What is Ecopoetry (Reviewing a New Anthology)

Jon Quitslund

The Ecopoetry Anthology, ed. Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2013), $24.95.

The term ‘ecopoetry’ has achieved currency among writers and readers only within the last ten years, but the kind of poetry to which that label refers has been around much longer.  (It emerged at the end of the 1950s as part of the ‘beat’ counter-culture.)

This new anthology contributes grandly to an understanding of several phases in a historical development; it also documents, in fascinating detail, the awakening of conscience and imagination in our present moment.

The book’s contents are grouped in two sections, Historical (pp. 3-130) and Contemporary (pp. 133-576).  In the Historical section, poets are arranged in order of their dates of birth, from Walt Whitman (b. 1819) to James Dickey, Denise Levertov, and James Schuyler (each born in 1923): this section forms a backdrop for developments that began around 1960 and are flourishing today.

The Contemporary section arranges its selections from the work of 177 poets in alphabetical order, from A. R. Ammons to Robert Wrigley.  In “American Ecopoetry: An Introduction,” Robert Hass provides historical contexts and explains the principles that guided the anthology’s creation.

Paging through the book, opening it at random, or taking it in doses (a dozen or two dozen pages at a sitting), you are apt to encounter familiar poems.  Yes, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” is there, and Gary Snyder’s “For the Children,” and Wendell Berry’s “Peace of Wild Things.”  There are also many eye-opening surprises: I wasn’t acquainted with Lorine Niedecker (to mention just one discovery), and I knew a little of Stanley Kunitz’s poetry but had never read “The Wellfleet Whale” – an astonishing poem.  There are others just as good.

You may not know A. R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet,” which alphabetical ordering makes the first poem in the Contemporary section: its symphonic music provides a splendid overture to the many voices, and many kinds of poetry, that come after it.  Some poems may strike you as riddles or empty words and leave you cold, but then there’s a brilliant gem on the next page, or the beginning of something that draws you in and takes your breath away.

So many fine poets, emerging or already established, have been caught in this book’s wide net – some whose names I knew, and many new to me!

One of my discoveries was Brenda Hillman’s “Practical Water.”  The first line of the poem grabbed me: “What does it mean to live a moral life”  The second line takes a step back: “It is nearly impossible to think about this”  The poem proceeds by fits and starts; it’s a series of prompts and insights, single lines or short sequences left hanging, unpunctuated.

“An ethics occurs at the edge / of what we know // The creek goes underground about here”  Hillman’s reference to ethics calls to mind Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”; she suggests a corollary “water ethic.”  And “the edge / of what we know” invokes the precautionary principle: “An action should not be undertaken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.”

The precautionary principle is fundamental to any practice of sustainability, even to any moral life.  It implies acute awareness, not disengagement.  Hillman’s poem ends, “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it // Go to the world / Where is it / Go there”.

Ecopoetry is informed by science as well as ethical concerns, and some of the poets have scientists’ credentials and experience.  They are sharply observant, skeptical, mockers of certainty and complacency.  “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams’ maxim, is implicit in their practice, and sometimes explicit.  Their emphasis on observation usually entails a very scrupulous, economical use of language, creating poems that can be cryptic, low in affect, cool if not downright cold.

More than any other poet, Gary Snyder deserves recognition as the founding figure in development of an ecologically oriented poetry.  The anthology offers a fair sampling from the beginning, at the end of the Fifties, of a career that hasn’t ended yet, and that remains true to the style in his first book, Riprap (published in 1959 and reprinted many times).

The title poem in Riprap begins, “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks.”  The poem is a manifesto, making out of experience on a trail-building crew in Yosemite a way to see and represent the connections of consciousness with all manner of things.

In an Afterword to a reprinting of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems in 1990, Snyder said, “The title Riprap celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.”

That grand statement about “the whole universe” is not what we find in the imagery of Snyder’s poems, or elsewhere in The Ecopoetry Anthology: poetry offers first glimpses, parts of the whole, anecdotes, “a new walk” (Ammons at the end of “Corsons Inlet”), and (in Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet”), “What is to be done with our species?”

Both in their declarative statements, showing and telling, and in the questions they raise, the poets gathered in this book are concerned to overcome – and prompt their readers to overcome – the estrangements that afflict our culture and darken our future.

At the end of his Introduction, Robert Hass speaks of “the necessity of imagining a livable earth.”  That the earth as we find it is, and will remain, livable is not a given: to think so is to participate in a mass delusion.  So imagining a livable future is only the beginning of the real work, but necessary, and we need all the help we can get.

 

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Citizen Involvement in Planning for Waterfront Park

Jon Quitslund

Citizens with many different interests and talents will soon have an opportunity to work together on a major project for the benefit of our community.

The City has begun to plan for significant improvements in the Waterfront Park and the City Dock in Winslow. Two public meetings have been scheduled, using the renovated Community Center on Brien Drive. The first will take place on Saturday, June 1st, and the second on Sunday, June 30th. Both meetings will be in the afternoon, 1:30 to 4:30.

The first meeting will consider the full range of activities that the park and dock might accommodate, and possibilities for connection with other places and activities on the water and elsewhere in downtown Winslow.  It will be a free-for-all brainstorming session, exploring a wide range of ideas and letting them clash and combine.

The second meeting will develop a strategy for designing the park and dock. It will set in motion a team effort that will, I trust, be robust and practical enough to make its way through all the stages of design, review, funding, and implementation.

This is a tall order, and we won’t see results on the ground any time soon, but there’s a sense of urgency – a belief that “Now’s the time!” – surrounding this project.  Participation on the part of many people, representing a wide range of interests, is crucial to success in the first phase of planning, and citizens will also be called upon to maintain some involvement in the process over time.

Without broad public support, the project’s integrity is apt to be subverted. (We’ve seen this happen before.)

Participants in the first meeting will have the benefit of inspirational leadership. Dan Burden, co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute in Port Townsend, will join us for the day to preside over the meeting.

Board members of Sustainable Bainbridge have stepped forward to work with the City on this project. This is a new venture, both for the City, with its depleted Planning staff, and for the nonprofit organization, which aims to channel the talents and generosity not only of its board members, but of an engaged citizenry.

As things stand now, after years of neglect and piecemeal fixes, the park and the Eagle Harbor waterfront present challenges – and opportunities – big enough to engage dozens of visionary problem-solvers.

In its present shape, Waterfront Park is a space, not a place. Except in the brightest part of a summer’s day, it is dark and unappealing. Nothing in the space itself invites people to gather there, and although the ground slopes down toward the water, nothing is visible on the waterfront to draw people in that direction.

The next time you’re shopping downtown, take a break and walk down to Brien Drive. Stand on the porch of the Community Center, then walk through the park down to the dock. If you have time, walk out on the dock: imagine being a visitor, coming by water to the Island for the first time.

