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Speech on Sustainability – A vision of the good life

By 15 April, 2010 No Comments
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I’m posting here the text of a speech I gave to the League of Women Voters in Atlanta last fall.   It is not about Las Catalinas – but the concepts are.   In fact the story that is at the heart of it I adopted from a piece I wrote back in 2006 about an imaginary day in the Las Catalinas of the future.

I think it makes some important points.   I hope you enjoy.

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League of Women Voters

Oct. 1, 2009

What if you could wake up tomorrow morning, walk out onto your terrace, and look out over the beautiful, compact town where you live.   It is early.   The gentle noises of the waking town drift up to you.   You smell the bread baking in the bakery.   Birds are singing.   The bell on the town hall rings out the hour.   But there are no car noises.   There are no cars in your town.   And no bloody leaf blowers either, by the way!

You are the first one up in the house, so you head out.   In the town square you buy some fresh bread, and fresh peaches picked early that morning in the orchard at the edge of town.   You see several friends.   Because you know this place, and these people.   This is your town!   You visit with your friends for a few minutes before heading back home.

By now your children, those adorable seven year old twins, are up.   After a quick breakfast including the peaches, which are so good you can hardly stand it, they wave goodbye and walk off to school.

Taking advantage of the quiet moment in the house, (and the fact that you are not driving anyone anywhere!) you and your husband, well, you have an intimate opportunity.   Which I am sure you will not squander!

But then it is off to work.   You and your husband walk together back past the bakery.   He gives you a wickedly romantic kiss and hops on his bike to ride to his job in the bigger town down the valley.   You walk a couple of blocks more to your office.

You work.   I won’t say what your job is, as I fear I am on the verge of making this story too personal already.   But you work.   And you like it.   The fresh air from the open window is sweet and smells like summer.   As noon approaches you head back to the town square and meet your Friday lunch hiking group.  And off you go.

One thing about your town – at the edge of town, it is the edge of town!   No strip malls.   No office parks.   No Wal-Mart.   Nature.   Beautiful farms, forest, and overlooking town – one large hill.   Which is where you go.   It is a 1,000 foot climb.   You can remember how hard that used to seem when you first moved here.   But now – you don’t even break a sweat.

While hiking I’m sure you are chatting madly in the way that women always seem to do when hiking and men never seem to do.   But never mind that.   You have fun.   You pick up a sandwich on the way back to the office and settle back into work.

Your husband, that athletic hunk, gets off work early today so he can coach the twins soccer game.   You walk over to the fields for a late- afternoon break to say hello, but then go back to finish up your day’s work.

Afterwards you walk over to a lakefront café for a drink.   Some friends are there – there always are – and you relax with a glass of wine until your hunk husband and children come by.   You are all invited to a neighbor’s house for dinner, so off you go.   Perhaps you are briefly distracted by the fact that your host seems just as handsome and charming as your husband, but we are not letting this story go there!

Then afterwards, you are all back to the lakeshore for a mid-summer sunset.   Children play.   Friends talk.   Lovers kiss.   Birds fly.   Fish jump.   The sun sets.   Then off you go.   Hand in hand.   Past the still lively square.   Up your quiet street.   Home.

When Tracey-Ann Nelson asked me to speak here today, she suggested that I talk about How to live sustainably in Tough Economic Times. My immediate thought was: “Buy less stuff!”   Which works pretty well.   But there is more to it than that.

And living more sustainably does not mean deprivation and suffering.   Or at least it doesn’t have to mean that.   Maybe what we need is a new vision of what the good life is all about

And that, of course, was the point of my story.   The good life!   What is the good life?

The dominant vision of what the good life has meant in our country in recent decades has been about things like exclusivity, privacy, a bigger and bigger house, a bigger and bigger yard, and a bigger and bigger car.   Your own stuff!   Your own PRIVATE stuff!   It is almost like the ultimate vision of the good life would be to be as far as possible from any other human beings.

Let’s go back to the story.   Hopefully that sounded like a pretty nice day to many of you!   It sounded pretty good to me!   But let’s look at it a little more closely.   What kind of house does our character live in?   We don’t know.   It could be a big mansion.   It could be a modest apartment.   It doesn’t really matter – and that is the point.   She’s having a great day either way.   What kind of car does she have?   Apparently she doesn’t have one.   What other cool stuff does she have?   I don’t know.   Some hiking shoes, I guess.

Let’s think about her ecological footprint.   Let’s see.   Eats locally grown food.   Does not drive.   Walks everywhere.   Lives in a compact town disturbing very little natural habitat.   Apparently doesn’t buy lots of stuff.         A+!

What else?   She has friends, and she gets to see them.   She is healthy and fit.   She has work.   She has family.   She eats good fresh food.   She has time – primarily because she doesn’t fritter it away driving all day!   She is surrounded by beauty.   A beautiful town.   Beautiful nature at the edge of town.   I think beauty is underrated, and can make a huge difference in our lives.

