The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

One of the crowning achievements of the CBC are the Massey Lectures.  It’s hard to believe this is the same public broadcaster now airing its new Tokyo-by-Night Ginza-District inspired newscast.  Canadian ethno-botanist, Wade Davis, gave this year’s talks – aired this past week – and they were truly astounding, as good or even better than Ronald Wright’s 2004 Lectures, A Short History of Progress.   

As a renewable energy entrepreneur I have become accustomed to speaking in the language of Mammon: return on investment, net present value, payback periods, internal rates of return, capital cost allowance rates.  It was not without reason that Jesus threw the money-lenders out of the temple.  

It is a language I am not unaccustomed to, having an MBA from a school increasingly regarded as one of the best in the world (evidently just after Cambridge and Wharton now) as its brochures never fail to tell me, but I speak this language out of self-preservation.  And while I know the words and models, I am finding that as time passes, the concepts become more abstract and disconnected from reality.  

Earlier this year a friend of mine brought me blueberries – blueberries so intensely indigo blue and so incredibly small and so far removed from the agri-corp engineered macro-blobs of blue lard we call blueberries in the grocery store as to be indescribable - from the north shore of the St. Lawrence where she spent much of the spring and summer with whales swimming past her front porch in the morning.  It’s Innu land.  

And she brought me herbal teas, packed in brown paper bags, as well.  Medicine in brown paper bags.  

I’ve heard Dene speakers and writers say that if they were to disappear and new people were to take over their traditional land, that the newcomers would become Dene because the land would make them so.  

Alternate possibilities

Davis’ lectures are timely.  As we talk about species and ecosystem extinction, we are also extinguishing cultures and languages at an astonishing rate.  Every language and culture we make extinct is a unique way of looking at the world, a unique store-house of myth and legend, each as relevant and deserving of survival as our own.  Old growth forests of the mind; a vehicle by which the soul of a people come into the world; a watershed of thought; an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.  This is what Davis calls language and culture. 

The issue is one of basic human rights.  It is a profoundly moral issue.  Our issues are now almost all profoundly ethical and spiritual in nature as we conclude a 5,000 year experiment and make the epochal transition from the Age of Plenty to the Age of Scarcity. 

If the world is only seen through the eyes of the strictly utilitarian – stone-age people standing in the way of progress and land that can be used/monetized in a “productive” way -  what we are saying is that nothing is sacred.  If nothing is sacred then nothing is magical.  If nothing is magical, we have lost our ability to be astonished.  If we have lost our ability to be astonished, we have become, somehow, less human.

I understand that many people would consider this to be naïve, romantic, impractical. But try as I might I can’t possibly think of anything more naïve, romantic or impractical as thinking that, for instance, markets are efficient, or that economic growth can be continuous, or that by growing the economy we magically lift people out of poverty when the balance of evidence indicates that poverty is actually greatly exacerbated wherever and whenever we have tried to force western industrialization upon traditional societies.  

When you live in poverty for years at a time, you get a lot of opportunity to meditate on what our society considers failure.  The civilizations we are wiping out are not failed expressions of humanity.  

Davis talks about the 10,000 cultures and languages on the planet.  If there are 9,999 other ways of viewing the world completely different from that of western-techno-industrial man, it means that there are other ingenious ways of living and being.  The destructiveness of western industrial society therefore is not the inevitable outcome of the trajectory of history.  We have living proof that we can change. 

Romantic and naive ideas

Everyday it becomes clearer and clearer that the sustainability movement is morphing into the “clean-tech” movement - the new Eldorado.  

We are missing a fundamental idea: the sustainable economy is supposed to be about living in a sustainable manner.  And it’s becoming abundantly clear that clean-tech isn’t supposed to be about sustainability, it’s about former dotcom smoothies and toxic hedge-fund financiers packaging another IPO in a field-of-bad-dreams-build-it-and-they-shall-come-whether-it-works-or-not remake of 1999. 

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way.   Sustainability can be about enhanced prosperity for all if we merely evolve the idea of what we consider prosperity to be.   

A romantic and naïve idea?  

Far less so than thinking we can grow our economy forever, that our economic model is the natural and inevitable outcome of the wave of history and that we live in a universe  free of consequence. 

Gabriel Draven 

November 2009