Dance, Don’t Drive: How to Live In Tune With the Planet


The fundamental contradiction of our time is this: we have built an all-encompassing economic engine that requires constant unending growth -- a contraction of even a percent or two is a crisis. But we are embedded in ecosystems that are indeed limited. There is only so much fertile soil, so much fresh water, so many fish in the ocean, the atmosphere can only absorb so much CO2 and stay benign. As Kenneth Boulding memorably remarked, “Anyone who thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Shedding a way of life based on limitless growth, the celebration and reward of excess, and deeply ingrained habits of acquisition, consumption and waste is going to be an overwhelming challenge. The culture of "faster-bigger-more" will not yield easily to a new orientation where sustainability is the rule. We are going to need all the expertise we can muster to understand how we have overloaded the carrying capacity of our planet and its ecosystems -- and how we can tread from here on with a lighter footprint. Innovations in technology, law, policy and practices are absolutely essential. We must change the goals and rules we live by and create incentives and constraints to shape sustainable behaviors. We need new models.

At a deeper level, I believe that living within the boundaries of nature requires a profound shift in perspective: we stop seeing nature merely as a limitless source of lifeless commodities to be used and traded and start seeing the natural realm as an astounding web of living communities that includes us. And we see that we do not live above and beyond the dynamic of the earth’s operating systems that sustain life itself. After centuries of driving economies, we must learn to dance with ecosystems.

When you see your habitat as a collection of dead, disconnected commodities to be manipulated for power and profit, you try to steer and control nature. If you see yourself embedded in an ecosystem that is fluid, that has thresholds, that is so thoroughly interconnected, self-organizing and emergent that is not only more complex than we thought, but more complex than we can think, then you don’t drive nature, you dance.

Let me offer some dancing lessons. Our understanding of ecosystems tells us that biological diversity is key and can be translated into resilience when an ecosystem is disrupted or stressed. We would be wise to heed that in the cultural realm as well, where intellectual diversity and lots of open and inclusive feedback are also key. As someone who has organized campaigns to hold polluters accountable, I can attest that the health of one’s physical/natural environment is a direct expression of the health and vitality of one’s civic environment. Decisions about how to protect human health and how to conserve ecosystem vitality are more likely to be wise and precautionary when they are made openly, when they are inclusive, informed, and accountable. Creating an active democratic culture, then, is key.

If you look to where sustainability -- or at least a hopeful transition to sustainability -- is actually being attempted, you find citizens acting at the grassroots, neighbor to neighbor, rebuilding their communities’ civic environments while aiming to be sustainable. This is often happening under a different banner than sustainability, per se. People talk about peak oil, for example, and the potential for crippling shortages and price hikes. They understand that nature is loaded with disturbances -- earthquakes, hurricanes, firestorms, floods, droughts, and pandemics that could interrupt our far-flung food and energy supply lines.

The people who are actually trying to build sustainable communities recognize that if our way of life is not sustainable, the obvious implication of that is collapse. The very term “unsustainable” tells you the end of the story -- and if you see yourself and your loved ones at the end of that story, then you would be wise and prudent to work to make the unsustainable system sustainable or to build a lifeboat, or do both.

Ark-building abounds. There is the Transition Towns movement, a re-localization movement, and various “post-carbon” projects. Across America people are organizing community gardens and farmers markets, strengthening regional food security, homesteading abandoned urban landscapes, building bike paths, retrofitting homes and businesses with off-grid solar and wind, and conserving local watersheds and wildlife habitat. .

This movement towards what might be called de facto sustainability is a grassroots phenomenon because those whose wealth and power are entrenched in the unsustainable system are unlikely to challenge the very system that upholds their wealth and power.  It is less coherent and intentional than a traditional political “movement” -- more emergent than ideological, more open-source than doctrinaire.

Living sustainably is ultimately a profoundly moral imperative about our obligations to future generations, to our children’s children. That moral argument must be made and, hopefully, it will take hold over the long run. In the meanwhile, we must motivate others to change now. In my experience as an activist and organizer, people are more likely to change their immediate behaviors when it seems in their self-interest to do so, not because someone tells them they “ought” to do something new or they “should” do so. Too often, when we use the term “sustainability” others we want to influence hear “eat your peas!” Or eat fewer of them. I prefer the word “resilience.”

