Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Every idea you find within the pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS has been inspired by the same goal: the creation of a beautiful, abundant, healthy planet for future generations. We favor practical ideas that can be implemented by regular people in the real world. Those ideas always begin with a positive vision and a belief in the power to change.
A few years ago I started crafting — and re-crafting — my own idea of the healthy world I wanted to leave for future generations. Among other legacies, I want my great-grandchildren to live in a place that is beautiful.
Anyone who has traveled in the developing world during the past 30 years has seen the vast slums that engulf many cities. Slums occupy decaying sections of old cities, and newly built shantytowns often surround more affluent urban areas. Worldwide, about a billion people live in slums today, and the United Nations expects this number may double by 2030.
Slums are densely populated eruptions of minimal human shelter — shacks, shanties, sometimes cardboard boxes. Generally speaking, slum dwellers are barely protected from the weather. Their sewage is untreated. Their children are not educated. Increasingly, the world’s slums host a variety of toxic occupations, such as recycling used computer parts and scavenging landfills.
Slums are not beautiful. I’m sure we could find some beauty in them — some people do manage to create beauty wherever they are — but ugliness remains one of the slum’s defining characteristics.
An absence of beauty often indicates an absence of health, and slums metastasizing around the world are indicators of a profound economic disease. As we’ve enhanced the lives of the world’s richest human beings, economic inequality has grown like a cancer.
It’s not that the living conditions of the poor are the worst ever. Throughout recorded history, a certain number of unfortunate people lived without shelter, clean water or adequate food. Their condition hasn’t changed appreciably in the entire span of human history. The richest residents of the 21st century, on the other hand, live lives of luxury that past kings and emperors couldn’t have imagined. The rich need never smell an unpleasant odor nor see an unpleasant sight. From birth to death, they have access to temperate air, clean water and exquisite entertainment. In a few hours, they can reach any terrestrial destination that pleases them. They have drugs that can soothe almost any pain.
And they live, quite often, within walking distance of a slum.
Healing Economic Inequality
In my vision of our human future, to foster beauty, the poor must be elevated. I don’t imagine a world in which economic disparity has been eliminated — the opportunity to improve our individual standard of living is a tremendous source of energy that fuels enterprise and innovation. Filling the gap between what we have and what we want can be a powerful motivator.
I do envision a human society that no longer tolerates inhuman conditions. I see a world in which people don’t go hungry, because we no longer put up with starvation. Today, we have enough food to eradicate hunger, but we haven’t collectively decided that doing so is necessary.
The poor will, by some definition, always exist. But we have the power to change the definition. The poor should have food in their pantries, doctors in their neighborhoods and beauty in their lives. In my vision, no nation will tolerate anything less.
The poor, and everyone else in the world, should also have access to magnificent, unaltered nature.
In nearly every literary tradition across the world, untrammeled nature remains an essential standard for beauty. A Libyan novelist writes movingly of the virgin sand dunes of the deep Sahara. A Canadian poet describes a frozen lake in the Great North Woods. And a Pygmy storyteller sings of the subtle, changing beauty of the African jungle.
Nature’s beauty is often the standard against which we measure man-made art. Art elaborates on nature. Without nature to refer to, could we even define beauty?
I have been privileged to visit most of the planet’s ecosystems, from subtropical deserts to the ocean floor, grasslands to tropical rain forests, alpine tundra to northern boreal forest. Every natural environment is beautiful in ways we cannot imagine. We must preserve natural beauty for precisely that reason — because we could not conceive of natural beauty on our own without nature’s inspiration.
People who design modern zoos use a criterion they call “flight distance.” Most animals have a prescribed distance they would run, if frightened, before they turned to look back. If a zoo enclosure is built at least a little larger than the animal’s flight distance, the creature is calmer and healthier. If designers don’t allow for flight distance, the animals are neurotic, combative and less healthy.
Besides beauty, wilderness also provides us with our own flight distance. As long as there are empty places on the planet, our minds can flee to those places of wild beauty when they have the need.
So in my vision, some quantity of every unique ecosystem across the globe will be preserved in its natural state. Perhaps we can reserve at least 20 percent of each continent’s landmass for wilderness, allocated to each biome, each ecosystem. In the United States, 20 percent of our grasslands, 20 percent of our forests, 20 percent of our swamps and at least 20 percent of our deserts will be permanently preserved as God created them, open to visitors but not vehicles. Whatever natural resources they contain will remain unexploited, by popular consent, forever — as a testament to our commitment to beauty, and to abundance.
I want my great-grandchildren to live in a world that is not only beautiful, but abundant.
Photo By Ranveig Thattai: Slums throughout the world host a level of misery most of us can barely imagine — and frequently exist in intimate proximity to some of the greatest wealth on the planet.
For more of Bryan Welch's ideas on a beautiful and abundant future, check out A Vision for a Better World, Part 2.