Falling Forward

Political slogans are, almost of necessity, excruciatingly bland and generic, typically with a cap of whatever you’d call the Muzak’d version of patriotism.

I won’t spend time on the recent Republican convention slogan “We Built It,” particularly as it’s built, as it were, on several fallacies. The DNC’s slogan, too, was marvelously vague, with “Forward” replacing “Yes We Can.” It is, presumably, a good way to point out that the Republican Party’s direction, as hijacked by the Tea Party, is somewhere between sideways and backwards.









This question of directionality came to mind as I was perusing Andy Revkin’s blog where, in the “about” sidebar he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Let us draw a lesson from nature, which always works by short ways. When the fruit is ripe, it falls. When the fruit is despatched, the leaf falls. The circuit of the waters is mere falling. The walking of man and all animals is a falling forward.

Revkin then concludes “The human trick in this century is to foster practices and policies that result in us FALLING FORWARD without falling down.”

Now I’m not sure how far the metaphor of nature falling and “always work[ing] by short ways” holds up. Many of nature’s systems are highly complex and, furthermore, often battle gravity. Before that fruit that Emerson refers to can fall, its tree has to grow. Before water can fall, it has to evaporate upward into the atmosphere.

But “falling forward” is still an apt way of looking at EcoOptimism. I proposed the term EcoOptimism because we seem to be in such a depressed and pessimistic state – a state of falling. The “trick,” as Revkin terms it, is to use that falling motion, the energy of that movement, to transport us in a better direction. In other words, don’t fall back.

Another way to put it is with the old and overused (and perhaps inaccurate) statement that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity. Putting translation issues aside, the idea that opportunity can arise from crisis is a powerful one. Crises shock us and allow us to look for answers in places that complacency either kept us away from or blocked our view of. It could also be termed “throwing caution to the wind” (so long as we’re casting idioms about), but I prefer to think of it in terms of seeing things that were not visible before.

Perhaps even more significantly, crises can jolt us into questioning our assumptions. I stress this questioning process with my design students – and I hope to write about it some more. Bringing the point back to EcoOptimism, it can involve wondering about the things that we take for granted and asking whether these things really are our values. How, for instance, did single-family suburban homes become the “American way of life?”










A family in Pearland, Texas, 1993 with their belongings. Image from Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

(In the post “The Story of Change/Changing the Story,” I wrote “The irony of the vaunted ‘American way of life’ of commuting from detached houses in suburbia is that it was created by exactly the kind of government intervention and social policy that conservatives now decry. Without tax deductions for mortgages and without the massive investment in highways and bridges (accompanied by disinvestment in mass transit), the great suburban exodus would not have occurred.” How were we unwittingly maneuvered into thinking that a lifestyle of car commuting, child ferrying and lawn mowing is what we yearn for?)

The thesis of EcoOptimism is that we can solve our interdependent crises and end up in a better place. It doesn’t say there won’t be areas of painful changes such as industries that no longer make sense, but there will be greater new ones to take their place. And if we do this right, the new jobs will be more satisfying and healthier.

I don’t mean to imply one-size-fits-all solutions here. I fully realize, for instance, that my love of urban living is not everyone’s cup of tea. But let’s look at our choices clearly rather than through the lens of, if I may borrow a term usually applied differently, the nanny state. Some complain that the government has become a nanny state in which it tells us what’s best for us. (Wear your seat belt, don’t drink too much sugary soda, don’t do this or that or you’ll get a ticket.) But that assumes that we live the way we do now by our own unmanipulated choice. And that simply ain’t true.

The subtitle of EcoOptimism is “Finding the Future We Want.” It has meaning, for me, on at least two levels. The first is that we shouldn’t let our future be determined by default. We have the unique ability to change things, to play an active role in events.

It also, though, means we shouldn’t let our future be determined by forces or groups that don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. In today’s politicorporate (dang, I thought I’d just created a new term, but Google says otherwise) reality, what that translates into is whether those with deep pockets will maneuver us (again) in directions in their favor. Because, you see, we are indeed falling. What we haven’t determined is whether we will fall martial arts style, guiding the momentum of the fall so that instead of injuring ourselves, we roll out into an advantageous position.

Damn, I think I just used a sports metaphor.

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