Calling Local Leaders

Pandemic, unemployment, climate change—what can we do that will effectively address each? Each requires leadership. Let us bolster local communities by taking the charge of local leadership seriously. If you’re up to it, consider where it is lacking and provide it. Learn as you go. Set about the improvement of your leadership each day.

Beyond the need for leadership, there are patterns shared by each of these crises, common ground in which their problems are rooted. Why not deploy solutions that are similarly rooted, that address important aspects common to each of them?

Perhaps the pandemic can be addressed by people newly employed for exactly that purpose, to address the pandemic. Their address could build up the social infrastructure required to then address climate change.

I’m certainly not the first to be the first thinking along these lines. After all, it could be called ‘a beautiful idea’. I can hear it now, that statement, “It’s a beautiful idea,” as though that were the end of it. Truth be told, there seems to be a lot more idea people than there are action people today.

Yet the capacity may be there, dormant, awaiting an awakening. How many leaders are not yet leaders just yet?

Let’s awaken that in ourselves, in our local communities. If we have coherent leadership, leadership that can see us through shocking and novel times, we can go a long ways to competently address more than just the pandemic, unemployment, and climate change. We can go even further.

But leadership involves action, not just talk. And where are the leaders today? They aren’t getting the media coverage we might like them to have. They are in the trenches, doing the work. Chances are, they don’t have time for self-indulgent political games.

What is the approval rating right now?

More than half of Americans disapprove of how the president, supposed leader of the free world, has been handling the most recent crisis.

The only risk in amplifying the voices of leadership in our local areas is that we might undermine the totalitarian dreams of those who seek to centralize all our systems and reap the benefits for themselves while we take the cost.

Local leaders, stand up. Set your villages and cities to task in their own improvement, and share the benefit of your learning with the world. Reach out to one another, invigorate greater and greater regions together, never forgetting that things can get so bad if we allow ourselves to backslide.

[edited: typo correction]

What’s Going On?

We’ve been inside for weeks.

It’s interesting to ponder the sort of blur it has been, not only this pandemic, but also the dynamics of our life for some time now.

There were a few times much earlier on, in the weeks before the WHO pandemic declaration, where the idea of going for a walk on city trails during the day, so long as it was done with caution, this was not so unthinkable. Wearing gloves, glasses, and a ultra-basic dust mask (“better than nothing”, I thought, “much better”), all while keeping our distance from others, it seemed pragmatically adequate at the time. We would really steer clear of people.

We live in the city, and my wife and I had just put some of the finishing touches on collecting a preparedness kit:

  • acetaminophen,
  • dextromethorphan HCL,
  • guaifenesin,
  • an extra bottle of bleach,
  • and so on.

Especially since our water had been shut off several times since moving here, unannounced and lasting for hours on at least one occasion, we made sure to have enough water on hand for each of us to go for a certain period of time.

I arranged a combined grocery order for several households, one that I could pickup without leaving the car, because I wanted to minimize risk in our circles and I just didn’t have any reason to believe the folks in the other households would find it such second-nature to as neurotically hygienic about the processes as I was. I thought it much better (and ultimately more convenient for myself, as I would undoubtedly be involved in the looming possibility of needing to care for an ill person in our circles, shedding the virus and putting unprotected others at grave risk), I thought it much better to just get all the grocery needs for each household handled in one go, using only one of the scarce grocery pickup time slots rather than four or five—also ensuring that other families in the neighborhood would have access to the other time slots that might have been taken up by each individual household acting alone.

Well, the grocery store changed a policy about order modifications and gave no notice—at least, no notice that I was aware of—so our first order was botched. See, I would first place an initial order with only a few items to secure the grocery pickup time slot, and for a certain number of days, I was supposed to be able to modify the order with additional items (i.e., the orders from other households). And on the day that I was to enter the other household’s grocery orders, I found that the system was now locking me out from modifications. The policy had changed overnight.

