The Platform, Part IV – Environment and Infrastructure, Section B

(Note: as this piece is being posted on July 4, 2014, we pause to think about the bravery of the Founders who took on the responsibility to launch the United States of America in 1776 and truly hope their courage will inspire those who now hold the future of our great nation in their hands.)

Rethinking Ecosystems

In Section A of this post on Environment and Infrastructure as a part of the FAPITCA Platform, we used the word “ecosystem” a bit loosely. We did this in an effort to create a metaphorical visualization of how the environment and the infrastructure coexist and coevolve with each other in America (and indeed in all civilizations).

In reality, the environment nature provides is really its own ecosystem (or family of ecosystems), as is the infrastructure we build to support our way of life. Our friend, Harold Morowitz, pointed out that “life itself is a property of an ecosystem rather than simply biochemical interactions,” – that principle is important. Harold writes that “no species is an ecosystem itself, and a fuller treatment would include coevolution, the evolution of all species in an ecosystem, as well as the symbiosis in all its forms.” [1]

In this sense, the American way of life has emerged as a property of the interaction of our magnificent environment and the infrastructure we build to support our economy and access to opportunity to partake in that economy. The two coevolve to produce the America in which we live.

We just wanted to push forward the conversation about how the environment and the infrastructure can better interact to provide a basis for enhancing the opportunities we must discover and exploit in Fulfilling the American Promise in the Connected Age. We can control to a large extent the effect the infrastructure has on the environment and we can find more effective ways to protect the environment: this is what we search for in defining a possible “ecosystem” that might exist between the two.

Our argument is that in order for us to find a meaningful ecosystem that includes all ways of political thinking (even including the edges of each political party), it’s important to think in terms of ecosystems and balance. Understanding the role of our interacting environment and infrastructure as an ecosystem is a way forward to success (or more accurately rediscovering inclusiveness and progress) in America.

To expand on this, let’s return to our previous discussion of human habitat and how recent history has impacted it.

Building on our National History

Jan Hauser, guest contributor from Part A, points out that “creating good habitat requires collective and integrated action. Today, there appears to be little political support for ‘collective action’ and integration (and even less financial support), and the term ‘collective action’ has almost taken on a negative connotation.” This is tragic, Jan adds, posing a not-too rhetorical question of “how do you think we got a Constitution, a Declaration of Independence or triumphed in World War II if not for collective action and thinking about how all of the parts will work together?” [2]

Speaking of World War II, possibly some of the best urban human habitat can be found in pre-World War II neighborhoods. They are characterized by sidewalks, parks, functional front porches, places of worship, public transportation, and often, just enough commercial activity (restaurants, taverns and grocery stores) that one can take care of most regular needs on foot – people can walk, not drive, to tend to their affairs! And, in walking they’ll likely meet and talk face-to-face (and even share ideas!).

These environments weren’t created by each person doing their own thing. They were the result of many people working together to create community: business people, city planners, real estate developers, architects, transportation planners, recreation advocates, and others concerned about life in America.

Another example of different views of habitat can be found in transportation planning. If you get the chance, drive Interstate 10 from East Texas into Louisiana. If you have in the recent past, think about the contrasts.

In Texas, almost every major highway is ringed by “feeder” roads. These feeder roads almost always become choked with commercial activity: fast food restaurants, gas stations, four-wheeler dealers, truck stops…you name it. Unfortunately, these feeder roads make driving in Texas much less pleasant than it could be as the scenery of right-of-way is often an unsightly mishmash of development. More importantly, there is constant traffic coming on and off the interstate to access these businesses. [3]

Compare that experience with Louisiana. As soon as you enter Louisiana, you notice that the scenery is more prominent and that “civilization” is far less developed. You also notice less traffic weaving in and off the highway. Your driving experience becomes more relaxed and feels safer. The big difference is the lack of feeder roads. Yes, it took collective action to build these feeder roads in Texas, but let’s question the motivation and effectiveness of that activity. Apart from making room for another four-wheeler dealer, what did that feeder road really provide?

Hey, what’s wrong with taking a little collective action to improve human habitat? Somehow, that makes all too many politicians nervous and they lose focus on people in contrast to commerce and tax bases. When we want to improve habitat with parks and community areas, all too often we hear from our elected officials, “Oh, we can’t afford that!” or “That’s a frill the budget doesn’t support.” Strangely, there’s always room for another McDonald’s or car dealership!

Rather than just having to deal with anxiety, obesity and depression, why can’t we address our habitat needs as humans who want to live in the most free and lovely place on earth? Why don’t we enhance our habitats with parks, sidewalks, calmer (and safer) roads or just a little more open space? That would allow us to better blend our environment and infrastructure.

