I just gave a talk on sustainable well-being to Tom Eggert’s class, Topics in Sustainable Business Practice, at UW-Madison. I’ve given a talk every year for the last 5 or so and every time it’s very rewarding, stimulating, and encouraging to hear thoughtful students engaging with this fascinating subject.
In the past, I’ve spent more time on all the problems we are facing from climate change to peak oil to salinization of soil, etc. This year I resolved to focus more on solutions. As a result I went into more depth in introducing the ideas of co-housing, ecovillages, and permaculture on the “hardware” side of things and mindfulness, skillful communication, facilitation, and group/community forms on the “software” side of things.
Right now, I am personally exploring ways of building a community that can grapple with the dark and light sides of transition with a realistic, strategic, and hopeful engagement with solutions such as the establishment (or joining with) a land laboratory in which all or some of the things mentioned above can be practiced, honed, evolved, and shared. The idea is to start with the people now and perhaps work some land with a subset of these people if and when that subset emerges with the enthusiasm and resources to make that happen.
One difficult question for me is location. How close to a city would such land be located? Advantages of close proximity include low fossil fuel costs to transport products (from food to workshops to retreats) to and from the city to the land. Disadvantages have to do with land price but also potential security issues if transition is abrupt.
Anyway, some of the students represented what I think might be a popular reaction to the idea of locating further away from a city with a group of people with similar interests. These students had various reactions ranging from the idea that such a plan is not realistic, not truly sustainable because it may depend to some degree on outside products and interactions, and unethical, both because everyone cannot afford to live that way (i.e., it’s a plan for elites) and because it has an us vs. them, we’ve-got-our-lifeboat-sorry-you-don’t-have-yours perspective.
I find these reactions fascinating from many different angles, not the least of which because there is some truth in all of them. These views are examples, in my view, of generative diversity, and demonstrate that regardless of what any of us do, there is likely to be incredible diversity in responses to issues of transition…which is all to the good. We need to place many bets on many different approaches, learning and failing and evolving rapidly. Wonderful that this is what we will naturally do.
In terms of a specific response to the students’ concerns, I’ll keep it short for now and perhaps address them in a later blog(s) in more depth.
First, our current way of life is unrealistic. That we have very good information about. What we lack is similarly good information about redesigning a life that works. Nobody knows for sure what this will look like. So, of course, I’m not at all sure about my current ideas on solutions, but I believe they are (a) better than status quo, and (b) provide some good experiments to apply our energies to.
Second, I think it’s very important to re-design a way of life that works for people with diverse economic backgrounds. This is true for many reasons, but one of the most practical reasons is that many people with critical skills needed for the future have not been monetarily rewarded for those skills precisely because they do not rely on various aspects of mining our current resources.
Third, the idea that a community at some range of distances from a city may not be independently self-sufficient does not seem like the immediate point to me. We do the best we can, growing in the direction we want to place our bets on. My own desire is for a world that continues with some degree of social complexity so that we continue benefiting from the diverse talents and skills such complexity gives us (and that we can all take for granted now). In that world, the goal may not be independent self-sufficiency at all but rather local networks that are resilient because of their interdependence.
Fourth, the idea that it’s us-vs.-them to gain experience with a subgroup some distance from a city, is an interesting one. My own perspective is (1) I want to teach everyone how to live a life that works, (2) but I should be able to speak from experience if possible which means I need to gain that experience, (3) only a (small) subset of people will be interested in my own particular bent on this issue no matter what I try to do anyway, and (4) that I don’t need to talk to everyone because there are thousands of other people talking to their own subgroups and they are the effective ones to be doing that talking. Having said that, I do think that providing a model and being able to speak from experience and then trying to share the model and experience with as many people as possible is right up my alley and I’m going to give it my best shot. My hope is that everyone listens and that a dialog like the one I had with the students (and they had with each other) tonight continues to help refine and improve all our approaches to a life that works.
As a separate point, I want to thank the student who recommended the documentary, “Rebecca’s Wild Farm”. What a beautiful and elegant film. I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen (and only 50 minutes). You can watch it online here. A review and all 5 parts have been made available through the generosity of Jessica Crabtree’s blog on Native American Portraits and Wildlife.
Finally, in this post, I recorded a 3 minute story about a canary who tries to warn a family that their house is burning down and then all the ways the man who answers the door decides to stay inside watching Seinfeld. The key question for all of us is whether or not we are ignoring a canary delivering critical information or whether the canary, itself, is distorted in important ways. One approach to discerning which is the case is to cultivate awareness of our emotional reactions so we may notice when they are driving distorted beliefs.
This is one reason why it is difficult to know where to place our bets and also why it is important to continue to have honest dialog as we stumble through considerations of transition. Thank you for being part of that dialog (perhaps it will continue through comments).
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