Since the industrial revolution it has been widely assumed that sustained economic production is best arranged through corporations. After all, corporations are the only entities capable of acquiring and operating the capital-intensive means of production required in an industrialized state.
Because of the reliance on the corporation, we set out to design an educational system in its mirror image. The linear journey from first to twelfth grade, then bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees systematized learning in a way that turned people into interchangeable parts and valued mobility.
Attainment of the highest grades of education confers the ability to teach within it, for anyone so dedicated to the educational treadmill is preselected to share its values.
The large scale corporation upon which our industrial educational system has been built no longer exists as it once did in the United States. However, we continue to build cogs for this machine as though nothing has changed.
Death of the Corporation
When large scale corporations first came to be, they were built around the idea that people can achieve more by investing together than they can alone. This is intuitively obvious when you consider that the endeavors they were undertaking were things like railroads and shipbuilding.
Through World War II and into the 1970’s, most large corporations had balance sheets to match: they used big iron, or made big iron. But starting particularly in the 1980’s, corporations started to be more about ideas than about capital, and the challenge turned to removing things from the balance sheet. Winning corporations maximized profit on minimal assets (and liabilities). Production (big iron) was moved to China, Mexico, and elsewhere and off of balance sheets.
The logical conclusion of a process like this is an Enron or a Goldman Sachs; one built predominantly on ideas and on trading, with almost no physical assets. The bulk of the workers we were producing with our educational system might be suited for a job at GM, while Enron needed every last PhD to keep its web of trades flowing. And it turned out that in the end neither GM or Enron was a long term proposition.
So here we sit with the same educational system we had in 1910 producing people for the economy of 2010, when the economic landscape has obviously shifted dramatically.
The Lie of Mobility
Think 1955. If your father was told, “Bill, we’re transferring you to Kansas City,” he went. And off you’d all go, uprooting children from schools, breaking apart extended family, divorcing people from a personal understanding of place. But this was all OK, and in service of a great big beautiful tomorrow! Corporations borrowed the idea of “transfer” from the military, and as much as the “transferees” might not have always enjoyed it, they endured it because they were convinced that corporations (like the military) were a kind of higher calling.
Fifth grade in Kansas City was pretty much the same as fifth grade in Boston. People adjusted. And they forgot about their previous home, or at least came to not miss it, like an animal being sent to market learns to adjust along the journey.
After graduation from high school, you’re faced with a “choice of college.” You’re asked inane questions about what you want to study (unanswerable at that age), shown some brochures, and make a fundamentally random choice about where you want to spend the next four years of your life. And you go. And you study something (probably not what you set out to study). And it’s OK. You meet people, and your life takes some path.
Regardless of the particulars of whether you get a job doing what you studied or when that actually happens (it often doesn’t), one thing is true: by this time in your life you’ve probably been uprooted once or more and had your home ties effectively severed.
Our educational system is designed to promote an ersatz fungibility of place and to denigrate people’s relationship to extended family by offering instead a false idol of corporate, industrial superiority. The fact is that place is a kind of human right, as is extended family. Any system that asks you to devalue a relationship with place or with extended family is evil.
It might be arguable that at one time, the educational system combined with its corporate industrial twin provided better overall outcomes for more people than the agrarian model that preceded it, but it does not logically follow that a new model cannot supplant the current one. This is particularly true when the corporate landscape is now more corporate than it is industrial and the emphasis has turned to creativity and ideas over machining and production.
The idea that place is fungible is one that belongs squarely in the last model and should be jettisoned going forward.
Why We Are Susceptible to Manipulation
Behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self perceives the world in the here and now. Your experiencing self lives in the present and is happiest spending time around people you like. The surfer who just lives to be out in the waves is primarily existing through her experiencing self. The experiencing self, it turns out, can be happy just about anywhere and in any weather. Just find people you like and the rest follows.
