Mapping Optimism

by Scott Boylston on Saturday, June 5, 2010 in Features

“I have cast my lot with those, who, age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
—Adrienne Rich

What on Earth are we doing? Is it OK to ask that?  Does the common wisdom of the day monopolize insight into what can and cannot be done in this world, not only despite its gross shortcomings, but because of the burden those shortcomings place upon those who challenge it? Is the inertia of 6.6 billion indefatigable?

These questions carry a weight of their own, and that weight—more than the weight of the status quo—is often enough to stop individuals. What on Earth are we doing? Why do we fight so hard against the current? Yes, the current; the present moment. Everybody knows it won’t work—it’s never worked, only what works now actually works. Why the energy, then?

But the issue, as Fritjof Capra explains, is not energy or force: the issue is meaning. In his book Hidden Connections, Capra writes: “A machine can be controlled; a living system, according to the systemic understanding of life, can only be disturbed. In other words, organizations (or communities) cannot be controlled through direct interventions, but they can be influenced by giving impulses rather than instructions.”

Those impulses can be embodied by jolts of meaning to a populace’s flat-lining sense of historical continuity. Systems—communities, social networks, government agencies, institutions—do not respond to force or energy as much as they respond to meaning. And it is the obligation of any movement to present their case in a way that best illustrates the validity of these meanings, not necessarily as new meanings, but as meanings already interwoven through the culture that need only be revealed.

Graphic designers have the unique and amazing opportunity to visually describe the landscape of sustainability—and its imperatives—so as to help define its topography. The idea, in part, is to help define the new context within the old system. The Living Principles, of course, has already done some of this with their Living Principles for Design framework. Good Magazine has also been creating compelling information graphics for these purposes. And then there is Computing for Sustainability.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of such mapping systems, and while some might argue there are so many that it could cause confusion, I’d suggest that it is yet one more way in which we can shove the populace toward awakening; of creating a mental environment that reminds us not of what product we lack to become whole, but what whole we belong in the first place. Consider them parts of a larger roadmap for meaning; for not only answering the rhetorical question, what on Earth are we doing?, but for defining the thoughts that lead to action, and the actions that lead to solutions. 

The Sustainability movement continues to grow, and it grows in patterns that might have been expected, even if they couldn’t have been predicted. Much of the growth is in the root system. This cannot be rushed.  Yet, the leaf system also matures, with branches and fibrous knobs that will soon miraculously morph into buds, which will themselves morph into other things; things we might call flowers.

In his latest book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken describes the people he has met who are determined to re-shape the human endeavor into more sustainable forms by referencing the Adrienne Rich excerpt at the top of this post. Hawkin is awed by the size and sincerity of this loosely defined social movement, as am I. And, like any movement, this one grows when its core tenants loosen their associations to messengers (tainted as they can often be by prejudice), and become meaningful in their own right to the broader public; when perceptual shifts occur so that new ideas resonate with an individual’s pre-existing yet often inchoate understanding of the way the world should work. We must continue to chart the terrain of the new world.

The question What on Earth are we doing?, then, becomes irrelevant, or nonsensical, or even comical. We are trying, is what we are doing. And, so a more important question to guide us is perhaps this; what are we doing on Earth? With our time here, what do we choose to do with it? How do we choose to define our relationships with the rest of humanity, and with nature? Do we continue to do what is already being done, or do we do things that provoke us into challenging even our own senses for the sake of an existence that carries less negative impacts.

Optimism is not just the message; it is the message’s origin.

Originally published on Emergent Structures