q. i. f.?

novus ordo

I’m in Virginia for a few days, since Friday evening, spending time with family. I grew up in Maryland, a short way north, but I am a Virginian by birth, and as my parents’ families come from (and have tended to remain in) the state, generations back, southward travel ‘home’ is a fact of my life from earliest memory. For a couple of years now (as the regular reader knows), I’ve been living in New York; and the increased distance is something more than physical. But then too, my parents have at last made the long-planned move back to Virginia, where my siblings already were (apart from a brother in North Carolina); with no family to go back to in Maryland, Virginia is more ‘home’ now, in a way, than it was even when it was I who was resident here for a while some years back.

This post isn’t about being a native in some terms, though, so much as it is about having a certain American sense about place and time. Being a Virginian (to the extent that I am) gives that a particular color, and it comes into what’s to follow here, but I don’t mean to pretend that I have anything very special to say about Virginia, or about Americanness for that matter. What I do have to say is something in development, something undergoing re-orientation, as previous posts will suggest. It’s the evolution I want to note, not something uncommon in my views.

wait, there’s more.

At an individual level, I think the “distracted Americans” scare will pass. Either people who manage to unplug, focus, and fully direct their attention will have an advantage over those constantly checking Facebook and their smart phone, in which case they’ll earn more money, get into better colleges, start more successful companies, and win more Nobel Prizes. Or they won’t, in which case distraction will be a trait of modern life but not necessarily a defect. At the level of national politics, America is badly distracted, but that problem long predates Facebook and requires more than a media solution.

Sustained concentration has never been a strong point with me, particularly, and if anything’s made that a more severe problem for me in the last five to fifteen years, I can’t help doubting, at age 40, that it’s technological at root. So I’m inclined toward the author’s, Fallows’, view, here — as at other places in his new Atlantic piece. I’m uncomfortable with his larger suggestion, on the other hand, that the responsible elements in his industry should get on with ‘facing the inevitability of the shift to infotainment.’ In what’s become (over the past century or two) our mainstream journalism ethic, I prefer the conservative & inertial to the entrepreneurial, innovational side. I still look with hope to the potential in modern media to serve as check against sudden moves of culture — accelerative & decelerative alike.

‘What are we becoming by way of our tools & practice — technological evolution?’ is obviously as important a question as it’s ever been. But the greater question is still ‘Who do we want to be?’ I wonder if I’m beginning to see clearly something of my dissatisfaction with accounts of societal development that focus on the pace & complexity of our predominant machinery of connection & disconnection. They’re impressive pictures, these accounts, frequently enough, but they don’t tell enough of the story. There’s more to us than our media.

Not that some steady proportion of us wanting somehow to be good & whole will certainly lead to cultural elevation (or even just, say, reliable journalism). Nor that lacking the right sort of desire in sufficient quantity, we’ll certainly go to the devil. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that.

In other words, First Things defiantly refuses to accept the diminished condition of print today. The object you hold in your hands must be a pleasure to hold and read — or what good is a printed journal, with the cacophony of the Web sounding all around us? . . . [B]eauty, and text, and content, and presentation, and the experience of reading all matter — and matter greatly, to us and to the world in which we live.

Joseph Bottum, in an editorial sound-off upon the newly redesigned First Things. It does feel good to hold in your hands and read this revamped mag, it has to be said. Will that translate to an enduring position in the evolving marketplace? I certainly can’t say, but right now I like Bottum and his team.

Shortly before cheerily whisking away to another meeting, Rogers mentioned Roosevelt’s New Deal. Obama has it right in his view: seize the moment to invest in housing, transportation, public-works programs, public spaces, and public art. “The big thing is to do the good things, because you’ve got such a mess going on,” Rogers says. “Let’s deliver the physical things and the social things. Now’s the time.”

Think of the things it could mean for us, if things don’t take a wrong turn — poised as we are to realize the better things of our character — to become the thing the world’s looking for.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wa9b18z8xUk&hl=en&fs=1]

Cameron Sinclair presented his organization’s history & progress at MICA tonight for two hours, non-stop talking, to anybody who showed up to listen. Wasn’t all that well advertised — I learned of it word of mouth — but the hall was packed. If you get a chance to hear him about Architecture For Humanity and Open Architecture Network sometime, my feeling is it’s worth working your schedule to attend. Stirring stuff.

Baltimore has plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the great green hopes — and few are more outspokenly so than Morning Sunday Hettleman, president of the Maryland Environmental Justice Coalition. Hettleman argues that efforts to clean up the environment and rebuild the inner city since the 1970s have often left working people, and people of color, out in the cold. “Billions have been spent in Baltimore, supposedly to help us, and still it looks like a bomb went off. Where did the money go?” she asks. “The money went to consultants who live in Baltimore County. The money never made it down to the people.”
   Sitting in her drafty home in Waverly — weatherized, badly, by a city work crew, she notes — Hettleman and Dale Hargrave, a local contractor, make their prediction for the green economy, using history as their guide. “If you come back here in five years and ask, ‘Where did the green jobs go?’” Hettleman says. “Well, they went down I-95. They went down I-83. They went down I-695.”

From an article in the April Urbanite.

Pittsburgh is enjoying some good press, lately, for having been conservative about buildings and urban space. Now that growth and construction aren’t the givens they were in many parts of the country a year ago, it seems we’re going to be noticing elevation to model status of places where — perhaps for want of opportunity to build more aggressively — the emphasis in the last decade or so has been on consolidation rather than expansion. Especially noteworthy is that this core-ward development hasn’t slowed down, in spite of ‘negative growth’ in the overall economy.

From an AP article in The Sun, a week ago:

Since 2001, when Pittsburgh began actively working to bring residents downtown, the population has more than doubled, from barely 2,500 in 2000 to 5,174 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
   Currently, there are almost 1,500 occupied downtown units, not including student apartments. Within five years, that number is expected to rise to nearly 2,700, only including projects already planned, said Patricia Burk, vice president of housing and development at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.
   In cities such as Miami, Las Vegas and Phoenix, homes have lost more than 20 percent of their value since 2006, and new construction has largely come to a standstill.
   Here, however, developers say despite the shaky economy they have no qualms about building more units because they are selling what they have either on schedule or — in some cases — far faster than expected.

The NY Times focused on Pittsburgh’s standing as a leader for the much-touted, incipient ‘green economy’ in an article last Tuesday:

As it shrank, the city had relatively little new construction compared with many United States cities. But it was in the forefront of the movement to conserve existing structures and clean up the contaminated industrial sites called brownfields, becoming a leader in the field of sustainable building. That is now serving Pittsburgh well during the economic downturn.
   . . . The city’s commercial real estate market is relatively healthy. In the fourth quarter of 2008, Pittsburgh earned the top ranking in Moody’s Investors Service’s quarterly “Red-Yellow-Green” report on the state of commercial real estate in 60 major United States cities.
   Though the southwestern Pennsylvania metropolitan area is only the 22nd largest in the United States in terms of population, the city employed energy-efficient construction well ahead of larger cities. In 2005, Pittsburgh claimed more LEED-certified square footage . . . than anywhere else in the United States. As other cities have caught up, Pittsburgh now ranks seventh nationally in the number of buildings with such certification, according to the local Green Building Alliance.
   . . . “There was no government-driven agenda here,” said Rebecca Flora, former director of the Green Building Alliance and now senior vice president of education and research at the national Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that oversees the LEED program. “Pittsburgh’s doing green in a weak market city with existing building stock, and it’s done it without government programs.”

My first Nikon SLR aged with dignity. As the black paint began to chip, it revealed little glimpses of the brass body beneath, like denim fading to the texture of cashmere. I still have my father’s portable typewriter; the keys are rusted together, the ribbon is tattered, and it will never compose another letter. But I can’t bring myself to part with it. It lasted him half a lifetime.

From an article in Metropolis that begins, ‘There are two kinds of industrial designers.’ (Of course there are.)

Climate change prophet Bill McKibben, from an address given at Wellesley this spring (coinciding, I think, with launch of activism project 350.org), about three-quarters into the talk — my transcription. This is available from iTunes U (where I’m checking out a lot of sustainability-issues and related lecture material lately). Some of what McKibben says I’m quite sympathetic with, right off the bat — and some of it I’m rather more skeptical about. The segment warrants thoughtful dissection. I’d love to know, among other things, more about the “Are you happy?” poll structures and collected data. In any case, the idea linkages are done beautifully here, fascinating for brevity & interwovenness, and the whole address is well worth a critical listen.

