Recently I was labeled the class environmentalist after speaking on a panel at my 25th college reunion. The next day at our reunion picnic, I noticed that recent graduates from other classes (the 5th or 10th reunions, for example) were able to read and make the distinction between aluminum and glass as they put trash in their recycling barrels. I must confess that many of my classmates, highly educated individuals all, were unable to accomplish this simple discrimination between metal and glass. Paper plates were mixed with the cans, and cans and bottles were tossed in with the paper plates. I guess an environmentalist is someone who can sort aluminum cans and paper plates into two different piles.
I was born in the Prune Capital of the World. When I went away to college, I was embarassed to tell my friends where I was from. No one ever went to San Jose, the hick town. San Francisco was the place to go. While traveling in Europe in 1967, I told people that I was from San Francisco. No one had heard of San Jose.
Now San Jose is the heart of Silicon Valley, and now everyone knows where that is. But do we know what it is? ...
... One morning a few years ago, I dreamed that I was driving along old Brokaw Road in San Jose. I looked out the window and saw people picking crops in the fields. My spirits were lifted as I saw what used to be -- the scene was peaceful, the sky was clear, and everywhere it was green. But I was confused: Brokaw Road no longer runs along there. The road was rerouted when the airport runway was extended across the spot where I was driving. So I rolled down the window to get a closer look. What I saw woke me up with my heart pounding: I saw it as it is now -- a bleak landscape of concrete and asphalt, a continuum of gray, broken only by the brown pall in the air.
But why was my heart pounding? Normally that only happens when I dream that my life is in danger. You know, like in a nightmare!
Normally, our hearts don't pound when we consider the insidious carelessness that is transforming our environment. We rely upon our intellect to tell us what our hearts can't: we're in serious danger of destroying the ability of our host, Mother Earth, to accommodate human life. We are becoming all too familiar with the litany of environmental crises facing us. But it happens so slowly that we aren't motivated to act immediately. We don't really see.
The technology of time-lapse photography made it possible to study the process of flowers blooming. Much was learned as a result of changing the time horizon so that very slow-occuring events become apparent to the human eye. It created the possiblity of a metaphor which allows us to see changes taking place over a period of years. We can see angular motion at something on the order of one degree per second. By looking at a dynamic, computer-animated map displaying the encroaching desert in Central Africa, we might begin to see changes clearly enough to begin to appreciate the danger.
I feel the responsibility to act on behalf of the future -- a responsibility which emerges from knowing the consequences of our accelerated use of modern technology. I cannot ignore my knowledge that the earth is being exploited beyond its long-term carrying capacity.
To find out how people can shape the future to support humanity, I have explored the past and the present in relationship to emerging trends. As the built environment is transformed, we necessarily rely upon the present order as we nurture feeble beginnings. For example, everyone wants clean air -- everyone has seen it at one time or another, even in Tokyo and Mexico City. Everyone can imagine one electric car, because everyone has seen an electric car or has at least heard about them. So it is possible to imagine a community with electric cars and clean air.
In like fashion, we will be able to imagine many old cities with integrated, sustainable urban technology, once we can see one new community based upon integrated, sustainable technology. Our vista will be fresh again, and the economics will be compelling as well. Significant savings arise when technologies are combined into an integrated whole, in mutually supporting roles. For example, the electric car is likely to be a piecemeal solution to the problem of air pollution. It may simply move the source of pollution a few miles, if we don't consider the entire equation of energy conversion efficiency.
"NOPEC" (Non-Oil, Power-Exporting Communities), then, is a proposal for building an integrated, sustainable community. This proposal towards a viable future emerges from our society's present dilemma, anchored by datapoints from the past to show the direction that our society is heading, or can choose to go.
Effective marketing to real people requires realistic designs. In our present circumstances, there are many crises lurking on the horizon, because humanity has repeatedly postponed the day of reckoning by tapping further into Mother Earth's treasure-trove. Therefore, our realistic designs must also appear unrealistic in some respects, at least in terms of our expectations, in order to accommodate the limitations imposed by Mother Earth. In the modern industrial world, we live very inefficiently. As a consequence, we suffer from our own pollution. (Pollution is simply our wastefulness manifested.) So it will be easy to adjust to far more efficient technology for living without compromising our quality of life. In fact, we can improve our quality of life. Sitting in a car in a traffic jam is not quality living. One can learn to get from here to there without using a car, or one can use a smaller car, or one can drive shorter distances to get the groceries. We can learn to live simply, so that others may simply live -- and we will live better in the bargain.
Looking towards the 1990's -- the turn-around decade for the environment.
From Santa Cruz, California, January 1990 (and revised November 1995)
R B Swenson