This post is not really mine. I copied it directly from the amazing writing of DeAnander, one of the (many) brilliant commenters over at Moon of Alabama, the site where many of Billmon’s Whiskey Bar “barflies” have found a new home (and where we open a thread for each of his new posts – as you may have seen, he’s on a roll again).
O I could be such an optimist (of the David Suzuki variety) if only I could discount the massive weights of inertia, corruption, and ignorance tilting the scales so far against us. it is maddening. it is not that there is “no hope” or “no way out.” there are perfectly good avenues of hope and blinking EXIT signs all around us and we studiously ignore them.
Mc Kibben’s recent essay kind of covers the ground.
there is so much cause for optimism in our rapidly-increasing understanding of soil biology, of the functional use of fungi and invertebrates in waste processing, of permaculture (all too often rediscovering things that other cultures knew and practised millennia ago)… we can get more yield per acre from sustainable ag practise than from fossil farming; and we keep destroying family and peasant farmers, around the world, in favour of the less productive method.
as a species we are capable of inventing the bicycle (a truly innovative device and huge energy-saver), the hot-air dirigible, the focusing lens, the aerofoil sail, all the mechanisms we moderns dismiss as “clockwork”. we’re bloody clever! we moderns have been artificially made stupid, sub-competent and passive by our total-convenience lifestyle, but we have the capacity to be enormously inventive, creative, ingenious, handy. cause for optimism!
to mention just a few small examples: we already know of simple, practical, biotically-based ways to build or retrofit houses that are 5 or 6 times more efficient to heat. most of these methods are “illegal” under current building code. try to implement them in the average us town or burb and you will be punished with months of permit wrangling and tens of thousands of dollars in special fees.
we know how to install and use composting (“dry”) toilets, saving potentially 100s of mio gal of potable [aaaaargh] water per year. and most of our “planning” departments consider them illegal or sub-code. admit that you have installed one in the average town or burb in the us and you are in for the same trial-by-bureaucrat mentioned above. we are actively discouraging and preventing citizens from innovating and discovering less wasteful technologies.
we know how to transport heavy goods (and passengers) by rail and water, saving enormous amounts of energy. so — we deplete our rivers to the point where they become unnavigable, and tear up our railroads, and do our best to bankrupt our already-risible passenger rail network. we are running short of good farm land, so we pave more of it over for dead-end carburbs. we are politically and economically captive to foreign oil reserves; so we go out of our way to promote, build, market the most inefficient private vehicles we can envision, actively worshipping at the altar of profligate waste.
we know how to do all kinds of things right — “right” meaning “in an adaptive, survival-oriented, frugal, sensible way” — and yet we prefer to do everything as stupidly and wastefully as possible… I guess because it tickles our egos and makes us feel important and “wealthy”.
thus I remain a pessimist — a pessimist perpetually maddened by the proximity of optimism, like a starving castaway with a tin of food and no can opener, on an isolated atoll with no sharp rocks handy. optimism is so damn close — “another world is possible” — we can see it through the window, almost touch it, almost get our hands on it, but there is a phalanx of heavily armed plutocrats and their hypnotised disciples and rentathugs in between, telling us that we can’t go there. and history suggests that they will win. faced with the classic choice, “Adapt or Die,” they will make like the Greenland Norse, refuse “manfully” to adapt, and take us all down with them. when we were within arm’s reach of a saner way of living — no miracles or space aliens or perpetual motion engines required.
I’m reminded of M John Harrison’s surreal, poetic, elegiac, elliptical sci-fi novel The Pastel City in which a grim unstable feudalism survives in the post-industrial, post-space-age ruins of a far-future England.
hard-bitten miners brave the toxicity and desolation of the Rust Deserts and the Metal-Salt Marshes to recover scraps and relics of the fallen civilisation; travellers ponder an artificial constellation left in their night skies by ancestors whose technological prowess is long forgotten, unable even to read the alphabet in whose letters which the Name Stars are configured. [maybe it will be the infamous “orbital Coca-Cola billboard”?]
our greatgrandchildren, I fancy, will excavate and mine our old “city dumps” and other industrial middens for metal, plastic, glass. I wonder if they will loathe and hate us when they reflect on all that we giddily threw away — like a drunken, gambling-addicted father in a Victorian morality tale — leaving them in relative resource poverty. or will they perhaps, having lost historical continuity, regard us as mythical ancestors with magical powers beyond their understanding?
