This month, my ambitiously creative, brilliant, and fairly eccentric book club is reading a creative, brilliant and fairly eccentric book entitled ‘The World Without Us’ by Alan Weisman. The title is fairly self-explanatory (which is great for those members who don’t actually get around to reading the book) – what would the world be like if we weren’t here? How long would it take nature to repossess cities, the seas and skies to recuperate from the damage we’ve caused by spewing toxic fumes into them, the plastics and synthetics we’ve created to decompose?
Reading this books takes me back to Angkor Wat, Cambodia – this temple was build in the early 12th century for King Suryavarman II, and abandoned in the early 15th century when Thai armies captured the city of Angkor. It was basically forgotten for about 400 years, and rediscovered by a French Nationalist in 1860. Visiting Angkor Wat a number of years ago, I was awed and humbled by the sight of nature overtaking the ruins – tree roots enveloping doorways like wise snakes wrapped around unsuspecting prey, wily fauna forcing their way through every crack in the foundation they could find, incessant rain dissolving the clay in the sandstone, weakening the structure. What I came away with was this: the power and resilience of nature is astounding, and in our urbanized world, we have forgotten to appreciate and respect this. We no longer build durable structures that would withstand 400 years – we build cost-conscious housing made of woodchip roofs, scrapboard flooring, and vinyl siding that will be gone in 10 years. We flout nature by leveling topographic areas to build cities, as did 19th century urban planners with Manhattan. We pave over, well, everything. If we weren’t here, nature’s vengeance would be swift and subsuming.
Given our preoccupation with urbanization, technological advance and unfettered growth over the last century or so, a recent story about Detroit’s turn to agriculture caught my eye. After being put in such a dire circumstance after the collapse of the auto industry, leaders and researchers have been exploring alternatives to keep their city vibrant and citizens well (and in town). They have turned – in full circle style – back to the environment. The idea is for Detroit to become self-sustaining – turning abandoned car lots to fertile farmland, supplying families and schools. Not so much of a stretch of the imagination when one considers that the land Detroit sits on was once agrarian country, is very close proximity to the Great Lakes, and has an ample growing season. And this is not just an idea – it has some clout. Prominent Detroit businessman John Hantz (who may or may not be an influential member of Johnism) has already contributed $30 million to the project to get Hantz Farms underway, with plans to grow natural, local, and fresh fruits and vegetables, harvest wind energy, and utilize geothermal health and biomass fuel from recycling compost. Detroit’s mayor Dave Bing has just released a landmark document – the Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework describes how large sections of Detroit will be razed and returned to farmland, open space, and nature.
With both economic and environmental crises affecting our global community, many communities and individuals are realizing that we need to see ourselves as part of the greater ecological web, and if we are to escape the demise theorized by Wiseman, live within it as opposed to against it. And hey, if Detroit can do it, so can the rest of us.