The Call of the Suburb

Here is an excerpt from an essay I’ve just finished for the Ecopsychology module of my MSc in Human Ecology.
“The soil and the pavement grow different crops, even though the soil is cut up into minute suburban plots.” – Harlan Paul Douglass

One Step Removed
Perhaps humans were never meant to live in cities; arguments against are based on the theory of our evolution in small groups—that these cannot be scaled to a metropolis. (Rees, 37-40) However, counter-arguments propose we can construct cities as groupings of small self-contained communities that mimic our evolutionary background (see Ackoff on his model for new urban design). Some contend our only “natural” living space is the countryside; yet the countryside as we know it is almost always a man-made (or heavily altered) construct. If one considers the countryside a wild place, one might imagine the suburb as a happy middle-ground—not urban, not wild, but a median of the two. However, in this paper I will propose the suburb is perhaps the most unnatural amalgam of environments we have yet devised. In the city, we can at least see some shadow of our prior organisation into small communities with shared space for common use. In the country, we often organise into groups that provide mutual benefit (farm collectives, fire brigades, etc.). However, the suburbs tend to separate out each family or individual into an isolated unit (an isolated unit that relies heavily on outside resources for maintenance). If one is habituated into such an environment where everything and everyone is siloed off into discreet controlled elements, what is the psychological impact? This essay will briefly explore this and some reasons behind the growth of contemporary suburbs.

But what’s it for?
If green space in an urban environment is for common public use and enjoyment and country land is for agriculture, what then are suburban lots for? One would assume that, considering the size of many suburban house lots, homeowners would use the land for growing vegetables. Despite the early prevalence of “greenbelt” garden suburbs (in the US), most suburban homes now have little space allotted for vegetable growing. Whilst the average suburban lot has land for gardening, it is often only landscaped or covered with grass. It is somewhat against the suburban ethos to grow one’s own vegetables; the idea being that one has attained a status where one’s wealth has negated the need for self-sufficiency in this manner:

Although the elaborate lawn would be attainable only by the wealthy in England, in the United States carefully tended grass became the mark of suburban respectability. In 1870 Frank J. Scott published The Art of Beautifying the Home Grounds and Jacob Weidenmann issued Beautifying Country Homes: A Handbook of Landscape Gardening, the first American books devoted entirely to “the methods by which every landowner may improve and beautify his suburban home effectively and with economy.” Explicit in such books was the notion that the only reason for living in the city was to make enough money to retire to the country. The well-manicured yard became an object of great pride and enabled its owner to convey to passers-by an impression of wealth and social standing—what Thorstein Veblen would later label “conspicuous consumption.” Such a large parcel of land was not a practical resource in the service of a livelihood, but a luxury in the service of gracious living. As Weidenmann noted in his very first sentence: “The location of the house . . . should be sufficiently back from the public road to afford ample room for an unbroken ornamental lawn.” (Jackson, 60)

So the self-sufficiency underlying “country living” is written off as a hindrance in the suburbs; the ideal is a place meant solely for leasure–a private park removed from the city or a formal garden removed from the countryside. Many suburban estate regime rules explicitly forbid non-ornamental gardening to preserve the uniformity of the neighbourhood (the thought is that vegetable gardening is unsightly and might damage property values). So, here the province of wealth has allowed many to live in an environment that neither calls upon them to work sustenance from the land or be remotely dependent on it as city dwellers are.

Considering recent rises in fuel and food costs, there may be renewed interest in suburban self-sufficiency. The ingrained structure and psychology of the suburb will make this transition difficult. Not only is it impossible to travel to and from most suburbs for basic goods and services without the aid of motor transportation, the formerly rich soil of most suburban tracts is gone; it is often lost during construction when the soil is moved about with heavy machinery. It has been replaced with a monoculture of sodded grass that does not maintain itself without the use of chemical fertiliser and supplemental water (or, at least does not maintain itself in the Desert Southwest to look like a green in the North of Scotland that’s been grazed by small sheep). Again, according to many regime rules, the homeowner must maintain a certain specification lawn and often non-native ornamental shrubs and trees.

The Lost (or just somewhat misplaced) Agrarian Ideal
The irony of our removal from both country and city is that the suburb, even from the early beginnings in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, was meant to become the happy mix of the two. As these early suburbanites had no notion of the automotive economy, the only sensible (and practicable) suburb was one that was in some manner self-supporting.

It remained for Ebenezer Howard, the London court reporter, to propose specific arrangements for this marriage of city and country in his influential 1898 book, Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Howard’s proposals were welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. . .Clearly, the proposals are motivated by agrarian sentiments: “It is well-nigh universally agreed by men of all parties, not only in England, but all over Europe and America and our colonies, that it is deeply to be deplored that the people should continue to stream into the already overcrowded cities, and should thus further deplete the country districts. . . .” How should we go about restoring people to the garden, “that beautiful land of ours, with its canopy of sky, the air that blows upon it, the sun that warms it, and rain and dew that moisten it–be very embodiment of Divine love for man?” The restoration can be accomplished, Howard wrote, only if we reject two-valued, black and white thinking, and consider instead a third alternative. “There are in reality not only . . . two alternatives–town life and country life–but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination. . . .” (Donaldson, 26)

The post-war years saw a dramatic rise in American suburbs; many people who had lived for generations on family farms moved into new suburbs and a completely different built environment (one that, in some respects, became a new frontier for American families–one without the physical dangers and economic risks connected with the frontier West). The construction of these new frontier towns coincided with the mass production and mechanisation of agriculture as well as the home economy; in one generation, the housewife was freed from the “drudgery” of kitchen gardening, cooking, and cleaning. (Cullen, 151-52) The man of the house no longer needed to plow the field or tend cattle; vegetables were available a short drive away at the supermarket and the milkman brought bottles cold to the door. The many skills previously necessary for maintaining a household were now defunct and new terms and methods were needed (witness the mid-century boom in university “home economics” programs and household gatherings for women to relate these new skills–often with the underwriting of product manufacturers). Men and women were simultaneously removed from the domestic roles they had played for millennia and made consumers of a new pre-packaged culture.