The remembering self is another animal. The remembering self cares about story, and about appearances. According to Kahneman, your remembering self might trick you into taking a two week vacation instead of a one-week vacation because that’s a better story, but in fact you remember them pretty much the same way because there were not many “new” experiences in the additional time spent.
Your remembering self cares about money and mobility deeply. Why? No one wants to be remembered as the person who “didn’t do anything with their life.” Getting rich and moving around a lot adds dramatic, tangible plot-points to your story, which comforts your remembering self greatly. But your experiencing self can easily be less happy. What if you are unable to turn your money into people you enjoy spending time with? What if you move away from the people and places that bring you joy?
Is it so hard to see now why so many wealthy, jet-setting people are unhappy and commit suicide? Their remembering selves have spun great stories; their experiencing selves are miserable.
A Path Forward
Creativity researcher Sir Ken Robinson suggests that we need to reinvent our educational system upon a more agricultural model, rather than the industrial model. I’m not totally sure what that means yet, but I do agree that in the developed world we must adopt these values:
- Creativity is valued
- Learning is non-linear
- Gifted children have a place to excel
- Many learning styles are celebrated
- Children are not medicated for ADHD and the like
- Children have a right to fresh, whole food
- Place is valued and cherished
- Regions become self-sufficient
There is an emerging emphasis on regional innovation and regional self-sufficiency as an economic development strategy; this is a good start. But the long term task is to invent entirely new models for life-long education. What we’re doing now is building cogs with very particular defects for a machine that no longer exists.
“When do we all become native to this place? When do we all become indigenous people?” – William McDonough
Ever wonder why America has such trouble with suburban sprawl, highway congestion, and keeping its urban centers viable? It’s a result of how we see “place” relative to other factors in society. We don’t respect it much; it is subservient to education and corporate employment.
For the last 60 years, “success” has meant going to a “good” college or university, getting one or more degrees, and then securing a “good” job. And we have told our children that they need to get good grades and engage in an array extracurricular activities in order to get into those good schools. The logical conclusion is that our children should fear the inverse outcome: not getting the good grades, not going to a good school, and ultimately not securing the good job. So the message is one of struggle: the world requires you to conform to its standards — you, the aspiring student, are expected to make sacrifices in order to be rewarded. And those rewards are held up as the make-or-break difference between the “good life” and an average life as a postal clerk.
And so the deadening chain of sacrifice and compromise begins.
When a promising 16-year old student tells her guidance counselor that she wants to study marine biology, can she really mean it?
When she is answered that she should consider a list of 5 schools, 4 of which are scattered across the country, is this even helpful?
A young person is rarely able to comprehend the specific nature of their vocation, much less make a choice about where they want to live to pursue that alleged vocation. So, what this mechanism really represents is a great geographic randomizer that spews people around the country while racking up student loans, disconnecting people from their indigenous roots and fueling the education industry.
Once the degrees are completed, the job hunt begins. Graduates and corporations engage in bizarre mating rituals, each trying to convince the other that they are the ones who got the better end of their devil’s bargain. And so the newly-minted worker starts to do what the corporation asks. When an “opportunity” comes up in a new city, the worker is enticed to rip up their roots, divorcing them from whatever local connections they have — trading them in for a 10-year thank-you watch, a 4.5% raise and a moving allowance.
A transplanted worker can’t know a new place deeply. Their immediate needs are straightforward and purchased: a house to store their possessions, proximity to shopping, services, and restaurants. If they have or want children, they also want good schools. Of course, good schools are hard to come by, and that scarcity means that the houses with the best schools cost the most money, and so the compromise is made and the choice is made to settle in a place that they necessarily have no connection to. They like it. It’s nice. It solves their need. And they have no idea where they live.
And so they don’t (really, deeply) care about where they live. They don’t care when a new shopping center is built, destroying an ancient stand of trees and filling a stream with runoff. (Oh look, we’re getting an Anthropologie and a P.F. Chang’s — I hear the lettuce wraps are great.)