A vision of resilient communities makes sense and resonates positively. If disturbance is inevitable in this emerging age of climate chaos and economic failure, then it makes sense to belong to a group that will offer mutual aid. On the helter-skelter road ahead, comfort, security, and meaning will no longer be determined by ownership, but by membership, by being a participant in a robust community that can provide mutual aid in tough times.

Scale matters. Most of us who are aware that change is needed are caught between the seeming futility of small-scale actions -- like recycling our trash, using different light bulbs, or taking shorter showers -- and the impotence we experience when we push for large scale change, like climate legislation in Congress or international treaties in Copenhagen. On the one hand, too little. On the other, too late. There is, however, a middle scale between individual actions and national or global campaigns that works well and makes sense -- the community. At the community scale, people can embrace their roles as citizens, face one another, share, contend, cooperate, create, learn from and empower one another.

Participation in a community requires commitment and commitment is an investment in precious time and energy. The rewards for that have to be real. The relationships created within one’s own neighborhood and town can be powerful and compelling. Especially in hard economic times, one’s personal network of friends, family, co-workers and neighbors can be all we have to fall back on when a job disappears, a business fails, or a home is lost.

Ultimately, we save what we love -- caring for a landscape to which we feel keenly connected is the very ground of our commitment to ecological citizenship. But we also need tools. Ecological literacy is key. You can’t do the dance if you can’t get the beat, you don’t know the moves, and you can’t see the dance floor.  

When I worked with people who lived downwind from chemical weapons testing and toxic waste incinerators, I realized that I couldn’t enlist them in campaigns to make polluters accountable until they understood that the closest link between them and their environment was their own bloodstreams, that decisions about what we allow into our air, water, and soil get translated into flesh and bone and daily experience. That consciousness had to precede commitment.

The emerging global movement to deal with global climate chaos and restore the earth's operating systems is premised on understandings gained through the environmental sciences. Ignorance of those sciences undermines the basis for changes that are urgently needed.

Ecological science, for example, shows us the value of biodiversity in the resilience of stressed ecosystems and the important role that keystone species play in keeping ecosystems vital. If you do not accept evolutionary theory, you are likely to also reject the need to protect biodiversity. Saving owls and restoring wolves may strike you as the crazy idea of extremists, elitists. You are also less likely to recognize when a natural system, like the earth’s climate, is getting pushed to a tipping point.

Language is both a filter and a lens. It shapes perceptions and actions fundamentally because the articulation of reality is more primal than any strategy. A vocabulary implies a story about how the world works and why. Words like “baptize,” “market,” or “democracy” help create what they describe. A society that incessantly talks about “productivity” but rarely about “resilience” will be productive, not resilient. We chatter endlessly about opinion poll and stock market percentages but the chance that you will hear or read the phrase “carrying capacity” in popular discourse is next to nil. We have easily acquired new terms like blog and tweet, but who knows what an ecotone is?

Eco-literacy replaces a delusional context -- the notion that humans live above and beyond the boundaries of the natural/physical realm without need for restraint, responsibility, respect, or reverence -- with a context that sees us embedded in that natural realm and that realm embedded in us, in our bones, our lungs, our guts, our hearts. It replaces an orientation than engenders alienation with one that fosters affiliation.  It leads us away from reduction, fragmentation, and an obsession with prediction and control. The self-organizing, emergent, ever-morphing, complex, dynamic, interconnected, nonlinear world that ecological fluency describes is not a world of things, but a realm where relationship and process reign -- again, a dance.

So, practice that awkward dance of mutuality that is the very signature of a democratic culture -- the dance where we share, learn, listen, reconcile, invite, reciprocate, step towards one another and embrace. Do not shy away from engaging politically -- to take what you learn and share it openly, applying and testing it out in a messy, complicated, contradictory world that will sometimes receive it with rough hands and a tenuous grasp.

If we take our dancing lessons to heart, we may become not only resilient but grateful, humble, and reverent. Wisdom and grace, or business as usual? The choice is here now.

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