Don Sanderson: Transition Redux…


“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  – Aldo Leopold

I was born and raised on make-do Depression and WWII farms, the tail end of a long family tradition extending far back, in one case to sixteenth century Yorkshire peasantry. I’d always expected to continue the tradition, but by the time I was ready the industrial age had surged over Midwestern agriculture and equipment and land were far beyond my reach. I have ever since sought return to the land, but modern day lords of the land always demanded more blood than I had to give. By the mid-sixties, I was reading Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, singing old union and Woody Guthrie songs, subscribing to and collecting Mother Earth News, gardening in every spare corner I could find, and escaping into the wilds at every opportunity. It was clear to me that civilization was sick to death, I ever sought a way out, but found every avenue had been bought by “them”, or so I thought – in retrospect, I realize I could have taken more risks, but I stupidly acquired a family while too young to know better. Transition early had become a constant drumbeat in the background. As a result, I’ve long explored options in considerable depth. Consequently, I now find almost all present transition discussions childish repetitions, but still a start.

Transition articles flood the web and books flood the shelves, the latter for at least the past half century. Yet, in a large majority that something fundamental is missing. I appreciate that increasingly many are thinking about how they personally and their families, maybe even their communities, might survive after the death of this greed-strewn civilization. But, they are missing the point if they fail to notice at the outset that our bodies are inextricably filaments of the natural Earth, that damaging the Earth damages us. In spite of all our wondrous science, the living Earth remains largely mysterious and certainly has never been demonstrated to be controllable in any sustainable way by our rational manipulations. We must, I insist must, begin by refusing to treat the Earth as something to drive mercilessly until it collapses in an unrecoverable heap.

As I view this civilization, I’m reminded of those old buses occasionally seen, homes for the homeless that have been continually patched for it appears almost innumerable years. Parts specifically manufactured to these vehicles disappeared from the market long ago, so any fix is a creative make do. I’ve been told that third-world vehicles much resemble these. Flowers are painted on the sides and various adornments stuck on. Yet, even these wonders arrive at a time when they will go no more, are hacked for parts, and left to rust away.

For a time I was a software engineer. In teams we constructed systems with hundreds of thousands of lines of programming code. Many tricks were invented to try to assure the work that each of us hidden back in our cubicles was doing answered the overall design and that it fit with all the pieces being written by others. But when all was said, senior engineers tend to be prima donnas and no one dares look over their shoulders. Lots of testing was done to catch errors, which was an endless process no matter how many were corrected, Senior engineers are expensive, so at some point management declared a product was finished and released it for sale. Customers then began reporting errors, which cheaper junior engineers were sent to fix. But, code is god-awful difficult to understand without detailed detective work beyond the time available, since few clues were left by the senior engineers. So the released product continues for its entire lifetime to be patched as new errors are recognized, often to an earlier patch. To make the product unendingly competitive, new features are constantly grafted on by other engineers who have no understanding of underlying code. So, bug patching and grafting go on and on indefinitely old bus style. Thus, Microsoft Windows, the Frankenstein of software.

Architect Christopher Alexander, who spent a period in his early professional life as a computer scientist, noted thirty years ago that this same scenario was being played out in architecture and urban design. Once this is pointed out, it is clear that this is happening throughout technology. Our whole culture revolves around everyone doing their own thing in isolation with little interest as to how this affects what others are doing, in particular what effects this may be having on a livable Earth. Specialists all. As for software, discords are detected and patches pasted on by those who have no overall understanding of context. Our economy, our social system, our civilization are old-bus Frankensteins decorated with advertisements.

We moderns chose to decorate the old bus in bright colors and forget what is underneath. Thus, we purchase food, clothing, and much else wrapped in fine packaging and marketing until no evidence remains of their origins. The “best and brightest” of us arrogantly purchase products that pretend to be environmentally sacred in some Whole Foods-like way and feel they have they’ve done their transition duty. Nuts! Three examples:

In West Virginia, mountains are being torn down to extract the coal beneath. Miners leave a desolated poisoned world behind that likely won’t heal in the lifetime of the human species. Every urban area that has ever existed has extracted mineral plant nutrients, forests, and fresh water from surround areas finally leaving them desolate. Thus, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean literal. This is no less true for organic agriculture, which those early cities and everyone else until recently depended upon. Surely not surprisingly, “Civilization” and “city” have the same root. Ancient Chinese found a way around by recycling feces and urine, but modern Chinese have chosen modern sewer-system prissiness instead.