They don’t care when new roads are built to service the very subdivisions they inhabit, leading to more traffic.
They don’t care when public transportation projects continue to go unfunded, because public transportation would require a 30-year budget process (longer than the attention span than most itinerant residents) and significant urban density.
And they don’t care when the city-centers in their megalopolis rot due to white flight and a failure to invest in urban infrastructure.
- People should aspire to grow where they are planted.
- If they cannot grow where they are planted, they should at least plant themselves someplace they can grow.
- What someone does for a living should not necessarily determine where they live.
- Place is not fungible.
Why are so many successful people unhappy? And why are so many “less successful” people completely at peace?
People who have an opportunity to connect to place (to history, to extended family) are often the most at-peace and effective. Mike Rowe (of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs) gave a surprisingly good talk at the EG conference about the meaning of work and what it means to perform the tasks that others in our society will not. In many senses, these are the people who have chosen to commit themselves to a place.
If You Want to be Green, Choose a Place to Love
If you really want to do good for your environment, it is not enough to commit yourself to unbleached paper towels and driving a Prius. In fact, both of those things represent environmental harm and disconnectedness. Paper towels? Spill less stuff, and use washable towels. A Prius? The energy required to build and dispose of its batteries is immense. An inexpensive high-mileage gasoline vehicle that you keep for years and barely use does much less harm than a Prius you drive 75 miles every day for 7 years.
The things that lead to the most efficient behaviors (commuting less, sharing resources, maximizing time efficiency) all derive directly from maximizing the relationship to the place where you live.
And so the ways you can make the most difference — and be the most green — have nothing to do with what you consume — they are derived from the design of your life. Is your life designed in such a way that you can become indigenous?
When you become indigenous to a place, you enable it in all kinds of new ways. Engagement is contagious and leads people to recognize themselves in others — and in you. Where before, kids were encouraged to follow their hearts by going to MIT (and thus launching the great chain of place-divorce), they realize they can follow their hearts by being a part of the schools (and culture) in their own backyard — which offer a rich, world-class experience. And so they stay. And they care about their cities, parks, and forests. And they go on to enrich their cultural institutions, entrepreneurial climate, and their urban centers. If you don’t think you have the kind of world-class culture you want to see in your backyard, start building it now by reaching out to others who want to see the same thing.
All of this leads to the most efficient use of resources in the place where you live. Isn’t that green?
How Do You Become Indigenous to Your Place?
Commit yourself to it. Attend events and meetups that you find interesting. Start events and meetups that you would like to see. Reach out to the bright minds in your own backyard. They are there, but they don’t know you are yet. Say hello. Work on ideas and projects that matter and have consequences. Start a business. Help someone. Be a mentor. Read history, and understand why your place is the way it is.
Place is not just another consumer choice. Place provides context for human interaction; it is the basis of our humanity. Only through connectedness to place do we enable the fullest range of human expression and of human being.
As we enter into a new economic cycle (I’ll stop short of calling it a new era), it is clear that economic activity based on flows and cycles is going to receive more attention than old school approaches of resource-rape and infinite expansion through leverage and buried externalities. For businesses based on closed cycles to maximize profits, they need to limit transportation of inputs and wastes, and that points towards fundamentally local and regional businesses. Local production and consumption is an inescapable imperative of the emerging business cycle.
If you have children, teach them about the place where they live. Talk about the future in ways that help them understand how (and why) they might make a life where you live now, without locking them down or sounding creepy — just make it a viable option. Start thinking about your family home as a family seat, not just a house that you buy or sell as an investment. If you’re not living in a home you would want to pass on to your children (or which they would not want), consider making that final move to a place that you may keep for a long time.
For some, keeping the same residence (be it apartment or house) is not always an option, or sensible. So if you can’t connect to a particular piece of real-estate, what can you do to connect yourself to a city?
In either case, you can’t become indigenous to a place without a multi-generational mindset.
