Gardening is the Best Metaphor for Everything. Even Engineering.
Image credit: Me
I seem to be having the same conversation over-and-over again recently - or at least a very similar one. How can we create a sustainable society? What model can we follow to cut our carbon emissions? How do we develop a viable alternative to business as usual? Whether it's entrepreneurs or activists - there seems to be a real hunger for "the answer" to the sustainability puzzle. And when folks do present a model for sustainability - whether it's luxury green condos or vertical farms or freeganism or an electric sports car, naysayers almost immediately shoot it down because it doesn't work for everyone. I'm beginning to suspect there is no answer.When I say "there is no answer", what I really mean is that there is not one answer - but a million answers. I'm done with blanket statements about why this or that is not sustainable. Yes, I understand that million dollar green condos are not going to solve the search for sustainable housing for the masses - but they do encourage millionaires out of McMansions and gated communities, and they bring people back into our cities. Yes, dumpster diving doesn't really offer a viable alternative to the current food system, but it does make use of a wasted resource and draw attention to the insane waste that goes on. I could continue - but I'm sure most TreeHugger readers get the point. (In fact, I suspect I am preaching to the converted. Again.)
It seems to me that this search for an answer is related to the linear, industrialized thinking that created many of our environmental problems in the first place. If we view our world through the metaphor of engineering or mechanics, we can postulate that if we do X and Y, then the end result will be Z. But the world doesn't work like engineering - in fact, engineering doesn't even work like engineering.
The Illusion of Control
Gardening, on the other hand, may be a better metaphor. Gardeners have no illusion of control. We create the right growing conditions, nurture a healthy soil life, set up our lifestyles so we have time to tend our crops, and we plant a diverse variety of sturdy, healthy plants and watch them grow. We adjust as we go along - removing excess weeds, mulching, watering and fertilizing when necessary - and picking off pests. But ultimately - the end result almost always includes crop failures, and unexpected successes. And we will feel more like stewards, sometimes even observers, than masters of our domain.
It seems to me that we need to adopt a similar approach to sustainability - and to our lives in general. As soon as we give up the idea that we can design "an answer", we'll be better off. Instead, we need to identify how we create the right growing conditions for healthy and productive solutions, we need to find leverage points where we can provide incentives for 'good' growth, and disincentives for the 'bad'. And we need to allow a diverse range of businesses, community groups, technologies and even economic models to co-exist.
That's not to say we can't do some weeding and pest control. Critiquing different models is vital as we strive for better. But as with (sustainable) gardening, that weeding and pest control should be done selectively and judiciously - and it should be done with the end goal of a healthy overall system in mind. Just as a weed is really a plant in the wrong place (or one we haven't found a use for yet), so too a sustainability project that doesn't fit with our own personal vision of green may be a perfect model for someone else - and it may help them to move toward a lower impact lifestyle.
Systemic Solutions to Systemic Problems
Controlling pests and weeds is usually the last resort in organic gardening - and it is really just damage control. Sure - if we see an infestation of projects labeled green that we see as counter productive, then offering a (reasoned and effective) argument against them - and preferably some alternatives too - can be a valuable use of our time. But we need to look beyond that to the conditions that created them in the first place. We won't stop gentrification by attacking a single green development - but rather by finding systemic solutions to affordable housing, diversity and economic justice. We won't encourage sustainable transport by moaning about electric cars for the rich - but rather by promoting a sensible price on gasoline, good incentives for mass transport and car clubs and low emission vehicles, and by promoting planning laws that encourage dense, walkable communities. Just as I will never get rid of those darned Japanese beetles, none of us will ever shape the world to fit our own personal vision - rather our vision will coexist with everyone else's, and we'll either find a balance that we can walk together - or we'll keep cursing and yelling at each other as the oceans rise and the forests burn.