A story on NPR this week about Easter Island (which has intrigued me since I was a kid) really caught my eye. It discusses an alternate scenario for what happened to the collapse of civilization there, and presents a very interesting twist. The article is writing from the perspective of climate change and environmental issues. Here you can get a sense of the author’s voice:
People can’t remember what their great-grandparents saw, ate and loved about the world. They only know what they know. To prevent an ecological crisis, we must become alarmed. That’s when we’ll act. The new Easter Island story suggests that humans may never hit the alarm.
The author is obviously focusing on the need for people to feel a sense of urgency or peril in order for them to act. And, that makes great sense on its face; I’ve certainly observed that it’s very hard to get the public’s general attention in planning issues unless they are faced with some immediate crisis of sorts.
Spoiler alert, here’s they key part at the end:
It’s like the story people used to tell about Tang, a sad, flat synthetic orange juice popularized by NASA. If you know what real orange juice tastes like, Tang is no achievement. But if you are on a 50-year voyage, if you lose the memory of real orange juice, then gradually, you begin to think Tang is delicious.
On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There’s a lesson here. It’s not a happy one.
So the author concludes we may never act when it comes to climate issues, as we may simply accept what we have and move on. Perhaps it’s a new take on the phrase “the new normal.”
What interests me is the relationship of this line of thinking to the critique of suburbia that my colleagues and I often use. Depending on the writer or speaker, we may simply talk about urban living vs suburban living as equal choices which is reflective of a person’s wants and needs. Or, it may be presented as a really smart choice vs a really dumb choice. As in, you must be an idiot to want to live in the suburbs.
But I think the Easter Island story presents a different way to explain the same criticism. It’s virtually unquestionable to me that modern suburbia simply doesn’t meet the needs of the human animal. We are social creatures, and the kinds of suburbs we have built for a few generations now are frankly, anti-social. They discourage human contact and connection by design. They restrict our desire for freedom of movement by design. The original 19th century conception of a leafy, quiet retreat has given way to massive ugliness that doesn’t feed our need for beauty.
Even so, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in those same suburbs are miserable creatures all the time or anti-social. Far from it. Humans adapt, and we do our best to take something inferior and make it at least “ok.” So, we sit in lawn chairs on a driveway or have more private parties or try to hide bad buildings with landscaping or do whatever we can to try and overcome a poorly-planned physical environment. And, a great many people do that and live very happy, fulfilled lives.
It’s just that… it doesn’t have to be that way. We actually can make places that meet our needs, both public and private. We’ve just grown accustomed to what we have and have kind of accepted it. If we get a coffee shop in the corner strip mall with some outdoor seating, it’s like we’ve found a small slice of Paris.
Happy day – outdoor seating at the strip mall
But we can do better. We can actually be excellent, not just ok. Far too many people have grown up with lousy environments, and they honestly don’t know another way. Unless you’ve traveled to an exotic place with a functioning main street, town square, plaza, downtown or walkable place, you just don’t know that people can live that way. It’s a little like discovering real food after a lifetime of eating processed and artificial crap. Wow – you mean food actually can taste like this? Yes, yes it does. And cities and towns can actually be beautiful, lively and uplifting. I for one will not accept Tang as a delicious drink. Nor should you.