Spencer Beebe

Using Nature as an Example

Recorded: April 20, 2012

Why save temperate rainforests? Spencer Beebe discusses the importance of saving our temperate rainforests and why we need to be more radical in our environmental approaches.

Spencer Beebe is a fourth generation Portlander with a lifetime of commitment to wilderness, community resilience and pioneering new approaches to conservation—both domestically and internationally. Mr. Beebe spent 14 years with the Nature Conservancy before helping found Conservation International in 1987. In 1991, he founded the nonprofit Ecotrust in order to focus his efforts on bringing international models of forest and community preservation to protect temperate rain forests in North America. He serves on the boards of Ecotrust and Ecotrust Canada, Ecotrust Forest Management, Inc., the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute and the Walsh Construction Company of Portland.

In his new book, ‘Cache,’ Mr. Beebe talks about his 40-year adventure of inventing new ways of both conserving the environment and creating new businesses, and ultimately finding a new model of development to address the social, economic and ecological issues of our day.

Spencer Beebe: I went to Rio in 1992 and was impressed with the kind of arrogance and the hypocrisy of the American voice abroad talking about biodiversity –at conferences and conventions and forest conventions– and telling the Brazilians to save the rainforests. And I just thought, wow, we know absolutely nothing about sustainability, what that means, what it looks like, what kinds of institutions, inclusional arrangements, incentives that that implies.

Spencer Beebe: And you know if rainforests are so important, why don’t we get busy and think about our own rainforests, which are temperate and run from the redwoods of California right up to Alaska, that magnificent coastal Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock and Red Cedar forest, it’s unique in the world. That is the largest temperate rainforest in the world and deserves some serious attention. And I thought, well, if we could explore how to do it right and really address the intersection of social, environmental and economic wellbeing at home in our own rainforests, maybe that would be an example to the world, an expression of practicing at home what we’re preaching abroad.

Spencer Beebe: One of the things we have in this country and this time in history is incredible freedom because we can create nonprofits and for-profits and new institutional arrangements unlike any place in the world. You know it’s fairly easy to start a non-profit; you find friends to be on the board, find some friends that will give you some money, you find some friends that will sign on as staff, and off you go. I mean, I’ve helped create–I’ve never tried to count, 15 or 20 non-profits and organizations from Bolivia to Alaska. It’s not all that complicated to start them. It’s hard to find the leadership, the funds and the continuity and so forth to keep it going.

Spencer Beebe: So you know, there’s always so much you can do. You can sit back in despair or you can jump in and do what you can and there’s so much good, positive, fun rewarding work to do that I…you know, I don’t worry about the bad news. The fact is, our social, environmental and economic well being are all totally and completely intertwined, and I think we have no choice but to dive in.

Spencer Beebe: And I’ve found, you know, you can find places where the intersection of social, environmental and economic well being is a place, you know, that might be… that is very tangible and very real and often times starts very specific and very local, but very real. This building is an example of that; we’re sitting in the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center on the roof in the Pearl District of Northwest Portland. We said we want to create a place that was rebuilt, restored, readapted from an old warehouse to a marketplace for the goods and services and products of a new economy.

Spencer Beebe: I worry about, you know, right now, what can we do right now that’s going to make a difference? And every interesting good, big thing I think I’ve done have been 180 degrees to convention. Every one has been surrounded by skeptics. Every one of the big good things have been — doubters saying “Oh, you can’t do that. You don’t know anything about that. That’s the greatest dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.” And you know I’ve come to believe that if I try something new that’s surrounded by people that say “Oh that’s a great idea,” then it’s probably not worth doing. It’s going to get done by somebody else.

Spencer Beebe: So, a challenging convention– because I think convention, the depth of which our industrial system, the fabric of our industrial society is so deeply woven, you know, every thread is an incentive or a disincentive, or an organization or a set of rules, or regulations, conventions, expectations, reward systems that push us all in the wrong way. So I think we have to be way more revolutionary and radical in the way we think about what needs to get done. The industrial model has had a great run with some very, very destructive side effects. But the funny thing is, as we search around for answers, we’re surrounded by nature and a biomimic model of how to solve energy problems, food problems, waste problems, living well problems. You know, it’s all around us.