From Alex's weekly letter. Sign up here!
I've been slowly going through the boxes and boxes of old countercultural publications on sustainability—as seen from the 1970s—that I've collected and inherited over the last decades. Reinhabitation, stone age computers, geodesic domes, bioregionalism, homebrew solar, plant wisdom, self-sufficiency, graywater systems, voluntary simplicity: the solutions of my childhood. I can spend whole days reading through people’s 40 year-old explanations of what they then saw as a ecological revolution. It’s a kind of hobby.p. I am fascinated with the archeology of solutions. The stories of the innovations, plans, technologies that our predecessors created in order to solve the problems they faced—the history of solutions—are often themselves compelling. But I mean something else: the hidden history, the now-obscured worldviews fossilized in the solutions that are at work all around us.
Solutions don't exist in the abstract. Every solution implies the problem it sets out to solve. Those problems, in turn, are the products of the minds that defined them. And those minds were products of their eras, with all the limits and assumptions of those who lived at that time. Every solution, then, shows the mindset of the era in which it was created.
Excavating the attitudes behind old solutions is good fun if you're someone who works with ideas, but it's no idle pursuit. Indeed, in a moment of incredibly rapid change, learning to see where old solutions no longer connect with present needs becomes a terrific way to unpack the transformations of systems around us.
Understanding, for instance, how many environmentalists of the 1970s were responding to a view of cities as ecologically failed places can help us understand their focus on urban farming, small buildings, protecting urban habitat and so on: because if urbanization itself is wrong, then the task is to make the city as much like the countryside as possible.
We know, now, that this is disastrous thinking, that the best way to limit urban footprints is to concentrate activity, creating dense, walkable cities that reduce demand for energy, land and materials. The most genuinely ecological city is the most urban city.
We don't have to throw the baby out with the graywater, though. A lot of old ideas about greening cities don't make sense in light of what we know now, but we can still learn from their intentions. How do we reweave human and natural systems? Our answers may be very different in the decades ahead, but it’s worth trying to empathize with the past. Good ideas based on old thinking can be amazing provocations for exploring today’s possibilities in new ways.
Those magazines and books spill over with an era's ideas about how to tackle the planetary crisis we face. Those solutions are no longer the ones we need today. They don't even speak to the right scope, scale and speed. They might, though, speak to our imagination.
Thanks for reading!
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