Friday, April 06, 2007

Building heaven

So I had an interesting conversation the other day.

I was at our local playgroup with my 4yr old daughter and 10-month-old son.

I struck up a conversation with a local father who’d brought his delightful tornado of a boy. I’d noticed that he arrived in a Suburu sporting Nader bumper stickers, which is always a good sign. As it turns out, he is working as a volunteer with our local land use committee, drafting new legislation to prevent terrible things like development and people living in trailers.

Now, you should know that I think the field of land use planning is fascinating – worked on a fair number of land use planning projects myself. Have a really good friend who is a top land use planner in New York State. Sadly, my messy pony-tailed hair and banana-smeared t-shirt had apparently relegated me to the ranks of the unwashed, uneducated masses. Plus, I’m a girl. I wouldn’t know a thing about land use planning or the evils of development.

We debated the effects of 25 acre zoning in the agricultural regions. I feel that they should be using multiple tools – not just one. He thinks we need to protect farmland at any cost. I point out that NO ONE is farming in the town anyway – they’ve all been priced out. And 25 acre zoning means I won’t be buying any land any time soon. I suggest we ought to be spending as much time on hamlet revitalization.

He snorts – says that’ll never happen.

Are you getting the general tone of the conversation? It gets better.

The world is going to hell in a hand basket. It’s the military industrial complex. It’s the president. It’s Clinton, it’s Gore, it’s BUSH. (The last spat out with indescribable contempt.) Rural supervisors ought to march on the Capital – demand the money that is owed to them – money that is being sent abroad, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. We should write to our politicians.

Why? Because it is the only way to do it. This father of a tornado KNOWS. Because he is a 51 yr old former founder of Greenpeace. He can list Big Accomplishment A and Big Accomplishment B. (I don’t remember what they were – they were really impressive, world-saving things, to give appropriate credit.)

I point out that it doesn’t seem like doing these things have given him any peace at all. He is frustrated. And deeply negative, though I didn’t say that out loud. It was becoming a real downer of a talk. I mean, honestly, we were at PLAYGROUP.

I said I would not write any more letters to politicians. I will not march on Washington (or Albany, or any where else) or condemn my neighbors for their votes or show up at local board meetings to demand my five minutes. I won’t forward any more stupid emails about saving the artic national refuge. Those actions are, in my opinion, utterly ineffective, though if he feels like it gives him a sense that he is in control, making a difference…well, great. Go for it.

Predictably, that enraged him.

He suggested that I left him finish, though I didn’t really remember interrupting him. He would like to “explain it to me – it’s really simple.”

I wish I could remember what the details were – those last words really annoyed me. But I let him finish, hearing his complaint that my sister, who’d wandered away with her daughter, had mentioned wanting to find one of the big plastic (eeek!) dolphin seesaws that his son and my daughter were fighting over. (My sis hasn’t tied herself to any trees lately, but she is committed to feeding organic foods to her 20-month-old nursling – and she’s frugal – she wanted a used plastic dolphin for her backyard.)

He eventually came back from peeling several children off of a mountain of folding chairs, and did not seem eager to reenter a conversation with me. I guess he thought there was nothing left to say.

I’m involved in an ecovillage project, I began. He looked uninterested. I continued. In order for us to construct even 10 homes, under the new zoning, my group would have to come up with the capital for at least 100 acres. We’d be using 5 acres (probably less) to construct those 10 homes, and the left would be open space and farmland. And we’d actually FARM it. We are working to make a lot of those homes affordable for everyone, too. He shrugged. Just a different flavor of the same – still development. And still evil.

I suggested that we can both save the world. I can do it without writing a single letter to a congressperson – without any protest marches. I can do it without 4 million on-line signatures. And I will do it without slandering my elected officials, without propaganda thinly disguised as public information forums, without sleepless nights worrying about what horrible thing is going to happen next.

He snorted again. Unbelieving. I’m a Pollyanna.

It’s not that I don’t think horrible things are happening. I can read.

(I didn’t mention to him that I am presenting my PhD propsectus in June – not even after he explained to me what civil servants are – and I have been engaged in decision, judgment and sustainability research for years. He might enjoy his status as a founding father of Greenpeace, but I prefer to let my intelligence speak for itself.)

I know what the IPCC is predicting. I also know that it is nothing that the Limits to Growth studies haven’t been predicting for over 30 years now. Our economic situation is tenuous, at best. Our desire to export our culture has ensured continued war around the globe.

But we have a choice – we either let this situation kill us – or we build a positive alternative. Build living models that are different, are better. Make them happen. Figure out the leverage points, and create change. Tornado dad grumbled and pointed out that that sort of stuff takes money. Shrug. I don’t know – it might. Our ecovillage project has cost us some gas and some photocopying bills – otherwise it has just taken time and passion. We’ll eventually have to pony up the hard cash for land and building, but we’ll make that cash work in ways that will nurture the birth of a sustainable culture.

You do not change minds by beating people over the head with your version of the facts. You can’t simply “educate” them into being better residents of the earth. But if you create something wonderful – if you create a better way of living, people will replicate your model, because it is the path of least resistance. And people are, and will always be, attracted to beauty.

So… to my marching, letter writing, Greenpeace-founding, angst-ridden, depressed friend:

it’s simple. Let me explain it to you: If everything is going to hell - well, damn it, you'd better start building heaven.

1 comment:

Elise said...

There must be a better way.