A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body. -- Benjamin Franklin
Why Do We Have To Design New Living Environments?
The short answer: The Ecological Predicament
Some of the most starkly presented data that I've seen lately came in the form of some handouts (Download Zovanyi) by Gabor Zovanyi at a conference/summit this summer. The material -- used with the permission of Gabor -- is from his book The No-Growth Imperative: Creating Sustainable Communities under Ecological Limits to Growth.
As Chris Martenson elaborates coherently in his Crash Course, this exponential growth is not sustainable. The bottom line is that eventually your pension/retirement fund will be worthless as most investment values have exponential growth built into the valuation.
For another interesting perspective on collapse, see this blog article and graph by George Mobus.
It is evident from reviewing the data that change has to be radical.1 Tony Fry captures this well in his work. Like Tony, I think that design is the key.
Why Has Society Let This Happen?
Lots of reasons. Some of the best explanations, in my opinion, can be found by studying the work of Ken Wilber and others in the field of Integral Theory. It's easy to get hung up in the fascinating "why" material.
As pointed out by Joseph Tainter in this article: "The scenarios [for the success or failure of any problem solving system] are collapse; resiliency and recovery through simpliﬁcation; and sustainable problem solving based on increasing complexity subsidized by new resources." Please note that the latter action has resulted in the collapse that is already well under way. Therefore, the middle way -- resiliency and recovery... -- would seem to be the prudent way forward. Tainter indicates in the article that this has rarely occurred throughout history. (Please note the Productivity graphs on page 95 of the article.)
Since time is of the essence, we'll not focus on the Why for now.
When society requires to be rebuilt, there is no use in attempting to build it on the old plan. --John Stuart Mill as quoted in Plato's Revenge.
This book [Plato's Revenge] should encourage...attempts to rethink how present and future societies might be organized given the array of environmental and sustainability issues that we face. --Robert Paehlke, Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Resource Studies, Trent University
The "basic goods" conducive to a happy life include health, education, leisure, friendship and harmony with nature... -- CNBC Article on a book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky
I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind.... -- John Stuart Mill,1848
I must say that it is difficult to move beyond the Why stage. Culture makes it difficult. For a comprehensive summary, please see this highly recommended article: Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies.
A word about ethics. I am of the same mind as Alfred North Whitehead (as interpreted by Brian Henning in The Ethics of Creativity):
1. the obligation always to act in such a way as to bring about the greatest possible universe of beauty, value, and importance that in each situation is possible (beauty);
2. the obligation to maximize the intensity and harmony of one's own experience (self-respect);
3. the obligation to maximize the harmony and intensity of experience of everything within one's sphere of influence (love);
4. the obligation to avoid the destruction (or maiming) of any actual occasion, nexus, or society, unless not doing so threatens the achievement of the greatest harmony and intensity that in each situation is possible (peace);
5. the obligation to strive continually to expand the depth and breadth of one's aesthetic horizons (education). [p.145-146]
This is one reason why my wife and I have an ecological footprint that is 10%-15% of the national average.2 However, we could, under the right circumstances, improve our quality of life substantially without expanding our footprint. An integral campus is the answer for us.
What is an integral campus?
The nature of towns and cities with their property lines and bureaucracies makes it difficult to organize a comprehensive environment for maximizing quality of life, self-sufficiency, security, happiness, etc. The dominating influence of the automobile will make towns and cities difficult places for rapid change in the future. (I applaud all of those who are giving it their best shot.) Just getting rid of the cars will be a challenge, although I suppose that the tops can be cut off and the remainder used as large planter boxes. I have seen someone use their car as a large fruit/produce drying device.
Most ways of life -- even though based on Permaculture principles -- will not provide security. For example, isolated farms will be vulnerable to those roving the countryside for food once the supermarket supply chains grind to a halt in a post-peak oil world. In addition, self-sufficiency will be messy and inefficient in most communities and impossible on isolated properties due to lack of labor and equipment.
Universities and colleges, regardless of what slogans they put on banners and their homepage, are simply training individuals to participate in the consumption economy. If they were truly universities, they would be focusing most of their time and energy on the Ecological Predicament. For more on the inability of universities to address sustainability, see David Orr's book, The Nature of Design.
The goal would be to develop an infrastructure and organization that can be mostly self-sufficient as well as secure by design. It is interesting to note that Cambridge and Oxford quadrangles were designed for security when built in the Middle Ages.
An integral campus would operate as a wellness spa and retreat. Initially, similar to the properties linked to in the following paragraph, guests would likely stay a week or a few days. Eventually, the length of stay could transition to full-time residential with the option to spend time at all integral campuses. The property would be operated by students who are committed to living lightly on the earth. In return for their work, they would receive the equivalent of a university education with the opportunity to master a hands-on livelihood such as gardening, cooking, and/or winemaking in a permaculture setting.3 Those interested in life-long learning/teaching and the ethics of sustainability could remain in the system rather than go work in the wacky world.
The organizational structure would be that of a private institution. It may be that a significant portion of start-up capital would come from wealthy patrons who are interested in being involved with the creation of a sustainable institution as well as storing wealth.
Subject to spending at least three consecutive months in residence at one location, teachers/students would have the opportunity to move to other campuses if they get the nomadic urge.
Eventually, all the services necessary for a healthy life would be brought inside the institution. It might start with a dentist who enjoys gardening and wants to live sustainably. Over time, all services could be included -- including hospitals. Ambitious? Yes. Necessary? Yes.
Access is the key and the wealthy have provided examples with private golf clubs and vacation home clubs. While property rights are private, access is fluid and there is an incentive to preserve the asset.
One place that comes to mind is the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute (MFWI) on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington. The student body is Japanese and the economy in Japan has suffered for 20 plus years. It is a possibility that it will be difficult to keep the doors open in the future. MFWI is adjacent to Spokane Falls Community College which provides expansion possibilities once the education bubble pops.
October 2, 2013 Update
It is likely that there will be increasing demand for places where technology is set aside for old-fashioned face-to-face interaction and a sanctuary like setting. This from an article in Sunset magazine:
Today's visitors are...increasingly, technoholics at a "tipping point in their lives," says Minoria Franks, Tassajara's reservations coordinator. "We're seeing a huge wave right now of people fleeing technology for a digital-free environment. Younger people, especially, in their 20s and 30s, who hear about us then come to unplug and practice." [Sunset, August 2012, p.78]
1 In the words of Victor Papanek: "Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical in the truest sense."
2 I also like this "case for reform" from Ronald Wright:
The case for reform that I have tried to make is not based on altruism, nor on saving nature for its own sake. I happen to believe that these are moral imperatives, but such arguments cut against the grain of human desire. The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine. [p.131 of A Short History of Progress
3 There are programs across the country that are moving in this direction. Here is an article on one of them.