Future Building

Smoke n Sky

In a post a little while ago, I attempted to introduce the concept of living life with the awareness of the potential of natural (and unnatural) destruction to your home and possessions. But I think this idea is necessarily vague, because exactly how, one would ask, are we supposed to stop living in homes? Should we live in mobile homes, or large communal spaces that we all own?

I think the problem is something else, that I was attempting to work towards, and sensing the pulse, but not digging deep enough. I’m thinking now that the problem is the whole structure of our society; everything from the way we make our money to the way we organize our communities. Again, this is vague, but let’s just stop and consider for a minute where current events like global warming, pollution of groundwater and oceans, peak oil, and depletion of topsoils is leading us. These dire symptoms of the dessication of the biosphere are the direct result of the way we live our lives right now. They are the direct result of the products that we manufacture, the food that we eat, and the lifestyles that we have grown to think are our birthright.

So to bring this back to something down to earth—when a natural disaster occurs, as I had said before, what we should be learning is not just how glad we are to have it be over with and to have survived—what we should be learning is just how disconnected we are from some of the most fundamental and basic of natural cycles. And these cycles are what we need to be mimicking and learning from in order to progress.

I am reading a book right now, called The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken (which I fully recommend if you’re interested in either economics or ecology at all), that elucidates these points very clearly in terms of business and the need for a new ‘restorative’ economy. The focal point of the book is to try to wake businessmen up to the fact that the economy must be altered to accommodate human beings and the earth. One point of Hawken’s vision is the need to recycle products nearly endlessly, as nature does, thus conserving resources, eliminating toxic waste, and building a sustainable economy that will produce fulfilling jobs.

What is insightful about Hawken’s book is that while we are all, understandably, pointing fingers at McDonald’s and Halliburton and Walmart, what we are failing to do is to begin considering, positively, how these corporations can be changed, and what kind of economic environment could be created that would reflect this change (which Hawken’s book addresses). What we are doing is pointing our fingers at symptoms of the structure that is failing, and labeling what is causing the world to fall apart as evil. Instead, we should be focusing our energies on what way the structure can be re-created sustainably and in tune with the lessons of nature. Almost everyone, other than the dinosaurs and rich idiots that have their heads stuck in the sand, recognize that there are problems. Now it’s time to start conceptualizing in what way these problems can be solved, and laying down the blueprints.

To bring this back to my immediate environment, right now the citizens of Lake Tahoe are pointing their fingers at the TRPA, the regional planning agency, which attempts (admittedly imperfectly, given that it is governed mostly by moneyed interests) to impose regulations on development in the region and keep the environment healthy. People are angry and blaming the agency as the cause of the wildfire, because they do not allow homeowners to cut down whatever trees they want, and restrict the wanton clearing of forest. This is obviously ridiculous. If you are building a home made out of wood in the midst of a dense forest, then you should be aware that the forest is subject to wildfire. Lightning is all it takes to set such an occurrence off, let alone idiots with cigarettes and camp fires, such as what set off this most recent and cataclysmic Angora fire.

So people are seeking to blame a governmental agency simply because their homes burned down and because there were a lot of dense trees on their properties. But obviously, the fact that trees are dense in inhabited areas has more to do with the very fact that humans are developing there in the first place—fires are suppressed and brush and trees are condensed with fuel. So the problem is much deeper. It lies in the very planning and design of human communities. It lies in the disconnection with natural processes that accompanies every step we currently make within our economic, social, and mental structures—from the food that was shipped from across the nation or globe to be wasted on our tables, to the tropical wood we used to build our kitchenette, to the conversations we make about ideas distant from what we actually feel.

When I talk about “disconnection with natural processes,” I refer to the whole conundrum modern society has placed us into with relation to the biosphere, from agri-business that depletes the soil and devastates insect populations and pollutes the groundwater, to the production of non-degenerative toxic substances to house a product that will last 2 months. We don’t know how the products we buy were made, we don’t know what the cow we ate in the form of a cheeseburger was fed, we don’t know how the stitches were sewn into the clothes that we buy. We are disconnected from the most fundamental aspects of how we live our lives. This is a form of arrogance compounded by ignorance.

