10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #1

Dance More

Dance in your living room. Dance in the streets. Crank up the music you love. Head for your local club, ecstatic dance happening, festival, whatever, wherever. Why is this number one? There’s a reason why every single culture in human history has danced. Well, almost every single culture. If you went to England in the year 1660, you wouldn’t have seen much dancing. For that matter if you go to Saudi Arabia today, you won’t see much either. And in fact even in New York City you might see, as I did recently on a subway as it banked and heaved under Brooklyn, a troupe of breakdancers being studiously stared down by stonefaced riders – even as they dropped impossible head spins in perfect unison.  But the fact that so many of our cultures and so many of our own personal demons have worked so hard to suppress dancing or ‘better’ yet just edit it out of daily life only adds to the argument for its power. There’s something inexplicable to the analytical mind that dancing evokes. It’s the whole system of the human being working together. In fact, it can be the whole system of a human community working together, when it happens in a powerful “container.” It’s a way that we transcend ourselves, or a way that we transcend what we normally think of as ourselves.

Dictators, puritans, fundamentalists, police, child abusers, codependents, occupying armies and bureaucracies well versed in the idea of city as just a homeland for consumption know it and can never admit it without losing their grip: people dance their way to wholeness. Whole people can’t be controlled. Whole people won’t look the other way. Whole people won’t keep to themselves. They don’t make good soldiers, good drones, good informants, good consumers. They can’t be led into false dichotomies so easily. The Romans said it best: Divide and conquer, and even a single person must be divided before she can be conquered. Then logic or emotion can be separated out, manipulated and misled. Then intuition can find itself abandoned and be harassed into depressed submission. Then the body can find itself defenseless against cold and hunger and grasp for the warmth of a uniform. Among people divided inside, collective genius is but a pipe dream. But a people accustomed to shaking their booties will shake even their own dogmas to pieces. Mind, body, emotion, intuition, spirit make a smoothie tastier than the sum of its parts. Barriers come down between people and anything is possible.

Vanguard 1 squared

For me, the act of dancing very quickly clears out mental congestion. My analytical mind, so adept at outsmarting itself into corners that it can’t think its way out of, takes a willing backseat and happily watches the scenery go by. In that softer, more muted focus, it begins to connect the dots, to pin pieces together in new ways, to step outside problem-centric thinking. And when I sit down again, I’m smiling, with solutions – more like volcanic inspirations – often racing to my fingertips. After even ten minutes with the music I love, its a lot harder to be abusive. Its a lot harder to berate myself. It’s a lot harder to deny the colors around me, and a lot harder to avoid the beauty in another person’s eyes. It’s a lot harder to pretend my dreams are not my dreams, my grief is not my grief, my love is not my love, my genius is not my genius. Its a lot harder to force Whatever Flying Spaghetti Monster brought all this into existence into a tiny box to do my bidding. And the wheels of imagination begin to turn.

Electric Blue 180-smSo what happens when we take that sort of thing into the streets?

Brittle bones regain their youth. Generations lose their distance. People lose the serious, seriously fast. People remember their jobs are just, well, jobs and yet the work becomes meaningful. We’re naked and costumed, equal and special, human, animal and ethereal. For a brief moment, we’re not rich vs poor, high vs low, straight and narrow vs straight out of prison. We’re storytellers, creators, little gods who could care less whether our divinity is make believe.

We’re alive. We’re friends, we’re lovers. We lose ourselves and find ourselves. Wasn’t that once quoted as the outcome of love? Or was it the definition? Brainstorming in one instant and building the next, in our apartments, our houses, our streets, our cities, our cities, with no opposing force. It’s in that space that the transformation of our culture begins, in that space that the muse returns to our daily routines, that science and poetry fuse in wonder, that we remember that we’re tiny and that we matter, and that the world is worth fighting for.

And with that it’s time for me to hang it up and get down.




Image @ top: Barry Goyette from San Luis Obispo CAhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/93765931@N00/2147032210

10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #2

Do It Beautifully

As a designer, inventor, maker, architect, I feel a pressure that seems to radiate from everywhere, even from the marrow of my bones and the neurons of my brain. Our culture seems shot through with it.

