Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Basic Rules

For years I have been searching for a simple set of rules that could lead any person to live responsibly and sustainably. Last week it occurred to me that the answer could be found in observing how wild species live, along with the people I respect the most. Here is the result:

  1. Take only what you need from the world, and let others have the rest.

  2. Develop your strengths, and compensate for your weaknesses.

  3. Question everything, and test the answers.

The first rule enables us to maximize the availability of resources, maximizing the upper limit of how long we can survive. The second rule maximizes our personal longevity. The third rule enables us to adapt to changing conditions, as well as keeping our lives interesting.

It will be interesting to see how this works in practice, beginning with a comparison of how we currently live with its mandates. Myself, I am seriously deficient in following the first rule, slightly more successful with the second rule, and perhaps best at following the third rule. By design, the third rule supports the second, and both the second and third rules support the first; so being better at following the third rule should result in more sustainable living, given enough time.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Price of Silence

My wife and I recently took a few days off in celebration of her birthday and the fact that we would both be starting new jobs. It was also likely to be our last vacation for a long time. Wanting some rest and an opportunity to observe wildlife, we chose a bed and breakfast in Estes Park, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is an easy drive from our home in the northern suburbs of Denver. Between the accommodations, meals, gas, and gifts we bought ourselves, the trip easily cost as much as I would have earned had I been working during that time, but we both agreed it was worth it.

For me, the most memorable part of the trip was the silence. The sounds of trains, traffic, and motors were replaced by quiet punctuated by bird calls, squirrel chirps, wind, and depending on where we were, water flowing over rocks. The residents of the area, human and animal alike, are used to this, and the local economy depends heavily on city dwellers like me being willing to pay decent money for just a small sample – along with memorabilia that will remind us of it, and entice others to get it too.

I took back more pictures and movies than anything else, enough for my computer to remind me of the healthy reality I am missing while I work. The digital images and sounds are just a small part of the visual and auditory experience, itself a small part of the overall experience of being there which includes a multitude of smells, the feel of fresh air on your skin and blowing on your clothes, and the contours of the rocks and dirt under your feet. Also lost in translation is the brief awakening of instincts, buried by civilization, that continuously categorizes the wild flora and fauna around you in the most basic of terms, reminding you of what you are supposed to be a part of, and that is part of you.

Despite my best efforts, I couldn't totally keep the big picture and its implications out of my thoughts. Three separate events stood out as triggers.

The first event was a conversation at a bookstore with a man who was unsuccessfully trying to start a Transition group in Estes Park. The problem appeared to be a lack of interest in creating the kind of tight-knit community that resilience demands. Community, sadly, is becoming a bad word at precisely the time when we need to be living more locally so that the impending collapse of global infrastructure does not have totally catastrophic effects.

The second event was the purchase, at the same bookstore, of the latest issue of National Geographic, which highlighted the amount and use of the world's fresh water. The statistics and the anecdotal stories are depressing and horrifying, with much of the world's population unable to secure enough clean water, and global warming proceeding to make things much worse. This awakened feelings of both guilt and anger at being part of a socioeconomic system that is responsible for this hardship and misery that is unimaginable to most of us in our bubble of plenty.

The third event was a discussion with one of the other people staying at the B&B, which focused on people's responsibility for preserving ecosystems. The area is literally crawling with deer and elk, with the population of the latter threatening to get too large. Rather than introducing natural predators such as wolves, which would likely scare people and also attack domestic animals, human predators – hunters – are given permission to kill more elk. Meanwhile, in large parts of the state's forests, bark beetles are killing trees at an alarming rate, due in large part to the suppression of natural fires that would threaten encroaching settlement (ironically, this is resulting in more fuel for fires, making the fires much more difficult to put out). In both cases, people living too close to wild habitats are inhibiting the mechanisms Nature has for keeping ecosystems healthy. The guy I was talking to saw healthy ecosystems as esthetic rather than having any innate value that could compete with his current lifestyle (he lives near a forest). I didn't have the chance to make the case that has consumed my life recently: that natural systems are critical to our survival; and the more of them we destroy or sabotage, the more likely we will meet the fate of every other species that exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat -- a thinning of our herd.

The day after I returned home, I began to feel general aches, along with a low-level anger exacerbated by the disappointment of hours spent searching for more long-term work in an organization that helps the Earth rather than hurts it. My overall impression was that while there are many companies that deal with pieces of the sustainability problem, their necessary immersion in a distorted, planet-killing system that promotes the short-term wealth of a few over the long-term health of all dooms them to ultimately doing more harm than good. This led to the realization that my route to redemption does not lie in tweaking that system to value silence over noise, because the system will simply assign a price to it, which will drive people to create more noise to pay for it, just as I will be using my technical skills in an artificial world to pay for my brief experience with the wild one.