I couldn’t put the other families out into the fray at that time. I knew government orders were lagging behind the reality, and the risk was greater than people realized. It was then clear to me I would soon be shopping for several households among throngs of people.

Before I started group grocery orders, when we were self-isolating before it became mandatory, even the dust mask felt uneasy those first few times when we would go out for a rare walk in the more open spaces around here. You could feel that it made for discomfort in others, or so it seemed, a kind of gawking resentment of the situation, sometimes combined with dismissive expressions, as though I were the fool for wearing a mask. People were accustomed to Asian folks wearing masks around the city from long before the pandemic, but a white guy? Perhaps it was in my imagination, sometimes. It wasn’t merely imagined all of the time though. The one bittersweet exception to either apparent indifference or haughty disdain, as I went about last-minute errands in that paper mask, was overhearing a child in a parking garage, upon seeing me, exclaim to his mother, “See, he has one!” gesturing and looking up at her as if to say, “Don’t you see, we need masks, Mom!” It saddened me, the hypothetical play of ideas and feeling there, if only because I myself have experienced dismissal of my concerns many times, particularly about safety—for example, on job sites while working with dangerous machinery and precarious earthworks, on virtual job sites working with sensitive data, and back in high school, for example in 2010 when my senior paper and presentation on the various purposes and contemporary downfall of higher education in the United States elicited a sort of response that was not merely dismissive, rather, it had the tone of, “How dare you cut against this grain?” (Incidentally, safety at the table saws has been a concern before as well.)

Anyway, now I don’t go out the door without donning a P95 half-face respirator. I was originally saving the priceless unused filters I had on hand for the unfortunate possibility of caring for someone who was sick in our extended group. But at the time of that first botched grocery order all the households, there was no social distancing at play in the store, no taped lines on the floor or further separation of checkout queues from their usual proximity. And everyone seemed to be there when I drove by to check it out before going, at a time with no lines out the door or enforced maximum customers per square foot, they were toppling over each other with absolutely no one wearing masks except some Asian women and men.

I couldn’t risk getting the bug for various reasons, so I opened up a pack of filters and placed them in the cartridges that would soon eclipse my cheeks, I donned my safety goggles with a sort of eyebrow seal, and I proceeded to shop and deliver for an afternoon. It wasn’t just a simple white dust mask anymore, a flimsy paper mask that might have fooled a few people into thinking it was the real McCoy N95; no, this was going out in the kind of visually striking hazmat gear that elicits the same kind of low-resolution reactionary response in many people as the strictly visual heuristic they associate with “assault weapons”. (Remember, any weapon can be an assault weapon—ornate or brutal though its aesthetics may be.)

To many people I’m sure that, in a word, I looked scary.

Now we’re talking about UFOs, the economy is by all accounts under massively disruptive and dangerous dynamics, and visionary leadership seems almost as lacking as oxygen in orbit.

I really don’t care for this phrase any more, “Now more than ever”, but it is clear that, now more than ever, this “we the people” crowd needs to cultivate its inner capacities not only to discern what is going on “out there” beyond ourselves, but to operate well regardless of necessarily not knowing what is going on out there.

Serious Gardening

On this Memorial Day, 2019, with my head still spinning from the shattering blows of back-to-back war documentaries — and from solemn reflections on the humble veterans of my own life, both living and dead — I am not even a little surprised to find my brain rebelling at all the peril and death and misery of which we are capable; instead, the old noggin seems to be steering my attention toward the decidedly creative: the art of gardening.

I remember from my last semesters in school, many years ago now, that there were several weeks of a writing class where I studied gardening from an unusual angle, namely, how gardening techniques and their associated philosophies spread throughout parts of Europe and Asia up to the twentieth century. I was specificallly interested in what could be called “official gardening”; in other words, I spent considerable time to research historical material about the various gardens that were commissioned by government officials. I discovered an interesting form of oneupmanship there.

