A Wellness Checkup for Our Island
Like people, communities need to practice healthy habits
If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else. — Yogi Berra
Awellness exam often begins with the doctor asking the patient, “How are you doing?” or “How are things going?” Similarly, to be judged as healthy, a community needs to be clear about what it is doing and where it is heading. The late economist Albert O. Hirschman observed that firms and institutions of all kinds, even when pressured by competition, do not relentlessly improve. Like individuals, they tend to do what becomes comfortable—just enough to get by. And that’s not healthy. Beware the situation where it can be said of an organization that it has no more sense of direction than a bunch of firecrackers. Hirschman’s scientific insight revealed the surprising relationships between economic development and political democracy. His most memorable work spoke of three ways clients, customers or city residents can respond when institutions begin to decline: exits, voice and loyalty. First, with regard to Sanibel islanders “voting with their feet,” the appropriate diagnosis would be no exits. Any typical day during peak season demonstrates that both natives and visitors are all present and accounted for. Thousands of cars cross the causeway each day, and there is a continuous flow of bicycle and pedestrian traffic along Sanibel’s 24 miles of shareduse paths. Even in the less-traveled summers the total number of visitors is rising every year. Meanwhile, the beaches beckon, the nature trails deliver serenity, the sunshine and waters are clear and refreshing, and the dark skies are star-studded all night long.
Second, when it comes to voice, the written language of our inspirational, much-copied Sanibel Plan is repeated out loud every day—in behavior more than in words. In fact, its central mandate to protect ecosystems can be described as a bold, sweet theme song playing on the soundtrack of our sanctuary island “movie.” Among the singers are the four full-time biologists in Sanibel’s Department of Natural Resources. Counties typically may have one such specialist on their staff, but almost no city has such a high proportion of life-scientist professionals.
Third, as to loyalty, out of the 410 cities in Florida, Sanibel is one of the few with a city council and mayor who are: (a) volunteers; (b) nonpartisan; and (c) elected to represent all citizens (no wards). Such loyalty means that in times of decline “customers” don’t abandon the institution overnight, thus pro viding a community time to repair itself. Proof of such healing is demonstrated by the high percentage of islanders who lead and serve as volunteers in a wide range of civic and charitable organizations.
To provide therapy means to serve and to attend. Folks who live on, work on and visit our island, who give voice to its mission and who loyally pay attention to the needs of its flora and fauna (civilized and wild) are keeping things moving in the direction of health
and wellness. We don’t intend to wind up “someplace else.”