By Richard Reep
“There is a great deal of historical evidence to suggest that a society which loses its identity with posterity and which loses its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with present problems, and soon falls apart.”
--Kenneth Boulding, economist and philosopher (1966)
Written in the depths of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation appeared imminent, if not inevitable to some, Boulding’s words remain applicable to today’s popular culture. Increasingly unable to imagine a positive future since the 1990s, we have largely replaced the end of the nuclear threat with the beginning of global warming, among other environmental threats. Others have raised the spectre of Chinese global domination or a prolonged and destructive jihad from the Islamic world.
Fatigued by perpetual threat, our society appears today to have largely lost its capacity to deal with present problems. Government, media and academia all have largely adopted, and even sought to expand their own power, by exacerbating this sense of omnipresent threat. Pick your thesis and line up your dialectical arguments, and you can almost hear the politicians and business leaders talking past each other already. And so goes our contemporary cultural conversation.
In this circumstance, the task of rebuilding a sense of optimism and resilience has fallen on a number of local community groups seeking to find an alternative pathway out of the current zeitgeist. As the politicians turn up the volume, individuals are simply turning them off, and inventing solutions that address tomorrow’s needs. From these efforts come the most significant optimism for the future.
Nondialectical change seems to be the only hope in a society where progress, particularly for the hard-pressed middle class, seems increasingly dubious. Small, isolated, cumulative efforts that begin on the grassroots level – localism – are our best, most positive pathway out of the seemingly intractable argument engaging western scientific society.
Based in communities, families and churches, these groups are very different from those – on both sides of the political aisle, in the corporate world, the media, the scientific and academic communities – who hope to benefit from a climate of gloom and hopelessness. These are people who are thinking not how to gain more power or influence, but to make lives better for themselves, their neighbors and their children.
Intentional communities. People creating a community around the intention of responsible environmental stewardship began this movement in Vermont in the 1990s. They represent a vehicle for a community to take responsibility for its environmental impact, wherein homeowners’ dues go towards an engineer’s time to monitor the community’s own wastewater treatment system, electrical power generation, and other needs defined by the community. It has parted company with conventional towns and cities, and today this movement represents any groupings of like-minded individuals around ecological concerns, religious affiliations, and other niche interests as a way of dropping out of the mainstream. Coping with stress by removing oneself from the city helps the individual, but leaves the city behind.
The transition movement, begun in the United Kingdom, may be another pathway, based on the notion of peak oil. Encouraging bicycle riding, walking, and preparation for a low-hydrocarbon future, transition at least increases everyone’s exercise level. It is spreading quickly across America with local organizers creating visioning meetings and action plans, hoping that community strength will be a force multiplier. These movements are building in cities, where the hard work needs to be done. In Central Florida, Transition Orlando leader Jim Belcher facilitates community workshops focused on creating a shared vision for the future of this region. By July, its third gathering attracted over 60 people coming to realize that the future starts here, not in Washington or New York.
The Living Building Challenge, begun in the Pacific Northwest, is yet another pathway, based on the notion that buildings can actually produce energy and clean water while cleaning pollution. Turning the conventional model on its head, building owners engaging in this process have already produced a few examples that appear to meet their self-imposed requirements to be restorative in character. This initiative takes the existing real estate development industry, sorely in need of reform, down a new road as well. With over 70 buildings being analyzed for compliance with this very new standard, four are close to meeting this challenge: a residence in Victoria, British Columbia; the Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, Missouri; the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York; the Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Laboratory in Waimea, Hawaii and the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco, California. More projects like these will have an impact on how people think about the role of buildings in society.
In all these movements, the emphasis is on the process rather than the product. No leadership claims to have all the answers. The importance of this cannot be overstated. With a sense of desperation, communities seem too quick to turn solutions – often concocted from the outside by groups with distinct national or global agendas – that closes off all future dialogue and process, as if the future cannot be trusted to meet its own needs. These approaches may appear to address this generation’s anxiety over the future, but zips the lips of the future generation. A more open, indeterminate vision allows inconsistencies and conflicts to be solved as they arise. Teleological fantasies can only go so far.
Due to their small size these micro-movements and others mean little if considered individually, and they are easy to dismiss as experiments. They are also reactions to the dialectic, whether peak oil or global warming. The important thing about them is not which side they react to, but rather what they are doing about it, and the gradual, step-by-step basis through which individuals and communities can act.
These developments should be watched carefully if a positive image of the future is yet to be regained. Enough destruction has occurred, and rather than bemoan the loss of our past lifestyles and bemoan a future of scarcity, the middle class might look at it rather as a freedom to change and grow stronger, more resilient, and less dependent upon the oligarchy of organized interest groups, academic influence, media money and power.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.