Published by StuFram on 08 Aug 2011 at 11:25 am
I’ve been working with Camilla Burg, Communication Director at WiserEarth, to help expand the presence of WiserLocal gatherings around the world for a little over two months now. Just so I’m certain we’re all on the same page, WiserLocal is essentially a physical extension of WiserEarth, carrying out the website’s goals of collaboration, shared knowledge, and alliance-building through monthly face-to-face events in cities all across the globe. These volunteer-led gatherings are open to all and attendees usually hail from numerous sectors – be they NGO employees, government workers, academics, inventors, activists, corporate employees, students, entrepreneurs, scientists, consultants, designers, you name it – though the one thing they all have in common is a desire to help curb today’s social and environmental problems. Each gathering has a theme, and to date, event topics have ranged from sustainable food systems of tomorrow to online community building and everything in between. In sum, WiserLocal bolsters WiserEarth by providing the material framework for social change that the Internet can’t provide.
If I wanted to be particularly terse, I suppose I could stop there, encourage you to check out the WiserLocal group, and go back to wallowing in sadness at the bittersweet culmination of my childhood with the release of the final Harry Potter film. As a marginally rational twenty-year-old, however, I realize that such a course of action would be hardly justifiable (though it would be quite pathetic). And so I continue to type.
Unfortunately, I’m not exactly sure what to type. You see, as an overachieving undergraduate, the need to squeeze profundity into everything I write is hardwired into my brain. Of course such sagacity is probably more likely to present itself when I’m not searching for it so desperately (strange, that sounds strikingly similar to something I recall reading about finding success with girls), but I’ve never been one to take a relaxed attitude and let ideas come to me when they’re ready. I’m not sure how they would find me with all the time I waste on Facebook.
Though I’m quickly digressing from my objective: writing a piece about WiserLocal. Perhaps a quote will provide the inspiration I can’t seem to muster on my own. How about one from Paul Hawken, the man who’s largely responsible for WiserEarth’s existence in the first place. This from an Au@Google interview he did in 2007 following the release of his book, Blessed Unrest:
We’re stealing the future and selling it in the present and calling it GDP.
Somewhat jarring really, with more complexity than one line often yields (and let’s not forget the polysyndeton). Aside from the candid jibe at society’s shortsighted reliance on a linearly-consumptive economic model, I think this quote more importantly touches on an issue that I would argue underlies most of the world’s problems: a tragedy of the commons.
The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen (taken from Wikipedia).
Garrett Hardin was the first to outline this concept in an essay he published in 1968 during the population scare. While the example he outlined in the piece concerned grazing cows on a common parcel of land, the theory can be applied to any resource matter, really. Take oil, for example. Many developed countries (the United States being the prime culprit) are simply addicted to the fusion-induced pollutant. Everything from our food systems to our means of transportation is dependent upon the fossil fuel, and it’s gotten to the point where, due to the increasingly vast interconnectivity of earth’s systems, total abstention is next to impossible. With emerging climate science giving us more and more reason to worry about the impending degradation of our atmosphere, we have good reason to be concerned. And this is but one instance of our collective addiction to unsustainability, for lack of a more eloquent word.
|But as Tim Brown, author of Change by Design, reminds us, “The greatest challenges are the sources of the greatest opportunities.” Of course it is difficult to conceive of a world in which we derive all of our energy from renewable sources. In the same way, it’s difficult to conceive of a world free of poverty and injustice, where all humans are granted the respect they deserve as common brethren. Just because that world is not our current reality, however, doesn’t mean we should assume its impossibility.|
In a prescient piece written by Buckminster Fuller, the futurist associates the fossil fuels that humans have used up to this point to sustain themselves to the nutrients inside of an egg that nourish a chick before it hatches. His postulation is that just as the chick hatches forth to seek alternative means of sustenance once the nutrients run out, so too will humans metaphorically break out of their shell and find a more sustainable means of maintaining their consumptive lifestyles once they collectively recognize the indefensibility of such material dependence.
It may seem unlikely at this current juncture in time, especially with rampant population growth and unbounded globalization, but to choose pessimism would be to spurn the work being done by millions of people and organizations around the world. I’ll be the first to admit that hope is difficult to justify in a world seemingly rife with corruption and self-seeking politicians, but that’s why WiserEarth was created in the first place: to catalog and foster the myriad people and organizations around the world who are working toward positive social change, as well as provide a platform for them to collaborate, share, and connect (WISER is an acronym for World Index for Social and Environmental Responsibility).
As times grow increasingly desperate, it would be easy to throw up our arms at the sheer unassailability of the world’s problems and leave it to our leaders to try and work out some quick-fix bill. However, since their role in the propagation of these issues has been just as large as anyone else’s, such a course of action would make little sense. As Jared Duval asserts in his book Next Generation Democracy, “Less important than finding some silver bullet policy solution is finding ways to empower as many problem solvers as possible to contribute as much as they can, in as many different ways as possible.” Judging by the unparalleled cache of registered organizations on WiserEarth, it seems as if people are taking strides toward doing just that.