And when a cataclysmic event like a wildfire or a terrorist attack occurs, it temporarily shreds this veil apart, and you see just how deeply the rifts that separate you and your society from the rest of the world are. And there’s two reactions to this: 1) you embed yourself even deeper in blind ideologies that will support your short-term comfort and complacency; or 2) you begin to seek how to address these rifts and heal the deeper wounds. Once you’ve made the obviously correct decision, then suddenly things don’t seem so bleak anymore. Yes, the challenges that are ahead of us are massive and possibly insurmountable; but they are also great opportunities for positive change, social mobility, and creative design. This is where the future lies: in intelligent and creative people hunkering down to work, with their minds clear, their visions unclouded, and their anger and bitterness released. The task at hand is much greater than any loss that you personally have ever undergone. The task at hand is the distinct possibility that human existence could be obliterated by our own past ignorance and current inefficacy.

So it’s about time to work past guilt, blame, and anger. It’s time to begin the building of a future. This will necessarily be in conjunction with governments, corporations, and everyday people—but only in new and completely altered forms.


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

7 thoughts on “Future Building”

  1. hope this makes sense, no time to edit:

    you know, i’ve been thinking about this sort of thing lately, only for different reasons and subsequently from a slightly different approach. really neat to see you posting on a similar subject.

    this summer i’m home living with my parents for the first time in years, before i start school again. to keep myself busy, i’m editing dad’s autobiography. so far, i’ve been seeing a lot about his boyhood in the jungle and plains surrounding maridi, in sudan. dad grew up in a tribal society very closely tied to nature. and by “closely tied to nature,” i mean they lived in grass huts and relied on hunting, gathering and herding to survive. in such an environment, moru socioeconomic development is very different from socioeconomic development in the united states. like any small community thoroughly awake to the ecosystem, it relies on shared profits and environmental sustainability to subsist. and i’ll describe a little bit about what that looks like, and then explain why i think larger society needs to move toward similar values.

    among the moru, villages are made up of clans — extended family units. women leave their clan to live with their husband’s families, but aside from that, the family unit never really separates. living is very communal. if one hunter makes a kill, that person shares the meat with everyone in the village. if there is a death in the clan, everybody appears at the family’s hut to grieve. in such a closely-knit environment, showing that you care becomes an extremely important duty. the worst thing that you could say about a person is that they *don’t* care about someone. similarly, ill will is treated with fear and suspicion, and boasting is highly frowned upon. a herder doesn’t brag about his goats, for example, because that could foment dissension or encourage theft. it would also be considered undignified.

    natural resources are, expectably, used carefully and to their fullest extent. hunting, farming, gathering and herding are timed to seasonal cycles. the fish harvest, for example, is done with the aid of a poisonous berry that acts as an intoxicant. because of the toxic nature of the berry (its juice only makes mature fish drunk but it kills the young immediately), each clan only engages in the activity one time each year, and only with the permission of the rainmaker — the village elder responsible for monitoring seasonal cycles. if the rainmaker decides that there are not enough fish populating their chosen stream, the harvest is called off for the year — for the good of the tribe and the good of the school. there is an understanding between the people and the animals; hunting dogs always get to eat part of their kills, well-fed predators share carcasses with humans as well as other scavengers, surplus prey is left alone or even adopted as pets by villagers. when locust swarms eat the village, the villagers eat the locusts. everything works together, either in moderation or isolated and rare bursts of activity.

    i believe that we will have to adopt this wisdom on a global scale. the world used to be big enough that we could capitalize — we could tap some distant resource and not care about the surrounding land or peoples, and treat power as if it were something one person or group could have over another person or group. but as transportation and technology close distances, cultures and people mix, and multinational alliances solidify, the health of one group of people, empowered or no, can easily effect the world. look at chinese food products. think about the necessary economics of immigrant field workers. consider the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis. whether we like it or not, people we don’t know can drastically affect our lives, so their health and happiness help ensure our own. this world has essentially become one small tribe, and like a small tribe, we must watch its resources — both out of altruism and selfishness. if we cannot sustain our environment and resources, then someone in the world will likely suffer. and suffering, like happiness, spreads. our efforts will determine which one.

