bass, sturgeon, herring, alewives and Atlantic salmon.
At the time no dam in the United States had ever been removed against the wishes of its owner. No application for renewal of a hydropower license had ever been denied. Many environmentalists still considered hydropower a source of clean energy. And it is clean for the air but not for the river.
My job was to write a series of paid op-eds for the principal Maine papers and the influential nationals, the Washington Post and The New York Times. I got on the phone most mornings at 6, reviewing with Steve Brooke, the Coalition’s director, any new development from the attorneys that required a shift in copy. The resulting ads, I was told, helped win over Angus King, then the governor. And they helped win over local opinion against word from the opposition that removing the dam and lowering the river would reveal a toxic floor and devolve into a stinking mudflat.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates hydropower, did deny renewal of the license. Appeals were filed and denied. It took more years to raise the money to physically remove the dam and all those stones a single man could carry. The first step, taken on January 1, 1999, was to open the floodgates. Steve Brooke stood in the cacophonous powerhouse that day, watching the engineer who stood next to him throttle down then silence the turbines. “It was palpable, the room shuddered before it went quiet,” he told me later. “It was like a death.”
That summer the dam came down and the river came back to life. Its regeneration was swift and astonishing. It is anything but a stinking mudflat. The shad, alewives, sturgeon, herring, striped bass all returned after 150 years of absence. So did Atlantic salmon, though in smaller numbers. You could find the redds if you knew where to look. You could find more species of insects in the water traps, and in greater numbers. In Augusta’s Mill Park, where the dam once stood, you could swim in the once stagnant water. Since then more than 1,100 small dams have been removed from places where, like Edwards, they served no justifiable use. I feel proud of the bit of prodding I did that helped turn the tide, prouder than of anything else I’ve ever done. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of useless dams still stand. And COVID-19, which forces us back to basics, teaches how many things we have we don’t need — including many that hurt our one and only world.
I have worked for Patagonia on and off, mostly on, since its inception. I started a little before that in the employ of my uncle Yvon Chouinard, joining as a bookkeeper a dozen dirtbag climbers and surfers who hammered out the world’s most respected mountain climbing gear in a tin shed near the beach. I never became a climber or surfer and my love of nature has been more distanced than it is for those who feel most alive moving through the wild. Though as I grow older, I love nature more, including obviously natural beings like babies and puppies. When I was a younger it took a dose of LSD for me to be able to see the life thrumming in a tree. Now I don’t need any persuasion. But I also love the work of human beings, including that of the Industrial Age ruins you find in the Eastern states. I love and admire the creativity and ingenuity, the sheer work that went into remaking, in 150 years, the physical landscape that had gone largely unchanged for centuries. To power down the turbines felt like a death: Steve Brooke’s words have never left me; nor has it ever left me that the river rushed back to life so much faster than anyone predicted.
Since Governor Newsom consigned us to our houses and I noticed this blue new to the sky, I have been feeling this opposition between the health of the natural world and that of the economy. How nature yearns to come back — and comes back so swiftly where it can! And yet, how odd it is to see the streets of Manhattan empty, to imagine Milan without a passagiata, to watch my co-worker balance a child on her knee while she talks to us through the looking glass of Microsoft Teams.
How painful it is to see the people who run the company I’ve worked for all my adult life struggle so hard to adapt to changes outside our control. In mid-March, in the interests of safety, we closed our warehouse as well as our stores and offices. We were among the first to shutter our stores and one of the few to stop shipping altogether. We met payroll through early May for regular, nonseasonal employees, but we then had to furlough most retail workers and others in our headquarters and distribution center, most for 90 days. This gives us time to assess the speed of recovery for the stores and business in general.
Patagonia has now resumed shipping, at a third or less of capacity at first, to test the new worker protections. We don’t know when we can reopen stores safely, even if gradually. No decision can be made solely on the basis of short-term financial returns. Every decision must take into account the welfare of our stakeholders — employees, customers, communities and nature. Our suppliers, an important part of our community, are hurting due to the downturn in consumer demand for clothing. And in the face of all these constituents is the hard truth that Patagonia can be no company at all without safeguarding its basic financial health.