We will need to visit briefly the concept of The American Dream. There is some dispute over who coined this term and when; however, the earliest literary reference is in James Adams’ The Epic of America (first published in 1931). Adams was attempting to write a psychological history of sorts concerning the ideals that underlie American society and the individual’s drive for maintaining it. He imagines:

. . .that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world. That dream or hope has been present from the start. Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it. (Cullen quoting James Truslow Adams from The Epic of America, 4)

The early 20th century saw the birth of mass advertising and the marketing of–nearly everything. A term like The American Dream readily appeals to marketers as it connects aspirations of material wealth, family and national pride, and implies a unified goal among the American people. How better than to match it up with mass produced housing and appliances! Whereas we had once sought the security of farmland or, through the Industrial Revolution, jobs in the city, the new American Dream found that middle ground between and set up house there. People left both town and country to populate a new kind of landscape with a promise of leisurely living in an ad-hoc community (though many of the people moving into suburbs were whites seeking racial homogeneity in a time of turbulent race relations; the suburbs hit their peak in a perfect storm of social and economic conditions).

The Substance of Suburbanite
In a sense, the suburbia we consider here is already past. There is a growing trend of urban gentrification and the (often quickly and poorly built) post-war suburbs are falling into disrepair. New suburbs, yet farther out from city centres, are often densely packed with little semblance to any sort of pastoral country garden. As prices for housing and goods rise in urban areas, low-income families move to the first ring of mid-century suburbs on the outskirts of the city. This greatly increases the difficulty of social-service work with these groups as, instead of having a fair concentration of constituents in the city, they are now dispersed in the suburbs. This in itself points to one of the main issues with suburbia—everything is apart from everything else.

And so, I wonder if the physical distance, the separation between house and house, between home and countryside, and between individuals fosters a psychological disconnection as well. Much of this, of course, depends on the physical design of the suburb. Early “greenbelt” suburbs were purposely designed to somewhat mimic village life and there is research that shows this does encourage a sense of community; however, in contrast, the contemporary automobile based suburb can be wholly designed around a traffic grid. (Brown and Cropper) The needs of cars are given primary consideration (evidenced by a lack of pedestrian walkways and houses that are dominated by garage doors). Many new developments are “gated communities”; they are literally walled off from the world. I recently saw a suburban development with an adjoining shopping mall; there was physically no way to walk from one to the other without jumping a fence. In order to go shopping, one must drive round the front of the development into the car park of the mall.

What does such a hard line of separation engender? I propose it distances people from the reality of the world in which we live; without a sense of the communal groups in which we evolved nor a sense of real connexion with either agriculture or wilderness, suburbanites are contained in a wholly artificial construct—one that is fed by and depends upon a culture of consumerism. The suburb is the perfect target for advertising and sales; it is (again, traditionally, this is changing) a largely homogeneous economic zone with a defined set of needs driven by its construction (as opposed to the true needs of residents and the natural environment). What it encourages, I fear, is a society devoid of the connexions that define us as a species. Also, as the otherwise positive mixing of race and income begins in suburbia, I wonder if it will further distance and disenfranchise its residents; I wonder if we are facing a diaspora of poverty in what was once the symbol of our wealth.

Ackoff, Russell, Redesigning Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Brown, Barbara B., and Cropper, Vivian L., “New Urban and Standard Suburban Sub Divisions: Evaluating Psychological and Social Goals,” Journal of the American Planning Association 67, no. 4 (2001).

Cullen, Jim, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Donaldson, Scott, The Suburban Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).

Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Rees, William E., “The Conundrum of Urban Sustainability,” in How Green Is the City? Sustainability Assessment and the Management of Urban Environments ed. Dimitri Devuyst, Luc Hens, and Walter De Lannoy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

There is extensive literature on suburbs (particularly the post-war expansion of American suburbia). One book in particular that helped summarise several author’s thoughts on consumer culture and the link with middle-class suburbia was Daniel Horowitz’s The Anxieties of Affluence: Critiques of American Consumer Culture, 1939-1979 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). His chapter synopsis on the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith, Vance Packard, and Betty Friedan was especially helpful in forming my conclusions.

Though I opened with a quote from Harlan Paul Douglass, I did not cite any of his works in the essay itself (he is not an author I’ve read or heard of before researching for this paper). However, he apparently was an early pioneer of social research in the 20th century and his writings set out a framework for those who would follow in this field. For a brief biography see Hadden, Jeffrey K., “1979 H. Paul Douglass Lecture H. Paul Douglass: His Perspective and His Work,” Review of Religious Research 22, no. 1 (1980): 66.


I’m a few days back now from the Isle of Eigg (one of the small Hebridean Islands; 7,400 acres with about 80 people—and a stunningly beautiful landscape). We were there for a core course on the MSc.
There is a lot I could (and probably should) write concerning our visit there; one of the primary reasons we visit Eigg is to observe the workings of a small community—how they interact with each other and their environment. I’m supposed to be able to parse this all out and write about it; however, as I’m becoming more aware of issues of legitimacy (the “who am I to come in here and think I can tell these people anything” question) and just generally sensitive to the spirit of a place, I feel less inclined to write (probably not the best reaction on an academic course!). I think I’m better able to experience a place and appreciate it than I’ve ever been before (and keep in mind that I’ve now had a lot of training to do this). But am I competent to tell someone else’s story; this is the question I am working through. (This is one of my learning edges for the course.)

