Questioning Diversity

It’s a challenging moment in our country. By today’s harsh political calculus, diversity equals division...not addition, not multiplication. The way we see it, that’s both morally wrong and profoundly self-defeating.

by Michael Beneke, Forterra

We’re an organization of land advocates. Many of us were educated in biology and ecology. What you learn in those disciplines is that the healthiest, most resilient places are those with complexity.

Perhaps you’ve heard that monocultures—a field with just one kind of crop, or a forest with just one kind of tree—is more susceptible to being overrun by a disease, or insect or parasite. Monoculture plantings of coffee, chocolate, Douglas Fir and bananas have all succumbed.

In contrast, when different species are planted together, they act as protective shields for each other, stopping the rapid spread of, say, a bug that likes one particular plant type. This mutual protection lets individual plants invest in growth and creating offspring instead of warding off threats.

There are other important reasons to plant a mix of species. A 2014 study published in Nature compared grassland plants cultivated in monocultures to mixed plant communities. Perhaps surprisingly, the mixed communities were more productive. Dan Flynn, one of the researchers, explained that “Due to their diversity, plant species in communities occupy all the niches available in an ecosystem. This enables them to use soil nutrients, light and water far more effectively.”

More intriguingly, when diverse grassland plants share a piece of ground, they begin to subtly evolve in response to each other and conditions. Grasses, for instance, develop thicker leaves, letting them soak in direct sunlight at the upper layer of a meadow. Meanwhile clover species sprout larger but thinner leaves to better absorb the weaker light near the ground.

About now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with politics—or with a lot of the work that Forterra does every day.

Well there’s another group of Forterrans like me with degrees in things like political science, anthropology, art history, or law. We tend to think more about the people part of our work. And when we read about this natural ecology, we immediately see social parallels.

In the same way that natural diversity—of plants, of lands—equals strength, so, too, social diversity. Consider: Are we made stronger and more resilient by the tribalism and separatism that’s overtaken the country? In our view, No. It weakens us. We stop benefiting from other outlooks, other talents. Our bubbles envelop us and give us a feeling of security. But like any monoculture, they’re fragile.

Want some science to back this up? There’s lots. It boils down to this: working and living in a diverse environment isn’t always comfortable. There’s friction. People disagree. But when we persevere, when we honestly try, objectively better decisions result. More innovation happens. Prejudices lighten. People feel better about each other.

At Forterra it’s a core conviction that, for the resilience and sustainability of this region, we need diversity: Natural diversity. Social diversity. Even when it comes hard.

Here are a few recent examples of how we’re putting these values into action:

  • Building bridges between rural and urban communities through work on Cross-Laminated Timber—an economic opportunity for old timber towns, and an exciting new building material for designers and builders in the city
  • Helping to build community and seed livelihoods with refugees and immigrants new to the region, via community gardens in Tukwila and Kent
  • Helping groups like Africatown secure property for affordable housing and community-owned businesses in the heart of the Central District—stanching the loss of diversity in Seattle’s core as it grows ever more expensive
  • Helping the Somali immigrant community in Tukwila come together through their mosque to secure land, and an old motel, that can be remade as affordable housing and a microenterprise-filled international marketplace
  • Working with the Tulalip people to recover ancestral land along the Wallace River and restore its historic salmon runs
  • Teaming with rural towns along the Skykomish River to revitalize their flagging economies along recreation lines

We’re excited to play our part in creating a region that embraces diversity not only because it’s just—but because it’s smart. Tell us how you think we’re doing.

From left, Hezekiah Beneke, Michael Beneke, Kimberly Gonzalez, Forterra board member De’Sean Quinn, Kellen Quinn
Photo by Hannah Letinich