Monday, April 5, 2010

800th Post: Desert Learning

We can learn a lot from deserts.

In those hot and inhospitable climates, plants demonstrate the kind of adaptability necessary to catch and store water, making them remarkable survivors in terrains seemingly unsuited for life.

The Saguaro Cactus, for example, uses its shallow but lengthy root system to gather water in a barren climate, encircling underground rocks to help keep itself upright.

Moreover, its trunk expands and contracts like an accordion to store water in preparation for the frequent droughts that punish the land.

Finally, its buds appear slowly -- the first arm forming after more than five decades. In this way, the Saguaro demonstrates patience, waiting until its root system is extended broadly enough to keep potentially 5,000 pounds of cactus upright in the wind.

Flexibility, outreach, and patience allow the Saguaro to stand between 35 and 50 feet tall and live 200 years, sometimes longer.

We can learn much from these desert survivors in today's arid climate of constraint. But first we must unlearn some long-taught lessons about scarcity.

Thriving amid Scarcity

Hamlet exclaimed, "I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space" -- if only, he added, one could be freed from one's many lamentations.

A modern lament that might surprise Hamlet is not our paucity of options but rather our excess of choice.

And, troublesomely, many of us presume that more choices are always better, that any constraint somehow harms us.

Research, however, suggests otherwise. Indeed, a number of fascinating psychological and economic studies suggest that too many options lead to paralysis.

As one researcher put it, “It is not clear that more choice gives you more freedom. It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices” (See NYT article, Too Many Choices).

Shakespeare suggested in Hamlet that our lamentations mingle with our limitations to place us in a nut shell, to "drive us nuts," one might say.

Yet those very limitations -- restrictions in budget, limits of power consumption, moral boundaries to our actions -- actually compel us to thrive.

A blank canvas, after all, forces us to deploy the infinite space of our imaginations, to think our ways out of the problems that bind us.

Look again at the picture of the person staring at a blank canvas. Perhaps this kind of thinking makes artists of us all.

Even so, as artists, what do we train ourselves to see?

What counts as real?

Think for a moment about the modern world -- what it means, what it does, what it costs...

When you close your eyes and fill an empty frame with the modern world, what do you see?

An Age of Artificiality

For me, an explosion of iconic images appear, each pulsing with the rhythm of Paul Simon's song, "Boy in the Bubble."

It was a dry wind,
And it swept across the desert
And it curled into the circle of birth...

These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires...
When I see the modern world, I see handheld computers that possess a power once contained in rooms, but I also see teeming masses of people crushed into urban slums. I see the simultaneous expansion and contraction of potential, and find it floating on the surface of killing paradox.

Perhaps that is the unsustainable reality of the modern world, how the real is lost amid the winds of unreality.

Today a tiny sliver of humanity imagines themselves living in a sailboat, one like Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel, a fantasy in which you can play tennis while teetering in the air.

This blessed portion of people -- and you might consider yourself one of them -- floats upon the roiling waters, seeing only blue sky and endless promise.

The Desert of the Real

Occasionally though, fortuitously, we see things as they are. And we shiver, even in the growing heat, as the sky turns orange.

We know something meaningful is happening, oddly, frighteningly, because we cannot tell whether the light portends a dawn to the new world, or the gloaming of its imminent nightfall.

Beyond our brilliant and optimistic cities, the desert expands, kicking up hot breezes and hurling the dust at the gates: a barbarous future with which we cannot reckon via the anesthetizing balm of abstraction.

Modernity meets its end, William Butler Yeats wrote this in The Second Coming, when "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world..."

In Beijing, another sandstorm, one of an increasing number produced by decades of environmental degradation, recently dumped tons of dirt and grit into the capital city of a nation foretold by some futurists as the capital of the 21st century.

It's a cruel irony that a nation with so many resources and resilient people, looking ahead to tomorrow from the gleaming towers of Beijing and Shanghai, must also look backward to the words of an author we in Silicon Valley know well, John Steinbeck.

Dustbowls, we find, aren't merely a thing of 1930s Americana.

An article from The Huffington Post states, "China's expanding deserts now cover one-third of the country because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought." And that dust is not limited to a distant land. It flies all over the world on the winds of commerce and war and microsecond thinking.

China turns away from the desert, but the desert advances on us all.

In his book, Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard imagined the desert in a way we recognize, not only as engineers or artists, but as citizens of a world that seems increasingly covered with the dust and grit of modernity, the detritus of mental maps that no longer represent the world in any meaningful way.

We survey our horizons along electronic grids and layout endless cities of fantasy. These are sustainable to the extent that the current of power flows up and down the spines of people and cities.

But upon what, really, do we stand? How long can our cities endure on foundations of sand?

Of this world, Baudrillard writes:
Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory -- precession of simulacra -- it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

The desert can teach us something about the fate of the modern world. Walking upon its hot, dry surface, we learn that sustainability is not simply about technology; it is both an expanse and an expense of the imagination.

Yet as we constrain our gaze to the cities we build, we kill the lifegiving reality upon which all human inventions are founded. Our cities grow and our minds shrink.

Our mental canvases must stretch beyond the limits of the world that we know. We must visualize an age no longer defined solely by our cities, which are parched and dying at the desert's edge. We must re-imagine ourselves with more permanent things.

After nightfall, Polaris appears to us, fixed in the northern sky. Stars pinwheel, the universe turns, and things change. But survivors stand tall in the dark, amid all transformations.

The North Star in the firmament and the cactus in the desert speak to us in different ways, even though they share the same message. They have something to teach us here.

The kind of sustainable thinking calls upon us to rethink our values...

... starting first with what lasts.

Photo Credits: Sunset flora in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona: Photograph by Andrew Wood. Person staring at a blank canvas: Photograph by Johnny Mobasher Street Photography. Burj Al Arab Hotel next to sailboat on the water: Photograph borrowed from ETF Trends. Burj Tennis Court: Photograph borrowed from Travel Around the World. Orange dust covers Beijing: Photograph by Markus Källander. Megadunes of sand that resemble waves: Photograph by NASA. Children play on computers next to a huge window upon a city: Photograph borrowed from The Librarian's Guide to Gaming. Stars pinwheel over Saguaro cacti: Photograph by Jenny and Andrew Wood.

No comments: