What one person has, another cannot have. . . . Every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent.
How do we sell more stuff to more people in more places?
Don't try to eat more than you can lift.
Some years ago a friend of mine, Stuart Mace, gave me a letter opener hand-carved from a piece of rosewood. Over his 70-some years Stuart had become an accomplished wood craftsman, photographer, dog trainer, gourmet cook, teacher, raconteur, skier, naturalist, and all-around legend in his home town of Aspen, Colorado. High above
Aspen, Stuart and his wife, Isabel, operated a shop called Toklat, which in Eskimo means "alpine headwaters," featuring an array of woodcrafts, Navajo rugs, jewelry, fish fossils, and photography. He would use his free time in summers to rebuild parts of a ghost town called Ashcroft for the U.S. Forest Service. He charged nothing for his time and labor. For groups venturing up the mountain from Aspen, he and Isabel would cook dinners featuring local foods cooked with style and simmered over great stories about the mountains, the town, and their lives. Stuart was seldom at a loss for words. His living, if that is an appropriate word for a how a Renaissance man earns his keep, was made as a woodworker. He and his sons crafted tables and cabinetwork with exquisite inlaid patterns using an assortment of woods from forests all over the world. A Mace table was like no other, and so was its price. Long before it was de rigueur to do so, Stuart bought his wood from forests managed for long-term ecological health. The calibration between ecological talk and do wasn't a thing for Stuart. He paid attention to details.
I first met Stuart in 1981. I was living in the Ozarks at the time and part of an educational organization that included, among other things, a farm and steam-powered sawmill. In the summer of 1981 one of our projects was to provide two tractor-trailer loads of oak beams for the Rocky Mountain Institute being built near Old Snow-mass. Stuart advised us about cutting and handling large timber, about which we knew little. From that time forward Stuart and I would see each other several times a year either when he traveled through Arkansas or when I wandered into Aspen in search of relief from Arkansas summers. He taught me a great deal, not so much about wood per se as about the relation of ecology, economics, craftwork, generosity, and good-heartedness. I last saw Stuart in a hospital room shortly before he died of cancer in June 1993. In that final conversation, I recall Stuart being considerably less interested in the cancer that was consuming his body than in the behavior of the birds outside his window. He proceeded to deliver an impromptu lecture on the ecology of the Rocky Mountains. We cried a bit and hugged, and I went on my way. Shortly thereafter he went on his.
Every time I use his letter opener I think of Stuart. I believe that he intended it to be this way. For me the object itself is a lesson in giving and appropriate materialism. It is a useful thing. Hardly a day passes that I do not use it to open my mail, pry something open, or as a conversational aid to help emphasize a point. Second, it is beautiful. The coloring ranges from a deep brown to a tawny yellow. The wood is hard enough that it does not show much wear after a decade and a half of daily use. Third, it was made with great skill and design intelligence. The handle is carved to fit a right hand. Two fingers fit into a slight depression carved in the base. My thumb fits into another depression along the top of the shank. It is a pleasure to hold; its smoothness feels good to the touch. And it works as intended. The blade is curved slightly to the right, which serves to pull the envelop open as the blade slices through the paper.
Had Stuart been a typical consumer he could have saved himself some time and effort. He could have hurried to a discount office supply store to buy a cheap and durable chrome-plated metal letter opener stamped out by the tens of thousands in some third world country by underpaid and overworked laborers employed by a multinational corporation using materials carelessly ripped from the earth by another footloose conglomerate and shipped across the ocean in a freighter spewing Saudi crude every which way and sold by nameless employees to anonymous consumers in a shopping mall built on what was once prime farmland and is now uglier than sin itself making a few shekels for some organization that buys influence in Washington and seduces the public on TV. But you get the point.
In other words, had Stuart been a rational economic actor, he would have saved himself a lot of time that he could have used for watching the Home Shopping Channel. He could have maximized his gains and minimized his losses as the textbooks say he should do. Had he done so, he would have been participating in the great scam called the global economy, which means helping some third world country "develop" by selling the dignity of its people and their natural heritage for the benefit of others who lack for nothing. And he would have helped our own gross national product become all that much grosser.