I can, however, make a comment on my story. Or, perhaps enlarge it a bit and comment on the story of my group in the MSc. We are a community of sorts; granted it is a completely self-selected community and we are gathered around a generally common cause (though that cause is amorphously defined). This is a very different course than most academic ventures; it’s purposefully designed to delve right into the “deep stuff” in our lives and in the wider world. To do this, we’ve had to open up ourselves to each other and have built a good sense of camaraderie and trust. Yet, we are not superhuman [ecologists], we are still just people in a community. And, like people on an isolated island, we can celebrate the closeness of our group but also have to deal with the occasional fistfight in the pub.

So there are tensions and conflicts that are difficult to deal with; of course, that’s what we studying, how to help other groups recognise and work through these things. Yet, when it comes to our own group dynamics, it seems we forget important bits of information. I think it is easier to save the world than any one of us. The world is over there, off the island, we can see their problems and comment on them from a distance. But it is also easy to dwell on them and forget to nurture the community right here. (I suppose it could be equally possible to forget the rest of the world and focus completely on ourselves—like everything, it’s about finding balance.)

Thankfully, we are a resilient bunch and will work through these things; I think there is great care and love between us. However, though I’m wary of this “let’s look in upon ourselves” kind of language (too much introspection), I’m learning that it’s necessary to take the time and energy to do so or we’ll end up with things to “fix” rather than working through a smooth process from the start. I think most of these sorts of “issues” would be resolved if each of us were open to positive criticism and we were willing to speak it without fear of hurt feelings.

(I now feel qualified to write an episode of Lost.)

Gaia Embodied in a Voice too Soft to Hear

I wrote the first stanzas of this several weeks ago and finished the last few in the wilderness of Knoydart (I think there is a “missing” stanza yet to come). Here is a .pdf of the poem with proper formatting: Gaia Embodied.pdf
In the MSc course I’m on, we’ve spoken much about finding voice—about trying to find words to relate the human condition. I believe poetry is the language one uses to express what can’t be said with words.

Facing the sunset glare
A hundred-thousand vehicles flee
This given city—no matter the language
Of traffic reports or calls home
To keep dinner warm—
“There are clots of cars and I’ll be late again.”
A hundred-thousand single souls sealed
In mechanical motion
Cannot listen to
Gaia embodied in a voice too soft to hear.

The electric suburban evening
Brighter than all the universe combined.
Inside, the shared Family of Man
Flickers excitedly before my listless kin;
Their warmed-over TV dinner trays with 33% extra portions
Cool in the blue-green glow of
Advertisements for happiness.
The enticing sound so enveloping
They need not notice
Gaia embodied in a voice too soft to hear.

A bedroom’s curtained darkness.
Quiet—nothing but the tousled sheet
Or sometimes hiss of heating pipes.
Though the unchecked onslaught of daily sound now presses
Upon his mind—assails him,
Prevails over sleep and composure
Returning to the origins of thought
And running the analysis of every
Hopeless action.
Too much to hope—for
Gaia embodied in a voice too soft to hear.

The diffusion of sunrise behind him,
A hundred-thousand shells of men
Take to the streets without protest.
Only to slowly file in order and disgorge
Their naked passengers in appointed boxes.
They sit silenced
In grey padded cubes with no ceiling or sky.
The hum of process overtakes
Gaia embodied in a voice too soft to hear.

He escapes—a three day
Wilderness excursion—for one
To face Nature, slightly conquer her, return with stories
Travel to and from nature not included in package
Price—some restrictions apply. See website for
Further detail.
But he returns no wiser.
Though he read a dozen books in preparation,
He read nothing of
Gaia embodied in a voice too soft to hear.

A life?
Of workweeks pass.
He grows accustomed to the baseline hum.
Inside, Inside, he can’t feel to feel
Himself fading.
Pulse, Pulse, Pulse —A clot slows the traffic of his blood.
A terse doctor with his medical entourage,
“We’ll do all we can.”
No hands now—no touch; only tubes and
Pumps—thin wires and the glow of instrumentation.
Subtle sifting silence down till breathing stops.
One breath removed from
Gaia embodied in a voice too soft to hear.

Excerpts from Spiritual Activism Essay

I finished an essay last evening for my Spiritual Activism Course; it’s entitled Blessings: The Beginning of Conflict Resolution. Here are some excerpts:
What is the root cause of conflict? Perhaps that is too large a topic to explore in a brief essay; What instead is the essential component of peace? When we hone peace to its “beginnings”, what do we find at the core? In many languages, a curse is considered the most powerful utterance available. Unfortunately, curses (or the words of conflict in general) also seem to be readily translatable into all dialects (and, for that matter, our curses are translated into the “language of nature” as our ideas and action have direct bearing on the environment). From local disagreement between individuals to vast conflicts between nations, the world is inundated with curses; yet, despite the richness of language, we lack ready words for harmony. This is partially a linguistic barrier; however, there is also little overarching structure that reaches across languages and ideologies to fill a common human need for blessing. I submit that most conflict is essentially language based and the point beyond a curse is often conflict.