Probably all organic tomato juice on the market is the result of extensive agriculture dependent upon vast fossil-fueled implements and on dirt-cheap illegal immigrant laborers for cultivation and harvesting. It is true the fields are fertilized by organic fertilizers produced by agriculture necessarily elsewhere. But, the plants that were farmed and harvested to produce those fertilizers must have been fertilized by organic fertilizers produced elsewhere. So, we are looking in a mirror seeing ourselves looking in a mirror seeing ourselves looking in mirror infinitely? No, silly, sometime or another some inorganic fertilizer had to have gotten inserted – it’s all fake. True, the resulting tomato juice may have fewer agricultural chemical residues, but it is still the result of violently extractive processes not only of fossil fuel but of human labor as well.

Solar cells are the darlings of proper environmentalists. Now, they have become cheap enough so that some ordinary people can even afford them, thanks to the Chinese cornering the market and relying on cheap labor. Let us take off the covers and expose them to the sun. The money cost of a cell says nothing much at all about its environmental value or disvalue. Rather, lets look at the energy cost. Solar cell manufacture requires lots of electricity, which in China primarily means coal. There are other energy costs involved, such as that expended by factory workers and those maintaining the factory facilities, warehouse workers and those maintaining the warehouse facilities, workers involved with the transport of the cells to the United States as well as the fueling and maintaining their vehicles, workers involved in sales at every step and maintenance of the offices in which they work, and so on. Workers require food and clothing, both of which require further energy for production. And so on and so on, all fossil fuel derived. Solar cells are very likely environmental disasters sold to suckers. Anyhow, what good is green energy is we’ve extracted almost all non-renewable resources to a point of scarcity. True, thee cells may pay for themselves money-wise over the course of a lifetime compared with commercial electricity costs, which is nice bright paint for the increasingly rickety old bus. Still, we may rationalize that installing them may give us a leg up through the hard times.

Some of us promoting transition are so rational, civilized, and urbane and so loath to leave behind present clever technologies in which we so delight, especially green energy, ignoring the fact that high tech generally only exists because of fossil fuels, that all the green technology imaginable won’t substitute for all those irreplaceable non-renewable resources that are now rapidly being exhausted. These ways of thought are precisely how we got here in the first place. These transition promoters appear to be carefully dipping their toes in the stream, when too soon they are likely to be thrown in without ever having learned to swim and with no life preservers. This seems foolish old-bus patching to tears.

Others are recognizing that much or most of what we have been accepting as our due just will no longer be functional, no longer patchable. What will no longer be available, at least in the old ways? What supposed necessities will we be required to do without? This is a much tougher, if more realistic, alternative, because we, almost all of us, have no personal direct experience with fallback options. We read about the old ways of a century ago, a half millennium ago, in Roman times or earlier, in the third-world, even about pre-agricultural tribal communities and dream, maybe plant a small garden, maybe purchase from local growers. How many of us have actually stepped off more than a small step?

Medieval peasant culture, pre-fossil fuel, seems to provide an escape, but actually peasants were taxed in produce by their lords and the church and they had to pay the smith, the cooper, the miller, the weaver, the cobbler, the wheelwright, the butcher, and so forth for necessary services. Thus, the peasant village was forced to be extractive. Even the commons was managed so. Their large plows were extremely destructive of soils, as was so dramatically reflected in the later ruin of Midwestern tilth soon after the arrival of the pioneers. Then, beginning in the early seventeenth century, the farms were purchased by merchants and converted to intensive agribusiness production for sales in the cities; the commons were plowed; and peasants such as my ancestors were displaced and condemned to the New World. If we established such communities, could we escape overlords? That is certainly not clear.

