Newer glimpses of perma-circular America (Part 2 of 4)

This continues where the previous post left off. We’re now leaving Los Angeles and southern California to enter the rest of the Southwest – Arizona and New Mexico, mainly.

4. Unsustainable oasis in the Sonoran Desert: Phoenix

Phoenix is routinely displayed in writings and talks about the Southwest as the paradigm of unsustainability – America’s, or even (in the words of Andrew Ross, author of Bird on Fire) “the world’s least sustainable city.” It is located in the northern part of the Sonoran Desert (which extends far to the south into Mexico), on the Salt River upstream from where it merges with the Santa Cruz River to become the Gila River. As you approach the sprawling metropolis from the west, the surrounding landscape of dry sagebrush gradually gives way to a mix of sinister suburban subdivisions and strangely green fields, with beautiful mountains in the background. Phoenix is a gigantic artificial desert oasis, engineered from scratch starting in the 1870s on the very lands that, for four centuries up to the 1250s, harbored the ancient Hohokam civilization with its elaborate irrigation systems.

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Phoenix, AZ

Everything here spells the absence of any hope of perma-circularity. The agglomeration seems to be – like most large urban centers the world over, but even more so than the vast majority – running on ecological debt: living here on an excess-ridden American lifestyle costs even more resources than elsewhere. First of all, pardon the banality but it’s just incredibly hot in Phoenix in July. We were literally clobbered with heat when we exited our air-conditioned Volvo and made for the motel lobby. Something like 115 degrees, at the very least. It was a heatwave, that’s true – not so comforting in the context of what William deBuys has called the Southwest’s “great aridness,” clearly linking it to the impacts of planetary climate change – but inhabitants of the region such as writer Leslie Marmon Silko seem to say that such sweltering levels of heat aren’t all that exceptional around here:

Newcomers to Tucson’s summer heat are amazed to find their car’s rearview mirror lying on the front seat because the glue melts. Car windshields become solar furnaces capable of melting plastic objects left on the car dashboard, including cell phones, sunglasses, cameras, DVDs and credit cards. Dashboards themselves gradually crack and disintegrate. Car batteries suddenly explode. Transformers on electric power poles also explode in the heat. During daylight hours the dash from the air-conditioned supermarket to the car wilts all fresh produce or cut flowers, and defrosts frozen food; so the wise shopper waits until night. (The Turquoise Ledge, p. 88)

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The Central Arizona Project aqueduct

And then there’s the water situation, of course. Fresh produce wilts on the way from the supermarket to the parked car because that’s what “arid” means: any water that’s there locally evaporates almost immediately unless it’s harvested into protected containers and kept there. The history of hydrological displacement and watershed artificialization is eerily similar to that of the L.A.-San Diego metropolitan area. Without the Central Arizona Project – an enormous aqueduct-canal that siphons Colorado River water from Lake Havasu at Parker Dam off towards Phoenix and Tucson – the local water supply would not have supported the four-million-plus population that rapidly settled here after the city’s founders started promoting the near-permanent sunshine, the clean air and the alluring desert landscapes. It’s not that there isn’t any water: aridity means irregular rainfall patterns but also, in this area of Arizona, intense monsoons in the summer. The afternoon thunderstorm downpours with their spectacular foreplay of dark-gray clouds and sheets of rain on the horizon never ceased to surprise and amaze us, in Arizona as well as in New Mexico – as if, within the “great aridness” of these Southwestern marvels, the sudden apparition of water pouring from the sky, the emergence of raincloud patterns in the endlessly blue expanse of the Southwestern sky, was a true miracle of Nature’s own perma-circularity.

