Economies of Scale

The clock that ticks off the United States’ national debt ran out of digits yesterday. It could not register ten trillion dollars without dropping the dollar sign. Far as we are from Times Square, Vineyarders are well aware of our share of the burden (officially estimated to be about thirty-four thousand dollars for every American citizen).

At the same time, as the first frost tickled Vineyard ground this week, farmers here were enjoying a bountiful harvest. Islanders are well used to relishing these autumn months, licking fresh apple cider from our lips, freezing berries, roasting pumpkins and getting out on a trail or in a kayak. Pop culture gurus call it cocooning; we call it preparing for winter.

As Islanders discussed it all over pricey lattées, our natural abundance seemed at odds with the chaotic news of a worldwide economic crisis. The Island economy has largely weathered the economic quakes so far, but traditionally the Vineyard feels the aftershocks of national downturns in a delayed reaction.

So folks are talking about returning to frugal Yankee ways. Spending more wisely. Buying less stuff, buying what we need second-hand. Keeping the heat down, turning off lights when we leave the room. Helping each other.

In their book Cradle-to-Cradle, the authors, an architect and a chemist, used a cherry tree metaphor to explain how the seeming paradox between common sense thrift and reaping our abundance is in fact the natural way to a more sustainable way of living: “Consider the cherry tree . . . the tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Although the tree actually makes more of its ‘product’ than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved to serve rich and varied needs.”

The recession will put the brakes on some Island industries, such as construction and real estate, which had enjoyed a long boom cycle sometimes at odds with the conservation and preservation ideals that benefit our economy in the long run. While the so-called economic cocooning phase may last well past the winter here, it also may provide time and motivation for us to focus on changing the balance of our common investment toward sustainable Island industries, be they agriculture or technology or more ecological energy and tourism.