The dock, the shoreline, the forested areas and the open slope all constitute a liminal space.  Potentially, it’s a place for gradual transitions, for discoveries, for serious play.

Thinking and acting creatively in response to the raw opportunities presented by the Eagle Harbor shoreline and Waterfront Park, we would do well to put aside our usual habits of thought.  We all tend to think in either/or categories, but the challenges presented by this project call for both/and thinking: ideas that bring people together and promote the common good.

At the shoreline and up the slope, on paths through the trees and in open spaces, we need to accommodate all sorts of outdoor activities for people of all ages, both visitors and Island residents. Some activities will be strenuous and purpose-driven, and some will be relaxed, unplanned, purely for pleasure. Maybe the park should include a gathering place that offers refreshments, and shelter in rough weather; maybe some facilities can be set into the slope and made less obtrusive.

Planning for improvements in the park and dock will proceed within constraints, too many to be listed here, but they can be a matrix for creativity.

Please consider this an invitation to participate in an important planning process, and come to the meeting on Saturday, June 1, in the Community Center (1:30 to 4:30 p. m.). Come early if possible, and take some time to walk around the park and along the shoreline.

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My Sense of Place (I)

Jon Quitslund

I’ve written before about a ‘sense of place’ as something of value, both in the inner lives of individuals, and as an element in the social contract that brings people with different backgrounds and interests together in a settled and stable community.  Your own way of making sense of Bainbridge Island and your place in the community will be different from mine, but the distinctive place where we live gives us something in common.

We all know, perhaps from our own experiences someplace else, that many people don’t enjoy the connections with an authentic place that we (and the people who came before us) have formed here on Bainbridge.  The word ‘conurbation’ was invented, it seems, to describe the drab predicament in which masses of people find themselves, when the basis for a sense of place has been lost and nothing has been created to replace it.  Many places – urban, rural, and suburban – have lost the coherence and vitality that they once had; that trend, inexorable as a glacier, has been working its will around the world for decades.

The concept of ‘place’ has been celebrated and investigated for more than thirty years now in Orion magazine: the keywords “Nature / Culture / Place” appear on each issue as a subtitle.  And in another place on the cultural spectrum, the Front Porch Republic website (my favorite source for authentically conservative opinions) carries the watchwords “Place. Limits. Liberty” just below its masthead.  (If you aren’t already acquainted with the Front Porch folks, take some time to eavesdrop on their conversations: they’re not from around here, but we on the left coast can learn from them.)

I mentioned in another post that in the book group I’m part of, ‘sense of place’ has guided our readings for the year.  Jerry Young, one of my closest friends in the group, has compiled an extensive bibliography on the subject, and I have my own long-standing interest in it.  An acute awareness of local landscape, country houses, villages, farms and gardens is present throughout English literature, and I once organized the readings in a seminar for English majors around the ‘sense of place’ theme.

Long before that, I grew up on Bainbridge Island, and that experience predetermined many of my interests and choices later in life.

Having relocated here after many years when I lived in other places and grew somewhat attached to them, I often recall my experiences growing up here in the late 1940s and the ‘50s.  Although I have gone through many changes and the Island has changed too, some things remain the same, and my deepest sense is of continuities in my impressions, although the continuity is fragile.

Much of what’s new is not unwelcome; I have no interest in living in the past.  But the spirit of the place as I experience it inheres in things that have been here a long time: in our geography, our weather, the woods, open spaces, beaches, and Puget Sound.

That spirit of the place is present both in transient moments and in stretches of time.  The other day, driving along Sportsmans Club Road toward the head of the bay, I flushed a pheasant from the field on my left.  My heart leapt up!  Pheasants were seldom seen here in my early days, and I was startled to see that they aren’t gone for good.

Walking along Sunrise Drive or on the tide flats around the middle of the day in spring or summer weather, when the sky is cloudless and bright blue, I can still marvel at the contrasting colors and textures where the topmost branches of tall Douglas fir stand out against the sky.

I have one extraordinary experience etched in my memory from a Sunday morning one summer.  I think I was around sixteen at the time.  We had a 16-foot canoe, made in Old Town, Maine, that my father had bought second-hand.  I loved to go out in it by myself, sometimes with a book and sometimes just to be on the water and feel the breeze or the heat of the sun.

On this morning, still quite early, the tide had already exposed some of the sand bars.  I half-carried, half-dragged the canoe out to the water’s edge.  It was very still, hardly a ripple in the water.  The sun was low in the sky, a mist was rising off the water.  I paddled out slowly, steadily.  Everything around me was at peace.  The mist and the glassy surface of the water created a perfect equilibrium.  Nothing was bright, everything was illuminated equally.  I felt perfectly at ease, in the moment, and the moment went on and on.

I plan to continue thinking about my sense of place, reflecting on memories and relating my experience to things that I’ve been reading.  Through Eagle Harbor Books, I have ordered a new book, The Ecopoetry Anthology, and I’ll review it here, perhaps before the end of May.  (My wife is in Massachusetts on a meditation retreat for the month, so I’m on my own spiritual journey.)

 

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Earth Day Here, Now, Always

Jon Quitslund

“On its anniversary, Earth Day is worth not just celebrating but also studying – as a story with political lessons.”

This is the last sentence in a thought-provoking essay by Nicholas Lemann, “When the Earth Moved,” in The New Yorker for April 15, 2013.  The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970, and Lemann identifies, as the impetus for what has become a traditional part of our springtime, a speech that Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc) gave in Seattle on September 20, 1969.

Lemann notes the broad and bi-partisan support that made the first Earth Day “teach-ins” a success, and the stellar legislative consequences of its consciousness-raising: creation of the E. P. A. (1970), and passage of the Clean Air Act (1970), then the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).  “Throughout the nineteen-seventies, mostly during the Republican Administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Congress passed one environmental bill after another, establishing national controls on air and water pollution.”

So where are we now?  “Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?”

For many years, the environmental movement has had trouble making headway.  Lemann singles out one “humiliating defeat” in the summer of 2010, with the collapse of efforts to bring a bill addressing greenhouse gases and climate change forward for debate in the Senate.

In his account of what went wrong, Lemann finds fault first and foremost with environmentalists themselves, for not staying true to the spirit of the original Earth Day organizers and participants.  I disagree with this assessment.  Lemann leaves out of the picture some monumental changes – demographic shifts, economic turmoil and reorganization, nothing short of a revolution in politics, and several distracting wars – that have conspired to keep environmental issues out of their rightful place in our national consciousness and our political agenda.

I’ll discuss, too briefly, a few of the problems faced by the environmental movement, after giving a little attention to what it has going for it.

First, I think environmentalists still possess the spirit and the organizational ability that they had at the end of the sixties.  They aren’t strong in every community: in many places, for all sorts of reasons, grassroots organizers are apt to find that there’s no ‘there’ there.  But communities of all sorts – urban, rural, suburban – are coming back, organizing to face problems (some of them environmental) and improve the quality of local life.