I want to end by talking just a tad more philosophically than I’ve been talking so far. I want to talk about the real underlying change that I think needs to accompany what we’re doing. People ask me sometimes, “Are you hopeful about how this will come out?” . . . I’ve allowed myself to be a little more hopeful in the year just past, when I’ve seen, you know, religious communities start to take up this cause in real ways, when I’ve seen college — we have — 750 or 800 college presidents, now, have signed on to this commitment to make their campuses carbon neutral — um, you know, place after place we’re beginning to see that kind of real willingness to step up to the big dimensions of this challenge, to take risks, to move forward in that kind of way, and these are good things. But if we’re going to get through this small and closing window that we face, it’s only partly going to be because of the technological change, and only partly because of the new laws that we pass and the new economics that they promote. Those will be very important — nothing more important than putting a price on carbon so that markets can go to work on it in some useful way. But, but, it’s also going to require real change in how we understand who we are. That sounds grandiose. Look, fossil fuel, the abundance of cheap fossil fuel, did several things. One was to make us wealthy, one was to wreck our climate. The last was to make us, in this country, the first human beings in history who have essentially no need of our neighbors at all. Who live lives largely isolated from those around us. This is the work, the kind of intellectual work that I’ve been engaged in in the last few years, and it was sort of in this book, most recent book, Deep Economy. There’s an attempt to understand sort of how we got in the fix that we did. One of the great ironies of the last fifty years, this period of runaway consumption that now endangers the very fabric for geological time of our planet, is that it hasn’t made us as happy as one would think. In fact, to the contrary. Every year — since the end of World War II — one of the big national polling firms has asked Americans, “Are you happy with your life?” The number of Americans who say, “Yes, I’m very happy with my life,” peaks in 1956, and goes slowly but steadily down hill since. That’s very odd, because that downward curve coincides with a trebling in our material standard of living, over that same fifty years. If the world, if the economy worked kind of the way that we thought it did intuitively, those two curves should go in someplace the same direction; that they diverge like that is proof that something else is at work here. And that something else is linked, as it turns out, to that rise in affluence. What makes Americans depressed and sad is a growing sense of remarkable isolation and lack of connection to the communities around them. And that is no accident: how did we define the American Dream for the last fifty years? It was building bigger houses, farther apart from each other! That’s what our economy has more than anything else been about, in that fifty year period! That’s what the American Dream has been. How big a house can you build and how far away is it from the next house? You know? That had obvious environmental consequences. Takes a lot of energy to heat and light and cool, you know, a four thousand [square] foot structure or a two thousand [square] foot structure. But it also had real social consequences. When you were further apart from each other, you ran into each other less often. The average American has meals with friends and family half as often as they did fifty years ago. The average American has half as many close friends as they did fifty years ago. Because we’ve preoccupied ourselves with other stuff (and much of it’s been stuff). And it hasn’t been enough to compensate for that loss. That’s why it’s a really good thing that we start to see a little change coming. Maybe we’ve hit, kind of, bottom — and this new energy world that we’re moving into will help us move off that bottom. You know the fastest growing part of our food economy in this country for the last four or five years has been sales at local farmers’ markets. Growing twelve, fifteen percent a year, growing way faster than WalMart, you know? That’s good news environmentally, because, you know, our normal way of eating, which is to travel each bite of food fifteen hundred miles before it reaches our lips, is pretty energy-intensive. Uh, you know, um, it pretty much means that everything we eat arrives loving marinated in crude oil before it reaches our plates. But the real advantage, maybe, to those farmers’ markets is that it’s a different social experience to go to them. Couple years ago a pair of sociologists followed shoppers, first around the supermarket, then around a farmers’ market. You all’ve been to the supermarket, you know how it works, you walk in, you fall into a light fluorescent trance, you visit the stations of the cross around the supermarket, you emerge somehow with the same basket of items you had the week before. [audience laughter] When they followed people around the farmers’ market, they had ten times more conversations per visit than at the supermarket. Order of magnitude more conversations. It’s not a different way of getting calories, it’s a different way of being. Much closer to the way of being that humans have practiced to get their food since agriculture was invented — you know, in connection with the people who were growing your food and the other people around you. And it’s out of those kind of conversations and communities that grow the possibility for much further change, you know — that’s the kind of community that then can begin to maybe envision some mass transit, and some clustered housing, and all the other things that we’re going to need if we’re going to have any hope of dealing with this onslaught and in fact surviving, or coping with, those parts of that onslaught we cannot, at this point, derail. Strong communities are incredibly important. And one of those things those strong communities have to do is build a strong collective politics that moves us where we need to go.

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