Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The True Protest is Beauty

Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” – Phil Ochs

            In the spring of 2010 I was working part-time as a tour guide and environmental educator at the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center in Oxford, Michigan.  The headquarters is a 1970’s-vintage earth-bermed passive solar structure with a green roof, solar hot water, and a grid-tied photovoltaic array and wind turbine, among other features.
For several years running, teachers from a local middle school had been bringing their sixth graders to tour the Center as a year-end field trip.  During my tenure at the Center, I’d taught dozens of school groups like this and toured thousands of people young and old though the facility, and based on this experience I anticipated an instant murmur of Wow!’s and a quick barrage of questions about our modern, dual-axis tracking photovoltaic array, an eye-catching landscape feature and one of the principal attractions of the tour.  
That’s not what happened, however, with our local sixth graders last year. 
To my complete surprise, upon their arrival they ignored the solar setup that dominated the landscape and focused their Wow!’s on the nearby living roof.  They moved directly to the split-rail fence that keeps foot traffic off the roof and began pointing at the plants growing there as though they had seen animals hidden in a zoo exhibit.  This was unprecedented.
As a teacher, I prefer to ride the flow of attention rather than oppose it, so I immediately decided to shift the usual order of my presentation and instead begin with the green roof.  As I observed the children’s expressions and listened to their comments, I realized that what drew them to the roof was the same aspect that had made it my favorite part of the tours: it is, quite simply, beautiful.  In response, I decided to try something really different. First, I affirmed what I sensed going on in them by saying, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” 
Thinking about this later, I wondered how often teachers emphasize the perception and value of beauty in a child’s educational experience.  Generally, it seems, teachers lay stress on correctness, accuracy, measurable quantity, and sometimes creativity.  Beauty?  Well, it’s not on the standardized tests, is it?  Sadly, when I was teaching high school language arts full time and brought the word beauty into the discussion, many of my students associated it with an aisle at the drugstore—in short, as product.  Bringing beauty as a value back into education has been an interest of mine ever since grad school.
So I shared with the sixth-graders that the green roof was my favorite part of the tour.  I told them that in a few weeks’ time many of the plants they were looking at would be flowering, ablaze with color.  And, I said, while there are energy efficiency and other environmental advantages to green roofs, what I particularly liked about the idea is that the design achieves these benefits in a beautiful way.
 Does it matter? Yes, it does.
Most people find green soothing, and experience the colors and forms of flowers as bringing cheer and hopeful feelings.  We now know that relaxation and positive emotions are central to good health, and conversely that stress reduces immune response and puts body systems at risk. Psychologically, whether our moods are predominantly light-hearted or depressed also affects our relationships, our productivity, and our quality of life.  A beautiful environment supports the health and well-being of individuals and society.
The green roof  is an example of a design where beauty counts.  I invited the children to imagine building a world where it always does.
            As I reflected recently on these events, I began extending my thoughts about how the principles of permaculture and natural systems could apply to human communities, which is the principal theme of my current writings.   One of the remarkable things about the diverse and interconnected plant and animal communities of natural and permaculture-inspired landscapes is that they are both highly productive and lovely to behold. 
Granted, beauty is to a very large extent culturally defined, so much so that perhaps the only thing that’s clear is that there is no clear standard.  Nonetheless, I feel it’s worth bringing an aesthetic perspective not only to landscapes and architecture but also to organizations and social movements.  Given that the Green Hand concept is really about signs, I’ve been thinking about some of the signs I’ve seen carried in recent protest marches in US cities, and about the last time I carried such a sign on the eve of the Iraq war.  I have also thought about the aesthetic of the nonviolent US civil rights movement led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr., and what I’ve read about Gandhi’s methods to achieve social change.  Recently, a friend of mine told me about Estonia’s Singing Revolution, in which up to 300,000 Estonians gathered at once to courageously sing forbidden songs as part of that country’s successful effort to gain independence from the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s.
Conversely, there are slogans of hate, burnings of flags and effigies, and mob violence.  I would not say that direct opposition is never called for or axiomatically ugly  -Estonians also reportedly formed human barricades against Soviet tanks to protect radio stations.  But I’m wary of patterns of discourse where the prevailing motifs are characterized by garish contrasts.  Even the chanting at rallies feels like pounding, a tactic resorted to by those who feel they aren’t getting through.  Pounding anything is almost guaranteed to generate resistance and opposition.  But how would one oppose a melody?  With noise, I guess.  Nonetheless, even in the face of noise, it’s still worth singing.
So, the observation Phil Ochs made during the turbulent 1960’s is worthy of consideration today: when faced with ugliness, perhaps the true protest really is beauty.  Part of what keeps me talking, writing, teaching, and otherwise promoting the Green Hands concept is that I like the way it feels.  Although I see value in participating in various organizations, I also like the aesthetic of self-regulating and self-reproducing signs, and I celebrate unmediated person-to-person connection as a fundamental lever of social change.  I know this initiative is a long shot, but I feel it’s a better direction than the destructive, divisive rhetoric that dominates the airwaves and the halls of power.  I particularly like the way audacity and humility combine in the act of public reaching out through signs, and I find the wild, out-of-control economy of the concept both elegant and charming. 
The interesting thing is, while such aesthetic considerations are not particularly rational, it seems to me that, especially today, these factors may ultimately trump reason and thus help break through the logjam of human argumentation.  After all, the green plants that cover the earth and make the planet inhabitable are not reasonable, eitherthey’re more of a miracle, really!  Look at them growing everywhere, doing their thing, and breathing out oxygen!  Aren’t we lucky to have them?
Someone I met at a conference once asked me if I’d registered the “Green Hand” as a trademark.  No, I replied, it’s YOUR hand you’re putting out there!  This is a true and personal reaching out.  I see the Green Hand sign, perhaps with a phone number or email address on it, as an invitation that in effect says, and quite publicly: “I acknowledge that the current economic system is no longer viable. I want to create something else. I’m willing to talk, and I’m willing to share what I know with others to help make that happen together.”
Of course, other people’s signs may mean somewhat different things, but this is what I mean by mine.  Most importantly, like those children walking toward the green roof that day last spring, I am drawn in this direction because it feels like a beautiful place to stand.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Human Monoculture and Economic Diversity