The best efforts in pursuit of a positive future, both for the environment and for people, are still local, spontaneous and decentralized, in keeping with Senator Nelson’s vision.

Many environmentalists have learned that their old legislative agendas were too narrow: that (for example) income inequality, food security, public transportation, zoning policies, and affordable housing are issues with environmental implications.   So environmentalists are apt to wear new hats, have new agendas, and need new skills and new alliances.

The places that environmental concerns and pro-environment activities occupy within Sustainable Bainbridge offer a case in point.  Many members of the Board and participants in our activities may not think of themselves as environmentalists first and foremost, and that seems to me a good sign, a positive response to many interconnected opportunities.

Now let’s look at some of the problems environmentalists face – problems beyond their ability to solve, or to work around, in the near future.

One is the roller-coaster evolution of our economy and its impact on opportunities to gain ground through education and hard work.  It was upwardly mobile middle-class citizens and their young adult children who formed the crowds at Earth Day events back in the seventies, and politicians competed for their support.  Their ranks are thinner today; they are disillusioned, and many have lost faith in the political process.  In the minds of all but a few, environmental concerns will always be trumped by economic worries, money-saving strategies, and anxieties about the near future.

People opposed to environmental regulations, and in general to the regulatory role of government – ordinary citizens, small business owners, CEOs, pundits and other shapers of political behavior – are much more numerous, better organized, and wealthier than they used to be.  Their money talks, and its message is unequivocal.

On a host of environmental issues – greenhouse gases and the impacts of climate change chief among them – far too many people are confused, and more frightened than enlightened by the little they know.

Scientists such as James Hansen and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben have reached large audiences with very clear messages, and responsible steps are being taken at state and local levels, but in Washington, D C, too many legislators do the bidding of nay-sayers and industry lobbyists, blocking movement toward more sustainable policies on energy and the environment.

As on gun control, so with the causes and far-reaching consequences of climate change: obstruction rules, and destruction continues.  It is legitimate to doubt that clear thinking and democratic processes can prevail before it’s too late to prevent a collapse.

I think we have to shift the focus from “What went wrong?” to “What can be done?”  And here on Bainbridge Island, a lot is being done.  Sustainable Bainbridge is in the middle of it, and in a position to do more, with more help.

Here on Bainbridge, Earth Day is observed, actively, for more than one day.  Let’s extend its impact indefinitely, and make “sustainability” more than a slogan.

Posted in Activism, Climate Change, Community, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, Evolution, income inequality, Middle class, Mobiity, People, Transportation | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

The Importance of PLACE, and a “Sense of Place”

Jon Quitslund

T. S. Eliot, the ‘old possum,’ was being ironic and provocative when he called April “the cruellest month,” but that remark, along with Chaucer’s accolades to April in the opening lines of his Canterbury Tales, must have something to do with the designation of April as National Poetry Month.

In the spirit of this time of year (for me a time of return and renewal, of discovery and new beginnings), I’ve composed a review of a fine book of poems: Jorie Graham’s Place; New Poems (New York: HarperCollins / Ecco, 2012).  I’ve had my eye out for this book since I first saw it reviewed almost a year ago, and a few days ago I happened upon a copy at Powell’s Books in Portland.

I know from experience that contemporary poetry is of interest to a good number of people here on Bainbridge.  In my book group, for example, we set aside dreary nonfiction for a month and devote a long summer day to a ‘retreat’ at the home of Marie and John Marrs on Lake Sutherland.  Each member of the group reads one or two poems, sometimes of their own composition.

In addition to our meeting at the lake, this year’s readings, all addressing the theme of ‘Sense of Place,’ will include a small, seminal volume of poems, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.  (It’s a prescient, even a prophetic book, more true and beautiful today than when it was first published.)

Jorie Graham has her own Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, awarded in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field.  Her excellence has been recognized with many other prizes and awards.  As a poet she is not as accessible as Billy Collins, or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver.  She’s ‘brainy,’ and ambitious; she has a distinctive voice, and it’s unpredictable, always pushing against the limits of language and form.  I think she’s brilliant, and not with the common brilliance of a self-absorbed mind or a dazzling vocabulary.

Graham’s poems aren’t short, and they don’t lend themselves to quick appreciation or tweet-length quotation.  They are meant to be lived with, visited time and again.  The stretched-out sentences, lightly punctuated and spread on the page in sequences of long and short lines, make startling moves like birds or fish: they develop a narrative, then drop back in time, move to another place, or stop with an arresting image.

The first sentence in “The Bird on My Railing” goes like this: “From the still wet iron of my fire escape’s top railing a truth is making this instant on our clock open with a taut unchirping unbreaking note – a perfectly released vowel traveling the high branches across the way, between us and the others, in their apartments, and fog lifting for sun before evaporation begins.”

On the page, that sinuous quicksilver sentence, loaded with images but weightless in its movement out and upward from a bedroom window, is distributed through fourteen lines.  Some contain only a few syllables (“From” and “my fire,” for example); others (“lifting for sun before evaporation”) are like several steps in an intricate dance.

The next sentence changes the pace and the focus: “Someone is born somewhere now.”  And the poem expands, over several pages, into a delicate meditation on mortality, and the disembodied song of “the breath-bird / free to / rise away into the young day and / not be—“

So what, or where, is the place to which Jorie Graham directs our attention?  It varies from poem to poem, and within each poem.  Ms. Graham doesn’t write, as Wendell Berry does, out of a sense of ownership or ‘membership’ in a certain locale.  She’s a traveler, her eye is restless, her mind captures things as they happen and are gone.

Several poems are set in specific places.  The first, “Sundown,” occurs on Omaha beach in Normandy, on a specific date, June 5, 2009, which another reviewer noted is an anniversary of the day before the D-Day landings.  The line where waves meet the sand is “a place where no one / again is suddenly / killed”; rather, it’s the scene of a casual, momentary encounter, as a man on a galloping horse comes from behind the poet and passes her with a smile, leaving her with a heightened awareness of herself, “putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth.”

Another poem, “Treadmill,” involves a bleak and generic setting: “The road keeps accepting us. It wants us to learn ‘nowhere,’ its shiny / emptiness, its smile of wide days.”  This road, I think, is the nightmare traveled in Cormac McCarthy’s best-known novel, and Graham’s poem is a passionate protest against all the forces in our distressed culture and a degraded environment that herd us together toward a dance with death.

If this review piques your interest, you may want to learn more about Jorie Graham and the convictions that motivate her imaginative writing.  Visit her personal website, which contains links to interviews and reviews of her work.  I strongly recommend the interview with Sharon Blackie in the online journal EarthLines, published in August 2012 (www.joriegraham.com/earthlines-interview).