And her children.   Her children get to actually go out into the world on their own!   Wow, what an incredible blessing that would be.

Surely this woman has a pretty fantastic life!  Is it expensive?   Not at all.   Is it sustainable?   Couldn’t be better.

I want to promote a different vision of the good life .   It is not about vast quantities of private possessions.   It is about experiences.   It is about being connected.   It is about being healthy.   It is about having time.   It is VASTLY more sustainable.   It is more fun!   It is more fulfilling.   It comes in big city versions and small town versions.   It comes in versions for married with children, and versions for single and sexy.   It comes in versions for all ages.

In my line of work we talk about the private realm and the public realm.   The vision of the good life that I would like you to consider is about a rich public realm.   In this vision, when you walk out your door, you are somewhere!   You walk down to the corner, and there is a café.   There are people!   People you know, in fact.   And some you don’t.   Children can walk to school.   Older people can stroll.   You don’t need to get in your car every single time you want to do something.   And you can have a great life without having so much stuff!   It is way cheaper!   But it is richer.

Think about the story.   This woman has a great life!   I’m envious!   But as far as we can see her material possessions are minimal.   She has a great life because she lives in a place where a rewarding and sustainable lifestyle works.   And she is taking full advantage of it!

But back to the story.   There is a big problem with it!   This place where she lives is totally illegal!   Where are the mandatory parking spaces for the bakery?   And zoning requires that we separate those commercial uses from the residential.   And those narrow pedestrian streets?   Forget it!   How are they going to accommodate our semi-trailer sized fire trucks?   It’s illegal!

And, I’m cheating, you might say.   Children walking to school by themselves!   Impossible!    Well, I did it.   From the first day of first grade.   I have a picture of that day.   And I’m certain that a lot of you my age or older did too.   Back before we so thoroughly locked ourselves away from the other people, back before we’d designed everything for cars instead of people, back before we’d let our public realm wither so badly – it seemed totally natural.   And it could again.   But not in a land of cul-de-sac subdivisions and strip malls and regulations that say every school has to have 40 acres of empty land and oceans of parking surrounding it.   In that world – you are driving your kids to school, and everywhere else they go too.

And by the way, if it sounds like I am picking on the car – I am.   When everything is designed around the car, when it is just assumed that everybody drives for every single thing they do – as it has been the case for several decades,  it is IMPOSSIBLE to create the really sustainable, really delightful good life that I would like to see flourish.   Cars have a special culpability in all this.   They burn a huge amount of energy.   They pollute the air.   They make the streets unsafe for people who are walking or biking.   They just take up so much room!   And perhaps worst of all – they make us into jerks when we drive them!

Back to the story!   There is another way I’m cheating, you might say.   The characters in my story are too fit!   Walking and biking everywhere!   Normal people would get tired!   Well, there IS a connection to health and fitness in all this.   A big one!   Our current way of life makes people fat!!   If there is no walking and exercise involved in your daily life – yikes.   That ain’t natural!   For me one of the great joys of a more sustainable lifestyle is getting around under my own power.   I love it – it is fantastic.   There is something almost magical about it – in a healthy animal sort of way.

We need to adopt a more sustainable way of life.   Technology can be part of the answer.   Hey, I’m sort of a technology guy and I am optimistic about technology contributing greatly to a sustainable future.   But I don’t think it can get us all the way there.   We NEED a more sustainable vision of the good life.   It doesn’t have to be a hardship – maybe it can be the catalyst to a richer, healthier, more connected, more satisfying life.

So what can you do about it?   I realize that car-free neighborhoods where your children can safely walk to school are a bit scarce around Atlanta now.   And it did look like a bit of a sacrifice to try to get here today without driving.   Did anyone come here today by any means other than a car?   Anyone?

It took us a long time to make the world we live in today.   It will take some time to remake it into something more sustainable.   So you do what you can.   I drive my daughters to school.   But I do get to take my son to kindergarten in a bike trailer.   And maybe for this meeting next year, you could have it in a place that was more reachable by transit.

And maybe one way to experience something close to this more sustainable version of the good life I’m talking about is to do it when you travel.   Spend some time somewhere where you aren’t going to have to drive, where there is a rich and beautiful public realm.   Where it is safe for children to go out and about on their own.   These places still exist – and maybe they will inspire you to find ways to bring elements of that lifestyle back here to Atlanta.   That’s really what got me so interested in this topic.   Mainly these are old places build long ago.   But for my work these days I’m trying to build a new one – in Costa Rica.   It can be done!

So what does this have to do with the power of the vote?   Well, the extent to which a more sustainable lifestyle can be delightful, or practical, or even possible is very much a public issue.   It is in the end decided mainly via politics.   By voting.   So vote wisely.

And thank you for having me here today.   It is an honor and a privilege.   Thank you Tracey-Ann.   Thank you for being such a generous audience.

Goodbye.

Charles Brewer

Author Charles Brewer

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