My supposition for this is based on the economy of communication in which we now live. We do, of course, have physical struggles over resources and territory (there is extensive literature on land and resource based conflict which I will not necessarily delve into here. My concern is to address conflict at a root ideological base). However, our primary means of interaction is in the realm of ideas or, to put a slightly different shade on it, our interaction is based on information rather than ideas per se. We are inundated with information but few of us are empowered to make careful use of this information to form sensible ideas. These ideas, or ideas partially formulated by the information barrage, translate into actions. Those who hold power over language touch the fate everyone who listens. For example, Osama Bin Laden does not have vast political or military power behind him; however, with a few words transmitted via video and print, he is able to influence the lives and ideas of many. Equally, an infectious language of fear outlines the response of all involved (this, ironically, while we are in many ways safer and more secure in our overall lives than at any time in human history). International agencies of state are primarily concerned with diplomatic protocol and economic development; non-state agencies are often strictly issue focused and do not readily bridge over the fissures caused by ideological conflict. Lost between the two is the opportunity for individuals to speak for the common good of all. Though this common good will, of course, involve economic and territorial agreements, there is an underlying sense of blessing often missing from the accord reached through state negotiation. What we see broadcast on television and printed in newspapers has little to do with a shared sense of blessing. How often is there a sense that two groups have gone beyond a survival based agreement (I promise not to bomb you if you promise not to bomb me) to one based on genuine equality? How often are these agreements reached because of the strong-arm intervention of a third party? There is usually a willingness to compromise for survival’s sake. However, the willingness to give and receive a blessing is central to substantially ending discord; though agreements may be reached through fear and the might of a third-party may keep rioters off the street, the healing power of a blessing is equally or more potent in preventing or resolving conflict.

Let us begin with an exploration of what a blessing is; as the word is understood differently between languages and contexts, it’s often a difficult concept to come to full terms with. To a religious adherent, a blessing may have connotations of providence and divine approval. To the secular mind, the term is likely to have more of a social bearing. . .

And then I go on for several paragraphs about the components of a blessing, but will sum up with dot points:

What are the common elements of blessing that might connect dissimilar people?

  • There is a genuine wish for goodwill; this is the simplest precept of cultural and personal interaction.
  • Blessings require a recipient (who may or may not be willing to receive).
  • [Blessings] require a means of transmission (mutually understood language; again, not necessarily spoken or written language, but both parties must have a means of communication). Beyond merely wishing goodwill, we must have a method of communicating it in a way others understand.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, blessings require a hope for the future. Without a sense that there will be resolution and renewal, there is little motivation for blessing. Fortunately, one of humankind’s most enduring qualities seems to be the capacity for hope.

To make these connexions presupposes some knowledge of “the other” (or at least a willingness to pursue understanding). It also requires a recognition of parity; both parties must come on equal footing to the place of blessing. There must be an acknowledgement of the humanity of both parties or the blessing becomes objectified (or merely a means to an end). Blessings should be given from equal to equal (not simply from the well-off to those in poverty, for example). Most people will readily voice a blessing to “those poor people down in Country X”. However, when it comes to understanding the real human situation of those same poor people seeking better economic stability and etc., the blessing seems to get lost in the shuffle; such blessings tend to have many footnotes and amendments. One can easily give a blessing based on expediency; as mentioned above, there are often peace accords for the sake of convenience where the parties agree for economic or political reasons to end conflict. However, the test of a blessing is whether both parties are willing to accept, with the complexities and foibles, the humanity of all involved. This recognition is the underlying impetus to communication; if one recognises life as the prime requisite for blessing rather than an expectation of reward, then there is the hope of resolution. . .

. . .People on the margins are the first to hear the language of conflict—sometimes in whispers, sometimes in screams. But when language turns people to violence, those without a voice to respond are often those who are silenced permanently. Also, we (from the perspective of a Westerner) increasingly speak the language of fear. The language of fear can quickly become the language of curses and conflict; at that point, we are all on the margins. When our communication is charged with fear, curses, and conflict, there is little difference between rich and poor; we are equally at risk of open violence. This is not a change we are prepared for and I believe the effects of it will come rather suddenly (or, unfortunately, too quickly for society to gain an understanding of the difference between information and ideas). If we swing too far toward a fear-based language, we loose the capacity to reason and speak a language of blessing. Unused words become archaic and fall out of use; if we remove ourselves from the practice of blessing and goodwill, there is little to hold back a culture of fear and misunderstanding. . .

Perhaps we should be pessimistic about the effectiveness of blessings; perhaps the force of violence applied against the world is too great to overcome. Perhaps the price we would pay in material comfort and apparent security is too high for us to bear. What we are essentially discussing is the price of falling in love; are we able to show a love to others that does not expect recompense? What if the return on our love is only spite and abuse? We live in shared space; though my home may be thousands of miles away from a given person in a completely different culture, we have shared our existence at some level. After all we’ve shared, can I say no to this man’s blessing; can I say he has no need of mine? If so, what price am I willing to pay for the curses he must otherwise live through? Can I observe conflict between two people or groups of people without grieving. I suppose the ultimate question in this is, am I willing to follow through with all the necessary actions required to keep life and blessing flourishing in the world?

Because of Violence (essay)

In conjunction with yesterday’s poem, I’ve also submitted an interpretative essay on the writing process. I’ll not post the entire essay; however, here is a condensed version that outlines my rationale:
Having personally observed violent societies, spoken to victims of violence, and witnessed innumerable real and imagined acts of violence in the media—I have begin to consider potential remedies; what are the root causes? What is it about humans that give us this tendency toward violence? Is it innate or a learned activity? Last year, I began drafting a manifesto of sorts laying out my thoughts on the topic (with the aim to eventually expand the precepts into a book-length work). However, while the document is clear in its proposals, it lacks a certain vigour. For instance, the third proposal (which becomes canto three in the poem) states:

Given the opportunity, healing takes place
We are able to flourish because of our resiliency and adaptability; nature has a marked ability to recover from what seems to be complete devastation. However, because some wounds are so severe, we must carefully foster an environment where healing can take place. This involves a recognition of the need for healing. It involves an acceptance of our own responsibility for causing injury. It involves an acceptance of our own responsibility in recovery as well.

Recently, I listened to a lecture by James P. Carse entitled Religious War in Light of the Infinite Game. He was asked what is the most important need of the “environmental movement” at this time; his response was that the world needs more poets—that scientists need to learn how to express their research in a poetic manner to bring the power and import of their findings to others. When I was an undergraduate, I took several creative writing classes (I have a degree in English) and used to regularly express myself in verse. However, over the past few years, my pursuit of poetry reading and composition has waned. Instead, I have focused more on “concrete” writing of essays and proposals. Regardless of the form in which I’m writing, my intent is to communicate with clarity and immediacy. Perhaps I was just needing a gentle nudge toward poetry to take it up once again.