A great global debate is under way about the sustainability and fairness of present patterns of consumption (Myers 1997, Sagoff 1997, Vincent and Panayotou 1997). On one side are those speaking for the poor of the world, various religious organizations, and the environment, who argue adamantly that wealthy Americans, Japanese, and Europeans consume far too much. Doing so, they believe, is unfair to the poor, future generations, and other species of life. This consumption is stressing the earth to the breaking point. Others, who believe themselves to be in the middle, argue it is not that we consume too much, only that we consume with too little efficiency. Below the surface of such views there is, I suspect, the gloomy conviction that short of an Ayatollah it is too late to reign in the hedonism loosed on the world by the advertisers and the corporate purveyors of fun and convenience. Human nature, they think, is inherently porcine, and given a choice, people wish only to see the world as an object to consume and the highest purpose of life to maximize bodily and psychological pleasure. For the managers, a better sort, a dose of more advanced technology and better organization will keep the goods coming. No problem. This view of human nature I take to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of the kind Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor would have appreciated. At the other end of the debate are the economic buccaneers and their sidekicks who talk glibly about more economic growth and global markets. A quick review of the seven deadly sins reveals them to be full-fledged heathens who will burn for eternity in hellfire. I know such things because I am the son of a Presbyterian preacher.
Because I believe that it is right and because I know it needs help, the first position in this debate is the one for which I intend to speak. I must begin by noting that "consume" as defined by the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary means "destroy by or like fire or (formerly) disease." A "consumer," then, is "a person who squanders, destroys, or uses up." In this older and clearer view, consumption implied disorder, disease, and death. In our time, however, we proudly define ourselves not so much as citizens, or producers, or even as persons, but as consumers. We militantly defend our rights as consumers while letting our rights as citizens wither. Consumption is built into virtually everything we do. We have erected an economy, a society, and soon an entire planet around what was once recognized as a form of mental derangement. How could this have happened?
The emergence of the consumer society was neither inevitable nor accidental. Rather, it resulted from the convergence of a body of ideas that the earth is ours for the taking, the rise of modern capitalism, technological cleverness, and the extraordinary bounty of North America where the model of mass consumption first took root. More directly, our consumptive behavior is the result of seductive advertising, entrapment by easy credit, prices that do not tell the truth about the full costs of what we consume, ignorance about the hazardous content of much of what we consume, the breakdown of community, a disregard for the future, political corruption, and the atrophy of alternative means by which we might provision ourselves. The consumer society, furthermore, requires that human contact with nature, once direct, frequent, and intense, be mediated by technology and organization. In large numbers we moved indoors. A more contrived and controlled landscape replaced one that had been far less contrived and controllable. Wild animals, once regarded as teachers and companions, were increasingly replaced with animals bred for docility and dependence. Our sense of reality once shaped by our complex sensory interplay with the seasons, sky, forest, wildlife, savanna, desert, rivers, seas, and the night sky increasingly came to be shaped by technology and artificial realities. Urban blight, sprawl, disorder, and ugliness have become, all too often, the norm. Compulsive consumption, perhaps a form of grieving or perhaps evidence of mere boredom, is a response to the fact that we find ourselves exiles and strangers in a diminished world that we once called home.