if so, what will they make of the magisterial wastelands we have left behind us — the cracked obsidian craters of our nuclear tests, the poisonous blazing-aquamarine waters running off our old copper mines, the great tilted slabs of our silent airports, the gaunt enduring armatures of our skyscrapers, the vast barriers of our embanked roadways? what legends will they tell each other about the mysterious, sickly lands around our abandoned hot ponds, the probable deltas of desolation downstream of Hanford and similar sites?
will they hammer the shells of our old automobiles into armour for their agrarian wars, I wonder, starting the old story all over again?
or will they look back on us, from their immensely clever bamboo-and-paper houses, surrounded by their perpetual permaculture gardens, reading by the light of genetically-enhanced fireflies 🙂 and feel sorry for us… because we made our world so clunky, so unnecessarily ugly, sordid, wasteful, conformist, uncreative and graceless? I wonder in my happier moments if they will look back at the SUV, the passenger jet, the office cubicle, and ask themselves as we now ask of the corset, the bustle, the long woolies of the Victorian Brits — how the hell did living, breathing human beings resign themselves to such imprisonment, such stifling, such bondage?
yes, less-impactful ways of living — and ideas about same — are heavily deprecated and obfuscated in the culture… derided and feared actually… not surprising as they all involve, ahem, buying less stuff. which is heresy, and must be extirpated.
Stossel (the limblowhard of ag and food) and his repeated attempts to demonise and “dangerise” organic produce is a good example. people in cars who yell “Hippie!” and “Get off the f**king road!” at cyclists on US streets. teenagers who learn to call the city bus the “loser cruiser” and believe it is a social stigma to ride it. people who believe that not eating meat every single day is an unthinkable degradation of their lifestyle — even if the meat they do eat is so stuffed with hormones and antibiotics and injected with adulterants that it almost qualifies as lab waste. it all adds up to a phobia, a cultural rejection, of the very idea of low-impact living. The American Way of Life is not negotiable. we can either be ourselves — heroic, imperial, wealthy — or we can suffer enormous loss of face and “live like peasants/heathen.”
the corporadoes did a really, really, really good job of burying the brief sustainable-counterculture movement of the 70’s. with ridicule and caricature [aided to some extent by the natural loopiness of humankind which expressed itself in communes and collectives just as vividly as it does today in the prayerful gaggle outside Terri’s hospice], with erasure and historical revisionism, with the help of police harassment and accelerating enclosure of “public” space and corporate media control, they pretty much “disappeared” the whole live-lightly cultural thread that flourished oh-so-briefly, along with its (ironically) very traditional values of materials re-use, ingenuity, home-building, low energy use, historicity, frugality, sharing, etc. those ideas are still out there, but you have to know where to look. they will only appear in the corporate media as part of a “humorous” freakshow story.
specifically on the composting loo topic, google for “Sun-Mar” or “composting toilet” or “sawdust toilet” or “Biolet” or “Joseph Jenkins”… I believe this technology is far better accepted in Euroland than the US. backward again, alas.
for an interesting review of the “owner-built home” movement and the sustainable architecture subculture, and their survival into the present, the recent book Home Work is a treasure trove. the original — classic — book Shelter is long oop I think.
the “smaller/lighter is more beautiful” movement is still around, just invisible to the media (except for occasional public pillorying and pelting with tomatoes). only the highest-tech edge of it (folks like the Lovinses) get any air time — imho because they support the grandiose technocratic mythos, whereas the humility and third-world ingenuity of the low-impact crowd really hurts the Amurkan ego. buckyballs are Way Cool, but mass transit is for losers and composting toilets are ‘eeeew gross!’
googling for “intentional community” may turn up examples of persistent low-impact advocates banding together to build or convert apartment buildings or condoplexes (in the city) or create eco-villages (in less urban areas) with a view to reduced resource consumption and more human/shared/green space. [it will also turn up the usual percentage of lifetime SCA members who want to form communities with others who wear wolfskin vests, carry broadswords, and try to speak extinct Scandinavian dialects. to the corporate media, they’re all the same — misfits, freaks, fantasists.]
also google for “urban gardening”, “green roofs,” “bioneers,” “hermetia larvae”, “eisenia fetida,” “straw bale building,” “papercrete construction,” “water harvesting,” and discover a lot of very ingenious people trying to be smart without being destructive… this list of googleable topics could easily get to be pages long, but you get the idea… little grains of determined crunchy hopefulness in the stodgy pudding of despair.