In fact, as I already mentioned in a previous post, for many Native American cultures of the Southwest, clouds are persons just as much as plants and animals and rivers and mountains are persons. They often speak of “the cloud people.” A watershed isn’t just the watercourse and the slopes that drain into it; it is also the sky that lies above that watercourse and those slopes – the sky that, in good situations, brings at least some of the evaporated water back to the land from where it came. Clouds are literally water bearers or water carriers, doing the momentous work of harvesting the water that the sun sucks up and stocking it up until the atmospheric conditions make it possible to deliver that water back downward. Not all watersheds are balanced: some just lose much of the water that passes through them and is carried by clouds towards other places more or less far away. “The” water cycle isn’t some nice, symmetrical machine; it shifts and redistributes mountains of floating H2O molecules in a sometimes harshly asymmetrical way. Overall, at the planetary level, it balances out but the more regional and local water sub-cycles can be unforgiving. This is the case in the Sonoran Desert – and it prompted Edward Abbey, one of the great writers of the Southwest, to write these oft-quoted words of deep, “hydrosophic” wisdom:

Water, water, water… There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, insuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which make the arid west so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. (Desert Solitaire, p. 126)

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“Where no city should be”? Dust storm around Phoenix

“Where no city should be”: these words are bound to fly in the face of all those – mostly men, mostly Euro and Anglo – who have from the times of initial colonization onward believed that “conquering the desert” was the hallmark of humanity’s God-given destiny. This image of the desert as an uninhabited, barren and sterile patch of nothingness is, of course, patently wrong; deserts are specific biotopes teeming with life – adapted life that lives with whatever water is periodically made available by nature’s cycles. The view of a “dead” desert is part and parcel of the non-Native white male’s caricature, which serves him rather well in his designs of imperial conquest, death-defying self-aggrandizement, … and lucrative real-estate speculation as well as the destruction of Native cultures. In his book Water and the California Dream, David Carle brilliantly reports on one such non-Native white male in the person of William P. Whitsett. His portrayal bears being quoted at some length:

Two men stagger across a desert landscape, wondering out loud if they can make it to water. They reach a waterhole, but it is dry. After a last shake of an empty canteen, one of the men dies in his partner’s arms. Those opening scenes from the movie Thirst were part of the 1931 campaign to bring Colorado River water to Southern California. As the parched man died on-screen, words suddenly appeared: “Presenting William P. Whitsett.” The board chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) used no subtlety in drawing the parallel facing Southern Californians: “This same tragedy has occurred many times in the history of man. The moral to be gained by it must be learned. For we here in Southern California are face to face with a water problem. While lacking the dramatic element, it is far more serious because it affects the lives and property of every man, woman and child in this region.” All of Southern California, in his opinion, “was at one time a desert waste. We have reclaimed this desert and now we have in its place this growing empire.” Images of citrus groves and downtown Los Angeles appeared to demonstrate his point of pride. “But the desert is ever around us, waiting and eager to take back what was once its own. And it will take it back, unless we bring in more water.” (p. 113)

If there was a “waste” initially, from what or whom did “we” – white Anglo-Europeans, presumably – “reclaim” it? And who, in this paranoid vision of the armed but weak conqueror, is “ever around us, waiting and eager to take back what was once [his] own,” if not the American Indian identified with the relentless desert landscape? In his remarkable book Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, Richard Drinnon persuasively argues that for white colonial “settlers,” the destruction of Native Americans went hand in hand with the conquest of nature – as if, in the deluded mind of the ignorant frontiersman, the Indians were mere emanations of the ecosystems and the biotopes they had so remarkably adapted to over the millennia. The colonizers had it all wrong, of course: Native cultures had derived many of their characteristics from living within biotopes which they respected and lived with, rather than seeking to conquer and subdue them with technology; they hadn’t always succeeded in co-existing with the desert and had occasionally overreached themselves (to wit, the collapse of the Hohokam after 1250), but they had by and large followed the wisdom of not trying to establish a city where no city should be.