I must justify, explain and defend making things beautiful. Even to myself. Then I must analyze, analyze and analyze more any excitement I get out of making or seeing what I’ve made. Why?

Beautiful is inconvenient. It’s expensive. It’s exclusive. It’s too good to be true. Don’t get people’s hopes up. We’ve settled for the McWorld in America, the McCity, the McCulture. If design is too beautiful, too compelling, the neighbors are going to get jealous, or pissed at all the people disturbing their favorite prime-time shows with visits and kneeling-in-prayer-pilgrimages and time-lapse photography and candlelight vigils and dancing in the streets. It’s all going to be a big bother that makes people late for work. And you know the cops are going to break up the party anyway. Beautiful will never make the building code. “Just shutup and be like all the other McArchitects,” the voice rages on. “No client is going to buy. Just play along. Be satisfied with the little flourishes you can get away with on the fringes and windowsills of the box.”

The voice lectures on. “Your experience doesn’t matter. So what if you find the building uninspiring? Forget it. You really expect beautiful design to inspire ecological function? Design has to be ecological or beautiful, not both. Both is too good to be true. Both is asking for too much. God’ll punish us if we ask!”

If we were discussing family dynamics instead of design, that voice would be called belittling, narcissistic, controlling and abusive. That voice is why we’ve got all those kids chucking garbage through bus windows.

“Aiming for beauty is selfish, narcissistic. It’s selfish and wrong,” it rages. “It’s self-indulgent and self-absorbed in the very the moment when you need to stop thinking about you and start thinking about the worldwide floods that are going to send your great-grandchildren scrawling for refugee camps on higher ground.”


Beauty inspires. Beautiful says yes to life and love. Beauty says thank you. Grateful people build beautiful things. And like thermal mass absorbing sunlight, grateful creations radiate their warmth back out long afterward, communicating to future generations, inspiring prayer and tears and journeys half-way round the world and love and revolutions and yes even dancing. Beauty reminds us that somebody found us worthy of delighting and so it connects us. It reminds us that this is our home, our city, our world and that it’s our right, maybe even our destiny to make it our living room.

Beauty is democratic too. In fact maybe that’s why elites across the centuries have guarded it so jealously, locked it behind palace gates and shrouded it in self-referential discourse. “What is beauty?” they teach us to ask, and then they teach us to answer in no less than two thousand words. “It makes my heart sing” isn’t good enough. Even making your heart sing by making mine sing that’s still not good enough. We have to explain, justify, analyze and defend why before a jury wearing all black.

But what if we humans have a sense of beauty written into our DNA? There’s what works, and then there’s what takes our breath away. Maybe we really do know it when we see it; if we didn’t we’d never have gotten past the Stone Age. Hunters wouldn’t have seen magic in arrowheads so finely made that they whistled through the air, gatherers wouldn’t have been awed by basket weaves that didn’t leak a drop of water, and none of us would have pondered the heavens long enough to care to make a hieroglyph. For us the beautiful is the possible. “Wow” is the compass that guided our ancestors beyond the African savanna.

Neolithic Arrowheads

If we’re deeply moved by the products we use, the spaces we inhabit, the hours we pass and the cities we live in, we’ll own them, cherish them and protect them. And as our design becomes ever more elegant and our supply chains adjust, we may well come to find that the “wow” of the beautiful doesn’t mean expensive after all. A geodesic dome requires a lot less material than a balloon-frame house that covers the same ground. An iPhone uses a lot less material, and costs a lot less, than the brick-phones of the 1980’s. A permaculture garden ablaze with color and buzzing with bees can do a lot more than a monoculture farm with the same amount of land, water, air and work.

So let’s aim for function. And inspiration. That’ll very likely get us to…

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #3

Play for Something Bigger than “Sustainable”

If a friend said their career or marriage was “sustainable,” would you be inspired? I’m guessing not. Is it that we lack better words, or that our thinking is still stuck in 1564? Ouch?

