• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Scale and community

On occasion, I get a flash of brilliance that's actually a good idea. More often, they're insights which either were already apparent to anyone who'd thought much about the topic or are so trivial as not to matter one iota. Sometimes both.

When an understanding creeps up on me more gently, however -- not a flash so much as a dawning in granny gear -- it's usually pretty good. Sometimes even directly useful.

August 12, 2010

On occasion, I get a flash of brilliance that's actually a good idea. More often, they're insights which either were already apparent to anyone who'd thought much about the topic or are so trivial as not to matter one iota. Sometimes both.

When an understanding creeps up on me more gently, however -- not a flash so much as a dawning in granny gear -- it's usually pretty good. Sometimes even directly useful.

That's kind of what it's felt like with the recent variety of "bread crumbs" and the occasional slice. Kind of like there's a whole (wheat?) loaf around somewhere, if it can only figure out how to assemble itself. And I think the heart of the loaf has to do with the ideas of scale and community. Let me try to see if I can explain.

First, it's become evident to me that global scale sustainability solutions are non-starters in this universe. Climate change is a global problem, it's true, but the societies which are the biggest contributors to the problem have empowered people and institutions which are negatively incented to deal with it, as well as being constitutionally opposed to any sort of global unified action. National governments rely on fear of an enemy to unify their populations, both when no real common interest exists and (even more so) when the desired unification is actually inimical to the common interest. The economic enterprises which control those governments are ones which have grown strong (wealthy) under current modes of operation and so would be weakened by any sort of sea change. The de facto hierarchy of global markets, nation-states, and regional/local/tribal loyalties pretty much guarantees that nothing significant is going to change.

My realism in this regard is reinforced daily. Droughts. Floods. Storms. Fires. Mudslides. Record temperatures by the day, week, month, year and decade. Starvation. Disease. Dislocation of large populations. Crop losses on massive scales. Weather systems which, as seen from our eye in the sky, blot out most of the continental USA. The reinforcement comes not just from what's said on the news at 11:00, but more from what's not said. Nobody mentions that all this was predicted in the 1980's. Thus, nobody notes that those predictions are clearly coming true. In the social sciences, a theory or model which produces long-range forecasts that turn out accurate is considered extremely useful. In the national media, climate models which produced long-range forecasts that are turning out accurate are considered impolitic. Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Part of the reason the media get away with it has to do with scale, particularly the scale of what they present as "and now the weather". If a storm happens to the 5% of the world's population in the USA, it's weather. If it happens to the 95% that live somewhere else, it's news.

Part of the reason the media get away with it has to do with community, or rather the lack thereof. Even if a storm happening somewhere else is of sufficient magnitude to make the news, we've been conditioned (educated?) to regard death and dislocation elsewhere as less meaningful than death and dislocation here.

Neither of these patterns is necessarily the result of conscious decision-making by media executives, and (as good as it might feel) I can't really lay the problem at their doorsteps. They're not the solution (one might only wish they would be), but they're not the root cause of the problem, either. The root cause of the problem is in human nature.

You see, at some level, Grover Norquist is right. (OMG, did I just write that!?) The best government, under many circumstances, is the one you can reach out and strangle without leaving your front porch. There is a natural scale to human organization and -- regardless of technological enhancements ranging from Roman roads to the World Wide Web -- when society tries to organize itself in units far larger than that scale, the results always exhibit a certain brittleness. Brittle objects can be very large and very strong (think of stone or cast iron, both of which are inherently brittle). But brittle objects don't deal well with change. And change is upon us. And upon all the flora and fauna of this planet.

My take is that we wouldn't be in this mess if units of social and economic organization had stayed small. Of course, we'd have other problems. Technology wouldn't have advanced so far and so fast (btw, James Burke's absolutely marvelous 1970's series Connections, which describes why technologies developed the way they did, is now out on DVD, even if it's prohibitively expensive). Global economic output would be far less. Wars, or at least local skirmishes, would probably be far more numerous. But we wouldn't have anthropogenic climate change, we probably wouldn't have nuclear weapons (see those Burke DVDs to understand why not), and we very likely wouldn't be polluting major water systems with millions of gallons of oil on a regular basis.