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Phoenix at sunset

Not so for modern and contemporary Anglo and Euro Americans. The semi-arid and arid Southwest is now one of the fastest growing regions, with mammoth metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma and Albuquerque mushrooming faster than most national averages. “Conquering the desert” has become one of the hallmarks of the Unsustainable State of America – with the implication that, soon, urban and demograohic points of no return might well be reached. As Agnieszka and I were admiring the sunset and the city lights from up at Dobbins Lookout, Phoenix’s buzzing sprawl seemed solid and enduring – under constant water perfusion from faraway watersheds that it sucks dry, yes, and made livable for many months out of the year by energy- and power-guzzling air conditioners everywhere, yes, but who was aware of this at that precise instant? Kids were playing with echoes in the canyons, throwing their voices out and hearing them bounce back from sheer red rock walls. Everything seemed peaceful as the evening heat gradually became a bit more bearable. Yet, underneath it all, I now realize, was the steady, ominous rumble of the rebound effect as it busily sucks and gobbles up oil and gas but also water and most of what makes human life truly worth living. No one has seen and described this callous, blind mechanism better than Edward Abbey:

The Developers, of course – the politicians, businessmen, bankers, administrators, engineers – they see it somewhat differently and complain most bitterly and interminably of a desperate water shortage, especially in the Southwest. They propose schemes of inspiring proportions for diverting water by the damful … What for? “In anticipation of future needs, in order to provide for the continued industrial and population growth of the Southwest.” And in such an answer we see that it’s only the old numbers game again, the monomania of small and very simple minds in the grip of an obsession. They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness, that Phoenix and Albuquerque will not be better cities to live in when their populations are doubled again and again. They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human. … Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola – Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them – under dunes of glowing sand … (Desert Solitaire, pp. 126-127)

Hydrosophical wisdom is what we need, as I’ve explained in an earlier post – but will “the Developers” let it flourish? Will most of the inhabitants of the Southwest themselves, caught as they are in a growth trap of their own ancestors’ making, relent and recognize that deep systemic and personal change is called for? How much time will it take? My deep and still deepening love for the American Southwest prompts me to be optimistic, but our stay in Tucson last year and in Phoenix this year made me more aware of the huge intellectual and practical challenges when it comes to mending “water bankruptcy” and “designing with the desert” – to which one has to add the overall excess of the mainstream American lifestyle and the aggressive refusal by many (in what has, in Phoenix at least, become part of “Trump Country”) to address issues of de-growth and to look anywhere else but to the old, tired gospel of “efficiency.” But as we know – this is the heart of the perma-circular mindset – because of the all-pervasive rebound effect, efficiency without reduction and restraint, without limits on growth, breeds continued overconsumption.

All one can therefore say to Phoenicians, Tucsonians and others in the region is this: Please listen for the steady, ominous rumble of the rebound effect as it consumes most of what makes human life truly worth living; please start looking forward to Earth science combined with Native wisdom – and please, please stop harking back to a past of “unbridled conquest” whose failed future your present thoughtways and lifeways have become.

5. Unfinished desert city: Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti

True to our precept of seeking the inspiring “trees” in the midst of the unseemly “forest,” we drove north of Phoenix in the direction of Flagstaff, to a place about 120 miles away – a ageing futuristic settlement at the end of a dirt road, called Arcosanti. It is the brainchild and creation of Paolo Soleri, an Italian visionary architect and urbanist who came to live in Phoenix in the 1950s. As a student and disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright (who lived and died in the Scottsdale suburb of Phoenix where he created the famous Taliesin Foundation), Soleri understood the necessity and appeal of fusing the built environment with the natural one so as to both minimize anthropic ecological impacts and improve the quality of human life. His fundamental design concept for such a settlement pattern was what he called the “arcology” – a term composed of “architecture” and “ecology.” Less focused than Lloyd Wright on individual buildings and more of a holistic – some even say excessively ambitious and all-embracing – thinker, Soleri went about drawing amazing sketches of what an arcology might look like.

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The entrance to Arcosanti

In Soleri’s mind, arcologies were to be the anti-L.A. and the anti-Phoenix. The main repellent was urban sprawl, which he saw as the epitome of modernity’s failure to realize its promises of welfare and happiness. Sustainability, he claimed, requires hyper-densification and what he called “lean miniaturization”: all aspects of modern living should be concentrated in tightly knit, there-dimensional volumes so that spatial encroachments on unbuilt environments would be minimized and synergies between components of the built environment (such as slopes to make water move, windows to light both living areas and greenhouses, walkways to serve also as rest areas, etc.) could be maximized for maximal resource and time efficiency. In a sense, Soleri was one of the first “bio-mimetic” urbanists. Here are his own words, which nicely ally the architectural, the ecological and the existential aspects of city design:

The arcology concept proposes a highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban form that pursues the opposite of urban sprawl, with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy, and time, tending to isolate people from each other and community life. In an arcology, the built environment and the living processes of the inhabitants interact as organs, tissues, and cells do in a highly evolved organism. This means that multiple systems work together, coordinated and integrated to minimize waste while maximizing efficient circulation of people and resources, employing multiuse structures, and exploiting solar orientation for lighting, heating, cooling, food production, and esthetic impact. … The city must cohere with the guidelines of the evolution of life. These are self-containment, sophisticated logistics, reduction of waste (the lean process), interaction with the “outer” world, richness of processes, self-reliance, and the generation of an inner light, the urban persona. (Conversations with Paolo Soleri, p. 45)

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One of Soleri’s sketches of an arcology

The result is a wealth of sketches in which the urban form is “precipitated” into spaceship-like, multistory monoliths that make even Richard Register’s most compact designs for ecocities look like quaint little villages. Arcologies appear as futuristic scarab-shaped compounds that work on high-tech but strongly rationalized technologies, combining hyper-dense, multi-function spaces and volumes with belts of near-virgin wildlife around the city. When looked at on paper, Soleri’s designs can feel abstract and bombastic in the extreme – even though in theory they do cohere with many of the tenets of perma-circularity. Most notably, Soleri cogently connected America’s sprawling urban forms with America’s unsustainable thought- and lifeways. In describing the philosophy underlying Arcosanti, he explicitly advocated de-growth in terms that are completely congenial to perma-circularity:

Since we are committed to recycling everything from garbage to water, we will be constantly pressured by the question of size, time, space, costs, mechanics, chemistry, and the aesthetic of our recycling processes. The whole landscape of Arcosanti’s immediate surroundings will be altered by such actions. But a complex, miniaturized, self-limiting habitat is the best site for more efficient, less costly disposal and recycling programs. Naturally, frugality is … the most effective and cost effective way to confront the pollution-recycling-cost dilemma. … The choice of a frugal life with a modest income must be within the acknowledged milieu of affluence and perhaps opulence. The possible clash of an economy of frugality with the economy of the marketplace can be a testing ground for phenomena that might appear when wealthy nations finally face the insularity of their ways vis-à-vis the actual endemic poverty of the human majority. (Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory?, pp. 22 and 60)

Because of their abstraction and gigantism, Soleri’s arcologies were never built. The same fate has struck Richard Register’s ecocities. As the latter often repeats, an entire ecocity has yet to see the light of day, but “ecocity fractals” – that is to say, fractions of cities that function like miniature ecocities and illustrate the concept’s potentials hands on – are beginning to exist. So at least some reduced models of what an ecocity might look and feel like can be witnessed in the flesh. Not so, alas, for arcologies. In fact, the Arcosanti site is the only “arcological fragment” that exists on the planet, but it hardly qualifies as a fractal. It is an incomplete piece rather than a complete reduced model. Originally thought to be able to house 5,000 people, which would have required a massive arcological “lean linear city” structure, Arcosanti has not yet been completed and seems depressingly far from being so. Currently, a rotating population fluctuating around 100 or 150 lives there permanently, making it more the size of a tiny Italian mountain village than of a bustling desert town when looked at from a distance.