In her exchanges with Sharon Blackie, Ms. Graham offers deep insights on the subject of ‘ecopoetry,’ having been asked, “How do you feel about the term? Do you think it really does represent new possibilities in poetry, or is it just another term for what we used to call ‘nature poetry’?”

From the discussion it becomes clear that there’s a movement, among poets and their readers, worthy of the label ‘ecopoetry,’ and Jorie Graham is among its most passionate and intelligent participants.  It’s a movement of conscience, committed to awakening and empowering imagination, in cultural and environmental conditions that endanger its survival – our survival.

“We really need to imagine the as-yet-unimaginable racing towards us, in order to have a prayer of survival. And right now, the imagination, on that front, shuts down into denial. It has grown weak, and we have a generation or two of humans who cannot see, or feel trust or desire, beyond the world their screen provides.”  Poetry as subtle and ambitious as Graham’s turns us toward the larger world, and the ‘real work’ we have to do in it.

Early in the interview, Graham mentions Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods, and its account of ‘nature-deficit disorder.’  It struck a deep chord with me when she said that it’s no longer common for children to play outdoors until nightfall – something I remember fondly from my childhood here, through seasons of short days and long.

“What neurologists call ‘unstructured outdoor play’ – hide-and-seek, catch – all the play that moves towards dusk, which activates a more ancient part of the brain, a different memory storage and retrieval, a capacity for imagination, intuition and empathy – has almost disappeared from our world.”

So ‘place,’ and an emotion-laden ‘sense of place,’ are not ready-made but hidden, and must be sought out.  The obscurities of hinted meaning and the difficult, fractured sentences of Jorie Graham’s poems serve a purpose: they invite us into a “play that moves towards dusk.”

It’s no accident that the first poem in Place is “Sundown.”  And the collection ends with two poems, specific in time and place.  “Lapse,” set in Iowa City, 1983, in the evening at the summer solstice, is addressed to her daughter (Emily, to whom the book is dedicated), then nine months old.  It’s a retrospective stream of consciousness as, for the first time, she puts her baby in the bucket of a swing set, pushing it higher and higher.

The last poem, “Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011,” also moves towards dusk.  It carries a double message.  As a tourist, the poet’s attention is focused on a Bronze Age stone carving displayed in a corner of the cathedral, thought to represent the legendary Irish king Nuadha, who lost his arm in battle and, no longer ‘whole in body,’ was forced to quit his kingship.  Then, fitted with a new arm made of silver, he replaced the bad king who had succeeded him.  (Google ‘Tandragee man’ for an arresting image of the king, holding his prosthetic arm in place.)

The poet’s responses to this “piece of / stone, large as an infant, / hundreds of / pounds,” are interrupted by awareness of a wedding rehearsal nearby in the nave of the church, and again by thoughts of many limbs lost, and the borders of nations redrawn, in modern wars: violence and loss, no other future.  But the poem ends with an exchange between the poet and the bride-to-be: “May your wishes / come true I say, / guidebook in hand. Tomorrow, she says. I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

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Stewardship and Regulations

Jon Quitslund

                                                      The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people.

– Robert Frost, ‘The Gift Outright’

We are near the end of the tedious road leading to an updated Shoreline Management Program – a complicated regulatory regime governing new and existing development of properties all along our island community’s interface with Puget Sound.

If the management of development (‘uses’ and ‘structures’ in municipal code language) were all that the SMP had to deal with, it would be a tall order, but there is more: the omnibus ordinance also deals with the public’s interest in visual and physical access to the waters surrounding us, and with a host of environmental concerns and natural processes that may be impacted by development.

As the City Council completes its review of the draft SMP, some of my thoughts turn upon stewardship.  When you come to think about it, stewardship is, ultimately, what land use regulations are all about.  And in a place such as ours, stewardship – a caretaking attitude toward our place in Puget Sound – is  a large part of citizenship.

The attitude I’m concerned with here isn’t applicable only to our surroundings – the land, waters, air, vegetation and wildlife that nobody owns.  As I see it, we are stewards of our private property too, especially in the many parts of the Island where property lines are indistinct.

Ideally, stewardship is the spirit animating the body of land use ordinances, but in practice, regulatory language often obfuscates its own purposes, and since human nature tends to resist regulation, even believers in good government may end up wondering “What’s the use?”  A generous exercise of imagination is called for if, as a community, we are pro-actively committed to stewardship of our natural resources and the sense of place that is so much a part of our local culture.

Everything pertaining to the common good depends, crucially, on a multitude of individual actions, some of them habitual and some the result of deliberate choices, effort, and the investment of time and money.  Our community is blessed with great wealth in the natural resources that surround us, but only a fraction of those resources are publicly owned.  The beauty and health of our community, for present-day and future generations, depends in large measure on the attitudes and actions of people on their own property.

Fortunately, our local culture favors stewardship rather than selfish and reckless behavior, and most of us see that our own interests are best served by caring for our private property, preserving its value over the long term in a way that serves the public interest.

Still, regulations are necessary, and they need to be revisited from time to time in an open and thorough public process: if they are vague, out of date, inconsistent, or unenforceable, we have no solid basis for community values. Smart and well-intentioned people may do dumb things, and only a few of us are consistently careful of our impacts on all the things of the world that don’t belong to us.  In addition, we all need some protection from the mischief made by knaves and fools.

Who likes regulations?  Don’t we tend to think that it’s other people — ‘those people’ — who need them, not ourselves?  I consider myself law-abiding, but I still resist any nannying voice that tells me, “You must do this – you mustn’t do that!”  Such an attitude is childish, though: I can’t see myself arguing against a regulatory policy as an illegitimate imposition on my freedom or my property.

There’s some tension between stewardship and regulations, but no basic conflict.  One has to know the letter of the law in order to be true to its spirit.  The good steward cares for his or her own property, and perhaps works as a volunteer on public projects, doing the right thing out of love, not because it’s required.  The whole point is not to evade regulations but to go beyond what they require.

As I have tried in this essay to articulate my personal views, believing that they are aligned with basic community values, I have been acutely aware that a fair number of Islanders will vehemently disagree – if not with what I’ve said, then with where I seem to be heading.  This makes me hesitant to speak my mind, but I’ve made my peace with differences of opinion: I wouldn’t be happy in a community where disagreements are hushed up and nonconformists aren’t welcome.

The long process of updating our Shoreline Management Program has accomplished a lot, but it has also stirred up dissatisfaction, deepening divisions that I suppose are inevitable in our diverse and clannish community.  It’s been clear for some time that many owners of shoreline properties are unhappy with several provisions in the new SMP.

I don’t find fault with shoreline property owners as a group: they are not all of one mind, and most of them, I believe, understand as well as anyone else that they are stewards in a tenuous boundary zone, where private property interests must be protected but do not trump local and state interests in protection of the nearshore environment.