So if not sustainable, then what? Net positive sounds better, more inclusive, more attendant to the taking-care-of-the-whole-system-including-us approach. Regenerative is in the ballpark too but has a tough time with the inevitable change stuff we talked about earlier. Generative then? Well meaning but it could go amoral pretty quickly. How about ecstatic? Once again, the inner critic argues that’s too much to ask for. But maybe he’s got a point. I could theoretically get ecstatic lopping people’s heads off in the name of God or racial purity, couldn’t I?

How about grateful? “Observe” is permaculture principle number one. I don’t know about you but I do my best observing when I’m filled with gratitude. No coincidence, perhaps, that that’s also when I’m most creative. Brilliance just flows through me, sometimes to the point of overwhelm. I’m not pushing the creative ideas out then; now they’re pushing through my skin. They’re exploding out of me, tickling my lungs, electrifying my mind, making my heart rush, egging my body to boogie. I want to crank the tunes up. My cells are catching fire, I’m getting chills and everything’s becoming music. In the most ordinary things I see patterns and perfection and celebration and possibility and a thousand reasons to give thanks. I’m not so much giving as receiving.

In a way my entire educational and professional journey since my sophomore year in college, and all my informal or  self-delivered education outside of school since age six has been a kind of grasping for the language and means to communicate and actualize in the physical world what I receive in those pyroclastic flows of gratitude. It’s there, I’m convinced, that we find the land of genius, the land of synthesis, the land of vision, the land of beauty that lies beyond mere problem-solving. It’s there that we’ll find the “power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity,” there that we’ll find ourselves leaving the projected boxes behind and beautifully solving the puzzle.

Gratitude wells up from deep within. We can’t “should” ourselves or anybody else into experiencing it. So how do we get there? Well, to give advice is perhaps more than I can do here. I can say that I myself hardly have it down half the time, but I am learning. Getting there  can be the journey of a lifetime, one that nobody can plan. What I can say is that it seems to start with willingness. And willingness must sometimes come from hard knocks, from pain, from being cracked open, thrown to your knees, having your stale dogma, fears, and limiting stories about yourself and nature and whatever intelligence is behind it all swept onto the rocks and smashed to pieces. When you’re up against it, that’s when you can at last see that what you held on to for survival your whole life is the only thing that’s been stopping you.  I can’t say that I fully understand it. But I can say that sometimes the best I can do is go through the alphabet. “What starts with the letter A that I’m grateful for? Apples. Great! B? Blue, the color blue.” That’s at least a start, enough to get the wheels turning. Practice makes perfect.

Grateful Includes Sustainable

And if alphabet soup is all you can do today to get to gratitude, that’s something to be grateful for. We’re one baby step closer to a world run on gratitude. It almost goes without saying that it will be a sustainable world too, and a world where we find it only natural to…

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #4

Ask ourselves why we dream of a sustainable culture

Or if we even really do. If the line of questioning starts to sound like heresy, tempting an inner inquisition or an outer slap just by being brought up at all, then its all the more important to ask it. “If I’m so about sustainability, my accusing inner voice taunts, “then why do I love all those apocalypse flicks where Tom Cruise fights giant robots while ash rains from the sky?” Those movies take a lot of people to make, and they rake in the cash, so I know I’m not alone.

But really, I offer the question as invitation, not inquisition. I have a friend in Orange County who’s doggedly determined that I give up the green. “If we blow up the world, Lavin,” he advises me, “my Messiah comes and I get to go home, so I’m for the polluters.” That’s extreme, but I bring it up so that we can all air all of who and what we are, all of what moves us, politically correct or not, sift through it and find where the passion for a livable world really lies. After all, censoring ourselves is never the key to inspiration, innovation, change making or for that matter, sustainable culture.