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View of Arcosanti from a distance

Volunteers from all over the world constantly flock to the site in order to help for a time with the slow-moving work of continuing the deceased maestro’s project. About 10% of the originally planned arcology is visible at present – with some impressive and beautiful structures such as the main common area with eating facilities and the domed halls where theater and music performances occasionally take place. Money and time failed the great visionary and his acolytes. Arcosanti draws one in with the glimpses of a perma-circular, happy urban life that it suggests, but it disappoints in its rather run-down, incomplete and sometimes downright shabby aspects.

Combining, as I did in my talk at the Los Angeles Ecovillage (see previous post), the ecocity concept with the horizontal metropolis pattern, might seem more conducive to concrete realizations and can lead to more realistic, piecemeal shifts and rearrangements in existing cities. Still, Soleri’s principled “existential” critique of urban sprawl and the manner in which – akin to a universal mind of the Italian Renaissance – he envisions “integral” cities as ecologically efficient and frugal organisms are things that we need to look at much more closely in our quest for a perma-circular economy and society. While Register and Viganò are surely more realistic and hands-on as far as actual urban projects go, Soleri is almost certainly more visionary and more radical in the clarity with which he delineates and combines the various exigencies of perma-circularity.

6. The consequences of truth: Wendy and Mikey’s haven in Truth or Consequences

Comparing the ideas of horizontal metropolis, ecocity and arcology from the vantage point of perma-circularity makes me see clearly that there’s an unsolvable debate going on between, on the one hand, realism and feasibility and, on the other, vision and radicality. This debate also carries over into our personal lives and how we organize and experience our days as individuals, as couples and as families. Mostly we’re compelled by life’s circumstances to “stay real”: life is often stronger than some illusory “coherence” we wish upon ourselves but can’t even begin to put into practice. It was perhaps no surprise that this theme, which could be so grandly discerned in our observations of global urban planning problems, crept back up at the minute, grassroots level in our next travel station – Wendy Tremaine’s and her husband Mikey’s “perma-circular” trailer-home and AirBnB-dome place in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "good life lab book"There’s a special history behind this leg of our journey. In the spring of 2017, during my “Sustainability and Lifestyles” class at the University of Lausanne, my undergraduate students in environmental studies and myself read Wendy’s book, The Good Life Lab: Radical Expriments in Hands-On Living, which she published back in 2013. It’s a fabulous book in which she and Mikey recount – I’ll simplify grossly here – their trajectory from being high-earning New York City professionals to becoming, in part through the influence of several stays at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, perma-circular dwellers in a small town in central New Mexico that’s slowly on its way to hipness. The book tells how they manage to live almost exclusively from recycled materials and enjoy a relaxed lifestyle far removed from the stresses of big-city life.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "truth or consequences road sign"Truth or Consequences is a name Agnieszka and I had seen on road signs during our trip the previous summer, but it had just made us chuckle and we had no idea what the town looked like nor where its name came from. Then I found the same name – “T or C” for short – mentioned again in Wendy’s book seven or eight months later and, seeing in addition how enthusiastically my 21-year-old students embraced Wendy and Mikey’s life story and life decisions, I resolved to contact Wendy and ask her if she’d be available for research questions about “new Natives” in the American Southwest. That request proved almost fatal; in hindsight, I totally understand why and I sort of cringe when I re-read my messages of March 2017. Here is the first one:

Dear Ms Tremaine,
I am a professor of sustainable living at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and in my class this year your book “The Good Life Lab” was part of the core reading list for my students last semester. In its pages you mention having been changed by Burning Man and having moved to Taos, NM as a result. We all revelled in your story and in the radical but exhilarating lifestyle choice that underlay it. My class is called “Sustainability and Lifestyles.” We explore the challenges and opportunities of deep life-changes in the wake of today’s ecological crisis. My research is on cultural and economic aspects of the transition towards a sustainable world — one I call “perma-circular” because it needs to combine recycling with a permaculture outlook. You and I are working blatantly up the same alley, and possibly barking up the same tree. I have a blog which you could access by clicking here; I would love to have your reaction on some of its entries.
Now it so happens that, together with my partner Agnieszka (who is also a university professor here in Lausanne, works on US culture, is of American upbringing — Los Angeles — and has been to Burning Man several times), we’re traveling through Taos next summer in July. I would love to meet you and, if possible, come over for a chat. It would probably be around the 23rd and 24th of July. (We’ll be traveling in California, Arizona, and New Mexico from July 10 through July 31.)
I apologize for being so direct and informal, but since we are booking our trip right now, I’m taking the liberty of contacting you.
Would you be interested in us paying you guys a visit — if you’re around at that time, of course?…
With best regards,
Christian Arnsperger

Once Wendy replied in a welcoming way, a second message then followed, a week later, in which I zeroed in on a … let’s say … original (?) research idea:

Hi there Wendy,
It’s me writing again — looking forward to our meeting in July, and this is why I’d like to submit an idea to Mikey and you.
I’m currently drawing up a research project globally called “U.S.A.: The Unsustainable State of America” — patented name 😉
One subproject of this is to look at Native American ecological knowledge in the Southwestern US and what we can learn from it today. … I’m enclosing the project for your information. You may know someone who’s interested in participating?
The reason why I’m writing is that ANOTHER subproject in that “U.S.A.” project would be with and about… people like you guys. By that, I mean “alternative livers” (pardon the scholarly label) who have decided to settle in the Southwest  and who are somehow following in rather ancient footsteps in order to reclaim a sense of place and one existential sense of purpose in these gorgeous landscapes. I’d almost like to call you — out of sheer envy! — the New Natives of the Southwest. The project would be mainly looking at experiments in Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. I’d LOVE for you guys to be on board and to help drum up a tasty sample of families, communities, and assorted individuals who are “becoming native” to the Southwest out of a deep desire to change their life and to change the world. I think T&C as well as Taos would be great places for engaged fieldwork, as well as Los Angeles County which has an amazing number of tucked-away, truly “new native” experiments going on that we all too rarely hear about.
Would you be interested? In the coming days I will write a proposal … and we could maybe talk about it — by Skype would be great. 
Please say Yes!
Thanks for getting back to me as soon as you can.
Kind regards,
Christian

Hmm. A bit pushy, perhaps? And some of it with the wrong city name, too! I was clumsy in my haste and sincere in my enthusiasm, but blissfully unaware of how much pigeonholing was emanating from my words. Sure enough, Wendy replied somewhat curtly that she was not all too interested in the project, that she and Mikey certainly didn’t resonate with the label of “Native,” that they had changed direction quite a bit since the book came out and were no longer as obsessed with perma-cicrcularity (she didn’t use that word) as they once had been so we might be disappointed in how much more mainstream they were than the idealized image we seemed to have of them but that yes, we could drop by to check out their AirBnB dome place if we wished to… Whew… I was put back into my right place and, while we were busy looking up the AirBnB dome to reserve it for the right days, I apologized profusely to Wendy and promised her I wouldn’t be treating her and Mikey like curiosities when we saw them.

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The AirBnB dome and the open-air sitting area

Months later, we rumbled into T or C (not Taos!) after having driven through one of those monster monsoon thunderstorms near Socorro. Wendy had adorably invited us to join a neighborhood party they were attending that night. Any awkwardness I might have feared could have been left over from our e-mail exchange melted away instantly. Wendy was waving to us from a bench where she was getting a foot massage for a bad sprain, and Mikey greeted us with a broad smile and welcomed us into this small band of more or less newly arrived T or C citizens. A glass or two of sangria, a brief chat and laugh about those e-mails of a few months ago, and it was as if nothing had ever been awkward between us. We had a fabulous time at Wendy and Mikey’s little – dare I say perma-circular? – homestead. The dome they had built was a wonderful abode and we slept really well after a long dip in the hot tub fed with naturally hot water from an underground geothermal source.