I must also say that I find myself at odds with the self-appointed leaders of an organized group of property owners: from the beginning of the SMP update process, they have conducted a stubborn, high-pitched, and sometimes devious campaign of protest, playing on fears and prejudice, ignoring evidence and arguments contrary to their views, misrepresenting the intent of regulations, and condemning decision-makers who disagreed with them.

Bringing this to an end, I’ll quote from a letter that I sent to members of the City Council earlier this month, after a 4 to 3 vote on the contentious issue of ‘nonconforming’ status.

“I want to emphasize that I respect the opinions and the actions of the three Council members who were in the minority in the recent vote, and in other previous votes.  Close votes reflect real divisions in our community, and the difficult choices that have to be made in spite of differences of opinion.

“I hope that in the discussions that remain before final action on the SMP update, one or more members of the Council will point out to the dissatisfied shoreline property owners that many changes were made in the draft SMP to accommodate their rights and their concerns.

“During the Planning Commission’s many meetings devoted to the SMP, property owners’ interests were protected and strenuously advocated, not by citizens alone but within the P C itself, and many changes were made.  Still, the party line is that the Council should fix the wrongs that were done by the Planning Commission.

“Maybe there will be more 4 to 3 votes before the Council completes its work on the SMP.  At the end, however, I fervently hope that the Council will vote unanimously to endorse the whole document, in spite of its inevitable imperfections and what may be deep dissatisfaction with this or that provision. 

“In my view, the final vote will not have as much to do with the ordinance itself, as with the process to which so many people, in their various capacities, have contributed.  As messy and unsatisfying as it may be at times, the process of self-governance here is open and fair, and deserves our long-suffering support.”

 

Posted in Community, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Place, Property Rights, Shoreline Management Program, Shorelines, Stewardship | Comments Off

Our National Defense: Sustainable?

Jon Quitslund

While I ate a simple breakfast and drank my coffee yesterday morning, I read an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker for January 28: “The Force.”  My breakfast went down easily enough, but the article was unsettling, and I haven’t been able to let go of the emotions it stirred up.

A subheading describes Lepore’s subject with a question: “How much military is enough?”  As we enter protracted negotiations over deficit reduction and the federal budget, the question could not be more timely.  Considering the amount of human effort and sacrifice that goes into our military establishment, and the money and other resources committed to its maintenance while other priorities are given short shrift, the question – just how much military is enough? – should concern us all.

“The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined. Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year.”  Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard, and she puts these figures in a perspective that reaches back to the early years of our republic, when the presence of a ‘standing army’ in peacetime was regarded as tyranny: instead, a ‘well regulated militia’ was to be desired.

The two World Wars and the long, amorphous Cold War (leading, of course, to hot wars in Korea and Vietnam) transformed Americans’ thinking about the necessity of a military establishment, and transformed our economy as well, with many adverse consequences.

I have had no experience of military service, nor did my father, who was 4-F and a civilian employee of the federal government during World War II.  I was ‘on the left’ and a protester against the war in Vietnam; I didn’t have to evade the draft, but my age and employment helped me avoid it.

Subsequently, I’ve been uninvolved in most of the public protests against American military adventures and the costs of our enormous military establishment.  One groans and grumbles against the vested interests of the ‘military-industrial complex’ and one is shocked by the ordinary cruelties and sensational atrocities that occur in wars, especially when there are no front lines and civilians are exposed to the worst that can happen to them.  But such unhappiness as mine goes nowhere; it accomplishes nothing.

While I paid close attention to the (mis)conduct of retaliatory and preemptive wars during the eight years of the second Bush administration, I regret to say that I’ve given the Obama administration carte blanche.  Much has been accomplished and remarkable changes in policy have been effected, in spite of risks and opposition, but deeper changes are called for.

The hero in Jill Lepore’s article is Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose military career included fighting in Vietnam in 1970 and ’71; after leaving the army he earned a Ph. D. in history and international relations at Princeton.  He is now a professor at Boston University, and the author of several books, including The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005).  Lepore says of him, “A Catholic and a conservative, Bacevich is viscerally pained by Americans’ ‘infatuation with military power’.”

The most poignant and profound passage in Lepore’s article concerns Bacevich’s testimony on April 23, 2009, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concerning the protracted war in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan.  (I dimly remember the stir made by that hearing at the time; I believe it had much to do with the still-controversial decision to withdraw American soldiers from the fighting there by 2014.)

Bacevich made good use of the fact that Senator John Kerry was chairing the meeting.  He recalled that thirty-eight years earlier, the same man, much younger, testified before the same Senate committee “against the then seemingly endless war in Vietnam.”  And he observed that between 1971 and 2009, the predominant American attitude toward involvement in a long war had shifted profoundly.

“When the young John Kerry spoke, many of his contemporaries had angrily turned against their generation’s war. Today, most of the contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply tuned out the Long War.”  Bacevich observed that there were many reasons for the change in American attitudes toward war, the most important being the end of the “citizen-soldier tradition” after Vietnam and the creation of a “professional” military consisting, in theory at least, of volunteers.

The trouble is, he said, this military “exists at some remove from American society. Americans today profess to ‘support the troops’ but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious public concern for whether the troops are being used wisely or well” (emphasis added).

Near the end of his testimony, Bacevich again quoted what John Kerry had said as an angry young man: “we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.”  Then Bacevich added: “The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”  To see things as they are is to recognize that the grand goals of the long war on terrorism are unattainable by military means.

(Jill Lepore provides a brief, dramatic account of Bacevich’s testimony and its impact on Senator Kerry.  I have quoted from the complete transcript of it, which is readily available online.)

There are indications that the Obama administration knows very well that current U. S. military expenditures are unsustainable.  The trend in recent years is downward, but still incredibly high.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which publishes annually a list of the world’s top 15 military spenders, in 2012 the U. S. accounted for 41% of the world’s total, at $711billion (4.7% of GDP).  Our closest competitor is China, with $143billion, which is 8.2% of the world’s share (2% of China’s GDP).

Apparently, our military leaders regard 4% of GDP as the absolute minimum for their share of the pie.  Let’s see if negotiations get close to that in the coming months, and let’s see what course the Obama administration pursues in foreign affairs with John Kerry as Secretary of State (hopefully with Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense).

We need a strong military, and strong defenses against real enemies at home and abroad, but “power projection,” which preoccupies the adamant defenders of our military establishment, is not the only sign of American strength, and in some circumstances (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan) it may be dangerous and counter-productive.

I’ll end by harking back to some words of Paul Kingsnorth, as quoted in an earlier post, my “Dialogue of Hope with Doubt.”  He said, “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side.”  On such new paths we will certainly need courage; we will also need a questioning and imaginative approach to old certainties and unfamiliar circumstances.

