I’ve been reading, writing, and talking about sustainability more than usual. I’m sure the greenwashing of the term has contributed to my over-exposure. I want to put an elegant definition to it, but the best I can muster at this point is an acknowledgment that our civilization seems bent on creating everlasting things.
There are two extremes with all shades in between: there’s the belief that things can last forever and the belief that nothing does. When a civilization believes in the former it roots itself into place and hunkers down against all comers. It builds out of brick and concrete, in immobile and heavily armored styles designed to withstand any eventuality. It says, “I am here and I will turn this place into my home, come what may.” When the latter is the ruling philosophy, impermanence is celebrated as the means and the end. Dwellings are portable and possessions light. People understand that sometimes they’ll just need to move somewhere else. When things pass, it is the success of way of the world and not a failure of human defenses against the forces of disorder and decay. There is a sensitivity to the unique properties of place and time, along with a certain delicacy displayed in deference to those things already inhabiting our choice of settlement space. Is my bias showing yet?
I used homes as examples but the symptoms of our civilization’s belief in permanence are everywhere. We moderns love things that last. Sticking to your guns and showing incredible resistance to deviation from your chosen course are typically viewed as virtues. Our aqueducts and castles, pyramids and monuments stand as evidence to the underlying notion that surmounting eternity is an end in the minds of the civilized. Jobs are to be held for lifetimes. Commitments and promises must be kept even when the conditions under which they were made are no longer present and reality indicates that keeping them is foolish. Variance holds no quarter.
But it doesn’t work. There is nothing on this planet that is immune to the forces of variation. Show me something built to last forever and I’ll show you something on the slow slide to decrepitude. The very sturdiest structure always falls down, the best-built roof will leak, and the most prodigiously planned society is a hair’s-breadth from anarchy. It’s the way of this world.
So when people begin to talk “steady-state” or “equilibrium” in sustainability papers and seminars, I see something different from most of the presenters. Any system that’s designed to be self-stable and balanced is also automatically dependent upon some type of input to make and keep it that way. It’s impossible to find any system that doesn’t tend toward chaos at some point. Things that appear to have achieved equilibrium (our Sun, for instance) are simply changing at a rate that is so slow as to be nearly undetectable.
Since we can’t build to last forever and putting down deep roots always precedes the need to move, why not build with transience in mind? The tiny house movement is showing some awareness of this nomadic mentality through its use of trailers and semi-portable structures. It seems painfully obvious that the easier it is to adapt, the easier my life becomes when I’m eventually forced to. Preemptively adapting when change is imminent is just good sense and doesn’t require the clairvoyant abilities predicated by an approach that tries to defend against every possible attack. It’s going with the flow instead of trying to build a levee to control it. It’s moving to higher ground or aboard a houseboat instead of into a bunker.
Many natural building techniques recognize the importance of constructing something that will eventually return gracefully back to the earth. Cob structures dissolve back into soil, dwellings constructed of natural fibers compost quite readily when there are no longer any dwellers to occupy them, and even more durable wooden and stone structures leave a lighter footprint than modern concrete and steel construction. The approach taken by natural builders is often chosen by necessity, but it would be a mistake to ignore the philosophies of people who use it because it is a simple and elegant method to harmonize with their surroundings.
Rather than build where we want and force the structure to endure whatever stresses are there, these principles emphasize the importance of becoming intimately aware of our surroundings. We are encouraged to discover the interconnections among the forces at play in our corner of the world and to recognize that change is an inevitable force at any site. Learning to acknowledge and harness the forces of change to our benefit and to the benefit of the site is always a mark of intelligent planning. Fortitude and determination are not so valuable as flexibility and adaptation. Permanence and endurance are sacrificed for mobility and malleability. Such an approach in our modern civilized world is viewed as a weakness, a liability, or a failing of the individual’s ability to cope. The stigma attached to mobile homes is but one example of this. The scowling, snarled pronunciation of the word “millennial” by a recruiter, upon seeing that my resume has more than one previous job on it is another.
One tremendously heavy reason the civilized don’t go mobile is because the very notion of civilization depends on staying in one place, constructing a labyrinth of infrastructure and logistics chains, and then applying all the technology that can be moved with a steam shovel to the problem of fighting off change. Many of the “problems” our technology “solves” stem directly from the pursuit of technology as it is applied to permanence. It is our desire for permanence that ultimately ends up demanding that we remain permanent. Our insensitivity to place does eventually cost us more effort. Admitting a philosophy of variation at the societal level effectively kneecaps our current notions of progress and advancement by undermining those things which keep it afloat: technology and industry, both of which require fixing ourselves to the Earth in one place.
Such a fixation is a bottomless hole into which most human effort is thrown, endless toil fueled by our human desires and destined to be repeated. Sisyphus need not have so much competition.