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The self-made entrance to the homestead, with solar panels in the back near the trailer

Nothing was tacky, nothing was pretentious. I owned up and warmed up to the consequences of truth: Here were two modest but determined lives spent in deep but light-hearted reflection and in staunchly concrete engagement – no amount of academic pigeonholing could, indeed, “classify” or “rank” these lives in a neat taxonomy of “Nativeness” or anything else. Wendy and Mikey welcomed us the next morning (after Agnieszka and I had come back from an early breakfast at a lovely bakery a few blocks away) into the recycled comfort of their repurposed trailer home, and we had the most wonderful chat about everything – from surviving the success of a book to community-building to measuring acetone levels to Native American sweat lodges to the subtleties of designing a pair of Burning Man bikes. I completely understood Wendy’s explanation for her e-mail reaction: she and Mikey had virtually been harassed by readers who would come to their door and ring and ask to be let in and “see the place.” The book’s success had become, to some extent at least, a curse. The story it told of Wendy’s venture into second-hand fashion (the now famous “Swap-o-Rama-Rama”) is no longer current – but it has stuck to her like glue and she is trying to shed it and to move on.

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Mikey, myself and Wendy

Wendy and Mikey are not “trying to live sustainably” in the strained, grit-your-teeth way this expression often implies in our complex urban contexts. They’re just living out their spontaneous conception of a good life, and that happens to be a pretty sustainable, perma-circular life if you wisely choose your priorities, your values and your place of residence. I had approached it all from a slightly cramped academic perspective when, in fact, it was mostly a matter of flow. (Some of what flowed was sweat and tears, no doubt, but more because of the realities of human life than because of the alleged discomforts of “sustainability.”) I would have felt ashamed at my initial approach to Wendy, but by now their warmth and kindness made it all irrelevant. Here was an experiment in hands-on living, indeed: A frugal but incredibly comfortable and beautiful, handmade homestead – I mean an enclosed property that also serves to make a living, but not an agricultural venture in this case – houses a man and a woman who are joyfully preoccupied with replacing illusory coherence with real achievement. We relished it and it was sad to leave so soon for our next leg.

I hope Wendy will forgive me if, for the benefit of the readers of this blog, I nevertheless dwell a bit more on… the story in her book. I was impressed by it immediately – and also by the second part where she and Mikey detail the actual ways in which they make and remake new and gorgeous stuff from older, sometimes less gorgeous recycled stuff – because it showed me what I’d love to have done with my life but wasn’t going to do for a while still, both for lack of context and, perhaps also, for lack of boldness. But hey – I stayed a bookworm and now I can be writing this!

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The Burning Man festival

Wendy and Mikey were transformed by the experiences they had at the Burning Man Festival. Agnieszka had often told me of her own two stays at Burning Man and how they had impacted her, making her a firm believer in spontaneous community and fundamental human goodness expressed through festiveness. Burning Man takes place every year at the end of August in the Nevada desert and consists in tens of thousands of people gathering for a few days in an ephemeral settlement and living out principles of community, artistic expression and de-commercialized interactions. From this experience onward, they seem to have been able to tap into a creative potential they had heretofore ignored. Becoming self-makers – a great start on the path to perma-circularity – seems to have been part of the new perspective they won at Burning Man. The ethos of the festival is one of creative freedom, gift-orientation and open-endedness:

Within a capitalist world, our personas and social standing are often derived from the job we hold or career we have chosen (which itself is often limited by our class and family connections), our environments are usually regulated by corporate or government entities, and many of our daily social interactions are actually economic transactions. We aren’t exactly who we really are, so most burners [participants in Burning Man] refer to this as the Default World. The central tenets of Burning Man stand starkly opposed to such paradigms – indeed, deliberately challenging them. Participants are encouraged to build the city of their dreams with almost no regulations or limitations, most economic transactions are forbidden in favor of a gift economy, and the encouragement of “radical self-expression” allows participants to pick any persona they choose (right down to picking a new “playa name” if they’d like), while the twin ethos of self-reliance and participation create the expectation of a far more engaged citizenry than in the real world asks of us. (Steven T. Jones, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, p. 16)