  2. Thanks Maisha, best comment I’ve had in a long while. The reality that we live in a ‘global village’ is most definitely undeniable—which makes it all the more remarkable that we still have neo-con politicians and think-tanks that have the audacity and outright boarishness to promote reactionary resource grabbing programs like “The New American Century.” (Thankfully, it looks like these dinosaurs are folding in their cards, as scandal after scandal inevitably hits their neanderthal ridden ranks.)
    Do you have any ideas on what a global society patterned on natural cycles might look like?
    Some visions I have are of suburbs converted into permacultural communities, where the gigantic yards and manicured lawns are converted to sustainable local food sources, and people actually commune with their next-door neighbors, rather than talking shit about each other.
    One of Paul Hawken’s visions is where we never have complete ownership of a product like a refrigerator or television; rather we lease them until we upgrade or wear them out, at which point we return them directly to the manufacturer, thus rendering manufacturers responsible for re-using their own products, encouraging them to recycle all parts and design their products for the long term.
    Without a doubt, whatever this global society might look like, it will have to be based, to put it tritely, on that bumpersticker slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”.

  3. gorgeous. i hadn’t intentionally thought that far through, yet. as i do, though, i can think of a number of things we could integrate into our culture — things we’ve already developed to some extent, but reluctantly because of the expense or the amount of work involved. there are a number of fronts to consider: sustained and prompt emergency assistance, building codes cognizant of natural threats and advantages, more funding and reasonable schedules for mass transit, government incentives for carbon offset practices, welfare, healthcare and eldercare systems that are actually responsive to the needs of the individual … and we’d have to work in steps. there’s what we can do with society as it currently exists, and what we can gradually start building toward.

    i totally agree that community planning would do wonders. if we wiped the country clean and started all over again, i could envision communities built around a balance of agricultural or industrial centers, with distribution between these centers to allow everyone access to necessary products. it would help if people could actually live close to where they work — as in fixing a low cost of living for people who need to work in the surrounding area, instead of driving prices so high in cultural centers, folks have to commute for hours. but seeing as how our land is already so developed, implementing that kind of system would be difficult without huge heaps of time or some sort of cataclysmic event. i think good intermediate steps would be encouraging people to maintain yards with natural flora rather than importing plants that have nothing to do with the local ecosystem and then spraying everything with pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are bad for the surrounding plant and animal life. locally-grown food is a fine idea, and it’d be tasty, too, but we’d have to figure out some way to make time for people to tend crops. i like your recycling idea very much. i also think that there should be required efficiency inspections on hv/ac units (those suckers are more toxic than cars) and continued tax rebates for energy-concious home improvements, like we’ve had for the past three years. ultimately, i’d like to see standard homes built with space and energy conservation in mind, as well as alternative energy sources, like solar panels. you could pay attention to the local geography to determine where and how to build, and focus on maximizing natural resources with the architecture. how about living spaces near the center of a home unit where there is likely to be a more stable temperature? that sort of thing. as for transportation, bicycle lanes are a good idea — a lot of communities don’t have them — and once i read an op-ed piece suggesting that we should have rebates from the government for buying fuel efficient cars (35 mpg+). there are air standards to think about, parks to save, and somebody has to know more than i do about livestock! have you ever read “my year of meats”? the only thing that frightens me more about the way we treat our cattle is the fact that we actually ingest it, afterward.

