Categories
America: Society Journal Musings

A New Step

Gingko leaves on ground
Gingko leaves piled up along the edge of a bridge. A de-saturated photo, in real life the yellow of gingko leaves is brilliant

Ever since the avalanche of disappointment following the defeat of Kerry in the U.S. elections I have been pondering what it is that so disappointed all of us and what exactly it was that we expected. For the hope seemed to include more than the sum of American voters themselves; there was a worldwide investment in the expectation of a peaceful, healthy, and prosperous future for the planet as a whole, and the defeat of Kerry let down a lot of pent up frustrations.

Rana, over at Frogs and Ravens, in her usual eloquent and challenging way, asks what direction the blues might take in the dealing with the many social questions and problems that America and the world face. Her post approaches the question from a mainly internal American point of view, and focuses on how the American governing system might be changed. The comments that follow attempt to answer her with various analyses of American history and government structure. Rana herself questions the wisdom of continuing with the present government system and suggests working with a new group of progressives who might reform the system.

In my own reading of articles on the internet, blog posts, listening to discussions, watching the news, and going over the whole shebang in my head, more and more I return to the cause of the great disappointment people all over the world felt. Why was it that the path America, a separate nation, chose to take meant so much to so many billions of people? The most common and immediate answer invariably is that, with America on a rampage around the world and with Bush manning the guns, self-preservation and altruistic concerns for countries like Iraq would be the motivating factors behind everyone’s wishes. And rightly so. In just four years, Bush has managed to upset nearly everyone and seriously undermine worldwide peace.

But I’d also like to suggest another motivation behind people’s bated breath before the elections: The world is ready for a great reformation. Countries all over the world are beginning to let down their guards and talk about opening borders. Europe has already taken the first step with the formation of the E.U., overcoming millennia of enmities and cultural differences to attempt to work together and seek a common vision. South America seems to be taking the first steps toward pulling themselves out of poverty and corruption, toward a continental unity that could well put America’s rhetoric to shame.

Perhaps what most infuriated people around the world, including a huge portion of the American people themselves, was America’s blatant refusal to bide by the world community’s carefully established and hard-won rules of communal governing. Humanity’s first honest attempts at tackling such huge global problems as environmental destruction (the Kyoto Treaty), human rights (the World Court), and nuclear disarmament (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) were simply brushed aside by the American government, constantly putting itself above the common rules. America wants to impose its standards and desires, but will not respect those of any one else.

I’m wondering, though, if what so many people want is a better way to deal with things like terrorism and environmental destruction, instead of feeling helpless all the time. It is time that some kind of system was enacted which allowed people all around the world to, on a grassroots level, have a say in what goes on in the world. The election of Bush, for instance, is a decision that deeply and directly affects all people around the world and, as many have suggested, solely leaving his election to the American electorate is unfair to the rest of the world, to say the least.

With the internet vastly improving transfer of information around the globe participation by people around the world has, for the first time, become a growing reality. Would it not be possible to form a global network of citizens, each acting locally, but participating at different levels of global involvement, that would allow all people around the world to have a direct say in what happens to their world? For international issues such as one country attacking another, putting it forth to the entire population of the world and allowing their votes to determine what ought to be done or prevented? Isn’t it time we stop thinking in terms of petty borders and think of the world population as one, with every man, woman, child, non-human, and element of the Earth carrying an equal share of the rights American espouse so much?

I believe that the reason no one can find solutions to the dilemma of such dinosaurs as the American or Russian or Chinese governments right now stems from a deep satisfaction with inbred ways of thinking. We have become a global community, whether we like it or not. It is antediluvian for us to still think in terms of “us against them”. While local cultures and government surely must continue to deal with the day-to-day workings of local communities, and national governments must still maintain a coherent order according to cultural realms, global problems like global warming and war cannot be left in the hands of unilateral decisions. The world is too close-knit for such sensitive and potentially disastrous decisions to be left to a few, self-interested individuals. This world belongs to all of us.

