Seeing Through a Glass Darkly


Steve Grant / Flickr
Sunset in Ohio

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
—Proverbs 29:18

Soon after I moved to Oberlin in 1990, a battle-scarred veteran of local politics told me “son, you gotta understand one thing about this town . . . If you put all Oberlinians in a burning building, they could not agree on how to get out. Just accept it.” I never did and no one else should either. Authentic vision and foresight are essential to a decent common future. I don’t think we are unusual in that respect; Americans are a contentious people. But we will have to learn how to reach agreement around authentic vision that is essential to a decent common future. But what kinds of visions are appropriate to a 21st century faced with rapid climate change and a population trending toward ten billion? At any scale—from small communities to the global commons—how do worthy visions come to be? Does it matter whether they come from the market or from political processes? What is the role of leadership versus public participation? Or inspiration versus analysis? How do visions become engrained in the behavior of organizations and in the lives of people? How can they be modified and adapted to continual change?

Whatever the answers, our history and cultural DNA have conspired to make collective visions and planning more difficult than they should be. As Bill Clinton put it, “we share 99.5 percent of our genes but spend 99.5 percent of our time arguing about the .5 percent of our differences.” We are a contentious “argument society” (in Deborah Tannen’s words), burrowed down in our favorite blogs and websites, and selecting our news form-fitted to our particular biases. Common vision or common anything comes hard for us these days, a reverberation from Thomas Jefferson’s streak of anti-government obstinacy. Maybe Madison and de Tocqueville saw it coming, but I doubt that they thought it would be like this at either the national or community level. The “vision thing”, in its collective form, is difficult for a people who exhausted themselves corralling the Natives, cutting down forests, ripping up prairies, damming rivers, wiping out untold numbers of species, corporatizing their economy, paving over an area larger than the state of Kentucky, lopping the tops off Appalachian mountains for cheap coal, drilling several million holes in the ground to extract oil, winning a couple of World Wars and one Cold War, watching a lot of crummy TV, selling truckloads of junk to each other, building a global empire, tweeting and blogging nonsense non-stop, and becoming the richest, most rotund, and most self-congratulatory people on Earth. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 left us adrift and despondent as the sole superpower with no dependably loathsome enemies in sight. And so we began beating up on each other in phony culture wars, government shutdowns, and increasingly vicious and sterile political battles, until, that is, Osama bin Laden showed up in the nick of time and spawned the rationale for steroidalized (a new word) super patriots to create the 21st century version of Orwell’s 1984 dystopia: the corporate-garrison-surveillance-entertainment state. In the meantime, far more serious threats continued to grow─a rapidly destabilizing climate being the most important of them.

Five reports from the Intergovernmental Panel between 1990 and 2013 and an Everest-sized mountain of other scientific and anecdotal evidence give us reason neither for complacency nor optimism. As climate scientist, Paul Crutzen says, the longevity of CO2 in the atmosphere “may change climate for millennia to come,” locking us into a future of worsening disasters. The possibility of creating the future we might otherwise have wanted is long gone. Our best hope is to own up to the future we’ve made and cannot evade, get busy to forestall the worst consequences, and lay a foundation for a better world on a farther horizon.

But how do we grow practical visions at any scale appropriate to the conditions of this new and less stable geologic era, the “anthropocene”? We have it on high authority that, without vision, people perish. That is to say that foresight is necessary for survival. The first issue, however, is whether enough people are willing to engage in the activity of seeing. Neurologist Oliver Sacks once had a patient, blind from early childhood into middle age, who recovered most of his sight with medical help. Then an extraordinary thing happened: he decided that his sightless fantasy world was preferable to reality and chose to return to his former blindness. Sacks concluded that sight is at least partly a choice. The will to see the world accurately is also a choice, and many people prefer fantasy, ideology, and outright denial to messy reality. Foresight─seeing into the future─ is more difficult still. And those who do see the future and tell, like Cassandra in Greek mythology, are subjected to ridicule, rejection, or worse.

Even so, practical visions can grow in a variety of ways. Sometimes they result from the “wisdom of crowds” and market changes. For example, between 2005 and 2010, consumers in eleven western nations saved $429 billion worth of oil through improved efficiency. We now create a dollar of GNP with half the energy we used in 1973. The big drivers are improvements in technology and the desire to save money, not changes in public policy. Looking to 2050, Amory Lovins believes that we could run a far larger economy without using coal, oil, or nuclear energy, and a third less natural gas.

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Brad Masi
Ben Purdon, Oberlin College student and apprentice at the George Jones Farm and Nature Preserve, top-dresses a ‘worm tractor’ with leaf mulch, a project supported by an Ohio EPA grant.

