This might seem a stretch but when John Muir said everything in the universe is connected to everything else he was serious. He was speaking of the ecology of natural systems in the broadest sense – and human ecologies too, no doubt. Ecology in both senses has to do with systems with complex chains of causes and effects and networks of cross influence, the patterns through time of which we, all of us living creatures, are a part.
The first chapter in my book “Ecocities” is titled “As we build, so shall we live.” The notion there is that what we make – build in the largest sense – from buildings laid out as cities, the technologies within, the knives, forks, spoons and guns are all built by us and show everyone, especially our impressionable young ones, the character of our society. All that we build provides an environment encouraging certain kinds of behavior, justification for things we do, in at least a subtle sense. All that we make teaches and tends to reproduce in society more of the same, which generally changes over time rather slowly, if not hit by a hard shock like a big war, a cultural collapse or a major change in the climate.
It is not too surprising, then, that there may be real connections between the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut three weeks ago and with what we build.
Here’s what I think some of the psychological/social connections are to the physical cities we build and more generally all that we make.
First, creativity coexists with destructivity, standing like polar opposites, with gradations between. If we build a world that has to destroy our resource base to thrive, as infinite growth does in a limited environment, on some level we can’t all help but notice what’s happening as we join in on the action. There is a think layer of denial there but underneath it we are learning how to destroy on a grand scale. A society that paves farmland by the millions of acres and drives natural species into small pockets and then into extinction, whose transportation system is based on hurtling heavy objects about powered by flaming liquids, that kills four times as many people as it’s public transportation system alternative per passenger mile does not only causes destructive effects but serves as an example of what society thinks is normal behavior. People learn this “normal” intuitively just by living the life largely determined by what we build. Bicycle deaths (not caused by cars) are rare. And as my daughter once asked me at about five years of age, “has anybody ever died in a pedestrian accident?”
What if we built ecocities that by design enriched soils and defended biodiversity? What would the children learn if we did that? What if it were conspicuous in our cities by the presence of public spaces that were designed around views to important local natural features, pedestrian plazas facing a bend in a river, nearby mountain, coastline, forest, large swatch of a natural grasslands? Would that help wake people up to our relationship to nature? What if we had rooftop gardens attracting native birds, with cafes and promenades accessible to everyone, streets for people and bicycles and scaled that way, whole car-free areas and many more community gardens than we see now. What would that teach by example and experience? Such ecocity features exist in modest to small number so we know such things are possible.
In Bowling for Columbine, the movie about the Columbine High School massacre in Jefferson County just outside of Littleton Colorado, filmmaker Michael Moore tries to find the connections. It is almost surrealistic that right in Jefferson County only a couple miles from Columbine High School where two students went on a rampage that killed 12 other students one teacher and then themselves is a manufacturing plant of the world’s largest weapons maker. (In terms of fire-power and cost we assume in the context of the film: it’s Lockheed Martin and the plant is where the build the Atlas and Titan delivery rockets for nuclear weapons.)
Multiply the bizarre coincidence many times over because it turns out that Newton, Connecticut is home not only to Sandy Hook Elementary school but also home to the United States second most powerful gun lobby, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. For those inclined toward the power of the divine, God’s invisible hand might seem more likely than coincidence — might He be trying to tell us something?
Moore interviews the public relations officer for Lockheed Martin in his movie. What about the possible link, he asks, between the fact that the parents of hundreds of the children at Columbine High School work making weapons. Might not the kids be thinking, “ ‘Well gee, dad goes off to the factory every day, he builds missiles. These weapons of mass destruction…’ What’s the difference between that mass destruction and the mass destruction over at Columbine High School?”
The company representative says, “I don’t see the connection… The missiles that you are talking about were built and designed to defend us from somebody else who would be aggressor against us. Societies and countries and governments do things that annoy one another… We don’t get irritated with someone and just because we’re mad at ‘em drop a bomb on them or shoot at ‘em or fire a missile at ‘em.” The movie cuts to seven or eight short clips of the United States invading or providing weapons for assassinations and wars to support dictators in Guatemala, Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Iran, Chile…
The issue of our leaders setting the tone of society through their use of violence, such as President Obama’s “extrajudicial” execution of suspected terrorists is a relatively new escalation of war techniques: use of unmanned drones and predator missiles which have by now killed several hundred bystanders who were not the target. Can such sanctified violence really be separated from violent means criminals might use? Was John Muir wrong?