This was, however, not an easily accomplished task. I’ve been so long without the rhythms and structure of poetry in my head that it was difficult to wake the muse (and, admittedly, she was a bit fussy and bleary-eyed through the process). I spent the better part of a week in preparatory reading before sitting down to write; in addition, I’ve been choosing and listening to music with lyrics that evoke the mindset I’m in (I did not begin with a particular style in mind; it came into focus through the preparations). I’ve found that these structures, from music and verse, ingrain themselves in me like patterns in timber; they provide the raw material of sorts but the wood is there to be shaped—to be carved and varnished into something new.

In retrospect, my earlier verse was mostly commentary on my own inner state; I’m sensing a shift toward specific social criticism as I now write. While I recognise that a large part of any poet’s work will relate directly to his or her personal experience and outlook, I’m consciously attempting to write broadly applicable verse; I’m trying to find a personal voice that pertains to larger issues at hand.

The poetic form allows a writer to expand on content in ways which would be too cumbersome in prose. By re-working this passage in verse, I am attempting to broaden out the message by the double meanings readily available in English. While still, I hope, maintaining the integrity of my original intent, the verse form allows a reader to add his or her own experience to the words in ways a straight prose passage could not.

I’m attempting to depict violence as a living and vital force—perhaps equally or more energetic than peace if continually fed by the activities of humankind. If we are consciously and unconsciously lending our collective life force to violence, what else could the case be? If the energies of humankind are focused on this one “solution” and outcome, ongoing violence seems inevitable. In canto two, I discuss the internalisation of outward conflict and how this leads to recurring violence:

The outer influence
The inner conflict results.
It does not spring from nothing
And only prospers in a society which encourages it.
A society that allows
The outer and inner conflict,
Where the two co-mingle
Violence grows.

Yet, though these are overarching structures that seem to engulf peoples and cultures from antiquity—and are apparently on course to continue unabated into the future, I propose that violence is ultimately the result of a choice (albeit one in which many people, as individuals, do not have a notable say). The ending of violence is also a choice; again, from canto two:

Consequently, the end of violence
Means a complete abandonment of the society
Which begets it.
The end of violence is a decision,
Not an act of force
or resistance.

I’m specifically incorporating elements of non-violent resistance and the “letting go” of Taoism. The structure of the poem is informed by The Tao Te Ching and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The didactic voice of The Tao Te Ching seemed appropriate to a poem concerned with underlying themes that cross personal, familial, and civic relationships. I’ve borrowed some specific phraseology from Eliot, as The Waste Land speaks both from an individual’s viewpoint concerning the disillusion of society and incorporates a larger “trans-personal” voice that speaks for past and future societies.

I attempt to mimic Eliot’s archetypal imagery of planting, growth, budding, and decay (in both a positive and negative sense); In canto five, the energies of fear and the energy of well-being vie for the consciousness of humankind:

The expression of goodwill
The substantial words lived out.
As a society built upon fear
Feeds itself with fear;
An individual composed of well-being
Grows and spreads that energy
—We are an infections breed
The mindset, the purposed thought, from one healing—the healing
Of society follows.

Eliot ends The Waste Land on a debatably ambiguous note; it is not clear if the world is fated to decay or poised on the brink of re-birth. My ending lines are meant to read either way concerning violence (as the poem is not necessarily meant to be entirely prescriptive); I would rather leave open the opportunity for the reader to raise his or her awareness.

A man’s heart
And the Earth he despairs
Are one substance.
Without respect of one, the faltering other will break.
Without respite from violence
What hope have we for life;
What else may we imagine?

It is the imaginings of men that determine whether the heart and Earth will live or “break”. Note that I am specifically saying “man” here rather than choosing a more gender-neutral language; earlier in the poem, I elaborate on the collective of responsibility to choose between violence and life. Here I mean to comment on the choices that are usually made by men to despair of the Earth and proffer violence. However, the “we” in the last two lines is meant to read inclusively; it is the unified imagination of all humankind that will either bring hope and resolution or, alternatively, imagine yet more destruction.

Because of Violence

This is part of a “creative assignment” for the MSc; we’ve been asked to produce a piece that speaks to an environmental or social issue. Alas, according of the vagaries of HTML, most of my utterly keen typesetting for this poem will be lost; some things are still better kept on paper. Here is a .pdf version of the poem with the intended formatting: Because of Violence
Because the world is a place of violence
—All life has value
What is the root of violence;
In what soil does it grow?
It taps down and breaks through the clay of life,
—Bodies and Earth alike
It grows—perversely alive, but is the end of living.

The world is a place of violence
But that world is in us; we are they who devalue life.
What is our first cause?
—May we not foster life for living things?
Or is the chief end of man oblivion and dismay?
Can we discern between these?

Because violence opposes life and well-being
—Violence has a beginning—and an end
The outer influence
The inner conflict results.
It does not spring from nothing
And only prospers in a society which encourages it.
A society that allows
The outer and inner conflict,
Where the two co-mingle
Violence grows.
Consequently, the end of violence
Means a complete abandonment of the society
Which begets it.
The end of violence is a decision,
Not an act of force
Or resistance.

Because violence has enduring consequence
For the future of all living things
—Given the opportunity, healing takes place
How may we endure
When it seems there is complete devastation?
Some wounds are so severe
That we lose all scope of injury
All hope for remedy
All memory of health.
Who can bear responsibility
For the cause
And for recovery?
We cut ourselves with swords
Too large, too common
For any one hand to grasp.
All the world cannot bear our weapons.
Are we strong enough to lay them down,
Or will they fall too swiftly;
One sharp quick stroke among the playthings.
Without reason, our weapons become masters.
—The sword without a sheath
Wants for blood
Or Rust.

