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Making the Good Life LastFour Keys to Sustainable Living
By Michael A. Schuler
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Michael A. Schuler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEmbracing New Rules of Conduct
If life and love are to endure, if better health and greater happiness are to be obtained, and if the communities and ecologies that sustain us are to thrive, society will have to reappraise its values. More specifically, the principle of sustainability now needs to move to the forefront of our planning and problem solving.
What, then, would this entail? As I've already pointed out, most of the commentary on sustainability focuses on technical solutions—specific, scientifically determined measures meant to solve particular social, environmental, or economic problems. What have been missing are a few basic behavioral norms that can provide the initiated and uninitiated alike with the insight and proper incentive to accomplish some very important goals. What I recommend is the application at both the individual and collective level of four deceptively simple and straightforward rules of conduct, or "keys." Their ultimate purpose is to ensure that the efforts we make to create the good life will produce the desired results. The rules are these:
* Pay attention.
* Stay put.
* Exercise patience.
* Practice prudence.
The first key—pay attention—may strike you as somewhat puzzling. After all, doesn't every reasonably observant, healthy individual know how to attend? Perhaps those afflicted with some perceptual malady may find the task difficult, but otherwise this is an ability most of us take for granted.
In this department we undoubtedly give ourselves more credit than we deserve. Is the quality of our attention such that we accurately perceive what's going on around us and inside ourselves? The sad fact is that many of us are eminently distractible, noticeably preoccupied, and solidly entrenched in a pattern of preconceptions and prejudicial thinking that seriously compromises our ability to see clearly.
This is not invariably the case, of course. Most people are quite able to pay close attention when engaged in an activity they really enjoy or feel passionate about. That quality is clearly displayed in the demeanor of a professional poker player or a pinball wizard. It is also an ability most new mothers develop, such that even the faintest cry from their baby's crib will bring them to instant alertness. A computer game, a concert, or a compelling research project can all produce rapt attention in their respective participants.
And yet many aspects of personal, interpersonal, and planetary life don't receive sufficient attention. If an enterprise, a relationship, or an environment isn't sufficiently engaging, we tune out and turn our attention elsewhere. Why? Because paying attention requires energy and self-discipline—a greater expenditure of sustained effort than most of us want to invest. But if we restrict our powers of attention only to those areas that seem likely to pay immediate dividends in terms of pleasure or profit, much that is critical to our well-being won't be given the serious consideration it deserves. The quality of a person's attention will decisively affect that person's performance as a parent, an employee, a citizen, or a steward of the planet.
Paying Attention on a Farm
My own upbringing on a modest working farm in the upper Midwest has helped me as an adult to appreciate the critical role that attention plays in the practice of sustainable agriculture. Apart from a few rudimentary practices like crop rotation, neither we nor our rural neighbors consciously adhered to sustainable standards. We almost certainly did not pay the kind of close attention to what we were doing that the noted Kentucky farmer-writer Wendell Berry advocates. Berry, whose observations of Amish culture and his own determined efforts to make a small, hardscrabble farm productive have made him something of a sustainability guru, can help readers appreciate the difference between his and our own more conventional approach to agriculture.
Farmers of the "old school," Berry writes, are always alert to what Alexander Pope characterized as the "genius of the place." They are guided in their work and their ambitions by the natural contours of their property, by the presence of certain wild plants and animals, and by subtle variations in the soil. Marketability and mass production are not the only or even the first consideration for the sustainable farmer. Plants and animals are raised according to what best suits the land and its resources.
The farmers that Berry cites recognize the indissoluble connection between the land's aliveness and their own livelihood; they strive to be conscientious stewards as well as successful producers. Berry finds appalling those industrial-style farmers and absentee owners whose hunger for profit and reliance on technology have led them to abdicate their responsibility. Their jaded sensibilities and unwillingness to pay attention to the consequences of their actions have undermined the health of rural ecologies and communities alike. "The inability to distinguish between a farm and any farm is a condition predisposing to abuse," Berry writes, "and abuse has been the result. Rape, indeed, has been the result, and we have seen that we are not exempt from the damage we have inflicted. Now we must think of marriage."