Sole reliance on markets, however, has been a considerable disaster for reasons Karl Polanyi and many others explained a long time ago. The minimally supervised market gave us urban sprawl, decaying cities, highway congestion, mega malls, and massive political and financial corruption, but far fewer coherent neighborhoods, vital downtowns, and prosperous homegrown businesses, or good rail service—to say nothing of a robust democracy. Unbridled and unsupervised self-interest of the “free-market” persistently infects the conduct of public business and undermines the public interest. Indeed, the evidence for the existence of “free” markets is about as valid as that, say, for the existence of unicorns.

Similar to the workings of the economic market, vision sometimes emerges from the free market of ideas. Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), for example, was widely read for decades and helped to shape the mindset that led to the Cascadian vision and culture of the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, changed minds and behavior and shifted the course of history. In conservative philosopher Richard Weaver’s words, ideas do have consequences and sometimes, for better or worse, they change the path of civilizations.

Common vision can also grow from organized community dialogue. Chattanooga in the 1970s, for example, had a decaying downtown, high poverty and crime rates, and the worst air pollution in the U.S. It is now one of the greenest and best mid-sized cities anywhere. The turnaround began with a series of community-wide planning meetings led by City Councilman David Crockett and funded by the Lyndhurst foundation. Among other things, residents were asked to respond to visual preference surveys that provided the basis for subsequent plans for a river-walk along the Tennessee River, restoration of brownfield areas, creation of parks and housing, building the Tennessee Aquarium, and downtown commercial and residential development. Crockett also linked Chattanooga with other cities like Curitiba, Brazil and with seminal figures in the ecological design movement like John Todd and William McDonough.

The urban greening movement pioneered by Crockett, Jaime Lerner in Curitiba, Scott Bernstein in Chicago and others is thriving in large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. Julia Parzan, Sadhu Johnston, Douglas Farr, Jenita McGowan, Katherine Gajewski, and others have organized urban sustainability officers as an effective force for growing vision and building the capacity to act on it. The EcoDistrict and Transition Town movements are similarly enabling neighborhoods and smaller cities to reduce carbon emissions, develop community gardens, develop local enterprise, and rebuild self-reliant communities.

Political scientists, James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman propose parallel grass-roots efforts to revitalize democratic dialogue through “deliberation days” in which citizens come together in scheduled, organized dialogue on important issues. With proper facilitation and accurate information, people can talk through tough problems, narrow their disagreements, and sometimes forge common vision that transcends right and left.

In sum, vision can come from market trends, social movements, or powerful ideas at the right time. It can come from astute and committed leadership. It can come from grass roots deliberation and initiatives, or top-down─from laws and regulations. It comes in all sizes and shapes, in different places, cultures, and times. But we should not assume that grand visions are always benign. Exclusionary movements like Nazism flourish when the fabric of tolerance and decency is frayed by prolonged adversity.

To be effective, vision—whatever their source—must be transformed into the routine behavior of urban governments, institutions, and organizations. It must become the easy and normal thing to do, and that requires recalibrating prices, taxation, regulation, financial management, public spending, information flows, and incentives to ecological realities. That, in turn, requires a supportive civic culture capable of anticipation, learning, and collective action.

Meanwhile, back in Oberlin, we are not trapped in a burning building. But we do live, like everyone else, in the equivalent of a burning building at a planetary scale. That is to say, in a world warming rapidly from too much fire. Against that hard reality, we are creating another vision of the City and an inclusive local economy powered by sunlight and efficiency (described throughout this issue). To have any chance of success in a hotter, stormier, steamier, buggier, and drought-stricken world, we must come together on higher ground. In Oberlin, we began with the practical and feasible objective of developing a concrete plan to wean ourselves from all fossil fuels. But we will need also to become increasing self-reliant and ecologically competent. We will need to relearn how to grow a large part of our food sustainably. We need to raise a generation of leaders—some of whom are presently unemployed, underutilized, undereducated, and drifting. We need their energy, their smarts, and their hearts hitched to a future that they help to dream and build. We need citizens who know how the world works as a physical system and who understand how, when, and where to intervene in complex systems to cause the right kinds of change at the right time. We need peacemakers, dreamers, doers, and wise elders. We need people who make charity and civility the norm. We need more parks, farmers’ markets, bike trails, baseball, book groups, poetry readings, good coffee, conviviality, practical competence, and communities where the word “neighbor” is a verb, not a noun. We need people who know and love this place and see it whole and see it for what it can be.