From what I can tell, there’s a very particular way to access the passion, the hunger. Get theoretical about what the world “should” be, and you’ve lost me – and I can tire out most theorists. But remind me of the joy I had dancing last night and you’ve got me. Now you’ve got my wonderment, my tears of thanks, my offerings, my artistry on an altar of gratitude. Vertecology, here it comes. Take away the dancing or anything else I love; let it wither because of the closure of our open, democratic, people-valuing society; let it end because our sickened bodies can no longer handle the toxicity of the air and water; let the music fade because we’ve become too busy fighting over food after the dying of the mushrooms and the bees; take away the dancing and I will fight the dying of the light. I will declare it unacceptable that eons of sacred evolution from amino acids to human endeavor might should go unremembered on an unmarked world. As would everyone.

The fire behind our declaring? That’s Love with a capital “L.” Loving the apocalypse extra-crispy on screen doesn’t mean that when truly living we’re not in love with the world. Our hunger for sustainable culture is aroused in and around the moments we treasure. The fire within is fueled by gratitude. That’s why I pose the question “Why do you want sustainable culture, or do you want it at all?” as an invitation. Chase the question down the rabbit hole long enough and I bet you’ll recognize how in love with the world you truly are, and you’ll find your passion, your willingness and your openness rising.

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #5

Leggo the Ideology

Due to circumstances at home and school during my child and teen years, I developed an especial longing for utopia. That longing has been a blessing in that it’s finely attuned me to the possible. By age 14 I was so about visioning what could be and how we might get there through psychology, design, cultural and mechanical engineering, anthropology, technology and creative expression that I was secretly creating infographics, mindmaps and diagrams in my bedroom while many of my peers were sneaking booze out of their parents’ cupboards. Those early endeavors have made me a polymath, a visionary, a designer, a writer, an inventor, a sensitive and a lifelong learner. While my “process” always started with imagination, it was sometimes frustratingly rigorous. I loved the fabulous and the far out, but I didn’t waste a second with an idea if I wasn’t convinced it could be done somehow, even if it seemed impossible to everyone else because of the social realities limiting us today.

My secret creative process only became a curse when fear took over and made what could be into what had to be.  Then it seemed a matter of personal survival that people, the government, the economy, the stars, plants and animals behave. Then I would feel alone among friends, and to make my solution come together, I had to be beyond perfect too. It was my fault that nobody else was behaving.

When fear eats the muse’s brain, even very, very good ideas can become very, very stuck and very, very bad. Yes, it can even happen to permaculture. It’s not permaculture’s fault, but fear’s. Permaculture doesn’t ask us to kill the polluter or blow up everything that’s been manufactured in the last thousand years or stab a man in the chest because he’s trying to make money off his land; it asks us to observe with the faith that imagination and wise action will quietly follow. It’s less anti and more aikido. It’s principles before personalities.

So how do we leggo the ideology and hold it lightly? It starts with meeting that frightened child within with love and compassion. He’s only bent on controlling the world because he doesn’t know how else to make himself safe. So we hear him and be the parent we never had. Eventually, quite like a side effect, we find the glaciers of dogma melting away, leaving only the possibilities they’d locked inside. In time we’ll look back and see an arc of testing, learning and the willingness to be wrong.

Some ideologies that have become fixed, imprisoning dogmas for me over the years include

  • De-monetization of our culture
  • Permaculture
  • Masculinism
  • Landmark Education “-ism”
  • The “requirement” to hold an abundance mindset… or else…
  • Our cities must become like Burning Man (rather than our cities can embrace the spirit of Burning Man)
  • Atheism
  • Ayn Randian “objectivism”
  • “Absolute” democracy
  • Playfulness. Yes, we have to be playful, damnit!

The inner guidance that led me to each of these ideas over the course of my life; the adventures that inspired me to explore them; and the aha, electrifying moments along the way when through their auspices it all seemed to make sense… all of that kept getting stuck in have-to-land because deep down, I hurt. Until I could articulate that or find people who could understand it, let alone deal with it, I was stuck getting stuck. I was left to be “right” because there was no other option, and get ripped apart from the inside by my own inner guidance’s gentle will to integrity.

The good news is that we don’t have to be stuck. When we begin to go easier on ourselves, the going gets easier on us. And so does the dialogue. Then we naturally begin to imagine, collaborate and create. And it’s from there that sustainable culture is going to – sustainably – come into being.