The permaculture movement has made significant strides in raising awareness about the hazards of monocropping agriculture, in which a single organism, such as corn, is the predominant inhabitant of the agricultural landscape.  Diverse, interdependent plant and animal communities modeled on the natural world, it is argued, offer significant advantages in the long run in terms of soil fertility, watershed management, pest control, and other parameters of environmental preservation. But the beautiful thing about permaculture, as Toby Hemenway explains in his book Gaia’s Garden, is that it is a way of thinking and not a set of practices. Because of this, we can apply the same basic principles to human culture conditions as to plant culture conditions.  The Green Helping Hand Reskilling Initiative and other community organizing strategies responding to Peak Oil can help to break down the tendency toward human monocultures by creating new relationships and new flows of material and information.

“Cultural diversity” is a term that has been in common use for years.  Most often, what it seems to mean is celebrating differences in language, cuisine, the history of peoples and nations, and so on.  It’s worth noting, of course, that the discourse of diversity occurs within the dominant culture.  Because of this, I have often wondered how significant the term cultural diversity really is.  I feel that deep cultural diversity relies to at least some degree on a diversity of economic systems to support these cultures, and that economic hegemony runs counter to such diversity.  For example, today people who wish to honor “Native American culture” may study with a Native American teacher, learn Native American survival skills or crafts, or participate in spiritual practices derived from Native American traditions.  Some elements of these cultures have been preserved.  However, I would argue that, taken outside their larger cultural context, a shaman’s drum or a sweatlodge ceremony is a bit like a tiger in a zoo: alive and cared for, perhaps, but a different thing in some important respects than it would be in its native habitat.

