Monday, August 11, 2008

Teaching Sustainability

In a few weeks I'll be teaching a lower-level Introduction to Ethics course, and one of the texts I'm using is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. The book is not particularly philosophical, so I'll provide the classical ethics material separately--Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and Mill.

I hope that what this book will provide are some concrete and pertinent questions that are still unanswered about how individuals should live and how societies can organize themselves around ethical goals. The book seems fairly (though not entirely) neutral as far as the American political spectrum goes. That is, conservative communitarians may find something attractive about McKibben's emphasis on communities, and some liberals may be squeamish about the nonchalance with which personal liberties and life goals take second place to community traditions.

One thing that reviewers have noted is the Vermontesque quaintness of so many of McKibben's examples and tropes. Farmer's markets, bike paths, eco-communes.

About those farmer's markets. McKibben uses Farmer's Markets as a unifying trope. When something works well and promotes sustainability, it's like a farmer's market. But how useful is this metaphor, even to those of us who do shop at a Public Market?

Even the Internet, McKibben says, is kind of like a Farmer's Market (p. 174).
This gets it backward!
What is more central to my experience, to my students' experience? the Internet? or the farmer's market?
Well, obviously.
And as much as I see the reason behind McKibben's fixation on farmer's markets to illustrate local exchange, it leads him to overlook the power of technological infrastructure in determining higher-level structures like economies. (Besides, it comes off as Ludditism.)

The Internet, with its redundant and open architecture, has taught us much about the qualities that make networks work. In particular, what has been innovative about the internet is how it is distributed and accessible. It has created networks where people exchange ideas and labor, not always for economic reasons (think of open source software, Flickr, blogs).

If farmer's markets are the model for the future, it is some of the features that they share with the internet which we should be noticing: low cost of entry, low investment in infrastructure, open to the public, personal, and offering a diversity of goods.

Likewise, it makes sense to think of distributed power generation as modeling the Internet: a flexible infrastructure that accepts multiple types of power inputs, can track microcosts, directs the commodity in the most efficient path, and is resilient against localized failures.


Khadimir said...

Internet or farmer's markets?

I would prefer the farmer's market--despite my elite cyberness--because that metaphor preserves the sanctifying aspect of social organization. The human. Hence, I am very hesitant to accede to your preference for technological metaphors, for they shed the human into the second tier very quickly. I note that your subsequent use of metaphor continues on this track--you mention technological characteristics and suggest that human sociability be modeled on them. Hence, your preference for a certain metaphor shades its way into being more than a metaphor.

One would have to pry my laptop from my cold, dead hands before I'll give up technology, but I would be more concerned about where technological-thinking leads us.

Evelyn Brister said...

My main point is that using the Internet is more central to most people's experience than shopping at farmer's markets. And if you want people to get jazzed about a new paradigm, then it should be explained in terms they already understand.

What percentage of McKibben's audience regularly shops at farmer's markets? It may be significant, but it's not as many people as use the internet.

Moreover, people's experience of farmer's markets is varied to a larger degree than he may realize from his quaint home in Vermont. In my hometown, the farmer's market is 3 rusty pickup trucks in a vacant lot next to the railroad tracks selling wilted mustard greens on Wednesday afternoons, when the temperature is likely to be 98 degrees.

And that's where McKibben's metaphor breaks down: how exactly is the Internet like that farmer's market?