Archive for February 14th, 2011

ecology of desire

February 14, 2011

It’s St. Valentine’s Day, more than just a Hallmark holiday for those of us who choose to use the occasion to profess real affection for our natural and chosen relations.

Note to STUDENTS: Next time we commence Nature’s Way, ch.1 & 2.

Also next time: give me a very brief summary, if you can,  of your intended midterm report topic and tell me if you’re planning to do an essay or a presentation.

Daniel Wildcat’s  Red Alert!, which we conclude today, professes abiding love for Mother Earth and concern for her future. I worry more about the future of our relationship. She may soon have had enough of our promiscuity and indifference.

For instance, the near-extermination of the American bison in the 19th century…

The relationship presumably would benefit if we “allowed places to give us homes” and lived in a “coextensive present with the past and future.” I’m still vague on precisely what that implies, except for the advisability of returning large tracts of the naturally un-hydrated American west (for instance) to its relatively unpeopled primordial state– which seems an unlikely choice (though we may soon have none)– and generally embracing longer-term thinking, beyond the commercial bottom line. It’s hard to be against that, but also hard to see how we translate such unobjectionable Right Thinking into constructive Right Action.

Edward Glaesser’s new book says the solution to toxic suburbia is obvious: move to town.

Suburbanization is producing an ecological disaster. Growth that’s restricted in temperate areas like coastal California is pushed into intemperate ones like Las Vegas, where air-conditioning is leading to a carbon emissions nightmare. What will happen, he asks, if China and India emulate us?

Greater density is the goal: more people means more possibility. Even when writing about the developing world, Glaeser is unfazed by threats of overwhelmed sanitation systems, unsafe housing or impossible congestion. These, he suggests, are problems more readily solved than the environmental consequences of sprawling suburban life.

Wildcat’s complaints about our “unimaginative houses” hits close to home. We selected our 50s ranch for its location, not its charm. It’s easy and disturbing to think that our conceptual/spiritual life has been “boxed” by our abode, our perception dimmed, our natural openness to the nature on the other side of the box inhibited. A bit, anyway.

But some wonder: do we give architecture too much credit? And others fear: no, we don’t. As Alain de Botton says, where we are does indeed heavily influence who we can be. And, how happy– Epictetus notwithstanding.

The Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus is said to have demanded of a heart-broken friend whose house had burnt to the ground, ‘If you really understand what governs the universe, how can you yearn for bits of stone and pretty rock?’

Legend recounts that after hearing the voice of God, the Christian hermit Alexandra sold her house, shut herself in a tomb and never looked at the outside world again, while her fellow hermit Paul of Scete slept on a blanket on the floor of a windowless mud hut and recited three hundred prayers every day, suffering only when he heard of another holy man who had managed seven hundred and slept in a coffin. Architecture of Happiness

Looking beyond Mother Earth for meaning and the promise of redemption may not be the best recipe for happiness. Clearly it’s not a good prescription for the planet’s own well-being, and if we’re paying attention (as Wildcat constantly implores) we’ll not see ours as separate and apart.

*Michael Pollan, discussed below, first caught my attention years ago with his exploration of the human meaning of architecture in A Place of My Own:

Backwoods survivalist types living “off the grid,” as they like to say, may flatter themselves about their independence, but in fact it is only the beavers & groundhogs who truly build locally, completely outside the influence of culture and history…

[we need] to walk away from the cartoon opposition of nature and culture… it was evolution that generated human culture– and language– in the first place, and that culture ever since has been working to modify evolution…

As Walden itself teaches us, we humans are never simply in nature, like the beasts and boulders, but are always also in relation to nature… What other creature, after all, even has a relationship to nature?

More big topics squeezed into Wildcat’s final few pages: toxic suburban lifeways, “buffalo commons,” “earth lodges,” “500 year floods,” childhood obesity, fast/slow/local food, the impact of technology on community, the importance of passing on good stories.

*Picking one: food activist Michael Pollan (Botany of Desire, Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, A Place of My Own, Second Nature) has been all over many of these issues, with the “nature-culture nexus” his anchoring theme throughout. He’s another non-indigenous thinker (like John Dewey) whose wisdom merits honorary native status.

Like Wildcat, Pollan wishes to understand the world through a non-human-centric lens which is wide enough to take in all the co-evolved and dynamically co-existent plurality of life forms on our complexifying planet. He understands that we should be sending valentines to plants and animals (and sun and wind and lakes and rivers and mountains et al) as well as one another. If we treat them right, they’ll love us back.