Around the world, the extinction of languages and destruction of human cultures continues at a rapid pace.  And while we often point to war, genocide, relocation, and environmental degradation as the causes, it’s important to note that these are merely some of the tools used to extend particular economic systems.  In the dominant system, land is an item of commerce, living within a political boundary requires payment of taxes, and these taxes must be paid in the coin of the realm, earned in that same system.  In the end, the expanding hegemony of dominant economic interests puts increasing pressure on human cultural diversity to stay within a fairly narrow range, and the mechanisms are much the same as those responsible for cornfields now extending from horizon to the horizon in the US Midwest.  Without its own economy – in other words, without a way of meeting basic needs that operates in ways consistent with the other elements of the culture – a really different culture could starve, sometimes literally.

I used to take evening walks in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit where I lived in a neighborhood of homes mostly built in the 1920’s.  From nearly every front window I could see the flickering blue light of a television in the living room.  The economics of the neighborhood rested on wage-earning employment, which we take for granted.  Why there was such an apparent lack of diversity in the use of free time outside of the workplace remains a worthy question, however.  Whatever the cause, the pattern was clear, and the chemically fed front lawns and ubiquitous yew and arborvitae foundation plantings reflected also a kind of human monoculture, with all its inherent systemic risks. 

This led me to some questions: What to do about it?  How to re-introduce cultural diversity in the face of a homogenizing economic juggernaut?  Where is the chink in the armor of the dominant economic paradigm?

The answer started to appear to me in 2008 when a large economic shock went through the dominant economy, further concentrating the system’s wealth in the hands of a few while leaving many others without jobs.  What happens when a large number of two-income families become one-income families?  Is it a coincidence that sales of seeds to home gardeners reportedly went up 25% in the spring of the following year?

It seems sensible to me that there could be a correlation there.  It’s not hard to imagine the thinking behind the aggregate purchasing decisions that shifted the seed market so dramatically as the economy went into recession.  In addition to the visceral response of planting food crops as insurance against hunger, many households suddenly had the hands and time available to do the work.  Further, the economics of home gardening started to make sense in a way that it might not have when the wages from an hour’s work or three could fill a grocery bag with the fruits of agricultural labor performed elsewhere.

On a fundamental level, the kernel of the change was this: many households that previously had more money than time (thus putting a premium on industrial convenience products) had become households with proportionately less money and proportionately more time.  As this shift occurred, activities like home gardening and clothing repair or alternation that didn’t previously seem worthwhile suddenly did.  Likewise, though I have no studies to prove these activities grew in popularity, we can point to work such as baking one’s own bread, engaging in home food preservation, rearing one’s own children, raising backyard poultry, creating one’s own meals and entertainment, and so on.  All of these amount to direct wealth creation, and they circumvent to various degrees the industrial model.

So, is this a real shift toward cultural diversity, or is the home gardener, for example, the economic equivalent of a tiger in a zoo, still beholden to the dictates of the dominant economic system, which – let’s be clear about this – in most cases largely supplies the gardener’s daily calories, and which may remove that gardener from the land if the rent, mortgage or taxes are not paid?  

My sense is, it’s a bit of both.  For starters, there are units of local currency moving in and out of pretty much every household, and wherever this is so, the dominant economic paradigm still holds sway. 

But it also seems likely that what Ivan Illich calls “useful unemployment” can open the doors to real cultural shifts as people use their time to creatively provide for some of their needs and connect with others in ways for which they previously had neither the time nor the motivation.  It also seems likely that creating new material flows and engaging in value creation for one’s own household could serve as an incubator for nascent industry.  In this way, emerging textile makers, tinkerers, gardeners, or masters of food fermentation could re-enter the official, currency-tagged economic flows of wealth creation by starting their own businesses as they learn new skills and apply existing skills in new ways. 

Personally, I applaud these outcomes, and I see richer possibilities for creative and adaptable subcultures emerging as we move away from the economic monoculture in which it is not uncommon for household members to park two cars in the garage after a day’s work only to stare at lighted boxes until bedtime.  From my perspective, the cumulative impact of even small shifts at the margins of the economic system could be more important in developing and maintaining a diversity of viable cultures than any number of international potlucks, however tasty the vegetable samosas and pierogis being served might be. 