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #6

Accept that You’re Wanted

Last week I mentioned that like any naturally occurring living innovation, our arrival portended great and irreversible planetary change, and that we (plurally or individually) had no more say over our essence or the time of our arrival than any other organism. We’re here because something greater than ourselves – whether we label it “matter” or “spirit” – wanted us here. The universe conspired to put us here. Whether the action of God or just the dumb luck of protons and electrons, we’re here. And I have a hard time with “dumb luck.” Ask anybody at CERN. Even the protons seem smarter than that and the evidence is overwhelming. The only reason I can figure out why I’m here is because I was wanted.

It’s not to deny any hellish experiences you might have had when you were two, fourteen or forty-five. But once you can look beyond the blindness, woundedness, fear and dysfunction of your immediate forebears, your peers or your own innards for even a few moments, the fact remains. Even if you or others fought reality, you still made it. Something else, something greater, wanted you here. Wants you here, sitting in your chair, or sitting on the train, or wherever you are, reading this right now. If Earth has a cancer called us, it’s God’s problem or the proton’s problem. You are now absolved. Really? God and the proton were working on you and me for fourteen billion years. That’s a lot of time to reconsider.

By letting go of the idea that we are an unwanted evil, we get about 10,000 times more efficient in our thinking, and our actions follow. We lose the excuses. We lose the self-berating that turns into self-destructive, others-destructive and planet-destructive behavior. I used to ride the bus in San Francisco, and see kids eating McDonalds, swearing, fighting, drinking, crumbling up all the packaging and chucking it out the windows. Just a guess: not the behavior of people who understand the depths to which they’re loved. And I suspect it’s much the same for a lot of other folks, even if they’re among the 1% who will never have to ride a bus as long as they live.

Once I accept that I’m loved and that my existence is right, I can focus on higher levels in the hierarchy of human need. There’s one less thing I have to grasp for in darkness and desperation. I’ll naturally begin to consider what greater things I am a part of; what communities, what professions, what interest groups, what tribes. And yes, what ecosystems. The realization is all-inclusive. I’m thankful to all of it. I’ll naturally begin to ask how I can contribute, how I can celebrate, how I can commune and sustainable culture… and beyond… will eventually follow. I daresay that when we as a species can get how wanted we are, we’ll find ourselves deeply interweaving our own genius with that of the natural world.

I said a while ago that with the white noise between our ears gone silent, with the admission of our powerlessness, we’ll be able to listen at last, and that many things will become possible. Another thing we’ll be able to do…

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #7

Face the Cold, Hard Facts

And grive them. Once upon a time, a new species colonized the land, changed the atmosphere forever and set off a cascading planetwide ecological collapse that wiped out 90% of the Earth’s species. When these newfangled plants overtook the land 260 million years ago and began pouring oxygen into the atmosphere, they likely didn’t grieve the food webs that disintegrated in their wake, hold conferences, discuss climate taxes or ponder how to build sustainable culture. They colonized the highest mountaintops and became the backbone of a new ecological complexity perhaps far richer than the one they ruined. Way #7 is hard for me too. Does this mean that we should stuff it and join the chorus of “Drill, Baby Drill?

No. It’s part of our intelligent nature to care about what supports us and about all the non-human life that grows, crawls and flies all around us, and there’s something right about that. Unlike the living innovations and change-agents that came before us, we can make choices. Nobody worth noting is asking us to justify, defend or explain wanting to thrive on a colorful home world. And just because some new ecosystem can adapt to radioactive lakes, glyphosate snowstorms and 150-degree mean temperatures across the arc of 50,000 years doesn’t mean that it “should” ever have to.

What I’m saying is that as with any naturally occurring living innovation, our emergence portends great and irreversible change. We can change our essence no more than the first multicelled organisms could. And we’re here because something greater than ourselves – whether we label it “matter” or “spirit” – wanted us here. Our arrival was as imminent as water flowing downhill; disappear every person alive, and under the right circumstances nature will eventually pop out another creative intelligence. Enough of the “cancer of the planet” stuff. Let’s stop shaming ourselves for not being turtles.  We can torture ourselves or we can bring something to the party that nothing else alive can.