Because life is connected to all and the part is of the whole.
—The builders will seek peace
No enduring community is built on fear and violence;
The bonds formed under duress
Will only lead to bondage.
A community of fear
Depends on violence;
One violent cohesion to another,
The structure feeds itself.
The end is the beginning
Some will fill the gaps
And suffer for it.
Trust and goodwill are foreign words
Or used trippingly on the lips
Of those who suffer suffering;
The cause of words and deeds
In a morass of mindless mumbling.
The builders come with peace—all else
Breaks apart
Stone, spirit, sanctuary, sanctity—hope.

Because humankind (mankind, womenkind, people, the products
Of flesh and blood, the subjects of love and hate, the caring
Components of careful plans, the surprise results of impromptu
Intercourse, the discarded unwanted remnants of the same, the
Inert and the charged, the important and the impotent, the living
And the lifeless ends of grey society…)
Because all these have the ability and responsibility
For healing
—The blessing of another
Is the means to end violence
The expression of goodwill
The substantial words lived out.
As a society built upon fear
Feeds itself with fear;
An individual composed of well-being
Grows and spreads that energy
—We are an infectious breed
The mindset, the purposed thought, from one healing—the healing
Of society follows.

Because every faith
Because every philosophy
Every expression of humanist ideals
Should call for goodwill and peace
—The poet has this voice; complete the cycle
Violence among people and violence among ourselves and nature
There is no division–there is only the continued delusion of
We split the atoms of our soul into smaller unknown units
And package these in cleverly presented boxes
And try to buy a corporeal whole
With a multitude of purchases—but the impetus is gone.
The broken atoms leave only waste;
Upon a race of automatons.

A man’s heart
And the Earth he despairs
Are one substance.
Without respect of one, the faltering other will break.
Without respite from violence
What hope have we for life;
What else may we imagine?

Hell and High Water

I attended the Annual General Meeting of The Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh last night. Prior to the AGM, Alastair McIntosh spoke on his forthcoming book Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition (due out in May from Birlinn Press).
Alastair’s critique of the human condition in this book pulls us out of the technical realm of “fixing” the environment and into a larger discussion of the moral, social, and spiritual causes of our situation. From the publisher:

Climate change is the greatest challenge that the world has ever faced. In this groundbreaking new book, Alastair McIntosh summarises the science of what is happening to the planet – both globally and using Scotland as a local case study. He moves on, controversially, to suggest that politics alone is not enough to tackle the scale and depth of the problem. At root is our addictive consumer mentality. Wants have replaced needs and consumption drives our very identity. In a fascinating journey through early texts that speak to climate change – including the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Plato’s myth of Atlantis, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth—McIntosh reveals the psychohistory of modern consumerism. He shows how we have fallen prey to a numbing culture of violence and the motivational manipulation of marketing. To start to resolve what has become of the human condition we must get more real in facing up to despair and death. Only then will we discover the spiritual meaning of these our troubled times. Only then can magic, new meaning, and all that gives life, start to mend a broken world.

I recorded his talk and the Q&A following (right before he starts speaking in the recording, he removes his jacket and jumper. The venue for the AGM was The Melting Pot in Edinburgh):

click here for the .mp3 podcast

Update: Okay, somebody has already asked—a few minutes into the lecture, Alastair uncorks something and pours a glass. Just to clarify, this is a glass of WATER not a glass of WHISKY!

Note that, after this cover was designed, Alastair considered the ultimate message and aim of the book. The word Hope was then added to the title—as hope is one of humankind’s most enduring and energetic abilities.

Renewing Soil and Society

This is an essay for my Food Culture and Agriculture Course. It’s not my best writing ever; however, it has given me opportunity to coalesce some prior thoughts (avid readers will note some hints of material from earlier weblog posts).
There are any number of criticisms one can raise concerning agriculture; there are also arguments that we have larger issues at hand to consider. However, I would propose the primary concern of any society is agricultural. Without the production of food; society ceases to exist; agriculture and its corollary components are the base of human existence. Until the Industrial Revolution, the world was based on agrarian societies. We planned our years based on agricultural cycles; we lived near the soil. Now we think of soil as something dirty. It is something dead and dusty that gets tracked into the house and must be vacuumed up and disposed of. At best, we look upon soil as an inert medium in which we grow plants (and will at least deign to have some inside for houseplants). As our societies and religions evolved in close connexion with agriculture, they have an innate link to the soil. If this connexion is dismissed or severed, the base substance of societal cohesion and faith will suffer. Without the regeneration of soil, agriculture is impossible; arguably, without the human-soil connexion, our connexion to the earth and each other is diminished. In order to find a truly sustainable agriculture and society, all these elements must be considered.

This essay will briefly discuss our larger societal relation with soil from a religious and cultural viewpoint; then we will move to a more personal level concerning individual responsibility. Finally, we will consider the practical implications of re-working agriculture on a planet that may not be necessarily suited for it. (Note that I am making a general comment on Christian thought as I am a product of Western Christian society; however, many remarks below are applicable to human nature no matter what creed or culture. There could be, of course, a far larger commentary made on the relation between belief and the environment; but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)

First, a widely held supposition and a premise: we consider ourselves the benefactor of the agricultural cycle. However, we are not the end product of agriculture; plants and produce are not the final product either. Soil is the product of agriculture. The difference between vegetable produce and soil as end products, at first, seems subtle; however, the implications of this difference and the aims of agriculture based on one or the other are significant. Broadly, If produce is the end result and all manner of supplementary resources are allowed into the system to ‘maximise production’, soil health becomes a secondary consideration. If soil is the primary factor, the supplementary resources that may seemingly benefit plant growth are more carefully evaluated based on their effect on soil health.