Such a reorientation will take a long time and a great effort, which is why I’m writing about it now.  To some, I know, I’m sounding like Chicken Little, or perhaps like Don Quixote.  If so, help me find a new story.

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The Future of Freedom

Jon Quitslund

I’ve begun this on the eve of this year’s observation of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  At church this morning, the service was dedicated to Dr. King, and a passage from one of his speeches was read.

On March 22nd, 1956, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King addressed a mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church.  Here is a passage from his speech that I heard repeated this morning: “Freedom doesn’t come on a silver platter. Whenever there is any great movement toward freedom, there will inevitably be some tension. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the promised land without going through the wilderness. Though we may not get to see the promised land, we know it’s coming because God is for it.”

My immediate response to these words was complicated, and in my thoughts about the passsage now I’m trying to unpack some of that complexity.

Today, more than fifty years after Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle for freedom and racial equality, a great deal of progress has been made, and other disadvantaged minorities have also achieved a good portion of the acceptance and respect that they have sought.

Today we live in a multi-cultural society, in which no minority group is invisible or disregarded, except by people who have withdrawn into isolation or exclusive enclaves.  It must be admitted, however, that there is no agreement within the general public that the present stage of our cultural evolution is an achievement to be proud of, and to build upon.  Many people regard the complications that come with our diversity as an awful predicament, and an affront to their own basic principles and sensibilities.

People of color still encounter prejudice, and still struggle for acceptance and respect, and they are not alone in facing huge gaps between the lower rungs on ladders to success.  In the mainstream and even in its elite strata, our culture is acutely status-conscious, protective of the status quo and nostalgic for an imaginary status quo ante.

Our first African-American president has now been elected twice, quite decisively, but a well-organized minority of the powerful and the gullible have been reluctant to acknowledge his legitimacy.

* * *

I am completing this after President Obama’s inauguration, having listened to his second inaugural address, as well as to Senator Schumer’s call for “faith in our future,” and to the fine invocation delivered by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers.  I heard what the President said about what “you and I as citizens” can and must do to secure our future, and I feel a renewal of hope – cautious optimism, if you will, although I think that ‘optimism’ and its opposite are worn-out  words, inadequate responses to our many challenges.

One of the thoughts that I started with yesterday was that freedom, as Dr. King conceived of it, has a solid history now in our nation, and it must also have a future, at the center of our discourse and as a motive for our actions.

I also think that now is a good time to reflect on the reasons motivating various individuals and organized groups to rally for freedom.  Those reasons are not all legitimate; some of them rise out of selfishness and resentment, rather than a real grievance.

Freedom is enjoyed by individuals just as oppression is suffered by individuals, but when freedom is guaranteed by law, as it is in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, it is extended to groups of people without regard for individual needs and interests, but rather in the interest of fairness and the common good.

There are, however, demands for freedom that have nothing to do with the guarantees of the Bill of Rights.  Some forms of freedom are privileges accorded to the fortunate few through the machinery of free market capitalism.  I can understand the need for government support of industry, businesses both big and small, investment, innovation, risk-taking, and insurance against losses, but that support should not include freedom from appropriate regulation and a fair share of the taxes levied on property, profits, and income.

During the so-called debate on health care reform, many people complained that their freedom as individuals was being violated by an overbearing government.  Some opposition came from special interest groups that thought they had something to lose from the changes being proposed (some of which had little chance of passing).  Opposition also arose from misunderstandings, and from crafty distortions of provisions in the legislation, designed to play upon the fears and biases of vulnerable people.

We hear a lot about freedom these days, not so much from people who are oppressed or neglected, but from those in power who are used to having things their way.  Will they always have the upper hand?

Martin Luther King spoke not only of freedom and fairness, but of suffering, courage, and sacrifice, all of which were essential to achievement of the understanding, reconciliation, and equality of opportunity that were his ultimate goals.  The freedom to do as one likes, regardless of the consequences, was not what Dr. King had in mind.

To reach my conclusion, I need to shift the focus from individuals to communities, and to a problem more deep-rooted and harder to handle than racial prejudice and discrimination.  What follows is the opening paragraph in “The Future of Agriculture,” a short speech by Wendell Berry that appears in It All Turns on Affection (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2012):

Our fundamental problem is world-destruction, caused by an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism. This conflict between nature and human interest may have begun with the first tools and weapons, but only with the triumph of industrialism has it become absolute. By now the creaturely world is absolutely at the mercy of industrial processes, which are doing massive ecological damage. How much of this damage may be repairable by economic and cultural changes remains to be seen.

Mr. Berry goes on say that industrialism “is our disease. Most of our most popular worries – climate change, fossil fuel addiction, pollution, poverty, hunger, and the various forms of legitimated violence – are symptoms.”  I would add to Berry’s mention of poverty and hunger that the widening gap between the extremely wealthy and powerful few, and the many who aren’t impoverished but find themselves and their children vulnerable, unsure of their future, is another symptom of the disease that has thrown our “engineered world” off kilter.

Perhaps reactionary defenses of individual rights and contempt for the rights of others are further symptoms.

Our health – the health of individuals and communities together – can still be found through strong connections with Berry’s “creaturely world,” which is not entirely a thing of the past.  Though in need of stewardship and repair, it is all around us – out the door, in the woods, on the beach.  We need to be part of that world, and it’s just possible that with a concerted effort, we can improve it.

President Obama spoke of taking action together, now, with the future in mind, four years from now, and 40, and even 400.  My highest hopes for the world as we know it don’t extend 400 years out, and I myself don’t expect to live 40 more years, but our sons may, and our granddaughter, so that future concerns me personally.  And the next four years will make a big difference, one way or the other.

Posted in Activism, Community, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, income inequality, Individuality, Place, Values | Tagged , , | Comments Off

The Dialogue of Hope with Doubt

Jon Quitslund

I’ve been casting about for a proper topic: how can I greet 2013 aptly, usefully?  My thoughts on several subjects are inept – some of them stale, others less than half-baked.  I’ve been confronting my lack of resolve, hoping to overcome it.

Rebecca Solnit, who is near the top of my list of writers I most admire, has contributed a year-end post to the website TomDispatch.com, in which she identifies 2013 as “Year Zero for Us – and Our Planet.”  What’s uppermost in her mind is “the battle over climate change,” and this is the year “in which we are going to have to win big, or lose bigger.”  Solnit links arms with Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club in their confrontations with Big Oil and the producers and consumers of coal.

Continuing on the path she charted in Hope in the Dark, a small compendium of ‘untold histories, wild possibilities’ published in 2004, Solnit applauds the ongoing efforts of progressives around the world, and helps me to see the possibility of positive changes on many fronts.

So why, after feeling uplifted and engaged, do I lose heart, and wonder, ‘What’s the use?’  I’ve concluded that my temperament thrives on an inner dialogue of hope with deep uncertainty about the future.