Transitioning to the new time with some degree of wisdom, with some hope of success, is much like planting seeds and tending them as they grow. If gardening were so easy. Seeds must be selected as appropriate for the conditions in which they are planted and for the eventual harvest desired. If they are planted too early or late in the season, forget it. Before this happens, the area to be planted must be carefully selected for fertile promise and the receiving soil must be lovingly prepared. There are many books explaining in huge detail how to garden, but the secret is that like any other craft, great gardeners nurture their skills by long practice imagining, digging, planting, and harvesting. If they are fortunate, this is hurried by apprenticeship to a master gardener. Even then, they grow their aspirations gradually as they learn – and still make mistakes as did those peasants with their great plows.

We are or soon will be pioneers stepping off onto unexplored frontiers, attempting to grow new sustainable-to-the-seventh-generation and resilient cultures while attempting to survive. Continuing to patch up the old one clearly will not be successful. Do we choose to randomly scatter seeds selected only with a hope and a prayer and have faith that some will grow? That seems to me to be foolish perhaps to the humankind’s death. It is often pointed out to aspiring entrepreneurs that most startups fail. We are facing the startup of all startups. Where can we go to receive master assistance? Well, maybe a master is too much to ask for, but remarkable journeymen exist here and there. Where have such cultures been successfully planted? There have been a few attempts. Consider the Ecovillage movement, consider the Mondragon cooperative in Spain. There are others scattered around here and there well worth examination. Which have features that may return the harvest we desire? I have thoughts, but no certainties. It is projected that we have little time to prepare, but if we do so foolishly, precipitously, why bother? We either will have time enough or we won’t. Let us suppose the former and begin to carefully, so carefully, lay a few stones on a foundation.

In 2004, a conference was held at the Land Institute, Mayfield Green, Kansas. The articles presented there were collected in “The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge” edited by Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson. In the introduction, Jackson describes tracing the roots of the conference’s theme back to a letter he received from Wendell Berry in 1982. After Jackson’s initial essay, Berry provided another entitled “The Way of Ignorance”, which has also been bound in a collection of his essays entitled, guess, “The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays”. Here, I believe, are our must-read, slap-on-the-head primers.

Berry begins his essay, “Our purpose here is to worry about the predominance of the supposition, in a time of great technical power, that humans either know enough already, or can learn enough soon enough, to foresee and forestall any bad consequences of their use of that power. … When we consider how often and how recently our most advance experts have been wrong about the future, and how often the future has shown up sooner than expected with bad news about our past, [our] assessment of our ability to know is revealed as a superstition of the most primitive type. We recognize it also as our old friend hubris, ungodly ignorance disguised as godly arrogance. … A modern science … applied by ignorant arrogance resembles much to closely an automobile driven by a six year old or loaded pistol in the hands of a monkey.” What then must we do? He describes where we must begin in searching for answer, “Before going further, we had better ask what we humans need to know. We need to know many things, of course, and many kinds of things. But let us be merely practical for the time being and say that we need to know who we are, where we are, and what we must do to live. … We are not likely to be able to answer one of them without answering the other two. And all three must be answered before we can answer well a further practical question that is now pressing urgently upon us: How can we work without doing irreparable damage to the world and its creatures, including ourselves? Or: How can we live without destroying the sources of our life? These questions are perfectly honorable, we may even say they are perfectly obvious, and yet we have much cause to believe that the corporate mind never asks any of them.” How could our situation be captured more succinctly than this.

It is too easy to throw up our hands, declare that the problem is too immensely complex, the world too mysterious, we only don’t know, and to return to making do, to patching the old bus with finger-crossed hopes it will carry us over the hump. I dare you to imagine a break through all those barricades that civilization has thrown up and guards so stoutly to a new world, a new culture, a new guiding myth, a new understand of who we are, where we are, why we are here, and, I add, what must we do. One thing is surely abundantly clear: the old monkey way of thinking is not going to suffice.