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Black Rock City in 2007

“Almost no regulations and limitations” sounds self-indulgent – but when acquisitiveness and the white-male, Anglo-Euro obsession with “conquest” and “acquisition” is gone, creativity replaces greed, engagement substitutes for self-promotion and the desire to know expands beyond the mere gathering of information for consumption purposes. Here’s how Wendy connects creating, making and knowing:

There is no such thing as an uncreative person. This is too easy to forget in our current economic system, in which consumers don’t need to know very much. The less people know, the more finished goods they buy. Our current economic system doesn’t encourage deep thinking, because that leads to seeing the enormity of the cost of the human labor and natural resources that bring us cheap goods. But as makers of things, your quality of life actually hinges on your understanding of the larger world, and so a deeper interest in life naturally blossoms along with your skills. Once you become a creator more than a consumer, a wonderful discovery awaits: You are more than you may have thought yourself to be. By connecting to nature, Mikey and I began to see how our lives met up with the life of this world. (The Good Life Lab, p. 22)

OK, I’m sorry guys, but if this isn’t darn close to what a Native American elder would say when looking at today’s system through the lens of his or her ancestral worldview, I don’t know what is. Still, I get it that being pigeonholed isn’t fun and isn’t right. None of us non-Natives can and should, in any intentional way, seek to “ape” traditions that aren’t ours. But we can learn. And I believe that Wendy and Mikey have, so to speak, tapped into the archetypal Nativeness inherent in all of us – the deep fund of transmitted memes that we carry around because, guess what, 100% of us had Native ancestors from somewhere, whether Dakota, the Swiss Alps, Arizona or Sweden – and have let that archetypal knowledge flow through their spontaneity into actions that are deceptively similar to what other “sages” would say and do. This isn’t to say that the strictures of the Unsustainable State of America aren’t biting even in Wendy and Mikey’s lives; but here’s the thing: they might see a bit more clearly what isn’t normal or good, even if they need to keep doing it:

Mikey and I are hardly free of the commodified world. We rely on it still. We use technology to run our cottage industry and store-bought tools to build our homestead; we pump city water to our gardens and purchase readymade appliances. What changed is our thought processes. We recognize compromises when we make them and strive to make better choices as our knowledge and skills advance. … Creating a decommodified life is a life-long process. … I wouldn’t claim that the lifestyle that Mikey and I chose is the way to live. It is a way to live. If we had kept our jobs and stayed a part of the mainstream economy, we would never have learned what we have. We wouldn’t have had the time. (The Good Life Lab, p. 22)

Brilliant. There’s no ounce of preaching or condemnation here. Just careful causal analysis, just the consequences of truth: If we stay in the mainstream, we won’t even know it’s unsustainable, it’ll seem to us like the water we swim in and like the air we breathe; we’ll believe that our weekends in our air-conditioned SUV with our kids playing on their smartphones while we go strip mall shopping are what’s normal, and that the sprawling neighborhood we come back to with our trunk full of finished goods is a good place that shouldn’t be jeopardized by any bullshit about “de-growth” or “radical lifestyle change”; we won’t be able to learn something else; we won’t be open to the perma-circularity revolution that can come from simply letting our life’s river flow through its natural watershed again; if we’re professors or journalists, we’ll vehemently denounce “climate fanatics” and “sustainability radicals” instead of just learning something new ­– because we don’t have the time to let our knowledge and skill advance.

[To be continued.]

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This blog post is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. This allows you to download the text and share it with others as long as you credit me, but you can’t change it in any way or use it commercially. For more information, go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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