Wendell Berry differentiated “economy” from “economics.” To Berry, economy is the cultural sum of how we view and use resources. Economics is the math of dollars and cents.
Is he right?
On the one hand, he is right to force our thinking toward both qualitative and quantitative dimensions. Merging the two value systems too quickly can confine the thought process. Yet calling both dimensions “value” systems is the semantic trump card: Properly understood, regardless of how one builds the words around its semantic roots, economics involves both quantitative and qualitative dimensions.
Let’s look at a concrete example within the landscape to see how this puzzle plays out.
If I look carefully out of my bedroom window, I can see the demolition of a former luxury hotel. Recently a reader contacted me about the landscaping. The landscaping had been lovingly nurtured for decades and was now in jeopardy of being destroyed. Would I be able to salvage any plant material and repurpose it?
The notion of salvaging plant material tilts toward Berry’s definition of economy: The opposite caricature is the undiscriminating blade of the bulldozer.
Of course I wanted to save the mature trees, shrubs, groundcovers, bulbs and boulders. But to do so would be a monumental operation. I would need to arrange massive digging spades used to transplant trees. I would need additional heavy equipment to remove and load the decorative boulders. And I would have several tractor trailer loads of material to truck away. For the groundcovers and bulb plants, I would need countless labor hours, digging, lifting and separating the plants from the soil.
Then, I would need a large, empty gravel lot to store and stage the material. I would need yards of mulch with which to protect the now-exposed root balls. Who knows how long the material would sit until reclaimed?
Now, Berry’s “economy” must meet “economics:” From salvage costs to carrying costs, there is no getting away from quantitative costs.
For our next examples, as much as it pains me to do so, let’s move closer to home. Years ago, you bought a shrub, and contrary to your intentions, time has got the best of you. You now have to drive around it to get to your garage. As a plant-loving arborist, I am loathe to cut down anything that can be effectively trimmed. Yet in many cases, “remove and replace” is comparable to the cost of proper trimming. Of course, replacement is incompatible with sentimentality, and an established shrub is impossible to buy.
Now, outside of the hobby-horticulturalist, all pruning has a time or money cost. Despite Berry’s apparent objection, one way or another, time is money: Somebody’s time or somebody’s money. In other words, these are value judgments. However, the marketplace knows, and plant propagation will always provide adequate and perhaps more sustainable replacement options.
Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.