Finally, heaven help me, but there’s just something wonderful about the idea of people in capitalist societies – especially the unemployed – putting their backyards, garages, kitchens, basements and unused bedrooms to work as productive capital.  The possibility that goods of better quality and greater uniqueness, healthier foods, and more rewarding relationships could also result is simply icing on the homemade cake.


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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Signs?

Why Signs?

I admit it: in the days of mobile internet and GPS, the concept of posting physical signs as a way of generating community may seem “retro” and outmoded. Nonetheless, I like them.  For one thing, a physical sign works regardless of weather conditions, operates just fine regardless of power outages or internet connectivity gremlins and, moreover, has the distinct advantage of providing information that is directly relevant to the viewer’s immediate environment.

Awash in media, we tend to forget the value of immediacy.

Over your shoulder right now is some kind of household, a work environment, or perhaps a stranger on a bus.  Take a look around.  Maybe engaging these people and this environment is more important than reading this blog post. Perhaps better yet, consider right now that you can engage the family member, coworker, or stranger over your shoulder about this very blog post and why you’re reading it.  By wedding your experience of media with the immediate experience of those around you, I guarantee you will create a richer experience.

On a practical level, I like to think of the Green Hands Reskilling Initiative as a kind of ground-level “Green Mapping.” Green Maps are an online resource helping people to locate environmental and sustainable enterprises in communities ranging from their own hometowns to places on continents around the world.  It’s a great idea!

Yet, I don’t feel that a Green Map will ever take the place of physical signage. Partly, my reasoning is based on the much-discussed distinction between a map and the actual territory.  It’s not that there’s anything bad in general about maps; they can be extremely useful. But negotiating a map is not the same as negotiating the territory it covers, as anyone who will tell you who attempts to ford an actual stream depicted on a topographic map when the stream is suddenly running swift and swollen by a summer storm. Signage amounts to a mapping feature that is incorporated into the actual territory, thus bridging the navigational advantages of maps with the immediate experience and reality of the territory itself.

Plus, there is something to the related idea of locality. As we inhabit a given landscape, we interact with it according to a number of different travel parameters such as where we are going and how far, how fast and by what means of conveyance.  Now suppose, as some do, that energy scarcity may reduce our ability to travel by motorcar.  This shift would make locating community resources nearer to home all the more important.  Finding resources in the course of our normal daily movements is direct, efficient, and full of the possibilities inherent in the manifold layers of existence that engage when we interact with our living immediate environment full of synchronicity and the richness of unexpected events.

My understanding is, the walking range of pedestrians has historically been a whole lot more than what we typically cover on foot today.  Though we aren’t used to the idea here in the US, a purposeful 5-10 mile walk to a local destination should really be no big deal for most people.  But regardless of our range, the beauty of the Green Hand sign, should the idea catch on, is that it will show up precisely where we live, and should our range of mobility be reduced, access to instructional resources and mutually beneficial relationships does not have to necessarily shrink with it.  The local world, when truly known and explored, can in our personal experience feel larger than the world going by at a 70mph blur, even if that blur extends dozens of miles. Green Hand sites are but one possible feature of that local world, and a way of exposing the richness of a given locality.

However, the success of the Green Hands concept will ultimately rest on whether or not people are sufficiently alarmed by developments to take a stand and do something, like being the first in the neighborhood to identify themselves by posting such a sign.  My sense is, we have not reached that tipping point yet on a broad social scale. It’s still important, however, for as many people as possible to start publicly proclaiming through their Green Hand signs (or by whatever other means, of course!) that indeed business as usual will not carry us through the economic and social transition we now face, and that we are presently willing to do something about it.  Even the conversations generated by people asking about the significance of the Green Hand sign will ultimately result in more-aware and connected individuals and communities. Building a conspicuous and flourishing garden takes a bit more time, but it might accomplish much the same thing.

When I allow myself to dream, I imagine a world with communities founded around the Green Hand concept: neighbors reaching out to help one another acquire the skills and resources to live well in an age of increasing resource scarcity.   I’d like for there to be so many Green Hand signs dotting the landscape that they start to suggest a universal community and widespread willingness to work together, a project many people will choose to participate in motivated by a sense of enlightened, community-centered, self-interest.