    one issue that we definitely have to address is how we invest in our children. i know this is slightly detatched from your environmental question, but think about the basis for our suburban standard. why, aside from ego, do we need the big ol’ car? to lug the kids and all their projects / sports equipment / band instruments / etc. why do mom and dad both work? to afford a sitter and eventually send baby to college. why do we need the big house with a yard? so the kids have a safe place to play. it makes a certain degree of sense, until you realize that parents are working themselves to exhaustion and never get to play with their kids, who grow up in an i-want-bigger society and become demanding little consumers themselves. from a very early age, our children are forced to compete for attention, for parental pride, for relief from boredom and isolation, and for their own place in the world. so in many ways, i think that if we take care of kids better, we’ll ultimately be taking care of ourselves better. it needs to start with child care. larger businesses need to provide longer maternity / paternity leave and childcare assistance for their employees. period. give the kids a place to socialize and play, learn to live in a communal environment. give new mothers a place to breastfeed — not just pump themselves with a machine in a bathroom stall. the thought of that just kills me! and as cities, states, nations, we have to work on building more safe havens for kids to engage in organized, supervised activities. the staff needs to be well paid and thoroughly screened. that goes for education, too. no more substandard teachers who flunked out of their desired profession and just need a paycheck. parents deserve enough time away from work that they can actually interact with their children. and higher education needs to be subsidized SIGNIFICANTLY more than it is, today. i think it’s worth maybe even pulling a few bucks out of the military for that. (crazy notion, i know; we’re at war.)

    i’m not a socialist, but i do believe that it is any government’s responsibility to ensure that its people have shelter, food, education and health care. and i’m willing to pay a lot more in taxes to see that this happens. if we can teach our young people to live in a communal environment, then we have a viable culture. i would add, though, that i’m not opposed to wealthy individuals using their resources to obtain more for themselves — so long as their consumption does not come at the expense of others.

    the only other thing i can think of is that there is probably quite a bit of technological development we could encourage a global scale. for example, here in california we have been developing earthquake-conscious architecture, right? ngos should share developments like these with quake-prone countries, first in major cities, then in rural environments. how much science can we apply to living in greater harmony with the earth? can we use our waste as fuel? can we turn natural “catastrophes” to our benefit, somehow?

    enough ranting for one post. =) this is a good one, mark! you’re really making me think.

  4. I like that you brought it back to children—after all, whenever one speaks vaguely of “the future,” we are really talking directly about children.
    It’s something I’ve noticed too, in terms of how there’s this typical urge of parents to forfeit their own happiness to give their children material wealth (which corporations seek to encourage at every step of the way—after all, they recognize quite clearly that children are their largest cohesive consumer group). We really do have to question what it is that we are trying to bequeath to our children—is it the simply the ability to go to an Ivy League school and drive an expensive car? These things are obviously secondary to love, wholesome non-toxic food, and creativity and ability to adapt.
    If we care about the future, then we will invest in our children—and this means that teachers and small-time farmers should be paid and valued accordingly. And here’s where this ties back in with environmentalism: so long as our society and economy does not value people according to human and environmental factors—i.e. reality (toxic and wasteful products are cheaper than natural products; basketball players are paid more than educators)—then we will continue to diminish and deplete that reality in the attempt to make it conform to some one-dimensional la-la land of endless opportunity that simply does not exist.

    Please, rant all you like. That’s what I do.

  5. Here’s another I just thought of in relation to living more closely in relation to natural cycles, which you touched on in bringing up the Moru relationship to fish: eating local produce when it is in season. Supermarkets now supply fruits and vegetables (including organics) all year-round by flying in stuff from other areas, and most of us don’t even know when a strawberry is locally in season.
    Our diets should vary according to the season; this helps keep our bodies in balance.

  6. Great post. I just stumbled across it.

    I don’t know if you all know about The Oil Drum…it’s another site like Matt’s LATOC. It’s more about the science of oil and alternatives, etc., but I find it very educational. Just a tip.


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