Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Living in the Wake of Progress

"The task before us, now as always before, is to renew and husband the means, both natural and human, of agriculture. But to talk now about renewing husbandry is to talk about unsimplifying what is in reality an extremely complex subject. This will require us to accept again, and more competently than before, the health of the ecosystem, the farm, and the human community as the ultimate standard of agricultural performance."

– Wendell Berry, "Bringing It to the Table"

I live equidistant from two farms at which I volunteer: ten miles to the north is a rural farm and ten miles to the south is an urban farm. I fully expected the rural farm in Gibsonia, PA to be closer to nature: quiet, peaceful, relaxed-paced and surrounded by wilderness. I assumed the urban farm (in a Pittsburgh neighborhood named Garfield) would reflect the city's hustle and bustle: noisy, congested and disconnected from nature and community.

Over the last two months, I have observed the complete opposite. I am continually dumbfounded by the peacefulness of the inner-city farm as if I were in a secluded forest. I am equally taken aback each week by the urgent pace of the rural farm as if I were traversing within city limits.

This disconnect results from the tidal wave of sprawl. The first wave has already engulfed the rural farm to the north of Pittsburgh and continues its relentless advance, converting more and more fertile farmland to expansive housing developments. I live in the wake of second-wave sprawl; I witness the destruction of peace, soil and community daily. Outside my door the trees are being uprooted and the land bulldozed for a new shopping development in a residential suburb.

Why do we put up with such destruction? Progress. Particularly, our misguided conception of progress as a misappropriated law that we force upon life and nature.

Problem(s) with Progress
According to our culture, progress is a relentless force that infinitely advances. It is a wondrous horizon of unlimited potential and possibilities. It is also a destination at which we never arrive. Perhaps progress is our pioneering spirit gone awry.

Progress only appears unlimited and constructive from the narrow, precarious point of view of the surfer who rides the tidal wave; those few who benefit financially from development. In the wake's aftermath is a mess of debris to clean up. Anytime profits are put over people and subsequently people over nature, disaster ensues.

Sprawl creates division within communities, further fragments nature and disrupts the local economy. The land that succumbs to the wave of progress is prime agricultural real estate and ecologically valuable wild lands, in the midst of establish communities, all devoured at such a rapid pace without the infrastructure (physical or social) or the natural resources to support the boom.

Among the many problems with our skewed view of progress is that it is thoughtlessly done for its own sake. In the name of progress, we continually repeat our errors and fail to learn from our mistakes. We have witnessed for decades how suburban sprawl creates urban blight -- the hollowing out of the city's core -- just behind it, yet it continues to advance, only slowed briefly by the recession, now in full swing once more.

High Cost of Adaptation
The human race is resilient and resourceful. We will pick up the pieces and make due, adapting to the harsh conditions of our present reality that progress often creates. One example of such resiliency is the reclaiming of vacant city lots for urban farming; growing fresh produce for the local neighborhood, often situated in a food desert.

Another noteworthy example of hope is the revitalization of neighborhoods in decline along such ecologically self-sustaining models as Eco-Districts. I recently attended a fantastic Eco-District Planning Symposium and discovered that several Pittsburgh neighborhoods are implementing comprehensive plans to integrate methods of supplying their own food, water and energy within their borders; an encouraging model of self-sufficiency on a community scale.

However, to remedy what has been abused and neglected — to restore the vitality of soil, community and local economy — is a lot of hard work. It requires a great amount of time, energy and outside-resources to make the damaged area productive once again. It is far better and less costly to learn from past mistakes and avoid making them in the first place… or over and over again as we typically do.

Leaving a Better Legacy
Life is a thoughtful, observant, decision-making process; a series of trial-and-error experiments. The things that are beneficial and helpful are constantly evaluated and continually improved upon. The things that are harmful or obstructive are completely discarded… everything, that is, except the lessons learned.

According to our society's definition, the opposite of growth, development and progress, is to decline, degenerate, deteriorate. In short, to not progress is to lose ground, to regress to a more primitive time. But, the old and new cannot be so neatly delineated. Anything we choose to reintroduce is always informed and influenced by the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times in which we live. It is a myth that we can ever completely retrogress.

We often forget as a society that everything is interconnected and that nature, people and our institutions must cooperate in balance. 50-100 years ago, everyone was sustainable. It wasn't something one chose to do, it was simply what was done. Many of the crises we face today are inherited from a previous generation's decision to depart from the wisdom of balance.

Thankfully, we are only a generation removed from those sustainable practices and the knowledge is not completely lost. To pull from those practices does not mean we will completely go back to that time. But, if we choose to progress as usual, our generation will leave a sordid legacy for the next one to clean up.

Revisiting previous ways of farming or community development is not digressing. It is informed, intentional, sustainable progress. It is the kind of progress that we desperately need to restore the balance to our unstable and unsustainable world.

Recommended Reading

Eco-Districts (from evolveEA Archives)
Transition Towns
Strong Towns

Bringing It to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food by Wendell Berry
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
EcoCities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature by Richard Register
The Price of Civilization: Reawaking American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey Sachs
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel

Stephanie Rexroth is a serious reader, a seasonal writer and an aspiring permaculturalist in Pittsburgh, PA. You can follow her reading lists on Goodreads, read more articles on her Blog and follow the progress of her #EdibleBalcony2013 on Twitter.