Peter Martinelli, who operates a small, coastal farm north of San Francisco, offers an instructive example of how attention and intuition can be used to solve an agricultural problem. Farming in this region is an ongoing challenge; in contrast with California's sun-soaked central valley, the weather is less predictable and soil conditions are less uniform. The environment demands an opportunistic and flexible orientation and a willingness to explore many possibilities. Consequently, Martinelli is always looking, questioning, and rearranging the pieces of his farm to obtain better results.
A few years ago he decided to make a stab at growing strawberries—a common coastal crop. He studied the subject and learned from the literature that because the fruit's sweetness is directly affected by heat and sun, strawberries should be planted in his warmest field—a flat, treeless expanse of valley real estate. Accordingly, he planted his berries "by the book," but the resulting product wasn't what the literature had promised. Martinelli ended up with small, excessively tart berries that were barely edible. To make matters worse, during the ensuing winter most of the plants in that "prime" location died. Nevertheless, the persistent farmer wasn't ready to throw in the towel. He still had a gut feeling about those strawberries.
Laying "science" temporarily aside, Martinelli thoroughly reinspected his property, walking and looking and, as Wendell Berry put it, trying to get a sense of its "genius." Finally, on a hunch, he planted a second crop in a hillside clearing surrounded by woods. Although experts would hardly have considered it an ideal spot for domesticated strawberries, Martinelli felt confident. The plants did well, and when the berries ripened, they were simply exquisite—"delicious in a way that forces you to stop and consider each one deeply," as Martinelli himself reported.
There was really nothing all that mysterious or magical about this unexpected success. Rather than allow his judgment to be clouded by his previous assumptions and prevailing agricultural opinion, the farmer simply resolved to pay close attention and let the land speak directly to him. On one of many saunters around his property, something had made Martinelli pause: on a hill at the edge of the woods he discovered a few wild strawberries stretching their tendrils across a litter of leaves. In the lower field where the crop had failed, no wild berries were present. There was something about the higher elevation that seemed to suit the plant. The farmer only needed to notice what was already there.
Going about our daily lives, how often do our own decisions and actions reflect close attention? Our behavior might reflect ingrained habit or standard operating procedure. Often we feel obliged to follow the guidance of experts or conventional wisdom. But there is also a lot to be said for the power of simple attention as we search for the optimal place to sow the seeds of happiness.
The Tao of Attention
Traditional Eastern philosophies have always placed a premium on this quality of perception and the practices that promote it. Over 2,400 years ago the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu provided a holistic description of "attention" that remains relevant:
The goal ... is inner unity. This means hearing, not just with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; hearing with the spirit, with your whole being.... Hence, it demands the emptiness of all the other faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens.
Taoism teaches that by fully attending to things as they are, we can enjoy a harmonious relationship with the Tao—that ineffable, all-pervading principle that governs and gives coherence to the cosmos. In the process, we gain the ability to move through life mindfully, with ever-greater poise and equanimity and free from the need to be always "in control" of others and the environment.
Philosopher-anthropologist David Abram has reached a similar conclusion. Despite the rapid expansion of our knowledge about the world, the incredible amount of information literally at our fingertips, and the sophisticated technology we now command, awareness of and sensitivity to our surroundings have eroded. Knowledge derived from secondary sources causes us, as it did Peter Martinelli, to make assumptions and often as not to draw the wrong conclusions. Technology keeps us at arm's length from that which nourishes us. Abram believes that our best hope for moving from estrangement back into relationship is to take our cues from pretechnical, nonliterate traditional peoples who still know how to pay attention. Statutory codes, cool rational appraisals, and philosophic principles, while important, are not sufficient. If a more compelling environmental ethic is to gain widespread acceptance, "a renewed attentiveness to this perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics (my emphasis) and a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us" will also be required.
Or as the British philosopher John Gray succinctly put it: "Why do we need to have a [definable] purpose in life? Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"—seeing being just another way of saying "Pay attention!"
