Green Communities

Musings from the midden and other worthy places: remote fundamentals (part one)

I am focusing this two-part installment on things remote due to its core importance to everything else I want to explore on this journey. In this and subsequent discussions I will advocate for a judicious and ethical use of buffers as, you will see, we need them just not too many of them.

Before I look at buffering a quick and by no means complete consideration of the insidious nature of remoteness will go some way at this point to explain my concern about things remote. Over time, in fact millennia, there has been an incremental increasing trend toward remoteness. The trend has certainly not been a straight line across the board for all societies. Sometimes willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming, societies have endorsed or have been forced to accept more remoteness for various reasons including, but not exclusively, illiteracy, authority and power imbalances, apathy and an enormous increase in population and societal scale.

While many improvements have occurred over time and it can be argued globally we are better off now than ever before, there are justifiable reservations on that score. Not all is as it might appear at first glance. There are a growing number of important issues looming on the horizon. Indeed some people argue we currently live in a house of cards, a very fragile situation.

The insidious nature of remote is manifest in the many consequences arising from it, but most particularly and simply when circumstances, knowledge and understanding become hidden. The out-of-sight out-of-mind scenario is hugely problematic and requires a very large dose of trust in others that they will do the right thing consistently. We regularly hear about situations where there has been a breach of trust, for example, Enron, the Gulf oil spill, military interventions, the G-20 Summit in Toronto, peak oil and the real big one, climate change. While these situations might be considered global in nature, remoteness also occurs locally. The circumstances that played out in Walkerton are a prime example. All of these examples and so many more illustrate why trust without safeguards and regular monitoring is risky. Finding out after the fact is not much comfort especially if people and environments are hurt and if improvements are not realized quickly.

When remoteness becomes common occurrence and is institutionalized in attitude and values, in policy, in administrative practice and in bureaucratic scale, collectively we make remoteness a part of the way we do everyday things. Oh, we might get upset with it from time to time, but then we shrug and say, “Well, that is just the way it is.” We accept it without questioning, because we do not know the potential consequences, we do not know any better and because we have not thought about it to determine if there is a better way.

Institutionalized remoteness is essentially exclusive. In effect it says, we know, we are privileged and here, while you are not and are outside the sphere of knowledge and understanding. It can also confine by discouraging or preventing access outside the bubble. At its worst, institutionalized remoteness is endemic. Time and time again it eats away at our right to know and causes a sort of societal numbness across sectors and in our everyday activities and thinking. We just go on with our lives without seeing or wanting to know what is happening around us. Most important we lose the desire and ability to question. As administrators and as citizens we forget to, choose not to or deliberately may avoid looking at consequences. So, we accept the next curfew on our collective rights, the next bit of wonder technology, the next legislation or tax, the next bonus agreement for executives and sports heroes, the last environmental disaster and so on until we are directly affected or perceive to be directly affected in a threatening manner. We respond to personal crisis, but we do so uniquely. We are just not all wired in the same way.

There are more than a few reasons why remoteness has been institutionalized and has been allowed to be institutionalized. I mentioned only four of them above: illiteracy; authority and power imbalances; apathy; and an enormous increase in population and societal scale. Other reasons include: greed; a desire to simplify and speed up process; to hide information maybe for security or to avoid embarrassment and unwanted discussion; because a subject may have been thought to be too technical; to reduce delays and therefore costs; because centralized policy and administration is inherently remote; in support of centralization the whole notion of economies of scale has meant bigger is better; a collective feeling of inadequacy has enabled leadership to become remote and unquestioned; and maybe because it is simply the fashion. Whatever the reasons most of us understand the frustration of being on the outside when we want or need information and all we can get is a telephone answering machine or service giving a series of options, but getting us nowhere.

One of the reasons we humans have achieved civilization in its many forms and the great achievements in science and technology is our ability to communicate and generally use our senses to receive and process information. I do not think there is any coincidence in the fact of the great leaps in knowledge and understanding over the past 250 years and a simultaneous burgeoning of communication opportunities. They are directly related. Knowledge is critical and we have learned how to access and disseminate it. At the same time we have learned how to prevent it or have done so as an unknown consequence of organizational and regulatory decisions. Information in isolation, however, does not equate with knowledge and understanding. The more remote we are the less direct contact we have with real circumstances leading to a diminished level of experience. Therein lies a whole big problem. We may have lots of information, but we do not always know its application, its significance and the likely consequences. We rely on others to tell us. We trust they will do so.

As you are no doubt beginning to see, trust in our surrogates, those we expect to act on our behalf, has been a fundamental element of societal function for a very very long time. We simply cannot do it all and indeed civilization stands on the foundation of distributed responsibilities and actions. Such an organizational condition is one element making us different from the rest of the living world. Or, is that really the case? Indeed, are we not just one part of the living world? Consciously or subconsciously maybe we have adopted the lead shown by nature, the ultimate community of distributed responsibilities and actions. We make rules, manufacture goods and provide services, entertain, create habitable structure, provide medical support, delve into the unknown, recycle and dispose of garbage. We do all of these things and more as a society just as in nature’s model. And just as in nature, although it may not be vocalized and written down, we rely on others to do a lot of our work and carry our collective responsibilities on their backs.

We trust responsibilities will be properly conducted, but we are also not so naive as to expect responsible action without monitoring. We have developed elaborate systems of checks and balances. So we try to make sure responsible action is really good for us. However, each layer we add to the organization of civilization increases our dependence upon others and adds more layers to our individual remoteness. It is a spiral of incremental buffering wherein we have become more and more isolated from a base of knowledge and understanding. There is a lot more information available to us, but we cannot process it. Collectively we are experiencing circuit overload. Our response, it seems to me, is rather than try to make sense of it all we are sticking our heads in the sand, we are trying to simplify to get through. And so the buffering gets thicker and more difficult to penetrate.

At this point I need to explain more clearly what I mean by buffering as it relates to the insidious nature and endemic characteristics of remoteness.

I am Steve Tubb