There was an endearing and peerlessly peaceful sort of international competition found around such official gardens, a kind of sportsman-like competition that predated the modern Olympic Games, and I remember it seeming like such a curious alternative to the other kinds of more grave competition that might have taken place, for instance the kinds of nuclear brinkmanship that would eventually infuse the global consciousness with chronic, razor’s edge terror. Long before Szilard theorized about nuclear chain reactions, Eurasian diplomats and travelers of other sorts noted the splendid gulf between European garden styles, with their stalwart geometries and orderly design, and the more organic aesthetics of their Chinese counterparts, flowing more riverlike, more “effortlessly” in ways that the aesthetics of western minds were unaccustomed to encountering.

For those with the benefit of exploring such environments — in this case, of seeing many gardens of English, French, and Chinese origin — of course we can deduce that they were afforded an uncommonly valuable perspective in the world of gardening, one capable of interweaving inspiration from each style. To entertain the great variety of each tradition of course broadened the frontiers that emerging gardeners were able to cultivate. Just as musicians who have the benefit of being around a great variety of other musicians, able to take what they hear and add it to the pallate of their imagination, thereafter generating new forms of music, the designers who were afforded impressions of gardens from farflung cultures were able to meander about the edges between the familiar and these striking new encounters, pick the fruit found therein, and they were able to cultivate the seeds of inspiration there, turning them to new forms of gardening that infused practical and aesthetic sensibilities from beyond their usual bounds and borders.

I used to live in a rural, smalltown environment, my childhood home surrounded by forests and farms and vast spaces where people were rarely seen; but I live in Toronto now, a city that makes much of its globally representative diversity, often called the most diverse city of the world. Here you can find persons from all walks of life and in all manners of expression; indeed, new forms of art and science are being concocted here as I write these words. Worldwide it is an unprecedented time for the inventive spirits among us, and it is so much more so for those who are able to tap into the rich networks of cities such as this, because the various forms of intelligence at play here, and their capacity to garner the attention of many people in a local area, perhaps in an immersive sort of experience; this is an important part of why we might consider these metropolises to be the petri dishes of tomorrow’s civilization.

It was not too long, maybe a year after my studying “official gardens”, that I encountered the design method and practice known as permaculture. Permaculture is an approach to systems that encourages an awareness of and thoughtful engagement with the natural systems that already abound in our day-to-day environments. In this way, it is a design method that works with nature cooperatively, that is biomimetic. (Biomimetics shares the stage with terms such as biomimicry and bionics, but I think biomimetics wins out for reasons too esoteric to bother with here.)

Essentially, biomimetics is the use of natural systems to inspire the design of new systems (or modelling of and interventions in what systems already exists). A rather common example of this is using the evolutionarily developed optical properties of the Blue Morpho butterfuly to develop an entirely new kind of electronic display technology, a really existing technology that is on the market now, allowing people to read a digital display clearly in full sunlight without using much energy at all. Pretty incredible stuff. Another quintessential example is the aerodynamic design of Japan’s maglev trains, inspired by a diving bird’s shape, if I recall correctly. The avian-inspired design both improved energy efficiency and helped to avoid the unacceptable sonic booms that were happening with the first generation trains as they exited tunnels along their path.

In all this thinking about official gardens, observant design methods, and the brutal agonies of war, I should recognize the very human tendency toward conflict and competition, and I should like to steer us well as I can toward the ripe abundance that awaits us if we are to compete within regenerative contexts rather than those tired old paradigms of power: command and control.

Ours is an age of yielding control intelligently, of cultivating the conditions such that we can do so in good conscience; and those who cling to most traditional symbols of control will be surely disappointed while their lenswork is proven unnecessarily distorted again and again. Some of our most important institutions are both crumbling from within and under attack from without, besieged by both indifference and wildly misinformed antagonisms, and our social fabric is horrifyingly frayed for it. I cannot help but ask questions like, “What if the superpowers of the world competed once again the realm of gardening?”

So many more ideas abound, but it is late, and the sun is down. You’ll hear from me again, I’m sure.

[This article was edited 2019-06-12 to correct the typo misspelling of Szilard’s surname. I regret the error.]