In a sense, the familiar Earth was doomed the very moment the first ape jumped out of a tree and walked on her hind legs, or the moment her brother threw a stone to catch a meal. Right there, alien observers with the IQs of homo sapiens might well have said, “oh S&!#, everything’s about to change down there.” Had the aliens gotten fond of the Earth as it was, and had they empathy and great deal of emotional maturity, they’d have grieved. They might have given themselves the time to cry and rage and hug and mourn. They might have gone through the famous Five Stages and portended the death of this and that, and at the end of all the darkness seen light, found serenity and perfection and openess and gratitude for their lives and signs everywhere of a friendly and brilliantly unfolding universe. They might have found relief in the realization that they were not in control.

Macaca using stone tool

When we fight God and play God in the name of God, what we get is fundamentalism, narcissistic rage at the the arrow of time. Shame on 644 AD for becoming 655, or on 1954 for becoming 1955, whatever your flavor. Usually our demand at gunpoint that the clock turn back, freeze and coddle us hurts us the most. We’re the ones frozen in our moment of impossible exertion, our moment of ever trying to make it. Instead, we can set ourselves free by gently remembering that that there has never been a time where change wasn’t afoot. When we accept ourselves for not being turtles, we can at last open our eyes to what we can be. We can at last be here and consider what’s right about it.

And as we stop fighting the fact of our existence, our hands, our languages and our brains, we can move on to…

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #8

Know Thyself

As a bit of a Trekkie and sci-fi junkie, one sci-fi theme has long caught my attention and chagrin. Among all the galactic races, we humans always seem to be the butt of everybody else’s arrogance. Even genetically we’re simpletons. Our brains are small, our technology pathetic, our attitudes idiotic and we really need to get schooled. We’re helpless, or we’re a monolithic race of victimizers or we’re bumbling fools stumbling into interstellar politics that we’re too dim to understand.  Of course this isn’t how other galactic races see us, but a running commentary on our own collective self-image. Just for once, it would be nice to be celebrated. Acknowledged as fitting like a glove the milieu from which we emerged, just like every other race we’re ever going to meet.

Coming to know the breadth, depth and time frames of the universe has humbled is in recent generations, but let’s remember that humility is not humiliation. If someone insists that existence exists to stage his messianic arrival, that others exist to be characters in his play, I’d call it “grandiose.” But it’s no less grandiose to believe that we – as a species or personally – are the scum of the universe. Both approaches are just as self-obsessed. Self-obsessed? A self-obsessed person would hear an accusation in the term self-obsessed. “I really am a piece of garbage who’s earned a place in Hell,” he might moan. Or “Hell no, I’m not self-obsessed, you’re self-obsessed, you’re full of it!”

Humility really means to see ourselves accurately. Personally and as a species and everything in between. What is the truth of who and what you are? Thought of in terms of “content,” who and what you are is too much to contain in this little blog entry. In fact it’s too much to contain in a PhD program, a Himalayan cave, a therapist’s office, a genetics lab or the viewport of a ship orbiting Earth. There’s another way of thinking of it however that steps beyond the endless stream of “content” that’s the byproduct of human-being, that can help us approach an accurate understanding of who and what we are. Maybe the best word for this way of thinking is “empathy.” Empathy is not an opinion but a way of seeing. It can be probing, but not to find a scapegoat to kill. Through empathy we can come to deep understandings and even firm moral judgments, yet empathy remains willing to be surprised. It doesn’t leap to conclusions but lets insight reveal itself. It recognizes that its current point of view and the associated feelings are valid, worthy of respect and discussion – maybe even accurate – and that there’s often another layer of the onion. It knows like the “object” it’s looking at, it’s doing the best it can with the information it has and the environment it inhabits.