Hope motivates me day by day, and I can play a part in things worth doing – things that are meaningful and practical, where there’s an obvious difference between what’s done and what’s neglected in the community I’m part of.

I’m also compelled, though, to care about the bigger picture, ‘the course of human events’ within my lifetime and beyond.  When I consider local and larger concerns in that light, my vision of the not-too-distant future is quite bleak.  My mood verges on despair, but ‘doubt’ describes it better – doubt that the world as I’ve known it will be recognizable fifty years from now, and doubt that anyone knows what will prosper and prevail.

Strange as it may seem, these contradictory attitudes aren’t in conflict.  They may hold each other at arms’ length, but each brings the other down to earth.  In the tension between them, I find energy and purpose.

In all my recent reading, the writer who has most captured my attention is Paul Kingsnorth, writing in the January/February issue of Orion (available at Eagle Harbor Books, and also at www.orionmagazine.org).  His perspective on local and global issues has challenged and deepened my own thinking.

Mr. Kingsnorth is an impassioned man with an activist’s experience in several parts of the world; he also has deep roots in the English countryside and expert knowledge of traditional arts and crafts.  He’s a writer with a strong voice, and a strong belief in the power of words to pierce illusions.

Dark Ecology: Searching for truth in a post-green world” starts its search for truth with a snath and scythe and a train of thoughts about ‘appropriate’ and ‘convivial’ technology.  Several provocative pages later, Kingsnorth declares, “I’ve had enough of writing,” and he ends his essay with an evocation of old-fashioned, patient, full-body exercise, mowing a hayfield, then turning to admire “a beautiful sight which would have been familiar to every medieval citizen of this old, old continent.”

I want to write about ideas developed in the mid-section of Kingsnorth’s Orion essay, but first, some background.  Digress, if you like, to a couple of online sites that helped me to understand where Kingsnorth is coming from.  The climate activist Wen Stephenson published an informative exchange of emails with with Kingsnorth in Grist.org, datelined 11 April 2012 and titled “’I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth.”  It’s worth reading, and even more worthwhile is a ‘manifesto’ that Kingsnorth published in 2009 when he and Dougald Hine established their Dark Mountain Project.

Google ‘dark mountain manifesto’ and you’ll be led to an extraordinary cri de coeur titled Uncivilisation.  Here’s a piece of it: “This is a moment to ask deep questions and to ask them urgently. All around us, shifts are under way which suggest that our whole way of living is already passing into history. It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side. We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths.”

These words ask us to think back to the way things were in 2009, both in world capitals and in the provinces, and then to think about how little has been done since, apart from ‘business as usual,’ to deal with either the global consequences of climate change, or with its root causes in human nature and a rapacious ‘civilisation.’  The U. S. economy has been brought back from the brink, but its fundamentals are still iffy, and the people in charge of it can’t bring themselves to make any fundamental changes.

Kingsnorth is not a ‘defeatist,’ as Wen Stephenson calls him, but a believer in radical adaptations, at the local level, to breakdowns and transformations that the world’s great economic and political institutions have failed to face. The fierce tone of his Orion essay stems from a conviction that too many environmentalists, ‘green’ politicians, and believers in the gospel of sustainability are not contributing to appropriate adaptations and cultural changes, because they are too attached to the comforts and promises of the still-dominant ‘neoliberal’ economic and cultural regime.

Like Wendell Berry (and Gary Snyder, whom he might acknowledge as an important predecessor), Kingsnorth admits to being complicit in enjoying the comforts that surround us in the civilized world.  (Let’s face it: we are all complicit, and we should do our best to make things better, according to our lights, for ourselves and others.)  But false promises and illusions should be seen clearly.

Modern technology comes in for Kingsnorth’s heaviest bashing, because he distrusts the profit motive driving the technological vision of progress.  He criticizes several ‘neo-environmentalists’ for their reliance on technological solutions that, in his view, recklessly create larger problems than they solve.  I find his critique persuasive where it is specific, but his brush is too broad: many activists and writers share his doubts about the efficacy of technological solutions and his commitment to ‘relocalizing’ and ‘powering down.’

Kingsnorth takes the illuminating concept of a ‘progress trap’ from Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (2004): that’s an occasion for another digression, if you like.  Here’s Wright’s point in Kingsnorth’s words: “Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.”

While I tend to think that some forms of progress are not traps but are authentically liberating (do we want to nullify modern medicine, or go back to patriarchal regimes, feudalism, thuggery, and xenophobia?), I accept Kingsnorth’s basic point: “progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress.”

History is a prison-house, but we can gain some freedom through an understanding of history (including pre-history) and the legacy of myths and legends that have shaped – and distorted – human lives through the ages.

William Blake, writing in the dawn of the industrial age (also the dawn of Romanticism), protested against “mind-forg’d manacles,” and a great British hymn was made of one of his poems, including the line “I will not cease from mental fight.”  Paul Kingsnorth doesn’t mention Blake, preferring to celebrate the lesser-known poets R. S. Thomas and Robinson Jeffers, but he is writing in Blake’s great tradition.

“Dark Ecology” ends with an emphasis on “what you have the power to do and what you don’t.”  I’ll skip over some smart remarks on several ways of wasting your time, and conclude with a few lines from five paragraphs, Kingsnorth’s own alternatives to wasting his time.

One: Withdrawing. . . . All real change starts with withdrawal.

Two: Preserving nonhuman life.

Three: Getting your hands dirty. . . . Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills.

Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone.

Five: Building refuges. . . . Ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value – creatures, skills, things, places?

These are all pathways out of doubt and despair, back to hope and the enjoyment of labor in community.

Posted in Books, Climate Change, Community, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, Neo-environmentalists, Neoliberalism, Reviews, Traditional Crafts & Skills | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Adapting to Our New Economic Reality

Jon Quitslund

Reviewing Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth; Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011), $17.95.

I’ll begin with a quotation: “The only efforts that will aid in the long run are those that contribute, in some tangible way, to the realization of a pattern of human settlement that is culturally and psychologically rewarding, and that supports rather than undermines the integrity of Earth’s living skin, our only home.”

This is the last sentence of The End of Growth.  In context, it describes an adaptive strategy that will be necessary in a future that is profoundly different from the world we know now.

Now read the sentence again: It also describes a practical and satisfying way of living in today’s world.  The pattern of human settlement that will be difficult to achieve and maintain in the future, in the ruins of circumstances that we tend to take for granted, is being embraced by a growing number of people today.  Our future will be brighter if we join those prophets and pioneers to change the world, before the remorseless way of the world changes us for the worse.

I encountered Richard Heinberg’s authoritative voice on environmental and economic issues a few years ago, through earlier books of his on the Environmental Book Group’s reading list.  (See my previous post, “After Aftershock,” for more on the EBG.)