No war toys – learning to build peace
When I was 21 the American War in Vietnam was raging and I decided my contribution to the peace movement would be to try to examine the possible informal causes of war in what we might think of as family values in the everyday home. My campaign was called No War Toys. We might contemplate this through today in relation to murders of all kinds, including nightmares like Newton and Columbine. Back in my “No War Toys days” little boys were happily pretending to kill one another with the much in style war weaponry available in vast quantity in toys stores from sea to shining sea. Could there be an entertainment, play, fun connection with the real violence of the war? Was the real training ground for war right their under the parents’ noses?
Would it be better to buy toy construction equipment, get boys building macho tree houses, learning how to make model buildings and drawing all sorts of things, discovering creative talents? At the very least it seemed to me, it was a waste of precious time to run around pretending to kill one another.
And, what about that word “pretend”? Is pretend practice for actually doing something later, “tending” “previous” to the real doing, pretend as a synonym for prepare? Also what about the fact that war isn’t fun for those in it – it’s a lie to present it as fun. Dramatic? Definitely. Fun? Why not play war for real and force the little guys to visit one another for endless boring hours in a pre-tend Veterans Hospital immobilized in casts with pretend arms and legs cut off? “No — don’t your dare try to use your arms — they aren’t there anymore, remember?” It wouldn’t seem quite so much fun any more, but at least it would be honest – and perhaps an encouragement to switch over to some more creative activity, like imagining and building a better future.
On a deep level I think engaging in creative activity – actually becoming creative – makes us feel more aware, competent, at home in our world. It helps people relate to other people by way of understanding the creative process either with others in collaborative projects or in understanding that we can share with one another the gifts that the things we create actually are to the world.
One issue in my No War Toys days, about five years worth of days, was whether or not people can learn creativity. Or is it in-born? I’ve always been convinced, though there are propensities one way or the other, that there are means by which we can become more alert to new possibilities and we can train ourselves to learn musical instruments, how to operate various tools, how to get better at arts, crafts, gardening, carpentry, masonry, writing… humor even. We probably can’t teach great talent but we can certainly – and there are endless examples – cultivate many of the skills, learn to recognizes and pick up on positive surprises and learn how to turn positive fantasies into realities. Artists do it all the time, taking something from the imagination into the real physical world. Most creative acts can be shared with other people and appreciated by others. Probably the largest such collection of creative activity in physical terms would be the building of cities to help build our own creativity, cities acting creatively in the flow of evolution rather than whole countries rife with killing.
When I was running the No War Toys campaign I did a lot of study in the psychology of violence, debated psychiatrists and early school teachers, spoke at PTAs and visited “alternative” schools. At the time there was a notion going around that playing war “go out your aggressions,” the theory being that a little cathartic pretend killing left the child feeling relaxed and peaceful – “got it out of his system.” This was sometimes called the “drive dispensing model” or the “hydraulic model,” as if violence were a fluid under pressure in us, needing release once in a while. After catharsis, a calm peaceful world.
On the other side, which seemed much closer to what seemed to be the case in society to me was the “culture pattern model” which you will recognize as being similar to the insights of ecology. In that view certain patterns, including values, daily habits, ways of dealing with conflict and on and on, tend to be pervasive throughout society. If a society has violent sports, it is generally more violent in its foreign policy, levels of crime, incarceration and so on. The psychologists at the time probably thought it was the coming thing because they bantered it about as the “CPM” – which proceeded to disappear almost completely from the literature. But I think the culture pattern model is a profound insight and we proceed into some real dangerous territory if we fail to recognize its consistencies across many attitudes and activities of life in our societies.
How do ecocities relate to these horrible rampages of killing our society seems to somehow cultivate? They are most basically – or could if built – be a very large and important part of the human enterprise that becomes like a healthy and fertile soil from which the creative grows far more prolifically than the destructive, the supporting of life favored vastly over the taking of life.
On the deepest level of all, as far as I can see, our creative side can help us become an active part of our world, can spread healthy activity, including healthy building, through an improving culture pattern model in our social world, and help us learn about the whole universe that surrounds us all. It can be a source of wonder and delight. Cultivate that and be careful what you build. Make it creative, not destructive. Make all that we build help us to becreative not destructive. It’s not a 100% sure thing all the time, but it good enough most of the time to be a powerful guidance: “As we build, so shall we live.” But also, as we build so we are building ourselves too.
Richard Register can be reached at email@example.com