Through empathy, we shed the stories that we use to control and manipulate – you know, the ones that tell us things like “I’m the greatest genius that ever lived,” or “my son still needs me to run his life even though he’s 50 years old,” or “we humans are the scum of the universe,” or “God hates (fill in the blank),” or “all executives are evil.” Because they’re told through the filter of our own ulterior motives, these stories leave us blind. As we begin to leave their safe harbor behind we first come out into what seems a “relativistic” sea, terrifying to those of us who have clung to our verdicts like shipwrecked sailors. Yet with continued empathy, we do eventually see hints of another story being told like bits of rock poking out of the water here and there in some pattern we can almost, but never quite fully discern.

Evolution: Are We There Yet?

With the profoundest gratitude we begin to suspect that this story, this truth, this order of things, who and what we are, and our place in all of it, is knowable. And with equal gratitude we also come to suspect that it can never be known through our fearful figuring, desperate controlling, or impatient manipulating. We’ll never hear it from a preacher’s, politician’s or scientist’s lips, even if it’s what he’s sharing. It’s not so much a story that we tell as one that we learn with patience to hear. I can’t tell you what the story is. Doing so gets in the real storyteller’s way. I leave it to you to develop your powers of discernment through empathy and thus arrive at humility at the perfect time.

What does any of this have to do with living ecologically, with building sustainable culture? Well, as we come to know the truth of who and what we are, our wanting and needing – that which drives the so-called consumer economy – will naturally become “right-sized” and maybe even fall into perfect step with what the home world can handle. As we liberate ourselves from the bondage of false stories, our needs, wants and delights will straighten out. It’s not that we’ll stop wanting or seeking delight. It’s just that we’ll start seeking what really delights us. We’ll know when its right to be “consumers” and when it’s not to be, and the consumer role will no longer define us. Less busy doing, making and buying compulsively to shut up some aspect of our vastness that we think we can’t allow, we’ll be freed up to do, make and buy what we really do need and enjoy. And we’ll stop when we’re full.

Knowing ourselves can also help us…

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture – #9

Take the First Step

Yeah, that First Step. We admitted that we were powerless over our civilization, and that our world had become unmanageable. What? We were just talking about power, weren’t we? If we’re powerless, we’re fracked, right? North Dakota and Alberta look like the seventh circle of Hell, the seas are rising, the ice is shrinking, a species goes extinct every day, its all going, going… This is no time to talk about powerless. We can change direction, can’t we? Now’s the time to talk ideology, my own mind screams at this one. If only we can change the economy, get everybody to stop using money, get everybody recycling, force everybody to tear up their lawns, get the US to dump its Koch habit, make everybody vote red, blue, green or not at all, get everybody to behave, it’ll be okay, we’ll get sustainable culture. If we can just organize enough people to fight, or love, or fight, or love…. If only we can stop shopping, stop needing, stop getting hoodwinked by all the advertising, stop thinking, stop having babies, stop eating out, stop, start, stop… So we’ll fight harder. And harder, and harder and scramble everywhere, until the other voice comes into the room. Oh, it isn’t so bad, is it? They’ll find more oil. This is the world we’re talking about, nothing’s going to happen. Sea level rise? Bah, humbug.

I’m scared to face it myself, that ocean of fear beneath the iceberg of busy.

Like the addict knowingly sliding toward doom with every sip, we drink all the more to the vision of our own extinction. Our own best thinking and all our most honorable intentions have gotten us to 400 parts-per-million with no end in sight. 500, anyone? It seems so simple and so right to stop, but we just can’t, no matter how hard we try.

Ironically, admitting our powerlessness is the most powerful thing we can do. At last, we become humble. At last we become willing. At last we can ask for help. Only when we’re on our knees for real can Step Two follow: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. For those of you that know me, you can trust I’m not going to pull out a dog-eared bible now. My point is not to give you a story to believe. I don’t know what follows either, and in fact that’s the point. It’s here that the journey begins. With the white noise between our ears gone silent, we can listen at last.

In that silence many things can happen, not least of which is coming to…

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10 Surprising Ways to Build Sustainable Culture

I’m fond of the old nine dots puzzle, where you have to connect all nine dots with only four straight lines. You have to solve it without lifting your pencil off the paper. If you’re not familiar with the puzzle, here it is.