The Constraint of Place
Anyone who does anything creative will tell you that constraints actually improve your work. All of this talk about becoming indigenous and attaching multiple generations to a place can sound confining and perhaps even suffocating — or worse yet anti-American (think about why that is for a minute). But, as a constraint it may actually be freeing.
Isn’t it central to our capitalist-consumer culture that each generation should be free to make its own choices about where to live and why? Why should our children be burdened by our choice of house and where to live? Isn’t it only a burden if it isn’t a very good choice?
But what if a constraint to place was something that actually enabled creativity? What if the choice of one generation was a reasonable choice for the next? If you were going to keep a home in your family for 10 generations, what kind of home would that be? Why don’t you live in it now?
This is not to say that it’s not acceptable to move if you need to move, or to even enjoy multiple places. A 19th-century worldview, of wintering in one place and summering in another, can make a lot of sense, assuming you fully connect to both places. Become indigenous to two places rather than a consumer (and destroyer) of many.
Conferences represent some of the worst excess and abuse (and neglect) of place. Why travel to a multitude of destinations to stay in hotels, eat bad meals, and talk to people who are only marginally better than the people you would find in your own backyard (if you’d only take the time to locate and develop them). Yes, conferences represent the only forum to connect with certain people, and it will be a while before the activity in your backyard can be as rich, etc. Blah. If you fully engage with the people in your own backyard, your appetite to travel to conferences will be substantially lessened.
The Future Is Local
I am not the first to suggest that the economy of the future will have a big local component. Certainly that is true. However, we’re not just talking about switching to buying local garlic, squash, and milk here. Just as you can’t take and pile “new media” ways of doing business onto the newspaper industry, we can’t expect to reorient our economy to local production cycles without also adopting very different sets of behaviors.
I believe that new communications and organizing tools will cause these fundamental transformations:
- Restaurants will morph into dinner parties and gatherings
- Reverence for MIT, Harvard and Wharton will morph into localized study groups and self-education
- Desire for more possessions will morph into “conspicuous asceticism”
- Cars will be stigmatized as a mode of transport and, among those who care, valued as design objects only
- National/Global Conferences will be seen as carbon-tacky and time inefficient (a day lost traveling in each direction? why?)
- 7-14 day Vacations will become less common than poly-local living (these are the 2-3 places I want to live in)
- Hotels will fall out of favor relative to house-swapping and “couchsurfing”
- Cities will receive continued (and renewed) attention as McMansion-laden suburbs deteriorate and are stigmatized
- Homeschooling will emerge among progressive communities (not just the religious right) as a way of avoiding the dysfunctional public school system
- Public Schools will see new levels of engagement from their communities, as people are better able to communicate and organize outside of traditional PTA-like structures
- Food will be a focus of local living, with community supported agriculture and Internet enabled food-swaps
- Coworking will continue to develop as a way for people to connect and collaborate locally
- Local Conferences will flourish as people build critical mass around shared interests using network tools
- Mass produced consumer goods will see a lessening of popularity relative to artisan-produced goods with local connections
- Consumption will give way to communion, and participation in cycles of use
- Tools like iTunes U and Google Books will enable a lifetime of personal learning and one-on-one sharing
I believe we are already seeing the effects of most of these forces — some more than others. But this is not hippie pie-in-the-sky, smoking-weed-in-the-commune stuff. Notice all of this is free of ideology and any trace of the culture wars. These are facts and a simple observation and meditation on what’s happening in society already today.
And notice that each and every one of these forces is rooted first in a connection to place. These things are only enabled when you combine current people-connecting technologies (networking tools) with a specific location. Once these new ways of being start to supplant the old structures (which is going to happen, no matter how you feel about it) they are going to be hard to reverse because they represent fundamentally more stable ways of being.
Once people do finally become indigenous to their place, why and when would that stop?
Thank you to my son Thomas for providing the illustration for the very reasonable price of $4.