If we are going to have a better, stronger nation, we’re going to have to think about our infrastructure and environment in a more integrated fashion including their relationship to our quality of life. We’re going to have to relook how we live together with nature, our environment and the infrastructure we build.

Empowering the Synergy

We think that a key to advancing the way we best exploit the work Americans put into protecting the environment and building on our infrastructure investment is to transform how people see this interdependent relationship. Policy makers must encourage people in all parts of the political spectrum to value achieving a balance and synergistic relationship between the two. This balance would give us:

  • Healthy habitats in which to live. Here we should seek to build harmony between our habitats and our ways of life where these habitats bridge between environment and infrastructure in complementary ways. This might be accomplished through creating more realistic expectations about what American life is, both in terms of responsible wealth and stuff accumulation, as well as stewardship of that wealth for future generations. We might create these expectations through a range of approaches that start with responsible parenting and early education all the way through the protection of the environment and infrastructure as national security priorities.
  • Freedom from political exploitation of the environment and infrastructure. We need to quit making the environment a political issue so that the parts that make up this critical sustaining ecosystem for people and other living things may thrive in balance. As a nation we simply have to respond to the urgency to find balance in our political systems and throughout all levels of American community. Political exploitation of the both the environment and our infrastructure has become so pervasive that we may just have to find ways to minimize the damage the older generations do and try to hold on to a core the younger generations can inherit and rebuild. Many of the people who compose our current political system seem to have transcended the ability to preserve our future or even to think about our nation’s future.
  • Access to a thriving economy and the opportunity needed to sustain our economy. Equal access to opportunity is critical since we need some reasonable level of wealth to support our lives and investments in our environment and infrastructure…everyone should be able to invest in this ecosystem. This blog was founded on the idea of creating access to opportunity as a principle for Fulfilling the American Promise. Again, we may just have to wait until the older generations pass on the mantle before any real progress in this area can be made. The Founders of America and the Framers of our Constitution must be rolling over in their graves at the sclerosis we call Congress today.
  • Better future world for our children through education and access to opportunity. This may seem to be a repeat, but it’s worth repeating so that the quest for balance in the ecosystem is a more natural and logical pursuit. This has also been a common refrain in this Blog. More than anything else we hope to achieve through FAPITCA, it is the hope that our older generations now “in charge” will stop blocking the future progress of America and invest in our future generations through affordable, quality education and the creation of new ways to ensure access to opportunity for young Americans. We must get past our biases about social standing, race, gender and other distractions to focus on making America a sustainable place for all who would contribute to our future. Anything less than that is a betrayal of what our Founders left us to preserve.

It’s simple as an idea, if not in execution: We must stop treating the ecosystem of our environment and infrastructure as a “political, partisan” issue…the sustainment of our world and the American way of life is just too important for that.

There is nothing ground breaking in arguing for a more integrated approach to preserve our way of life in America. Objective students of history might argue that American Indians, based on thousands of years of reflection, have shared similar philosophies for a long time: what we build must synergize with what nature gives us…Nature owes us nothing! In his work, Chuck had a recent contact with the Onondaga Nation in New York that only reinforces this conviction. We would be well served to consider their insights. (Perhaps we will write more on this in the near future.)

Next time, we move on to the fourth plank of FAPITCA, “Sustain and Advance American Culture, Science and Education,” leading off with a guest post by a professional educator and great friend. Stay tuned for our penultimate plank in the FAPTICA Platform!

Originally posted by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 7/4/2014.

NOTES

[1] Morowitz, H., The Emergence of Everything, Oxford Press, New York, 2002. Harold’s explanation says a lot in a few words. While we don’t go into the coevolution of environment and infrastructure in this post, if our readers recall our earlier discussions of coevolution and emergence (here and here), we introduced the idea of different players in a system (federalists and anti-federalists in the examples we used) as coevolving with each other to produce emergent behaviors, again citing Harold’s work. This same principle is at play here, as the environment and infrastructure coevolve to produce the physical setting for our life in America. Harold’s insights about the components of an ecosystem are a close parallel as this physical setting is fundamental to life and the opportunity to maximize life in America.

[2] Jan Hauser is a pioneer of developing and applying science and technology to business, social and environmental problems. He was formerly a principal (technology) architect at Sun Microsystems and a visiting professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. Jan is also responsible for Sun Microsystems joining The Santa Fe Institute and has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution on “Complexity and Gaia” a topic closely related to this post. He periodically spends time working on the difficult and complex problems of “Global Sustainability” (see www.janhauser.com).

[3] San Antonio to Austin is now becoming one continuous urban entity. There is woefully little natural scenery between those two cities on I-35, and no attention paid to human habitat.

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