Central to those that have been called the new sciences is the study of complexity. Everywhere we look, if we follow threads of relationships and flows, we find each supposed thing is inseparable from every other and feedbacks are adding confusion everywhere. Yet, in this great ocean of associations whirlpools somehow emerge while continually exchanging material and energy with their surroundings – some say they exchange information. Thus, all those galaxies, stars, planets, ecosystems, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and viruses around us as well as you and I have degrees of “alive” separable, enduring, resilient, and adaptive substantiality. How this happens remains a mystery, we might say “the” mystery. We either stand transfixed or, if there is to be a continued presence of humanity on the Earth more than for a brief burn-out moment, we urgently need a new way of thinking, a new more sensitive way of seeing to understand how emergence occurs so that we might facilitate the emergence of new sustainable cultures. Christopher Alexander proposed such.

Alexander very early became intrigued with how such “whirlpool” emergence occurs and evolves. His search was to understand by what means might an architect proceed so that good building and urban designs would emerge from the immense number of possible ones. In the process, he began to look into complexity science in a depth hitherto not attempted by scientists. Alexander summarizes, “The situation is complicated by the fact that architecture itself … has been in an atrocious muddle intellectually. This muddle had to be cleaned up. And that was my main task during the last thirty years as a scientist; and as a builder of buildings and communities. (The huge difficulty in architecture were reflected in the ugliness and soul-destroying chaos of the cities and environments we were building during the 20th century – and in the mixed feelings of dismay caused by these developments at one time or another in nearly every thinking person, …). Trying to come to grips with these difficulties, required construction of new concepts, able to cope with the massive and complex nature of the difficulties, and able to focus a rational searchlight on questions that were, it seemed, largely beyond the reach of methods invented in other sciences. These difficulties arose, in part, I gradually discovered, from widespread but wrong-headed assumptions about the very nature of architecture – and in considerable part, too, from the dry positivist view too typical of technical scientific thinking in the modern era. But they also required new ways of thinking about issues which had not received much attention in the natural sciences …”  As he probed in more depth, he became fascinated with complexity as a science; he set out to go further, to attempt to understand how to put emergence to work.

I really don’t like to “go to town” and often feel wasted after returning. Why? I had concluded it had something to do with negative energy and yet strongly suspect this has an influence. Still, after reading Alexander, we drove to Ukiah and I was overwhelmed with how ugly it is, how like a patched up old bus. It is, certainly, matched by almost every other urban area of my experience in this regard. We personally live surrounded by nature, by natural beauty. The contrast is stunning. Christopher Alexander early recognized this and ask how it is that we distinguish this beauty, how we might plan beautiful architectures. He noted that we humans recognize the difference between beauty and ugliness. How so remains part of that great mystery, but he proposed to use humans as scientific instruments to determine goodness, fitness, of designs. Traditional scientists would, of course, declare his approach subjective nonsense, which he replies is silly. In fact, skilled human observers can be very powerful scientific instruments. The example of expert medical diagnosticians comes to mind; such persons have demonstrated the ability to recognize disorders that escape all our wonderful instruments. How so, none know, but Alexander is convinced it is related to intuition – yet another apparent subjectivity, traditional scientists’ scream. Aw, but, we are such fantastically complex beings far beyond the grasp of those scientists, which even most of them are coming to admit. Yet, so few of us are expert diagnosticians, expert architects, expert musical composers, or expert gardeners – expert instruments if you will. How is it we can become so skilled?

Christopher Alexander created some methods for adapting designs progressively toward greater goodness, for learning if you will, based to an extent on his observations of natural growth. They are described in his four volume “The Nature of Order”, Alexander’s magna opus, which was published over the last decade. It is subtitled “An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe”. The books are separately titled, “The Phenomenon of Life”, “The Process of Creating Life”, “A Vision of a Living World”, and “The Luminous Ground”. Included are many photos of two hundred or more of his strikingly beautiful completed projects. These titles alone will surely give you a hint of what he has been undertaking. More clues, a list entitled “A New Kind of World” he wrote for the New York Times:

  • A world in which we experience, daily, our unity with the universe.
  • A world which is made like nature – and in which we are daily making nature.
  • A world in which the daily process of making, adapting, and deepening is a vital part of our lives.
  • A world  in which there is something to believe in – not a religious thing – but a believable vision of God as the unity behind all things which guides us and impels us to act in certain ways. God not conceived of as a construct of any organized religion, but as a fact of nature and its wholeness.
  • A social and political world which contains (and explicitly provides) the freedom for us to act in this way – something we rarely have today.
  • A world in which we feel the cultural trace of human beings before us who made and loved every part.
  • A world in which we value ourselves according to the beauty of the places we have carved out, and modified, and taken care of, and in which we have woven our lives together with that of other people, animals, and plants.
  • A world in which buildings are shaped according to these principles, and laws governing the shaping of buildings in this way, are the laws most precious to us, and those to which we give most weight.
  • A world in which we have an entirely new understanding of what it means for the world to be sustainable: not a technical matter, but a matter in which respect for the whole governs.
  • Above all, there is a world in which meaning exists. The deadly and frightening state in which we do not know why we are here, is replaced by a world in which there is a natural and accurate and truthful picture – an answer to the question “why am I here” – one that is not made up, but that stems from and accords with the true nature of things.

Alexander wondered if these same methods might be applied more widely, particularly to organizational structure. He asked if this had been done and was told it had been discussed, but no one had explored it further. As I read Alexander and view pictures of his creations, it dawned on me that I was looking at something very like Leonardo’s notebooks. He scares most architects with the breadth and depth of his thought and his focus on wholeness. Let us not be frightened. May Alexander’s methods provide well thought out ways to explore creating the sorts of good cultures of which we are in dire need? Yes, surely, if we greatly simplify what we are attempting to do. A culture is much, much more complex than a neighborhood. But, there is a rub.

To understand Alexander without being deeply aware of, acutely sensitive to, Nature in all its enthralling profusion misses his point. Mother Nature ultimately calls the tune, not us no matter what we may think; if we intend to play with her, we’d better begin listening. We are very unlikely to hear her clearly in an urban area discordant with old-bus honking. I will go further, as I believe he would agree, that the means to be come a skilled instrument for judging the goodness of any design, say of a building, an organization, or a culture, begins with absorption in Nature in the wild. Thoreau was so right, “In wildness is preservation of the world.” This was seconded by Einstein, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” I could give you dozens of sources to read, dozens of ways to start, the good old civilized ways of learning. These will not work; there is no alternative other than that you get out of the bus, out of its sight, and lose your civilized self out there in the immense complexity, immense beauty of unplucked, uncooked, unprocessed, unpackaged, just raw Nature.

Of course, you may say I’m a hypocrite and to an extent you are right. I’ve been such a slow student, only now in the process of graduating from kindergarten, but seeing glimpses of a fascinating future. How can it have taken so long? I can’t answer that. Certainly, I’ve received many shoves in the right direction throughout my life, but always found excuses and dilly dallied. I did manage to step off once for five years, sort of, before getting slapped down. My present justification is that at my age it is difficult to start from scratch, but I’m trying in every way I can to reform. Perhaps it is another rationalization, but it seems obvious to me that the design and formation of a new Earth-friendly human culture is a very, very, very hard problem. One may naturally emerge over the ages with everyone who survives doing their own thing, maybe after beginning again in the caves. Too dark? To not explore alternatives with the best available tools, such as especially Alexander’s, appears to me to be incredibly foolish – maybe to human extinction. It all begins with appreciating the dimensions of our ignorance and answering who we are, where we are, why we are here, and what must we do, all of which involve immersing ourselves in Nature. Finally, imagine a society of people who are joyful, loving, and grounded, a culture that reflects and is integrated with Nature’s beauty, with Nature’s wholeness. My dream and challenge to you. May we find a pathway beyond.

One Comment

I’ve been waiting for the cue to know that we are getting ready to collectively find one another. Christopher Alexander’s work had been such a cue, I’m hoping to find others to weave it into existence. Now what? How do we connect in the real.
Thank you for writing this from a very deep yearning for the unfolding to begin. Your piece flows beautifully with the voices of Sharon Astyk Transition: Taming the Zoning Monster…and Vera from Leaving Babylon discussion on Transition (oh, she also gets the magnitude of Christopher Alexander)