Heinberg is a lucid and engaging writer.  His latest book is well-researched and carefully documented, and never dull, although it’s not an easy read.  Heinberg synthesizes the work of many others, drawing on scientific and economic data and ideas from several disciplines, and his own analytical and clarifying voice carries the reader along through a compelling account of our history, our current predicament, and the breakdowns and transformations that can be anticipated now – hopefully before it’s too late to undertake the challenging process of adaptation.

I’ll begin my consideration of the book’s main points with Heinberg’s conclusion, in a few pages titled Perspective.  He observes, “We are living through the fifth great turning in human history.”  He notes that the phrase ‘great turning’ was used by Joanna Macy, and then by David Korten in a book that many Islanders have read.  Heinberg adds, “The ‘turning’ I am referring to is perhaps less politically and spiritually nuanced than what Macy and Korten describe.”  I would say, on the contrary, that Heinberg’s account of our new economic reality adds much-needed specificity and gravity to the visionary thinking of Macy and Korten.

Heinberg briefly summarizes the four epochal ‘turnings’ preceding our times.  First, early humans harnessed fire, which transformed their diet and refined tool-making; the second turning was development of language, which made possible the formation and transmission of culture and the elaboration of social structures.  “The third turning point was the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago”: domestication of crops and animals went hand in hand with a population explosion, social stratification, development of cities and empires, and the invention of writing and money.

The fourth epochal development, the industrial revolution, has the shortest history – not much more than two centuries – but has been the most transformative, both of the physical and spiritual circumstances of human existence and of the earth we inhabit.  Heinberg observes, “The Industrial Revolution was really the Fossil Fuel Revolution, and the entire phenomenon of continuous economic growth . . . is ultimately based on ever-increasing supplies of cheap energy.”

The many forms of industrial development that have defined modernity and spread it around the world also enabled exploitation of the world’s finite, nonrenewable resources.  And the enormous power that our species gained through industrial technology has meant that we are able – and perhaps doomed, or damned – to exploit every opportunity to impose our will upon the world.

We’ve been burning our candles at both ends, and only lately have an increasing number of people been paying attention to the consequences.

Heinberg’s account of those consequences makes a complex and rather scary picture of our present and the foreseeable future, but when he describes the fifth great turning he holds out hope for renewal: “Now we are participating in the turning from fossil fueled, debt- and growth-based industrial civilization toward a sustainable, renewable, steady-state society.”

It is generally assumed that the economic contraction and dysfunction that we’ve been muddling through lately will be followed, as day follows night, by a return to healthy economic growth.  On the contrary, Heinberg demonstrates quite conclusively that for several decades, growth in the U. S. and other developed nations has not been healthy, but parasitic, or cancerous.  And he doubts that growth will ever return on the scale to which the developed world has been accustomed.

Here’s a sketchy summary of the book’s seven chapters. One: how and why economies have relied on growth and ignored environmental limits. Two: how, in our time, the world’s monetary and financial systems have failed to manage growth. Three: how depletion of fossil fuels, minerals, and other natural resources will stall growth in a world more prone to disasters. Four describes the limits of growth gained through innovation, efficiency, and new sources of materials and energy. Five: how competition and geopolitical rivalries will offer only local and temporary benefits. Six: how the transition from growth-dependent to steady-state economies might be managed. Seven: what individuals and communities are doing to prepare for a post-growth, post-hydrocarbon way of life.

We can’t know what the future will hold, but it’s safe to say that we – and even more, our children, and their children – will have to make do with less of many things we hold dear today.  (It may help to realize that some things we hold dear are illusory, and others are unnecessary.)  The future, as Heinberg says, “will require us to question what we think we know, to leave our comfort zones far behind, and to engage in hard, challenging work.”

In Heinberg’s account of the industrial revolution and the many kinds of progress that it brought about over the past two centuries, the central fact of the modern industrial economy is its total dependence on cheap and efficient sources of energy – coal at first, and then oil in various refined forms.

Far beyond their value as energy, carbon-based fossil fuels have provided crucial ingredients for the huge cornucopia of industrial products that support and enhance our daily lives: plastics of all sorts, fertilizers (and therefore much of the world’s food), medicines, dyes, explosives, roadways and pothole patches, building materials, on and on – not to mention a host of toxic chemicals and much of the world’s waste stream.

Heinberg cites a great deal of evidence that the world’s supply of readily accessible fossil fuels has peaked; cheap energy from those sources (oil especially) is a thing of the past.  And if Bill McKibben is right (as I think he is), we run the risk of runaway climate change if we burn more than a fraction of the carbon-based fuels available.  Dire straits, here we come!

We tend to think of the industrial revolution in positive terms, and rightly so: What’s wrong with scientific and technological progress?  That progress, in the two centuries preceding the present, was astonishing. Our progress hasn’t been able to conquer ignorance and eradicate poverty, but from the nineteenth century to our time we have seen the boundaries of technical knowledge expanded exponentially in every direction.  Modern science and industry have created wealth on a grand scale, for generation after generation, in many nations around the globe, and the quality of life has been improved for untold millions of people.

There is, however, a dark side: any form of progress, no matter how many people benefit, produces victims and hostages.  And progress can be seen as no more than a rationale for, or a by-product of, the reckless pursuit of wealth and power by a few, with the costs borne by many, in present and future generations.

The Environmental Book Group came to The End of Growth at the end of its tenth year of readings, and we saw in the book a kind of climax.  Our discussion of Heinberg’s book was more serious and intense than usual.

That’s not to say that we agreed with Heinberg on every point.  Within the meeting, and in email traffic afterwards, there was general agreement that although we shouldn’t plan on a return of the good old days, growth is not about to end any time soon.  Neither corporations, nor consumers, nor politicians are likely to embrace radical solutions to our large-scale problems.  There will be plenty of the “creative destruction” associated with capitalism and plutocracy (and with such autocratic regimes as China and Iran).  Old-style economic activity is likely to speed us toward crises, while at the same time innovation and adaptations seek to correct our course.

There’s a full menu of food for thought in Heinberg’s Chapter 6, “Managing Contraction, Redefining Progress.”  It offers some bold and large-scale proposals, while acknowledging that they may not be adopted in time to avert breakdowns in our flawed assumptions and institutions.

The last chapter, “Life After Growth,” is the shortest and the sweetest.  It focuses not on large-scale radical changes, such as a global reform of money and banking, but on what can be done – and is already being done – locally, and voluntarily.  Time will tell whether these innovations, in what the British economist Tim Jackson has called the “Cinderella economy,” will continue to flourish and enlarge their influence.  Sustainable Bainbridge, and similar collaborative efforts around the world, exist in the belief that that flourishing is not only possible, but full of potential.

 

Posted in Books, Community, Cooperation, Creativity, Cultural Change, Economy, Emergency management, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Money and Banking, Reviews, Values | Tagged , , | Comments Off