Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

On the Road, Part 1

Before I start gassing on again about any number of things — including just what it is we’re trying to do with Up the Road — let me introduce this week’s issue. The main reason to write this every week or so, after all, is to let you know there’s something new on the site. Which I didn’t get around to mentioning until story’s end last time, so some of you missed the initial water stories. Oops.

David Scofield Wilson, author of this week’s “Names and True Names,” was born and raised in Minnesota. In many ways California came as quite a surprise when he arrived here from the Midwest to teach at UC Davis. He’s a full-fledged Californian now, though, having come home. Accompanying Wilson’s thoughts on “getting the names right,” be they birds or buttes, are several of poet Gary Thompson’s best “Lessons of Birds” poems, from his collection On John Muir’s Trail. Karen Laslo provides this week’s photos, including one of Mark Twain’s literary blue jays — avian busybodies “bristling with metaphor”– this Anna’s hummingbird, Anna's hummingbird by Karen Lasloand of course those much-loved valley mountains generally known as the Sutter Buttes. What David, Gary, and Karen share this week will surely help sustain us.

Let’s face some less inspiring truth too, though, including the fact that sustainability truly is an awful word–a buzzword without any buzz, as Bill McKibben rightly pointed out in 1996. Clearly the folks at Ad Age — masters at mastering the entire universe of buzziest buzzwords — were on to something last year when they selected it as “one of the “jargoniest jargon” words of 2010. They want us to stop using it, along with choiceful, monetize, and the new normal (yes, please stop) because “it’s a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse,” the word itself reduced to a “squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing.” When even the ad mongers say the truth has been hopelessly obscured maybe we should listen up.

Then again, maybe not.

The word sustainability comes from the Latin sustenare, which means to keep or hold up. And never in the history of our strange and wonderful species has it been so desperately important that we humans take steps to keep or hold up the finite natural world that still sustains us despite ourselves, our seemingly infinite numbers, and endless needs. Not to mention all those things we don’t need but, thanks to Ad Age and influence peddlers elsewhere, still deeply desire and even feel we deserve, from large families and rental storage units (for all the stuff we can’t stuff into our big houses) to cynically savvy jet travel to hurry up and go see the world’s coolest places while they still exist.

McKibben had it right long before Ad Age noticed just how successful the word sustainability has been at doing just what we wanted it to do — help us obscure our deepest conflicts and inconsistencies as we come face to face with overstressed environments and economies and glaring social inequities the world over. Both the word and concept of sustainability emerged, he said, “to paper over the tension between the fact that societies are overexploiting the planet’s physical resources and the fact that everyone seems reluctant to stop this rapaciousness. Hence, phrases like ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainable growth’ are used when the real intent is to put off the day of reckoning for a few more decades.”

That’s not what everyone means by such terms, of course, but it’s true often enough that these days we can never be sure we’re talking about the same thing when we speak of sustainability. Which just serves to postpone difficult decisions that much longer.

Another part of the problem is that we are so accustomed to advocating for whatever it us we personally care most about — the beleaguered environment, for many of us, unfettered economic growth for others, social equity not very often at all — we tend to think “real sustainability” matches our advocacy. That clearly cannot be true.

What is true is that we are all in this mess together. We need to find answers to questions we can’t even fully get our minds around yet, and find them fast. Somehow we fallible human beings — we who still imagine ourselves to be masters of the universe, despite mounting evidence otherwise — need to grow up and take responsibility for the mess we’ve made, and are still making, as our so-called leaders in Washington devise ever more ridiculous games of brinksmanship to end up using our nation’s immense political power still more irresponsibly.

Way back in 1996 Bill McKibben suggested maturity might be a better goal than sustainability, his idea being that once we lose interest in growing physically — simply acquiring more stuff — we can focus instead on moral, spiritual, and cultural growth. The fact that we don’t really know what that truly mature civilization would look like doesn’t mean we should postpone setting out on the adventure of discovery. We do know where to start. “Maturing means restraining oneself,” in McKibben’s words. “Maturity means, at bottom, recognizing that you are not the center of the world but part of something larger.”

That is the underlying purpose of Up the Road — to nudge us all up the road toward a broader, more inclusive, and yes, mature view of where we are and what we might do differently for the sake of our children’s children and all the other species we are now dragging with us down the road to extinction. We will look at what’s going wrong, quite specifically, but also what seems promising and what just might help us get it right. Starting right here in Northern California we will explore and congratulate all the good work people are already doing to get us up the road to saner living.

Next time I’ll tell you more about Up the Road as a project, just how we’re doing this — how we’re building this road — and what you can do to help.