06/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Web of the North

Apostle Islands, Wisconsin -- Here in one of the most recently glaciated, and therefore youngest, ecosystems in the U.S., it's all too easy to grasp the complexity of the 21st century's ecological challenges.

In Duluth, the papers headline what seems like good news -- major revenue growth for the Port of Duluth -- importing wind turbines from overseas. This supplements Duluth's other major cash generator, exporting iron ore to China and other places where those wind-turbines are made. This two-way trade is good for the Port of Duluth but bad for the U.S. economy and the environment. If we had maintained the same kind of interest in wind power that other countries did, those same turbines would be manufactured much closer to home -- in Chicago and Cleveland.

One reason why the global reach of the wind-turbine trade is bad for the environment is that all that shipping results in 5 billion gallons of untreated ballast water containing invasive species being dumped into Duluth's harbor every year. As a direct result zebra and quagga mussels, and round gobies and Eurasian ruffe, have already invaded Lake Superior's once pristine water. Because the lake's ecosystem is relatively young, it is more easily invaded by these alien species.

I'm here to deliver a commencement speech at Northland College, one of the greenest -- in both curriculum and sustainability -- colleges in the U.S. But northern Wisconsin is hurting economically because its paper mills are shutting down -- not from over harvesting of the forests, but because paper manufacturers must compete with Chinese imports -- produced from illegal rainforest logging in Myanmar and Indonesia. So the economy of northern Wisconsin is suffering because we aren't protecting the rainforests of Southeast Asia, while we are missing the opportunity to produce paper from more potentially sustainable forests.

And although the Native American presence is still strong here, there is tremendous anxiety over the wild rice harvest that is one of the tribal economic staples. The last few years have been dry, and the level of Lake Superior has fallen, forcing the rice beds into dormancy -- a normal occurrence. Now the lake is rising again. But with so many invasive plant species seeded around the lake, it's feared that they took over critical habitat during the dry period and that the wild rice beds might not be able to come back.

And here, where the temperate forest transitions to the boreal, people have watched global warming for years -- as the boreal slowly but steadily retreats northward with the warming globe.

What's striking is that all of these ecological challenges could, at the front end, have been easily managed or avoided. In fact, many could still be tamed -- but it will require thinking about their interconnection -- not just solving each challenge in the cheapest or simplest fashion. And if the web of life is this complex in a place as young as Lake Superior, how much harder will it be in older and more complex ecosystems such as the southern Appalachians or the rainforests of Indonesia? This is a century when we need to think about connections -- something market fundamentalists aren't good at.

But hopefully, it is something that students trained at Northland will be good at. The school, for example, provides 20 of its students each year with the chance to see their entire liberal arts curriculum through the lens of Lake Superior and its watershed. Programs like Superior Connects are what this century calls for.