“A Lot of Live Wires in the Room”

Jon Quitslund

I have two topics in this essay; maybe I should call them ‘areas of interest’ rather than topics.  I want to write from my impressions at the end of the six ‘Listening Sessions’ that have brought groups of citizens into the process of updating our Comprehensive Plan.  I also want to engage in a sort of dialogue with an essay by Wendell Berry that I find pertinent to our planning process.

I’ll take up the second subject first.  The latest issue of YES! magazine (Spring 2015) arrived recently, and when I saw Wendell Berry’s name on the cover I went straight to his essay.  (“Revolution Starts Small and Close to Home” excerpts passages from two essays in a new book, Our Only World: Ten Essays, which I may need to add to my long shelf of Berry’s books of fiction, essays, and poetry.)

As you may know, Wendell Berry writes from a place in rural Kentucky where he has deep roots.  Although his perspective on the world is different from mine, I find that the wisdom he draws from his experience partakes of universal and eminently useful truth.  Even when he surprises me with what seems to be an obtuse opinion, I stop to ponder the idea: maybe I missed something, or maybe I’ve been on the wrong track.

In this essay he takes up the momentous subject of climate change, and stubbornly refuses to get excited about it.  That’s refreshing and paradoxical.  Who can justify a refusal to plan for a future shaped by the consequences (environmental, ecological, economic, cultural, geographical) of climate change?  Well, Wendell Berry can.

I can’t agree, but I can see his point, and on reflection, I take it seriously.  His basic message is this: we live in the present, informed by historical experience that helps us to understand our current problems and opportunities.  We can’t know the future, and experience reminds us that many of our educated guesses about what the future holds (not to mention our worst fears) turn out to be mistaken.  So preoccupation with the future, with the enormity of the problems the world will face in coming decades, is itself a problem in need of a radical remedy.

Here’s a piece of what he wrote:

We can begin backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong. To the extent that we have moved out of the future, we also have moved out of ‘the environment’ into the actual places where we actually are living.

     If, on the contrary, we have our minds set in the future, where we are sure that climate change is going to play hell with the environment, we have entered into a convergence of abstractions that make it difficult to think or do anything in particular. If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible.

Berry makes a useful distinction between “prediction” and “provision”: “To provide, literally, is to see ahead,” and we need to be so oriented, living prudently (like ants, not grasshoppers).  But our provision for hard times, or for a long journey, is based on experience and common sense, not assumptions about a distant future.

Berry doesn’t consider what a trap – a tender trap of comfortable circumstances, or a vicious circle formed by self-destructive habits – the present can be.  He challenges us to be clear-eyed, not self-indulgent, not defenders of a place in the status quo: “all we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today.”

For a better understanding of what Wendell Berry regards as ‘the right thing,’ I’ll urge you to consult the current issue of YES!, where you’ll find several other items pertinent to our present, and to a future that’s already being provided for.

* * *

The series of ‘Listening Sessions’ that took place in City Hall over the past few weeks left me feeling that we’re off to a good start in the Comp Plan update process.  I was present for five of the six sessions.  The comments at my tables didn’t all offer sweetness and light: we heard from critics of the whole idea that Bainbridge Island is obliged to participate in ‘growth management,’ and from individuals who have been frustrated in their past dealings with City Hall.  In general, though, I found the participants ready with good ideas and eager to come to grips with the issues, large and small, inherent in the Comp Plan update process.

In the first stages of planning for the update, a commitment was made to include the predictable impacts of climate change in our revision and implementation of the Comp Plan.  I found it regrettable, therefore, that the questions prepared to prompt and guide discussions didn’t pursue that theme.  In retrospect, though, and in line with Wendell Berry’s emphasis on inhabiting the present and the place where we actually live, I would say that the participants were doing “the right thing today.”

A passing comment in the session on Monday morning, March 2nd, remains resonant for me.  It was a simple statement: “This is everybody’s problem.”  What that specific problem was, I don’t recall.  It doesn’t matter; I felt the response was not only apt in that instance, but expressive of an attitude widely shared throughout the roomful of separate discussions, time and again.

There will be contentious issues, and we won’t always agree on what should be done in response to a problem, but when something that directly affects a segment of the community (the shortage of reasonably priced rental housing, for example) is recognized as everybody’s problem, we’re proving the strength of our social fabric.

To my way of thinking, the Comprehensive Plan is a verbal embodiment of the social contract that holds us together as citizens, in a certain place and time – “where we are alive, where we belong” (to quote Wendell Berry again).  People find different ways of participating in that contract; some may opt out, or feel excluded from the prevalent norms of public life and policy; we may wish the Island was more inclusive, more representative of the full spectrum of humanity; it’s too simple to say we are all one community.  Nevertheless, the pronouns “we” and “us” can be used here sincerely, without make-believe, to include much more than one’s family and close friends.

I think some Islanders are uneasy with the notion that there are, implicit and intangible but still firmly in place, a set of “Island values” to which we are all supposed to subscribe.  I myself feel that uneasiness; I prefer to regard my own values as provisional, always under review, a muddled mixture of pragmatism and idealism.  What our widely shared values are will be discovered and better understood as we go through the update and implementation process.

Do Island values include sustainability, as that too-familiar term is generally understood? (Let’s use the Brundtland Commission’s definition: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”)  I think that within the listening sessions, attitudes toward development varied dramatically, but people implicitly understood the Brundtland principle and supported it.

One contribution at my table in the last session was a reference to tools for measuring the sustainability of a community.  (This came as if in answer to what I heard in an earlier session: “We need metrics; we need goals in the Comprehensive Plan.”)  I wasn’t familiar with the STAR Community Rating System; I expect that our professional planners know of it.  Perhaps it will be of value as we move further into the update.

(If you’re interested, go to www.starcommunities.org/  The rating system can be downloaded, free of charge – be advised that it’s a document of 132 pages.)

It will take some time to compile and analyze the record of the listening session discussions.  The City’s consultant, Joe Tovar, has referred to the results as a list of “amendments” to the Comp Plan, and it’s my understanding that all of these will be discussed by the Planning Commission, with many occasions for public comment: Kathy Cook has promised that we’ll be very busy through the rest of this year.

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1 Response to “A Lot of Live Wires in the Room”

  1. Elisabeth says:

    Jon, thank you for this informative and interesting article.

    I find Wendell Berry’s comments fascinating. First, that he writes as if climate change is still something happening in the future rather than something that is happening now.

    Second, specifically in response to this: “If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible,” I have personally found that accepting that climate change is likely not solvable has been most galvanizing to me, both regarding living in the present to enjoy what we have now, and also freeing up my mind from anger and depression into acceptance and joy which enables me to take more action now than before, rather than less.

    What this indicates to me is that everyone reacts differently to the issues of climate change, we all have different perspectives on it. Where Berry finds thoughts of future issues impedes action, others may find that these thoughts engage and enable action.

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