Since stupidity is usually sufficient to explain what goes wrong in human affairs, a belief in conspiracies that require great cleverness is both superfluous and improbable. In this case, however, there is good reason to think that both were operative. Clearly we were naive enough to be suckered by folks like Lincoln Filene and Alfred Sloan who conspired to create a kind of human being that could be dependably exploited and even come to take a perverse pride in their servitude. The story has been told well by Thorstein Veblen (1973), Stuart Ewen (1976), William Leach (1993), and others and does not need to be repeated in detail here. In essence, it is a simple story. The first step involved bamboozling people into believing that who they are and what they owned were one and the same. The second step was to deprive people of alternative and often cooperative means by which they might provide basic needs and services. The destruction of light rail systems throughout the United States by General Motors and its co-conspirators, for example, had nothing to do with markets or public choices and everything to do with back-room deals designed to destroy competition with the automobile. The third step was to make as many people as possible compulsive and impulsive consumers, which is to say addicts, by the advertising equivalent of daily saturation bombing. The fourth step required giving the whole system legal standing through the purchase of several generations of politicians and lawyers. The final step was to get economists to give the benediction by announcing that greed and the pursuit of self-interest were, in fact, rational. By implication, thrift, a concern for others, public mindedness, farsightedness, or self-denial were old-fashioned and irrational. Add it all up and Voila! the consumer: an indoor, pleasure-seeking species adapted to artificial light, living on plastic money, and unable to distinguish the "real thing" (as in "CocaCola is ...") from the real thing.
Do we consume too much? Certainly we do!
Americans, who have the largest material requirements in the world, each directly or indirectly use an average of 125 pounds of material every day, or about 23 tons per year. . . . Americans waste more than 1 million pounds per person per year. This includes: 3.5 billion pounds of carpet sent to landfills, 25 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, and six billion pounds of polystyrene. Domestically, we waste 28 billion pounds of food, 300 billion pounds of organic and inorganic chemicals used for manufacturing and processing, and 700 billion pounds of hazardous waste generated by chemical production____Total wastes, excluding wastewater, exceed 50
trillion pounds a year in the United States For every 100 pounds of product we manufacture in the United States, we create at least 3,200 pounds of waste. In a decade, we transform 500 trillion pounds of molecules into nonproductive solids, liquids, and gases. (Hawken 1997,44)
Does compulsive consumption add to the quality of our lives? Beyond some modest level, the answer is no (Cobb et al. 1995). Does it satisfy our deepest longings? No, and neither is it intended to do so. To the contrary, the consumer economy is designed to multiply our dissatisfactions and dependencies. In psychologist Paul Wachtel's words: "Our present stress on growth and productivity is intimately related to the decline in rootedness. Faced with the loneliness and vulnerability that come with deprivation of a securely encompassing community, we have sought to quell the vulnerability through our possessions" (1983, 65). Do we feel guilty about the gluttony, avarice, greed, lust, pride, envy, and sloth that drive our addiction? A few may.
But most of us, I suspect, consume mindlessly and then feel burdened by having too much stuff. Our typical response is to hold a garage sale and take the proceeds to the mall and start all over again. Can the U.S. level of consumption be made sustainable for all 6.2 billion humans now on the earth? Not likely. By one estimate, to do so for just the present world population would require the resources of two additional planets the size of Earth (Wackernagel and Rees 1996).
If there ever was a bad deal, this is it. For a mess of pottage we surrendered a large part of our birthright of connectedness to each other and to the places in which we live, along with a sizable part of our practical competence, intelligence, health, community cohesion, peace of mind, and capacity for citizenship and neighborliness. Our children, consumers in training, can identify over a thousand corporate logos but only a dozen or so plants and animals native to their region. As a result they are at risk of living diminished, atomized lives. We consume, mostly in ignorance, chemicals like atrazine and alachlor in our cornflakes, formaldehyde in our plywood and particle board, and perchloroethylene in our dry-cleaned clothing (Fagin and Lavelle 1996). Several hundred other synthetic chemicals are embedded in our fatty tissues and circulate in our blood, with effects on our health and behavior that we will never fully understand. Our rural landscapes, once full of charm and health, are dying from overdevelopment, landfills, discarded junk, too many highways, too many mines and clear-cuts, and a lack of competent affection. Cities, where the civic arts, citizenship, and civility were born, have been ruined by the automobile. Death by overconsumption has become the demise of choice in the American way of life. The death certificates read "cancer," "obesity," and "heart disease." Some of our kids now kill each other over Nike shoes and jackets with NFL logos. Tens of thousands of us die on the highways each year trying to save time by consuming space. To protect our "right" to consume another country's oil, we have declared our willingness to incinerate the entire planet. We have, in short, created a culture that consumes everything in its path including its children's future. The consumer economy is a cheat and a fraud. It does not, indeed cannot, meet our most fundamental needs for belonging, solace, and authentic meaning.
