A Meditation on Place and Growth

In preparation for the fall, I've been reading State U's One Book One Community choice, Colin Beavan's No Impact Man. One of Beavan's themes is, for lack of a better phrase, "lifestyle sustainability" (my words, not his). That is, he's asking why we in the West/North/United States are obsessed with a consumerist lifestyle that brings happiness to almost no-one and is destroying the planet as well; he is also asking how it might be possible to change some if not all of that worldview and gain a little more long-term happiness.

In that reading, though, I was reminded of this meditation from Edward Abbey's essay "A San Francisco Journal." Responding to a statement by then-mayor Diane Feinstein that "A city not growing is dying," Abbey quips:

Why not consider the possibility that a city, like a man or woman or tree or any other healthy living thing, should grow until it reaches maturity--and then stop? Who wants to live forever under the stress, strain, and awkwardness of adolescence? Life begins at maturity. A human who never stopped growing would be a freak, a mutant, a monster, a sideshow geek eating live chickens for supper and toppling dead of diabetes and kidney failure into an early grave. We passed the optimum point of urban growth and population increase many decades ago. Now we live in the age of accelerating growth and diminishing returns. (One Life At A Time, Please [New York: Holt, 1978], 60).
I've admired this quotation for a while, not in the least because of the question it doesn't ask: what does "growth" really mean? We think of growth as this physical thing, but Abbey suggests that it might be something akin to the way that we as human beings grow mentally and (again, for lack of a better word) spiritually as we age. That's the reason, I think, that many American cities don't feel so much like places but rather simply collections of buildings: we build up and out without thinking of what it means to build in, to build a community instead of a building, a home instead of a house.

And that's what's kind of exciting about Beavan's book: by eliminating a good number of the things that isolate us--television, cars, even electricity (the latter move by his own admission extreme)--Beavan discovers that Manhattan is already a distinct place, filled with parks and communities and awesome people that he in his culturally-normed isolation never really noticed. I look forward to suggesting this to my students, in part because I hope that, young and malleable as they still are, they might be able to more easily shake those consumerist habits.

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