The premise and supposition mentioned above are basis for metaphor. We all live by metaphors; societies function by the consensus of ideas (or, to be harsher, often we live by the consensus of delusion). The primary metaphor of western society is that humankind is cursed and in need of redemption; we’ve been developing the components of this metaphor for the past several thousand years and its influence and consequences have now spread over all the Earth. We are a fallen race; the consequence of the fall is this:

And unto Adam He said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

—Genesis 3:17-19 KJV

This has been the basis for social custom and cohesion for millennia; the primary activity of humankind has been to toil in the fields. Yet, suddenly, within a few generations, we have surpassed this original curse (and burdened ourselves with a new one). These verses tend to get read through quickly, as if they are of secondary importance to the Christian mandate to strive against the powers of evil. But, what we fight against is dust. The felt consequence of the curse are not primarily the fight against cosmic forces or the fact that we have to wear clothing; it’s that we will forever struggle against dust. And we are made of dust; we face an intractable situation. We are bound to tend the soil till we return to it; or, at least, we were until we unleashed the powers of industry on the world.

Arguably, the environmental and societal issues we face now are rooted in a grand attempt to abandon the metaphor of dust. What greater power could our species show than to gain the upper hand on God and his feeble curse? What greater expression of pride could we display? Humankind has a penchant for establishing societal rules then expending a great deal of effort to subvert them; what greater initiative can a society display than to overturn the gods that created it?

Yet, in this attempt, we drain life from soil. We have replaced life with chemistry and killed the mystery. The substance of our lives is humus; but it is this substance we seem to disdain and distance ourselves from. I propose that, unless we return to a closer understanding of soil and the consequences of its loss, we can never have a healthy respect for others (or for ourselves, for the future, for the environment). If we do not consider or respect the base substance of life, there can be no respect of any living thing. This situation embodies our general relationship with the environment: our medical system is broadly based on treating symptoms with pharmaceuticals rather than the holistic needs of the patient; anything that touches on the realm of science (and this becomes nearly everything) is categorised and treated mechanistically. This mechanistic understanding begins with our disconnection with the soil.

As mentioned above, our culture is based on the creation and maintenance of metaphor. Humans hold a paradoxical view of culture (by ‘culture’ I mean the encompassing sphere of human thought: the arts, political systems, religion, economics, and so on). On one hand, we tend to view both history and the future through the eyes of our current culture; as if culture has not changed for some very long time and is unlikely to change for some time more. Such a myopic view robs us of history’s wisdom and binds us to a pre-packaged determined future. Concurrently, we also view past and future culture as something vastly different than the current human experience. Our forebearers (noting even the separation of one generation to the next) lived lives so different from our own that their experiences and accumulated knowledge are invalid for the present. Future generations will encounter a world so changed from this one that we may not even speculate their circumstances. Of course, neither of these views is entirely satisfactory; but both are necessary to address our current situation and plan for the future.

Each of us is part of a cultural environment and, though we tend to deny this with a thousand decaying whispers, part of the natural world. One person cannot take responsibility for the Earth’s actions; she is, of herself, a most responsible organism. One can (and must) take responsibility for one’s own action. Without recognition of this personal responsibility, there can be no health. No health of persons. No health of society. No health of the larger whole we call The Environment. The Earth will attempt to maintain what we call The Environment till all recourse flows out into oblivion. It is up to the individual to see the context of past and future for the maintenance of the whole.

Whereas western society, within living memory, once had a generally symbiotic relationship with the earth, we have now become parasites. Where once we were ‘connected’ to the land in a significant way (a way in which one’s actions or neglect would have an immediate and apparent effect on one’s life and economy) we’ve now lost our sense of connection to the earth. Wes Jackson, in the compilation A Future for the Land, quotes former Czech President Vaclav Havel:

For centuries, the basic component of European agriculture has been the family farm. In Czech, the older term was grunt, which itself is not without its etymological interest. The word, taken from the German Grund, actually means ground or foundation and, in Czech, acquired a particular semantic colouring. As the colloquial synonym for ‘foundation’, it points to the ‘groundedness’ of the ground, its indubitable, traditional and perspectively given authenticity and veridicality. (Conford, 1992, 106)

This, in the very roots of a language, acknowledges the significance of humankind’s connection to the soil; it is the foundational element of human existence; Havel continues: farmer made it (the farm) the topic of a scientific study. Nevertheless, it constituted a generally satisfactory economic and ecological system, within which everything was bound together by a thousand threads of mutual and meaningful connection, guaranteeing its stability as well as the stability of the product of the farmer’s husbandry. (ibid.)

The stability of the soil encouraged the stability of the farm as a whole and the stability of the food economy. Havel goes on to acknowledge there were always, of course, calamities and conflict outside the farmer’s realm that could upset this system. However, the point is that the farmer himself was not doing anything to undercut the health of his land. Contrast this to our current system which has removed itself from basic consideration for the soil (has lost it’s ‘groundedness’) which does direct and knowing harm to the land in order to increase the “product of the farmer’s husbandry”.

How does one find a grunt to stand on now; is it imperative to “return to the land” in order to legitimately live in harmony with the earth? First, it’s necessary to evaluate one’s place in the larger scope of society. One’s societal role is largely influenced by culture. What does culture say about an individual’s responsibility to the larger whole? This has obvious political and economic implications; however, we will, in short order, begin to move past these structures (a future we cannot fully speculate). We’ve done too much damage to both the cultural and natural environments to sustain our past and current systems of governance and economy. Humankind, though we have had many thousands of years to consider this, has not yet found the way by which we should live and relate to one another. We have, at various times, nearly discovered how to relate to the Earth; but this search has, for too long, been abandoned in favour of self-absorption (both in the sense of anthropocentrism and, considering the more recent focus on consumerism, complete solipsism).