"We must," in Wendell Berry's words, "daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration" (1981, 281). Can our use of the world be transformed from desecration to sacrament? Is it possible to create a society that lives within its ecological means, taking no more than it needs, replacing what it takes, depleting neither its natural capital nor its people, one that is ecologically sustainable and also humanly sustaining?
The general characteristics of that society are, by now, well known. First, a sustainable society would be powered by current sunlight, not ancient sunshine stored as fossil fuels. The price of an item in such a society would reflect, in Thoreau's words, "the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it" (Thoreau 1971, 286), which is to say its full cost. This society would not merely recycle its waste but would eliminate the very concept of waste. Since "the first precaution of intelligent tinkering," as Aldo Leopold (1966, 190) once put it, "is to keep every cog and wheel," a sustainable society would hedge its bets by protecting both biological and cultural diversity. Such a society would exhibit the logic inherent in what is called "system dynamics" having to do with the way things fit together in harmonious patterns over long periods of time. Its laws, institutions, and customs would reflect an awareness of interrelatedness, exponential growth, feedback, time delays, surprise, and counterintuitive outcomes. It would be a smarter, more resilient, and ecologically more adept society than the one in which we now live. It would also be a more materialistic society in the sense that its citizens would value all materials too highly to treat them casually and carelessly. People in such a society would be educated to be more competent in making and repairing things and in growing their food. They would thereby understand the terms by which they are provisioned more fully than most of us do.
There is no good argument to be made against such a society. All the more reason to wonder why we have been so unimaginative and so begrudgingly slow to act on what later generations will see as merely an obvious convergence of prudent self-interest and ethics. It is certainly not for the lack of spilled ink, conferences in exotic places, and high-powered rhetoric. But sermons aiming to make us feel guilty about our consumption seldom strike a deep enough chord in most of us most of the time. The reason, I think, has to do with the fact that we are moved to act more often, more consistently, and more pro foundly by the experience of beauty in all of its forms than by intellectual arguments, abstract appeals to duty, or even by fear.
The problem is that we do not often see the true ugliness of the consumer economy and so are not compelled to do much about it. The distance between shopping malls and the mines, wells, corporate farms, factories, toxic dumps, and landfills, sometimes half a world away, dampens our perceptions that something is fundamentally wrong. Even when visible to the eye, ugliness is concealed from our minds by the very complicatedness of such systems which make it difficult to discern cause and effect. It is veiled by a fog of abstract numbers that measure our sins in parts per billion and as injustices discounted over decades and centuries. It is cloaked by the ideology of progress that transmutes our most egregious failures into chrome-plated triumphs.
We have models, however, of a more transparent and comely world beginning with better ways to provide our food, fiber, materials, shelter, energy, and livelihood and to live in our landscapes. Over the past 3.8 billion years, life has been designing strategies, materials, and devices for living on earth. The result is a catalog of design wisdom vastly superior to the best of the industrial age that might instruct us in the creation of farms that function like prairies and forests, waste-water systems modeled after natural wetlands, buildings that accrue natural capital like trees, manufacturing systems that mimic ecological processes, technologies with efficiencies that exceed those of our best technologies by orders of magnitude, chemistry done safely with great artistry, and economies that fit within their ecological limits (Lyle 1994; Van der Ryn and Cowan 1996; Wann 1990). For discerning students, nature instructs about the boundaries and horizons of our possibilities. It is the ultimate standard against which to measure our use of the world.
The consumer economy was intended to liberate the individual from community and material constraints and to thoroughly dominate nature and thereby to expand the human realm to its fullest. Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Adam Smith, and their heirs, the architects of the modern world, assumed nature to be machinelike, with no limits, and humans to be similarly machinelike, with no limits to their wants. Consistent with those assumptions, excess has become the defining characteristic of the modern economy, evidence of design failures that cause us to use too much fossil energy, too many materials, and make more stuff than we could use well in a hundred lifetimes.