I am not suggesting revolution or violent action. I am suggesting a parallel, worldwide civic movement and, hopefully, eventually, citizenship of an organization that works mainly on information and keeping citizens informed. If the vote is truly as effective as it was meant to be then setting up a system whereby people around the world can vote for worldwide matters might stop people like Bush from regaining or gaining power.

Simply protesting is not enough. People all around the world need to have a say in all the matters that affect us all. And peacefully saying no and affecting worldwide decisions with methods similar to those employed by Gandhi to motivate the Indian populace against the British might possibly bring about a reformation in global politics and stewardship.

Categories
Architecture Art & Design Journal

Squatting Lightly On the Earth

Maine Tree
Oak tree standing beside the Maine coast, U.S.A., 1987.

This is the twelfth installment of the bi-weekly topics at Ecotone: Writing About Place. This week’s topic is Protecting Place. Please have a look at other contributions to the topic, or join in the discussion yourself.


With Russia’s official declaration earlier today that it would not ratify the Kyoto Treaty, because the treaty would limit its economic growth, a confirmation of the blindness and madness of the human world seems to have taken root and the shoots of the consequences will hereby officially make its first, introductory cough. The leaders (and, by association, the populace) are not taking the health of the planet seriously. You really have to question the sanity of people who fail to make the connection between the air they breathe and their own survival. This is the only place we have and yet we go on drunk, oblivious to all warnings. Nothing short of a super-hurricaned, multiple tornadoed, giant tsunamied, mass flooded, collapsing mountains, global food deprived catastrophe will seem to carry the clout needed to ring the bell in people’s heads that we are not going to survive this assault on our world.

The knowledge to care for our home is there. We know what to do, if we would only wake up. People like Bush focus on utterly petty concerns like the conquering of Iraq, but completely ignore the evidence of one of the most climactically disastrous years in history. Mass flooding in the States. Unending rain in Japan. Record-breaking heat waves throughout Europe (more than 10,000 people died in France alone). Uncontrolled wild fires in Australia. A new, unprecedented and fearsome drought in northeastern Africa. Huge super typhoons and cyclones in Asia. Unexplained mass dying off of mackerel and sardines due to new oceanic fluctuations. The entire, enormous island of Madagascar on the verge of an environmental collapse. The first melting of the permafrost in Siberia since before the last Ice Age. The breakup of the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf…

What are people waiting for? Why do we deny that a problem exists? It’s like we have gotten caught up in a drunken party and are ignoring a great blaze burning right in our home, ready to bring the whole house down.

I was working for an architecture firm in Boston back in 1989 and one day was sent to measure and evaluate a site for a new holiday resort. I drove alone to the area, passing through wooded hills and New England style farmland. The hill where the resort was proposed stood overlooking a small lake and the surrounding countryside, with barely a break in the trees. I sat and ate lunch, sitting on a log and gazing at the clouds rolling by overhead. Birds twittered and sang in the tranquility, quiet enough to hear bees buzzing and grasshoppers zithering in the grass. As I sat there, the feeling that this place was perfect just the way it was crept up on me. More and more the prospect of walking around the site with a measuring tape and taking notes about the attributes and problems of the site in terms of architectural needs seemed like a foolish and unnecessary exercise. I did the work as expected, but as I drove back to Boston I resolved then and there that I would not be one of those contributing to the further degradation of the world’s already beleaguered natural places.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with architecture. Done the right way, architecture can help create extraordinary and integral human artifacts upon the land that exist almost as an extension of the land itself. Most traditional farming communities around the world have developed vernacular designs that work closely with the habitat they exist in, often enhancing the human presence within the landscape. One of the most ecologically balanced, human-altered landscapes in the world is Tuscany, in Italy, where a medium was reached, by which the natural world and the human world could co-exist without destroying one another. Traditional Japanese settlements worked much the same way, often with a buffer zone, a “commons” (zoki-bayashi or sato-yama), where wild animals dwelled and human interference was minimal. Such communities often continued for centuries with little or no deleterious effect on the land. Tokyo itself, when it was still named Edo, was once the largest city in the world, with over a million residents, hardly producing any waste, its water clean, its coastal fish the pride of the country, and nearly everything was reused.