Indeed, the “unnamed movement” that underlies this phenomenon isn’t an “ism,” the term Hawken uses to describe movements of the past couple of centuries that began centralized and subsequently scattered. This movement is the opposite: it starts at the periphery and converges towards a complex set of common goals. In fact, my previous characterization of objectives that are “environmental” and “social” in nature may have done little to capture the breadth of what’s taking place. As noted in Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, in the same way that the Industrial Revolution wasn’t distinguishable from other periods in time until after we had gained temporal distance from which to analyze it, we will likely not be able to fully comprehend the scope of this unnamed movement currently taking place for decades to come.
There are a few things we can sure of, though:
Unprecedented and increasing access to information thanks to the Internet.
Expanded connectivity and communication options, again, grâce à l’Internet.
In a nutshell, globalization.
This “flattening” of the world, to use Tom Friedman’s expression, has changed everything. A world without email is now unthinkable, yet twenty years ago it was the norm. Social networking, one the exception, is now the rule for businesses and socialites alike. It makes you wonder what will come along next to eclipse our current lifestyles into obsolescence.
As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org asserts, though, “The low-hanging fruit of globalization has been picked.” In other words, we’ve revolutionized the way the world communicates, socializes, and does business, but so what? McKibben is implicitly arguing that until we use this new toolset to successfully address the world’s perennial problems, it all means nothing. Fortunately we have begun this ameliorative process, as WiserEarth proves, but is it too late?
McKibben goes on to affirm that by carrying out this Information/Technology Revolution, we may have put ourselves in a more precarious position than we often choose to acknowledge: “[...] we’ve connected things so tightly to each other that small failures in one place vibrate throughout the entire system.” And though it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back for all we’ve accomplished as a civilization, “A society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.” The author uses the respective falls of the Mayan, Incan, and Roman empires to corroborate this point.
These aren’t scare tactics, for as globalization shows, mankind is more resourceful, inventive, and foolhardy than ever before. And in a time when economic growth, sustainability, and social justice are more important than ever despite their ostensible opposability, we’re going to have to pull out all the stops to make it out of this one alive, and it might take a bit of unconventionality.
You see, our brains are programmed to equate progress with an improved condition, but given the current state of affairs I’ve outlined above, we might have to start questioning that notion, as backwards as that may seem (for an interesting piece that pursues this line of thought, read Alan Lightman’s essay, The World is Too Much With Me). The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t continue to expand whilst depleting finite resources, be they terrestrially-related or anthropomorphic in nature. At a certain point the line has to bend into a circle, the finish line must turn into a starting point, the coffin must transform into a cradle. As Tim Brown notes, “There could be no more opportune moment to imagine how we might move in the direction of a society where what we buy helps create wealth rather than just consume it.” He’s referring to the triple bottom line here: economic, ecological, and social wealth.
Instead of seeking out new ways to expand, we must find ways to do more with less, to exercise ephemeralization, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term. This won’t happen by riding the wave of national development and transcontinental growth. Sure, these concepts, reified as they may be, will continue to be a presence in our collective psyche, but we can’t expect satisfactory solutions unless we start by turning to those around us: our states, towns, neighborhoods, blocks.
Aside from the environmental/atmospheric degradation, xenophobia, poverty, and general inequality plaguing our world, the earth is also afflicted with a severe case of depersonalization. Though we’ve become increasingly connected virtually, we’re becoming decreasingly well-endowed humanistically. The way I see it, the first step in the right direction is…not a step at all, but a slow turn of the head to take stock of and reflect upon those around us.
But, in McKibben’s words again, “Embracing the local doesn’t mean abandoning the connection to something larger.” Our newfound local identities need not preclude our identities as denizens of planet earth, for in many ways we’re fighting for the betterment of the planet as a whole. Such acceptance does, however, require a particular holism, an understanding that the world exists as more than merely the sum of its parts.
In my eyes, all of this is why the WiserLocal concept should be at the forefront of this movement. Working with those in our immediate geographic vicinity reminds us of the strength of community, and by collaborating with our neighbors to address problems at the fringe, we can gradually converge on larger, collective solutions from every corner of the globe, as Hawken suggests. The sun will continue to shine on the world as a whole as long as we don’t forget the importance of our roots, for without them, like any plant, the world would topple over.
- Top Photo used for the blog
- Stu Fram
- Book: Change by Design by Tim Brown
- Book: Next Generation Democracy, by Jared Duval
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Tags: 350.org, Alan Lightman, Bill McKibben, Buckminster Fuller, camilla burg, Change by Design, environment, Garrett Hardin, Next Generation Democracy, Paul Hawken, stu fram, Tim Brown, Tom Friedman, WiserLocal
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