If, however, we intend to build durable and sustainable communities, and if we begin with the knowledge that the world is ecologically complex, that nature does in fact have limits, that our health and that of the natural world are indissolubly linked, that we need coherent communities, and that humans are capable of transcending their self-centeredness, a different design strategy emerges. For the design of a better society and healthier communities, in Vaclav Havel's words, "we must draw our standards from the natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaffirm its denied validity. We must honour with the humility of the wise the bounds of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence" (1987, 153).
Drawing our standards from the natural world requires that we first intend to act in ways that fit within larger patterns of harmony and health and create communities that fit within the natural limits of their regions. At a larger scale we must summon the political will to intend the creation of a civilization that calibrates the sum total of our actions with the larger cycles of the earth. When we do so, design at all scales entails not just the making of things, but becomes, rather, the larger artistry of making things that fit within their ecological, social, and historical context. Design is focused on rationality in its largest sense, giving priority to the wisdom of our intentions, not the cleverness of our means. Like the admonition to physicians to do no harm, the standard for ecological designers is to cause no ugliness, human or ecological, somewhere else or at some later time. When we get the design right, there is a multiplier effect which enhances the good order and harmony of the larger pattern. When we get it wrong, cost, disease, and disharmony multiply.
Like any applied discipline, ecological design has rules and standards. First, ecological design is a community process that aims to increase local resilience by building connections between people, between people and the ecology of their places, and between people and their history. The principle is an analog of engineering design, which aims to create resilience through redundancy and multiple pathways. Ecological design, similarly, works to counter the individualization, atomiza-tion, and dumbing-down inherent in the consumer economy by restoring connections at the community level. The process of design begins with questions such as, How does the proposed action fits the ecology of a place over time? Does it keep wealth within the community? Does it help people to become better neigbors and more competent persons? What are the true costs and who pays? What does it do for or to the prospects of our children and theirs?
Well-designed neighborhoods and communities are places where people need each other and must therefore resolve their differences, tolerate each other's idiosyncrasies, and on occasion, forgive each other. There is an architecture of connectedness that includes front porches facing onto streets, neighborhood parks, civic spaces, pedestrian-friendly streets, sidewalk cafes, and human scaled buildings (Jacobs 1961). There is an economy of connectedness that includes locally owned businesses that make, repair, and reuse, buying cooperatives, owner-operated farms, public markets, and urban gardens— patterns of livelihood that require detailed knowledge of the ecology of specific places. There is an ecology of connectedness evident in well-used landscapes, cultural and political barriers to the loss of ecologically valuable wetlands, forests, riparian corridors, and species habitat. Competent ecological design produces results tailored to fit the ecology of particular localities. There is a historical connectedness embedded in the memories that tie us to particular places, people, and traditions—swimming holes, lovers' lanes, campgrounds, forests, farm fields, beaches, ball fields, schools, historic sites, and burial grounds.
The degree to which connectedness now sounds distant from our present reality is a measure of how much we've lost in order to make consumption quick, cheap, and easy and to hide its true costs. Compulsive consumption is, in fact, proportional to the atomization of people, to social fragmentation, and to the emotional distance between people and their places. It is a measure of human incompetence requiring no skill and no wherewithal beyond ownership of a credit card. Connectedness, on the other hand, requires the ability to converse, to empathize, to resolve conflicts, to tolerate differences, to perform the duties of a citizen, to remember, and to re-member. It requires a knowledge of the natural history of a place, practical handi-ness, and place-specific skills and crafts. It creates roots, traditions, and a settled identity in a place.
Second, as described in chapter 4, ecological design takes time seriously by placing limits on the velocity of materials, transportation, money, and information. The old truism "haste makes waste" makes intuitively good ecological design sense. Increasing velocity often increases consumption, thereby generating more waste, disorder, and ugliness. In contrast, good design aims to use materials carefully and slowly. To preserve communities and personal sanity, it would place limits on the speed of transportation (Illich 1974). In order to take advantage of what economists call the "multiplier effect," it would slow the rate at which money is exchanged for goods and services imported from outside and thereby exits the local economy (Rocky Mountain Institute 1997). Good design aims to match the material requirements of the community with the clockspeed of charity and neighborliness, which is usually slower than that which is technologically feasible.