I used to run Patagonia’s wholesale division, then left that job to write catalog copy, then directed the editorial team, for a spell ran marketing, and for the past five years have been the company’s director of philosophy. I teach Patagonia history and values to our employees. I speak about the company to business and design students. I advise entrepreneurs who want to start and run their companies while exercising their values. When I give a talk to business people I often start with a quote from Aldo Leopold to ground the conversation in something aside from ordinary human ambition.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community,” Leopold said, and by that he meant all of nature, including human beings. It has been true for too long that, since industrialization at least, perhaps since the dawn of agriculture, almost all economic activity tends to disrupt, rather than preserve, the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It has never been clearer than now how the wellness of one means illness for the other. The trees are happy today, the sky above Santa Barbara is this new shade of blue. The sky is blue over Beijing as well. Cougars have been seen on the deserted streets of Santiago.
But I am in distress, as are my fellow human beings. These signs of health seem to come at our expense, but really only because we have put things so badly out of balance in our building of the human world at the expense of the rest of life. And even our human world, our rich global economy, means prosperity for half the population max, but not for the other half or more who have never seen the inside of an airport gift shop. And we know that much of what we do to retain prosperity in its current form risks turning the planet into a desert.
Climate change, systemic environmental degradation, species loss and the waste and pollution that attend economic growth threaten our life. It has never been clearer that this simply cannot be. We cannot make our living at the expense of Mother Earth. Yet we still have to make our living together in a time of viruses with 15 strings of RNA, rising oceans, and dying bees.
I have often been asked about Patagonia’s attitude toward growth. Would it better if we grew more rapidly, so we could be more influential? Or would it be better if we didn’t grow at all? Should Patagonia stay small to do our part to let nature begin to heal herself? My response to the first questions has always been skepticism. I think our growth is healthiest when it comes from word-of-mouth affection for our company and its products. We always wanted a deeper relationship with our customers than you can have when you treat your customers as targets through TV, glossy magazines or conventional e-commerce platforms.
To the second question I’ve argued that even in a steady state economy, even in nature, some organisms grow and some decline. So that if we make useful things that last, make them in the right way, and do our part to save our home planet, well, we’re at least carrying our weight. I tell students it wasn’t much fun working at Patagonia during the years we didn’t grow at all. It was a bit dull, not as exciting as when your company has the people, the resources and capacity to do things no one else has done before. And I’ve told the students that even during slow times the company never actually shrank. We questioned whether we could do that in a healthy way.
The question is no longer hypothetical. We are shrinking. We will be smaller next year than last. We will not be able to bring wonderful new people into the company. We may lose some of the wonderful people we have.
Our future growth, as of this writing, is uncertain. Other things are not. We will continue to sell useful clothes that last a long time. We will continue to value our customers as friends and equals. We’ll continue to build Patagonia Provisions and the movement to change the way we eat to bring soil back to health, draw carbon into the ground, revitalize our groundwater and rivers and reverse the die-off of species. We’ll continue to be activists for protection of wild places. We will continue to call out climate deniers in government for their cynicism.
As to the loss of what we had and who we were only a few weeks ago: maybe it will be healthier in the long run for us as well as for the ecosphere. But it’s going to hurt like hell for a good long while as we reweave all the strands that make a healthy community.
No accident that the words “ecology” and “economics” derive from the same Greek root, oikos, which means household — in the smallest sense, the place where we have to stay home in a crisis, in the larger sense our home planet. Ecology being the study of the household, economy its management. Our task for our company, for all working people, for the rest of this century at least, will be to integrate what works for the human community with what works for the natural world we’re a part of, to build with our customers something better than we now share, more satisfying, more generous to more people and the rest of the biotic community. We need to get farther down that road before we learn the answer to that most pressing of philosophical questions, How do we fit it into the larger picture?