In addition to improving the quality of our perception, we have to get better at controlling our restlessness. Novelist Wallace Stegner was a close observer of American culture, and he once observed that people in this country can generally be assigned to one of two categories: they are either "boomers" or "stickers." He lamented that the former—folks who with very little forethought will pull up stakes and head for the latest boomtown—were becoming increasingly dominant. Modern society, Stegner complained, schools its citizens in discontent and encourages us to "get up and get out." The itch for greener pastures or greater adventure— symptomatic, perhaps, of an unresolved frontier fixation—is one we just can't resist scratching. But, Stegner wrote, "Neither the country nor the society we build out of it can be healthy if we don't stop raiding and running. We must learn to be quiet part of the time and acquire the sense not of ownership, but of belonging."
Stegner first voiced this concern a half century ago, and today the average American pulls up stakes and heads for a new home, neighborhood, or community about once every seven years. Underscoring Stegner's point, Scott Russell Sanders observes that "from the beginning our heroes have been vagabonds of every stripe." Rather than create viable livelihoods and livable communities where they already are, Americans have continually hankered for a new environment more suited to their needs. "The promised land has always been over the next ridge, or at the end of the trail, never under our feet," Sanders writes. The problem has reached such proportions that environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams has even suggested that "perhaps the most radical thing we can do these days is to stay home."
Why We Don't Stay Put
The reasons for all this meandering about aren't necessarily trivial, and boomers sometimes protest that they don't have much choice. The explanations people give include loss of local employment, educational opportunities elsewhere, environmental health issues, and the need to live nearer to close relatives. Nevertheless, a good bit of this transience appears to be based on internal restlessness rather than real necessity. People "get up and get out" for the sake of a more congenial climate, an upscale lifestyle, or a more child-friendly atmosphere. I'm familiar with these rationales because earlier in life we ourselves made similar choices. At this stage of the game, however, I'm pretty well convinced that the American reluctance to sink our roots too deeply in any native soil has had a negative impact on families, communities, and ecologies.
The Dividends It Pays
I have become a convert to the second key of sustainability: stay put. For the past two decades our family has lived in the same tightly integrated neighborhood. We have watched our son and his friends move from infancy to adulthood and then leave home, and we have marveled at the many changes that have occurred in our surroundings and in ourselves. While it is certainly conceivable that circumstances might eventually cause us to move elsewhere, we would take that step with great reluctance and with a genuine sense of loss. Trina and I enjoy our status as stickers and wish more Americans shared our own appreciation for its pleasures.
People come to the city where we live, Madison, and swoon over its most obvious assets: four beautiful lakes, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the nation's best and biggest farmer's market, its expansive park system, and its funky State Street shopping area. They say that they "love" the city, but what they're really describing seems more like infatuation than real devotion. Commitment comes when residents become curious and attentive enough to develop a deep sense of identity, after which they begin seriously to care. For a bona fide sticker, the fate of self and the fate of community are felt to be intertwined.
Communities owe their health and beauty to those with the fortitude and faithfulness to stay put—those who, as Stegner wrote, are prepared to place homemaking ahead of profit making. For stickers, a house is first and foremost a home and only secondarily an investment. Such residents are thus more likely than most to protect a community from those whose paramount concern is their own enrichment.
These are people who've been around long enough to know that their community actually has character and that this is one of the qualities that makes it habitable. As time passes, stickers inevitably learn something of their local history, recognize important landmarks and artifacts, and come to understand who and what makes the community tick. The economic, cultural, and environmental forces that have shaped and reshaped the region are obvious to stickers, and they are eager to do what they can to maintain continuity with the healthiest aspects of the past. When Terry Tempest Williams urges us to "stay home," it is for this express purpose: to deepen our knowledge of and commitment to the place and the people we are part of.
Of course, sticking doesn't guarantee that the special identity of a community will be preserved and its long-term interests well served. Often the developers, real estate brokers, and investors who are most responsible for altering its character can cite long residency and routinely express great pride in their community. But because their first priority is profit making, actors such as these tend to think and perform more like boomers than stickers. Despite their status as homegrown products, they have nevertheless aided and abetted a development process that has rendered many of America's towns and cities culturally sterile and commercially homogenous. These communities are "purposely held in bondage by a local network of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and businesspeople" who are not the least interested in community values or the health of its citizenry, journalist and gadfly Joe Bageant complains.
Excerpted from Making the Good Life Last by Michael A. Schuler Copyright © 2009 by Michael A. Schuler. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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