Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Communal Individuality

There's an interesting article in the new National Geographic magazine, written by Bill McKibben. Although he deals specifically with the problem of global warming and carbon production, as is usually the case with articles like this, it triggered a whole different line of thinking in my head. Entitled "A Deeper Shade Of Green," he takes the environmental movement to task for thinking too small about pollution and warming.

Yes. Too small. I can't link to the article, but let me type up some excerpts:
Precisely the same fuels that gave us our growth now threaten our civilization. Burn a gallon of gas and you release five pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. And as China demonstrates every day, the cheapest way to spur growth is by burning more fossil fuel. Even Benjamin Friedman, the Harvard economist who wrote a brilliant book last year defending the morality of economic growth, conceded that carbon dioxide is the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise.

Which means we might need a new idea. We need to stop asking, Will this make the economy larger? Instead, we need to start asking, Will this pour more carbon into the atmosphere? Some of the shift would be technological. If carbon carried a real price, then we'd be building windmills far faster than we are now. All cars would be hybrid cars, and all lightbulbs would be compact fluorescent. Every new coal plant would be paying the steep price to separate carbon from its exhaust stream and store it underground. All that would help-- but not enough to meet Hansen's ten-year prognostication (ed. note: Earlier this year, NASA climatologist James Hansen, despite an effort by the Bush administration to gag him, predicted that within ten years, the buildup of CO2 emissions at their current rate would radically change the planet permanently and in ways that might no longer sustain human life.) , not enough to reduce worldwide carbon emissions by the 70 required percent to stabilize the climate at its current level of disruption.

For that to happen, we'd need to change as dramatically as our light bulbs. We'd need to see ourselves differently-- identity and desire would have to shift. Not out of a sense of idealism or asceticism or nostalgia for the 60s. Out of a sense of pure pragmatism.
McKibben goes on to talk about "thinking locally, acting globally" on diverse issues like carpooling, public transportation, McMansions, even food selection (eating only foods grown locally, rather than buying fresh produce year round shipped from other states or countries...he gives the example that it costs 36 calories to grow and ship one head of lettuce from California to the East Coast), as ways we need to rethink how we use energy.

But he also brings up an interesting sociological point, one that's been buzzing around my mind for a few decades now. For want of a better term, let's call it what I've named it: "communal individuality," which I think is a far more global term than McKibben's "convivial environmentalism." In truth, it's a new form of tribalism.

The classic form of tribalism was where a band of related members of a cultural group remained together to assist in establishing a community where people could reproduce and support everyone in the community, "skimming a bit off the top" for themselves but sharing with their neighbors and family. This form of human society existed and thrived for millions of years, quite literally, until the advent of agriculture tied humanity to the very ground. Eventually, as humans are wont to do, staying in one place became boring, and communities began to expand, adventures were had and new lands possessed and tamed. Distance (among other factors) limited how far afield these colonies could move, however, so relatives were close at hand.

Organically over the generations, a new form of community arose, one that valued even smaller groups of individuals taking care of each other, usually in the context of a far larger culture: families existed within nation-states, cities and countries. Still, because distances were a limiting factor, even these communities were fairly close-knit and you could usually count on at least a few relatives nearby to lend a hand.

Skip ahead now to modern times, and the rise of the compass and global exploration. Suddenly, it was possible to settled lands thousands of miles away from your home. Suddenly, you had to rely on old tribal interfaces in order to survive as you and a hardy band of settlers would step on Plymouth rock or the Florida or Virginia coast. Or in India, or Australia, or Asia. Or vice versa, I'm not forgetting their were Asian and Arabic travellers!

Once humanity mastered the planet-- it's a stretch to say that, but let's take the simplistic view that we've settled nearly every conceivable place on earth, our communities began to expand and absorb each other. Villages became towns, towns became cities, and cities became megalopoli, such that you can travel from Boston to Washington and beyond and never once set foot in a forest.

Even intercontinental travel no longer involves days or weeks (unless you're flying from Australia to Edmonton by way of New York City), and I can pick up and move to London as easily as I can pick up and move to Long Island now. Community ties are breached and weakened, and the establishment of "knowability" by your neighbors is practically non-existent (McKibben cites some surveys that indicate that a majority of Americans can't even name their next-door neighbors). Notice that this works two ways: as I am isolated as a stranger from the remnants of the community I live in, where I have little family ties, I tend to shut out that community as well.

People who live in cities, especially gentrifying neighborhoods, see this happening in real time: older residents, who may still have family around, are usually the people you see, sitting on stoops, talking to everyone who passes by, keeping an eye on things. The younger residents, the ones more able to handle the changes of a new domicile, aren't the children and grandchildren of these doyennes et doyens, but strangers. Subsequently, they are less likely to be communal with people to whom they have no connection, thus shut themselves indoors and turn on the TV or the internets and chat with people hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

What happens then is a disconnect and a discord: you have more in common with a girl in California than you have with the old man who lives downstairs. And this is not how humanity evolved: our ties have always been face to face.

What we are witnessing is an evolutionary process taking place in a revolutionary time frame, and with it must come about a new understanding of our planet and ourselves. As travel becomes easier and more frequent and the globe truly does shrink, we need to keep in mind that nation-states are now less important than cities and communities. It will be at the community level that decisions will be made that will impact entire populations outside the community, something pretty much unheard of until recent time (aside from decisions to invade or declare war, or explore on an organized national basis).

The simple act of putting up a power plant in Ohio will impact the air quality of six states and tens of millions of Americans and Canadians. We have to learn to factor that in now. We can no longer afford to ignore the fact that decisions others make impact us directly, far more directly than we imagined.

Which means we need to make decisions as small as possible, to mitigate the widespread effects they may have. If I live in a building, I need to get involved in decisions that affect that building while affecting other buildings as little as possible: solar panel power on the rooftop for example, and try to winnow the building off the electric grid. Plant a garden on the roof to cool me in the summer and insulate me in the winter.

As enough people make decisions like these, the effects will be wide-ranging from the critical mass of decisions made. No one rooftop garden, no one bicyclist, no one windmill on a cul-de-sac, will make the difference on its own. But the influence and power to change minds that one item represents may generate more energy, mental energy, community energy, than all the power plants in the world combined.

We don't just need to think locally, because that implies a zero-sum game, and human behavior is dictated by "winning".

We need to think within the footprint we leave on the street. We need to think that transiently.