Excess consumption, in contrast, is in large measure relative to velocity. A bicycle, for example, moving at 20 miles per hour, requires only the energy of the biker. An automobile moving at 55 miles per hour for one hour will burn 2 gallons of gasoline. On a cross-Atlantic flight, a 747 flying at 550 miles per hour will burn 100 gallons of jet fuel per passenger. The difference is not just in the fuel consumed but also includes the entire support apparatus required by the increased speed of travel. A bicycle requires a relatively simple support infrastructure. An airline system, in contrast, requires a huge infrastructure including airports, roads, construction, manufacturing, and repair facilities, air-traffic control systems, mines, wells, refineries, banks, and the consumer industries that sell all of the paraphernalia of travel.
By taking time seriously enough to use it well, ecological design may also reset peoples' sense of propriety to a different moral time zone. The consumer society works best when people are impulsive buyers, expecting their gratifications instantly. By moderating the velocity of material flows, money, transport, and information, ecological design may also teach larger lessons having to do with the discipline of living within one's means, delaying gratification, the importance of thrift, and the virtue of nonpossessiveness.
Third, ecological design eliminates the concept of waste and transforms our relationship to the material world. The consumer economy uses and discards huge amounts of materials in landfills, air, and water. As a result, environmental policy is mostly a shell game that moves waste from one medium to another. Furthermore, carelessness in the making and using of materials has resulted in the global dissemination of some 100,000 synthetic chemicals carried by wind and water to the four corners of the earth.
Ecological design requires a higher order of competence in the making, use, and eventual reuse of materials than that evident in industrial economies. Ecologically, there is no such thing as waste. All materials are "food" for other processes. Ecological design is the art of linking materials in cycles and thereby preventing problems of careless use and disposal. Nature, accordingly, is the model for the making of materials. If nature did not make it, there are good evolutionary reasons to think that we should not. If we must, we ought to do so in small amounts that are carefully contained and biodegradable, which is to say, the way nature does chemistry. Nature makes living materials mostly from sunlight and carbon, and so should we. It does not mix elements like chlorine with mammalian biology. Neither should we. It creates novelty slowly, at a manageable scale, and so should we.
An economy that took design seriously would manage the flow of materials to maximize reuse, recycling, repair, and restoration. It would close waste loops by requiring manufacturers to take products back for disassembly and remanufacture. It would make distinctions between "products of service" and "products of consumption." In Europe, the concept is being applied to solvents, automobiles, and other products. In the United States, through the efforts of people like Ray Anderson and Bill McDonough, it is very slowly gaining acceptance.
Fourth, ecological design at all levels has to do with system structure, not the rates of change. The focus of ecological design is on systems and "patterns that connect" (Bateson 1979, 3-4). When we get the structure right, "the desired result will occur more or less automatically without further human intervention" (Ophuls 1992, 288). Consider two different approaches to the need for mobility. The Amish communities described in chapter 4 are structured around the capacity of the horse, which serves to limit human mischief, economic costs, consumption, dependence on the outside, and ecological damage, while providing time for human sociability, sources of fertilizer, and the peace of mind that comes with unhurriedness. In the Amish culture, the horse is a solar-powered, self-replicating, multifunctional structural solution that eliminates the need for continual management and regulation of people. Most of us are not about to become Amish, but we need to discover our own equivalent of the horse.