One could argue that the normative culture is too far entrenched–that there is no plausible exit. However, culture is no more or less than a collective decision by a group of people to live and continue to live a certain way in a certain place (and people can only take responsibility if they are ‘in a place’. One cannot take responsibility for an abstraction or ‘nowhere’).

Culture is not immutable; the history of ideas does not necessarily determine the future of human thought. We have yet the opportunity to recover wisdom from the past and take knowledge from the present to determine a future that will benefit all. This is, in fact, the only choice we have that does not end terminally for everyone. If we do not take on this individual responsibility, the cultures will splinter. The Earth, no matter her best efforts, cannot maintain the prolonged negligence of so many irresponsible people. She has provided the necessary components to sustain life. We’ve had an unwritten but obvious agreement that she will continue operating as with such designs as long as we do no harm to the process. If, from the neglect of stewardship, we lay waste to life it will be our decision that breaks the deal.

A culture is as alive as the people who live it; it will continue on till a collective decision is made to cease (or till such time as it is no longer sustainable). Culture can change. It does evolve for the betterment of those living it. The culture of Germany today is far different that what presented itself in the 1930’s. Though we now consume the foundations of life and the lives of those after us, there is nothing keeping us from positive change. Culture is not wholly a language, religion, music, or dress; these things change and grow over time. Changing culture does not mean abandonment of these things; it should mean the enrichment of our better parts. We should not fear the oncoming change (even drastic change) if that change means the resolution of these current ills and the maintenance of life itself.

Finally, culture was never one thing and can never be tomorrow what it was yesterday any more than our children will live the life of our grandparents. We return to the paradox. The present is the future; we cannot put the future off till tomorrow. We must reshape culture to become what it must be beyond this day. If we do not, the opportunities for a common future of life and good humanity will fade; the trust we pass on to the future will be spent. We have no other future than one made now.

What would be the impetus to make potentially massive changes to the character and structure of our societies? For the balance of human history (or, ‘civilised’ human history, if you like) the most disappointing thing one could do would be to shame one’s ancestors. To break family honour or lose face in society was (and still generally is) a terrible matter. To have a parent or close relative say, “You have shamed us all” could send a person into a downward turn for the rest of his or her life (which may be spent in psychological or physical exile depending on the severity of the transgression).

One’s family has a certain amount of honour built up over generations; to shame it is seen as a theft. The call for honour (and the prospect of exile) are both bound to the land; to say that one’s family has lived honourably on a piece of land for some time was the greatest of compliments and pedigrees. An act of shame may draw down heavily on the account and cause it all to collapse. I think, to some extent, the responsibility (or the burden, if one considers the extreme expectations of some families) of holding up the family name has diminished. We are, in ‘the West’ at least, so focused on the individual’s accomplishments and failings that past glories (or downfalls) are of little importance. This is, of course, both liberating and damming. If my forefathers were scoundrels, I’ll probably not be held to attest for their misdeeds; but we also tend to neglect the history of goodwill and actions of many who have passed on (this is particularly emphasised by the loss of extended families and the mobility of society in general; we are no longer of a place—neither bound to its history or its future).

It is the future we have to address. Whereas we once took care not to shame our fathers and grandfathers, we now take even less care to honour our children and grandchildren. Our focus, as a society, seems to be entirely on the present; in this, we shame both past and future generations. This is not a shame belonging to any one family or lineage; my shame spreads to your family and yours to mine. It is like a cancer than begins in one cell and spreads to another till, system by system, it consumes everything.

We are consumers of all (often we are collectively referred to as such as in the somewhat telling economic term ‘consumer confidence’). Our idealised frontiersmen forefathers might be forgiven for believing the Earth was an inexhaustible resource—we can have no such delusion. We are now openly stealing the fortunes of all who follow for our own temporary benefit. We never hear someone openly wish a life of deprivation and despair for future generations; yet this is what we curse them with at almost every step. What greater shame or selfishness is there than this to lay upon the human family?

Unfortunately, ‘collective shame’ seems to have little effect on the momentum of society. It is always someone else’s doing that is so shameful; we bear little individual shame for the misdeeds committed by us all.

Is there, then, a ready solution to the situation we find ourselves in? There are attempts to remedy the ills of the land through technological means–either altering the operations of agribusiness to take the needs of the soil into account or, alternately, abandoning soil altogether and focusing solely on the product by growing hydroponically. On the other hand, some propose a complete abandonment of mechanistic farming; they favour, instead, small-scale organic agriculture based on hand-worked soil. Considering the human population of the Earth, our urbanisation, varying climates, and the scope of regional diets, no one solution will fit all people and places. It is up to individuals and communities to devise ways to co-operate with the Earth and heal the earth of which it is composed. Wendell Berry (2005, 109), in his essay Agriculture from the Roots Up, states:

If we cannot establish an enduring or even humanly bearable economy by our attempt to defeat nature, then we will have to try living in harmony and co-operation with her.

Berry, W. (2005) The Way of Ignorance. Shoemaker & Hoard, Berkeley.

Jackson, W. (1992) ‘Towards the Marriage of Ecology and Economics’ in Conford, P. (ed.) A Future for the Land: Organic Practice from a Global Perspective. Green Books, Devon. 103-113

Scripture reference taken from the King James Version of the Bible

Illusions of Humanity

Humans make reality; or, rather, we build our society and psychology based on notions of what reality is or should be. These notions are generally understood to come from individuals; the citizens of a “free” country are the masters of their own destinies. They are capable of making decisions that shape everyday life and the future. Thoreau and Edwards contend the issue is more complex. In Walden, Thoreau proposes these decisions cannot be made freely unless the individual chooses a life and manner of thinking that allows for freedom; a century and a half later in Free to be Human, Edwards questions whether the structure of society and economics allows for intellectual freedom at all.

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