I first saw this puzzle when a substitute in my seventh grade history class drew it on a big blank chalkboard. There were thirty of us in the room, all of us stumped, except for the one kid who’d seen it before.

What I love about the puzzle is that it exposes a blind spot we’re all prone to, no matter our IQ, our politics, nationality, sexual orientation or spiritual leanings. We’ve all got it and so no shame on any of us; if groundhogs build a civilization on Earth after we humans have flown the coop, they’ll probably face it too during some phase of their evolution.

(BTW, there are a couple of solutions to the puzzle. For one, click here.)

What all thirty of us did was assume that we had to solve the puzzle inside an imaginary box framed by the nine dots. Every last one of us projected that box, a set of limits that wasn’t there. While the little puzzle took up about a quarter of the blackboard, the empty space all around it occurred to none of us. Once our substitute revealed the collective blind spot, the door was wide open. Solutions were painfully obvious. Was our thinking limited by social fear? By conditioning? By the neural organization of our brains? Yes, maybe. I’ll save that question for my therapist.

Whatever the reasons, subjective or objective, hardware or software, we assume limits that aren’t there. Sometimes we get really righteous about those limits and build our lives around proving their reality. Sometimes we’re totally willing to let them go but have no idea how, and most of the time we have no idea we’re making them up at all. With regard to sustainable culture, there are plenty of things we know to do within our projected boxes. Recycle. Drive less. Buy less. Go to the polls. Go on a march. Put solar on the roof if we can afford it. That’s great, but most of us know that alone isn’t going to get us close, especially when the neighbors insist on gas-guzzling SUVs, corporations insist on dumping, riding a bike in the big city is taking your life into your own hands and governments insist on protecting the status quo. And most of us know that we’re pretty much lost if we hope to change anything by nagging or by forcing part of ourselves to “sit down and shut up or face an apocalypse of our own making.” We’re doing the best we can with what we know for sure. But what I’m interested in here is going beyond what we know. How do we get out of the box? There are many ways, but in honor of our topic of sustainable culture, I’ll start with

#10: Learn to Think Like Nature

When we disappear enough of our projected boxes, what’s left are systems within systems wherein everything is connected, wherein butterflies can shape weather fronts. Within those systems, self-organizing feedback loops and flows create levers, stages and moments of opportunity – levers, stages and moments that we already know how to use if we’ve ever steered a car, walked, or paused before delivering a punch line. Conceived within the worlds of farming and gardening, the permaculture principles are all about using those natural levers and moments to accelerate ecosystems, green deserts and turn cracked parking lots into food forests. The principles are like “commands” that give access to the “operating system” upon which the natural world is built. Therefore they give us the ability to do some amazing things without self-abasement. It’s not to say these principles should be taken as scripture. It’s better to take them as guides to test and test ourselves and the world against.

Using the permaculture principles to design within the realms of agriculture and gardening can make a big difference but to assume their usefulness ends there is to project a box that isn’t there and miss the rest of everything. Not all of us are meant to be farmers, but all of us are “nature working.”

Bucky Fuller with Tensegrity

I have to admit it myself – for quite a while, I’ve looked at myself, far more designer and inventor than farmer and tried to force myself into directions less natural to my disposition, to fit a made up picture of what a “permaculturist” was supposed to be. I too came to believe in a box that wasn’t there rather than trust the wisdom of how I was made, the opportunity for all of life in how I was made. Here’s an idea of how to start thinking like nature.

  • Instead of trying to force change, ask what’s possible about what’s there. Let the chicken be a chicken, the tree be a tree, the designer be a designer, and you be you. Acknowledge that the potential benefits of the chicken, the tree, the designer – and you – to the whole, is limited only by your imagination.
  • Consider that patient, earnest observation may be the only thing between you and the tiny adjustments in one corner of an ecosystem, or a culture, that can guide a future.

I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t always easy. Letting the chicken be a chicken is easy enough, but what about Congress? That leads us to the Next Surprising Way…

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