In the larger culture we expect laws and regulations to perform the same function, but they seldom do. The reason has to do with the fact that we tend to fiddle with particular symptoms rather than addressing structural causes of our problems. The Clean Air Act of 1970, for example, aimed to reduce pollution from auto emissions by attaching catalytic converters to each automobile—a coefficient solution. More than three decades later with more cars and more miles driven per car, even with lower pollution per vehicle, air quality is little improved and traffic is worse than ever. The true costs of that system include the health and ecological effects of air pollution and oil spills, the lives lost in traffic accidents, the degradation of communities, an estimated $300 billion per year in subsidies for cars, parking, and fuels, including the military costs of protecting our sources of imported oil, and the future costs of climate change. The result is a system that can only work expensively and destructively. A design solution to transportation, in contrast, would aim to change the structure of the system by reducing our dependence on the automobile through combination of high-speed rail service, light-rail urban trains, bike trails, and smarter urban design that reduced the need for transportation in the first place.
The same logic applies to the structures by which we provision ourselves with food, energy, water, and materials and dispose of our waste. Much of our consumption, such as excessive packaging and preservatives in food, has been engineered into the system because of the requirements of long-distance transport. Some of our consumption is due to built-in obsolescence designed to promote yet more consumption. Some of it, such as the purchase of deadbolt locks and handguns, is necessary to offset the loss of community cohesion and trust caused in no small part by the culture of consumption. Some of our consumption is dictated by urban sprawl that leads to overdepen-dence on automobiles. We have, in short, created vastly expensive and destructive structures to do what could be done better locally with far less expense and consumption. Redesigning such structures means learning how politics, tax codes, regulations, building codes, zoning, and laws work and how they might be made to work to promote ecological resilience and human sanity.
Without intending to do so, we have created a global culture of consumption that will come undone, perhaps in a few decades; perhaps it will take a bit longer. We are at risk of being engulfed in a flood of barbarism magnified by the ecologists' nightmare of overpopulation, resource scarcities, biotic impoverishment, famine, rampant disease, pollution, and climatic change. The only response that does credit to our self-proclaimed status as Homo sapiens is to rechart our course. That process, I believe, has already begun. But it will require far greater leadership, imagination, and wisdom to learn, and in some respects relearn, how to live in the world with ecological competence, technological elegance, and spiritual depth. We have models of communities, cultures, and civilizations that have in some measure done so and a few that continue to do so against long odds. There are still tribal people who know more than we will ever know about the flora and fauna of their places and who have over time created resource management systems that effectively limit consumption (Gadgil et al. 1993). There are sects, like the Amish, that continue to resist the consumer economy but nevertheless manage to live prosperous and satisfying lives. There are ancient practices, like Feng Shui, which has informed some of the best Chinese land use and architectural design for centuries, and new analytical skills such as least-cost, end-use analysis and geographic information systems that will help us see our way more clearly. There are also emerging interdisciplinary fields such as green architecture, restoration ecology, ecological engineering, solar design, sustainable agriculture, industrial ecology, and ecological economics that may in time come to constitute a full-fledged science of ecological design that may lay the foundations for a better world.
The problem is not one of potentials, but rather one of motivation. To live up to our potential we must first know that it is possible for us to live well without consuming the world's loveliness along with our children's legacy. But we must be inspired to act by examples that we can see, touch, and experience. Above all else, this is a challenge to educational institutions at all levels. We will need schools, colleges, and universities motivated by the vision of a higher order of beauty than that evident in the industrial world and that in prospect. They must help expand our ecological imagination and forge the practical and intellectual competence in the rising generation that turns merely wishful thinking into hopefulness.
Stuart's letter opener came to me as a gift, an embodiment of skill, design intelligence, kindness, and thrift. Stuart used no more than one-tenth of a board foot of wood to make it. He used no tools other than a wood rasp, some sandpaper, and linseed oil. The wood itself was a product of sunlight and soil, symbolic of other and larger gifts. If I lose it, I will grieve, for it is full of memory and meaning. Each day I am reminded of Stuart and have a refresher course in the importance of craftsmanship, charity, and true economy. I will use it for a time and someday pass it on to another.
We gratefully acknowledge permission to reprint "The Ecology of Giving and Consuming," excerpted in somewhat altered form from Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness, ed. Roger Rosenblatt. Copyright © 1999 by Island Press. Reprinted by permission of Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington, D.C., and Covelo, California. All rights reserved.
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