A Neighborhood Walk: Recontextualization of Our World

It was time to run. Dusk had just come, my favorite time of day. I switched out of my pajama shorts, into my trusted five year old running shorts. I then laced up my running shoes still filled with soot from my valiant attempt up Mt Shasta, and headed outside without a watch or a light.

I grew up in the suburbs of California, which means houses arranged in endless grids and cul-de-sacs and the closest grocery store a car ride away. This has always been the world I knew: asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks, occasional street lights, neighborhood parks, and schools tucked away in neighborhoods. Transmission lines would tower above us as we played on our clean cut grass lawns.

As I ran, I peered through the windows of the houses I passed. This action is probably considered rude, but curiosity usually gets the best of my manners. I saw families watching TV, warm lights filling living rooms, and quiet kitchens. At this point in time, it became completely dark. I could hardly make out the street signs. As the lights dimmed, my mind filled the streets with thoughts.

Observations on My Walk

Name Then Now Recontextualization
Road Dirt Asphalt Responsible, recycled asphalt
Concrete Local rocks, mud mixture Portland Cement Carbon free cement, carbon sequestering cement
Light Torches Electricity, street lamps, LED Sustainable Energy
Architecture Local person in town Homogenized building plans Localized building plans pertaining to local materials
Housing Local stone, brick, wood Globalized steel rebar industry, cement industry, wood industry Local steel, cement, wood or carbon-free alternatives
Trees Local forests, home gardens Exotic urban trees Local urban trees, home gardens
Transportation Horses, donkeys Combustion engine, electric engines, aluminum industry, acrylic car paints Carbon-free, non-polluting vehicles, mass public transit
Heating Firewood Coal industry, natural gas industry, transmission lines Solar minigrids, insulated buildings
Postal Service Messengers USPS, FedEx, UPS N/A
Home Entertainment Conversation TV, internet N/A
Water Aqueducts, canals, watershed management Pipes, pumps Watershed stewardship

Is this the pinnacle of our civilization? What are we building towards? How many of us are conscious of the world we are ushering? Is there more to life than earning one’s first paycheck, saving up for a house, and raising a family in a quiet suburban house with a neatly trimmed front lawn?

There was a time, and there is still a time in many parts of the world, where we knew the people that made our roads and where the materials to do so came from. We would know the tree from which the firewood was brought to heat our houses and cook our food. We would know which garden our food came from and who worked in those fields. We would know where our water comes from and the landscape that sustained its passage every day. Our footprints rarely extended beyond where our horses or feet could bring us. Messengers and the sky were our links to the larger unknown world.

Now, we wouldn’t know which hill or mountain the rocks in our concrete or asphalt roads come from. We wouldn’t know which farm the bell peppers and bananas we buy at the mart is grown at nor the farmer that grew them. Our houses are based off of standardized and homogenized plans and built out of steel, wood, and cement from anywhere but local sources. The trees that line the streets are foreign from the ones we find in quartered off forests. We haven’t a clue where nor how the acrylic paints on our cars are manufactured. Our automobiles give us unprecedented mobility. The transmission lines fade into the distance, and so does our ability to question everything around us.

Everything that was once close in is distant.

The built environment changes incredibly fast with the advent of new technology. Yet what is interesting is that the then and now reveal that we are very much the same people wanting the same services. As human beings, we haven’t actually changed that much. We still use roads, light, build houses, use postal services, create water systems, find ways of increasing our mobility and energy.

But what was interesting is that our lives have changed drastically. A walk around my neighborhood showed a majority of Americans with their TV on. Evenings are very relaxed. During the day, we all go to work, each person actively contributing to the creation of our world; whether that job is creative or not, we fuel the engines of continuity of organizations and companies.

Though the services we use have not changed in essence, we are reaping their benefits on many scales. Each service in the then vs now, shows an improvement in simplification in terms of energy. Local communities no longer have to come together to build a road that goes to their houses. Municipals do that, hiring contractors using foreign materials and technology to accomplish the task. The transaction medium is cash. A cash economy has afforded an incredible exchange of ideas and the opportunity to expand one’s imaginative world. We are no longer limited to our local imaginations, the brave messengers; our mind becomes connected to the global consciousness.

The same argument applies to the service of light. We no longer have to rub two sticks of dry wood together to break oxygen bonds and form fire. A switch that completes a circuit wired in our walls, creates light for us. Same with heating. That doesn’t mean that it’s just easier now. The coal industry still needs to be hard at work in its mining to power the steam turbines that create the electricity that travels across thousands of miles of transmission lines in order to power our homes. The difference is that we don’t have to be a part of that work anymore. We simply need to contribute to society in our own ways, earning cash, and paying the coal industry for its services. As long as the lights are on, our questions don’t tend to trace the transmission lines back to its source.

When we walk down our neighborhoods, there is no way we can understand how each industry works. In fact people didn’t even need to back then in the village, but they know the person and the place for how each worked. Now, we don’t even know who built our roads, where the materials come from, and how far our water travels before entering our homes.

When things get complex, we become silo’ed in how we each contribute to the world. We stop asking questions nor caring. It is too complex to understand everything. When this happens, when growth happens, we can’t exactly be aware of it because it is too overwhelming. Growth becomes its own infinite engine.

Now, the argument of the environmental turned regenerative movement is that there is a consciousness emerging that is asking where their items and food are coming from, and how did our world get so complex so quickly.

That is fine that the regenerative movement is claiming an emergent consciousness, however, for us to be sure that our future is one where regeneration is valued and how our economies are built, we need to see if that satisfies the current trend which is: what we seek over history is the simplification of our lives - both in terms of the number of questions we need to ask, decisions we need to make, and the energy needed to carry out tasks.

If we are to change our world, we must first imagine the type of future we would like to live in. I added a recontextualization column to the table of observations to show what a regenerative world could look like in our modern world. I kept some items the same because it’s not that our technological advances are bad; it’s the extractive part which was why for most items, it was simply a matter of a carbon-free alternative. We may never know where our items come from, but perhaps the need is knowing it is contributing to a sense of earthly stewardship. If the trend is saying anything, it is saying, we want our lives to be easier.

Whether that means we desire to think less, question less, and care less, I can’t say.

Perhaps what we need first is to re-localize each aspect of our society by re-contextualizing the proposed changes in terms of the existing neighborhood environment. We would then become informed consumers, knowing that our electricity comes from the solar mini-grid on the local hill. We would consume food grown on local soils by farmers we recognize. We would use our vehicles knowing that it is clean for the environment.

It is only through our conscious desire for an alternative that we can generate the demand needed to create new industries.

So are the regenerative folks right? Is society waking up and asking more questions to the complexity they find themselves surrounded by? Have we started to question and act upon the type of world we are building everyday in our jobs? Are we demanding more meaning in our jobs?

Could humanity unite over a shared cause, a mission? Could we garner the energy of those questioning to shift a fundamental shift onto the masses? Would these changes be in line with the historical trend of wanting a simplification of life? Would new residents want to care or steward their local lands?

The state of the world can be found in the simple complexity of a neighborhood walk. When you get the chance, take a walk and let me know what you see in your neighborhood.