These examples show that humans can create settlements and use local resources wisely, without destroying the delicate balance.

Ecologically efficient rural communities continued mainly because the amounts of resources they consumed and needed for upkeep were small compared to the ability of the landscape to provide, and also because they had time to become familiar with unique local issues of climate, terrain, feeding capacity, and so forth. With time many of these communities came up with unique solutions to problems that only experience could help recognize. The northern New England landscape was once plowed under to plant crops, but the poor soil and rocky conditions eventually caused many homesteaders to give up and move back to the cities, later to be replaced by livestock oriented farming.

Once human settlements began to grow, however, and the demand outstripped the resources, all the problems associated with modern development took over. The problems are so huge today that just attempting to figure out where to start to tackle the issues can leave one reeling.

Architecture itself has fallen into the trap of glamour and riches, often leading the drive into bigger and bigger projects, with less and and less thought given to the consequences. And yet there are architects who have thought deeply about how we might address the issues of huge populations, destruction of natural habitat, overrunning of space, and over-consumption of resources. During the 60’s Christopher Alexander and a group of back-to-the-land thinkers at U.C. Berkeley developed the idea of “The Pattern Language”, a kind of encyclopedia or almanac of typological precedents used throughout human history for dealing with local conditions or architectural needs. The book of the same name, “The Pattern Language” lists and diagrams hundreds of patterns and ideas that a modern day architect or settlement builder can browse and use within a design context. The genius of this idea is that it takes into account local differences and allows an individual to tailor a project according to individual needs. It is almost the opposite of the standard modular cookie-cutter designs that dominate most large scale development.

Another project that has been developing steadily since the sixties is the Arcosanti project, an ecological town in the middle of the Arizona desert. The brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the town is being built by volunteers who develop solutions to onsite problems as they move along. Almost 40 years in the making, the project aims to house an entire town of 5,000 people, while using a minimum of resources and attempting to become an extension of the landscape itself. The idea of using a ecological town stems out of the premise that, if contained in a limited space, the population will cause minimum damage to the surrounding land, while providing all the needs for its inhabitants. Whether or not this idea will succeed remains to be seen.

Malcolm Wells, an architect living in Massachusetts, and with whom I was in contact for a number of years while I was still an architect, is one of the most influential architects promoting “green architecture” (See his book “Gentle Architecture”). He believed that it was important to build human settlements and buildings that put the environment first, so much so that he advocated building designs that actually incorporated the landscape as part of their construction. He proposed cities with forested roofs and subterranean streets to get cars out of the way. He is most famous for his underground houses which, when approached, look like gardens dripping with flowers, grass, and trees.

Fufu Garden Walk
View of walkway to the dining room of the Hotel Fufu, designed by the Japanese architecture firm, Team Zoo. The area to the left, covered in grass and trees, actually covers an entire underground hall, complete with skylights and clerestories, vents and rafters. Above the Enzan Valley, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, 2002.

Shortly before I returned to Japan I had a conversation with Malcom Wells on the telephone. He had just finished apologizing for not being able to take me on as an apprentice, when I asked him what advice he could give me for getting started as an architect, especially in green design. He first replied that I should make sure to get a thorough background in all the essential fields of architecture, such as construction, drafting, structure, materials, typology, history, project management, drawing, and design. Then he said one last thing which has remained with me to this day, and which defines how I want to approach all the work that defines my commitment to the natural world:

He said (at least to this effect), “Forget the new sites and new developments. Forget trying to break new ground on pristine land. Instead, find the ugliest, most polluted, most badly damaged strip of earth you can and dedicate yourself to bringing it back to life. Find the beauty in it and revive it. Coax wild animals back to inhabit it. And when you’re done, be able to say that you helped the place to grow more healthy and beautiful than it was before it was destroyed.”

This is what the preservation of the world ought to be, I believe. We need to learn to be healers. If nothing else, we can start small, right here where we stand.