What are you doing here?

People have asked me: what's a nice liberal environmentalist like you doing in a place like the Acton Forum?

I respond that I am happy to be called an environmentalist, but I have no idea if I am a liberal or not.

I do know I'm in favor of the cultural evolution that will be needed for our species to continue in a world with (I hope) a somewhat-familiar climate, and that would necessarily be a world in which we emit much lower levels of greenhouse gasses than we do today, which will mean some big changes in direction. But is evolution (cultural or otherwise) liberal or conservative?
Let's go back in time and think this through.

First, back a few billion years to the end of the Pre-Cambrian era.

Single-celled organisms are doing fine, but some of them are starting to gang up, first as parasites and then as full-fledged multi-cell organisms, and then, as we enter the Cambrian period, there are explosions of new species. The mitochondria at the heart of all of our cells today came from one species, the cell walls another, and so on. Multi-celled organisms like us represent a very different way of organizing life. Back in the good old days, before this life explosion, each cell was on its own, dividing and multiplying as fast as possible. In the new world, with differentiated and specialized cells, uncontrolled multiplication of any one cell-type is a problem that we would label as 'cancer.' We've evolved complicated mechanisms, such as the generally reliable immune system, to maintain our body's integrity as a living system, staving off cancers, infections, and other threats to the ecosystems that we are.

Many millions of years later, and more than once, human life was pushed to the brink. Genetic studies and archeology show that we were reduced by the challenges of previous ice ages and volcanic eruptions to a few thousand individuals. Most recently, 70,000 years ago, it appears we were able to survive in caves, near the sea, in southern Africa. But by the time the climate started warming up and we entered the modern climate regime, we had changed as well. Our species had found an additional type of evolution, the ability to pass on new behaviors by communication outside of genetics: the birth of culture.

Creating cultural innovations such as better hunting techniques, clothing, shelter, agriculture, controlled fire, and domesticated animals, over time we swept out of Africa across the entire globe, for better or worse.

Now, many intensive technologies later, we are faced with the side effects of our success at a new level of urgency: burning fossil fuels has thrown off the carbon dioxide balance in the air and seas, more each year. We’ve arrived at the point where our human influence on the planet’s warming makes the newest wave of climate change our responsibility.

Will we end up huddled again along some shore in caves, this time fleeing the heat rather than the cold? What cultural innovations might help us organize against this? Here is where I'm not sure if I am a liberal or a conservative. In American political traditions, both left and right tend to honor the role of the individual before that of the group. European-style collectivism, fascist or socialist, has never taken firm hold here. American liberals and conservatives tend to be concerned about the negative impacts of different types of groups. Liberal bugaboos include religious groups becoming involved in politics, and corporations. Conservative concerns, on the other hand, tend to focus on governments and unions..

I see all of the groups feared by left and right as possible sources for what will help us succeed.

Every major organized religion has a version of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That could be the first step in an instruction manual on how we can cooperate, how we can move from a society of individuals to a “multi-celled” organism that can see us through the challenges ahead. Religious values point out a way ahead to a better world with a different type of politics.

Corporations and governments each have positive roles to play in organizing us in new ways to respond to the challenges ahead. Corporations, especially smaller ones, are better at experiments — trying stuff out to see what works. Change, followed by feedback in the form of success or failure, is fundamental to evolution. Governments, on the other hand, are better at maintenance: taking something that works and systematizing it in the form of laws, regulations, and a system of justice. In that sense, governments tend to be conservative and companies radical, although contemporary political rhetoric would suggest otherwise. Both markets and governments can act in the role of an immune system, keeping the overall system functioning by disadvantaging harmful behaviors.

And then there are the many other ways civil society organizes itself to survive and thrive: around here, new groups include Green Acton and the Acton Forum. The people of the Acton Forum, or at least the political players in this venture, want to put a spotlight on how the town operates, and throw sand in the gears when those operations are running in ways that seem foolish or expensive. Green Acton members tend to want the town and its citizens to plan ahead for a future unlike today, which means supporting changes that may occasionally look foolish or expensive, if one is looking without a view of the changed and changing world ahead. Clearly, there is potential for tension between these two approaches. But people in both groups care deeply about Acton, the town and its government, and want to help steer things via education, persuasion, and showcasing what works.

I know that evolution acts by taking familiar mechanisms and combining them in new and unexpected ways, and letting time sort out which new ways work well. I still don't know if that's conservative or liberal. I suspect this wave of cultural change we are riding is bigger than today's politics. I do know I'm looking forward to the journey ahead. We don't know where we are going, but as Ben Franklin pleaded with his colleagues in the midst of another time of rapid change, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”


Front Loading Costs

Here is the issue that I have seen come up over and over again at town meeting - and elsewhere. Sometimes to save money going forward, you have to spend a little more. This is the concept behind energy efficient buildings and appliances. Usually the extra initial costs pay for themselves with a turnaround of less than 10 years.

I have been involved in the environmental community in Acton for over 20 years. I believe that, on many occasions, Town Meeting has acted in a manner that is immediate-penny wise, but down-the-road pound foolish. Sometimes a broader perspective is required.

I also believe, as do many subscribers to this Forum, that it is totally appropriate to question the logic and the data as presented by town hall staff. I say this not because I believe they have nefarious intent, but because, over the years, they frequently get trapped in a mindset that isn't necessarily the best thing for the community as science, economics, and needs evolve.

I think we need to keep open minds, listen respectfully, and try to figure out what is best for the longer haul.

What are you doing here?

What a great metaphor - all humanity as an evolving organism! Your thoughts reflect those of many of us here in Acton who can't fit themselves into either one of the main political parties. --Ro Pinto