All of which is moot, of course. It's counterfactual. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is where we go from here. We may already have passed the final climate tipping point, but even if we haven't, we will. We're not going to change course fast enough, or radically enough, or consistently enough. Even if we avoid "the worst impacts of climate change" (and who has enough hubris to even think they know what those worst impacts might be?), the impacts we won't avoid will be pretty damn terrible. Look around the world this year. Watch the price of wheat futures. This is nothing. The full impacts of past emissions won't be felt for a decade or more. And things are going to get worse before they get better.

In practical terms, getting things better is now a question of how we deal with what's headed our way. And, as with any natural disaster, dealing successfully depends entirely on community. Up here in the northeast USA, nothing brings out a sense of community like a good blizzard. Suburbanites shovel out their neighborhoods, farmers clear roads highway departments haven't gotten to yet, folks check on elderly neighbors they haven't thought about in years -- just to make sure they're OK. Everybody gets a warm communal glow, then goes back inside to return to their separate lives, engage in their parallel (online) play. We don't have ongoing disaster, so we don't need ongoing community. Not really. At least, not yet.

When we do need it, we're going to find that our lives, our infrastructure, our values aren't well organized to let community flourish. Our social structures are both too large and too small. Our geographic distribution is too sprawling. Our service levels are too low, and their delivery mechanisms too inefficient. We've got (and had) our priorities cross-threaded, and we're going to have to do something about that.

Maybe the social structure we need to survive optimally is pretty much the same as what would have allowed us to avoid the problem in the first place. Maybe the arrival of undeniable climate change is what it will take. For years, folks at all socioeconomic levels have told me that they're not going to change how they live it means that they've got to give up what they feel they deserve. Voluntary change has been a non-starter, but maybe coerced change (especially when the coercive force is nature) may be easier to accept.

Maybe housing a family of four in a thousand square feet is a possibility (certainly, many families in 1960 found it so), if higher housing density is necessary to the efficient distribution of power and water in a hostile environment. Maybe buying fewer physical objects is acceptable, given that you really don't have anyplace to put them, anyway. Maybe buying higher quality (longer lasting) items makes more sense, given that you're going to have fewer things. Maybe buying locally-produced items becomes more natural, since you know more about the quality of an item if you've watched it being made. Maybe "cradle to cradle" patterns of materials reuse make perfect sense when your social and economic units are local and infinite stores of raw materials aren't convenient, or even realistically available. Maybe experiences -- art, music, literature, games, conversation, physical activity, real friendship -- take on higher priority when you're regularly interacting with the same few-thousand people, and the artificial blandishments of "reality entertainment" become obviously neither real nor entertaining.

Would total economic output in a nation operating along such lines go down? Almost certainly. But would it matter to the average American? My family co-owned an extension ladder with two other families in the same town. (When you need one, you need one. But how many days a year is that, anyway?) We regularly borrowed equipment owned by other farmers, and they in turn borrowed some of ours. The city of Paris has cut automotive traffic significantly by instituting municipal bike-sharing, and is now looking into municipal car-sharing in order to save Parisians money and address the massive parking problem. (How many families really need more cars than they have drivers? Or, if they know that one is always available, really need a second car? Or, in an urban environment, even a first?) What other sporadic-use items could more efficiently be owned on a community basis without negatively impacting anyone's standard of living? And think of the number of square feet you wouldn't have to heat in the winter, if you didn't have all that stuff to store!

Once the necessities of life and a certain level of creature comfort are provided, the amount of collective happiness returned by a given unit of economic activity declines precipitously. There's a "knee" on the stuff/smiles trade-off curve, and most of American society is operating well beyond it. We're stuck out there in the realm of declining returns to activity, because that's the way our society is organized. But that organization will shortly be changed as a result of force majeure, so soon we'll be able to think about doing things differently.

The experience of Denmark is instructive. For the last couple of decades, they've concentrated on making their communities walkable. Even their large cities tend to be amalgamations of individually walkable communities, tied together by good public transit (but that's another subject). What they've found is that by making their physical communities more walkable, they've made their social communities -- their citizenry -- measurable happier. And while it hasn't been fully tested yet, I strongly suspect that they've made them more flexible -- more durable -- more sustainable, as well.


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