How does a green movement persuade a majority?

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 08/14/2008

In the discussion I began a few days ago, I made reference to the idea of "green civics."  In this post, I take a few minutes to explain what I mean by that term by walking us through an project in development at the Omega Institute up in Rhinebeck, NY. 

I visited the Omega Institute last week to take a look around and to learn more about they are calling a 'living building,' a structure purpose-built to house a newly minted Center for Sustainable Living. 

Here's a description of the building as listed on their architect's website (a bit long, but well worth reading):

In 2006, the Omega Institute commissioned BNIM Architects to design a new 6,200 square foot facility and 4.5 acre site to serve as a new and highly sustainable wastewater filtration facility. The primary goal for this project was to overhaul the organization’s current wastewater disposal system for their 195-acre Rhinebeck campus by using alternative methods of treatment. As part of a larger effort to educate Omega Institute visitors, staff and local community on innovative wastewater strategies, Omega decided to showcase the system in a building that houses both the primary treatment cells and a classroom/laboratory. In addition to using the treated water for garden irrigation and in a greywater recovery system, Omega will use the system and building as a teaching tool in their educational program designed around the ecological impact of their campus. These classes will be offered to campus visitors, area school children, university students and other local communities.  (link)

Two ideas are being communicated in this description of the building designed for Omega and it is helpful by way of a starting point to articulate them clearly.

The first idea is that this building will replace the obsolete septic field. This first idea is incredibly mundane, almost pedestrian.  The septic fields at Omega were at capacity and draining into the groundwater--a general problem in the area around Rhinebeck due to the vintage of the fields.  Omega needs to replace their fields.  So the first idea for the new building is about as exciting as 'go dig a new hole.'  After 80 years of toilets flushing and showers draining, the field was full. Time for a new one.

The second idea is completely different, Utopian in scale, brazenly idealistic:  the building will teach people how the meaning and value of environmentally sustainable living.   Beyond the pragmatic goal, the Omega center has an explicitly social goal which is described in terms of the 'display' and 'teaching.'  Whereas septic fields are buried for the obvious reason of keeping unpleasant stuff and smells out of range, the Omega center will house their new system of waste treatment in a building that displays the 'eco machine' for all to see and learn from.  But if I describe this building as a septic tank turned into a classroom, we would all agree that the larger vision or spirit of this project is left out.  It is more than a classroom and a processing center.  Somehow, when the mundane and the Utopian aspects of this project are layered one atop the other--we get something larger than the sum of its parts.

At this point, many of you are probably recognizing in this a certain conservationist ethic and reaching for your copies of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac to find the exact passage that fits what Omega is trying to achieve.  Leopold's discussion of the 'land ethic' as it extends into the 'community concept' is what comes to mind (please excuse the gendered language--Leopold wrote the book in the late 1940s):

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise:  that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.  His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land.

This sounds simple:  do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Yes, but just what and whom do we love?  Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume  have no function excerpt to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. (p. 203-204)

Leopold was a great writer--feisty and bulls eye dead on target.  But putting our affection for A Sand County Almanac aside for a moment, we can see very clearly that the Omega center's two goals combined--(1) new septic field and (2) new classroom--are aimed at precisely the kind of land-ethic-community-concept fusion that Leopold had in mind.  The Center for Sustainable Living, in other words, is a building that will process waster water in such a way that it teaches people to see the ethical treatment of the land as part of their obligation as member of a community.

Whew!  That is quite a project, and it looks pretty cool,too (check it out). If we stopped at Leopold's land-ethic cum community concept, we would have come pretty far.  But there is something missing still.  And that 'something' missing is something that present at all levels of the Omega center and which even Leopold could not quite articulate.  That 'something' is the difference between a simple land and community ethics and green civics.

What is 'deep' about the deep ecology at the heart of the Omega center, in other words, is not just the sustainability of the earth, but the durability of the nation.  Not just land, but country; not just students--citizens.

Here, we arrive at the edge of the astoundingly result of the Omega project--a conscious and discernible splitting of the concept 'sustainable' into two concepts as opposed to just one.

When we talk about 'sustainability,' in the context of the Omega project, the word has two meanings.  The first meaning of 'sustainable' relates to a certain way of consuming resources--in this case water--such that those resources last indefinitely as a result of the source not being exhausted or destroyed.  The second meaning of 'sustainable' relates to the social connection between those consumer practices and the viability of the community, be it school, village, county, city, state, or country.  This center, in other words, displays a set of sustainable practices with respect to the use of water, but in so doing it spreads an model of citizenship that can sustain the country.  The conversation is about the future of the land and the future of all the people in that land as they try to live together in perpetuity:  green civics.

There is a heart-pounding 'Ah, ha!' moment in the realization that 'sustainability' has two meanings. The reason it presents itself as such a surprise has less to do with our understanding of the 'sustainability' than with the mind-numbing relentlessness of the consumer obsessed green movement.  We see in the Omega project, by contrast, a real effort to inhabit that tension between sustainable land and sustainable citizenship. 

But wait.  There's more.

The real rabbit hole that we drop down when we truly understand what is meant by 'sustainability' comes after the realization that it involves two, interrelated ideas (e.g., land and country).  What really vexes us is how we get it to work:

What makes some efforts at sustainability succeed while others fail? 

That is a big question.  At first we are tempted to just wish it away by responding, "One person's success is another person's failure."  But we know in our gut that is not the real point.

The point is the realization that the green "movement" as it has been presented to us so far, does not really straddle either side of the sustainability equation. T-shirts woven from organic cotton are no more sustainable than potato chips with fewer grams of salt were 'lite.'  We see--we feel--that the green consumer moment of hybrids, fabrics, light bulbs, and shampoos is a side pool, not the main river.  We are not yet, as a nation, facing the meaning of 'green' because we have allowed--encourage, even, the displacement of new sustainable habits with new consumer treats. 

I will be the first to admit it has been fun and even exciting.  I want a Prius as much as anyone else. But we know in our gut that it lacks,  it falls short.  It is not--sustainable.

What we need is to find a way to rebuild our civic traditions, to rewrite the lessons and reinvent the pragmatic experiences that build citizens capable of achieving our future.

How does a green movement persuade a majority?

A big question.  To answer it we will need to pick up a sufficiently big concept, but one that will be familiar to everyone by now.  For green civics to persuade--and to realized full sustainability of land and country--we must begin with the big stories at the root of American environment and conservation.

© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop

© Jeffrey Feldman 2008, Frameshop

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