Driving in the Dark

A sliver of moonlight dimly lit up the sides of a cargo train that slipped through the dark night along the highway in the sleepy middle of Illinois on New Year’s. The movement grabbed my eye and in a flash, the juxtaposition of my family in the comfortable bubble of our car with the often hidden mechanisms that make it all possible reminded me of the complexity of our modern lives.

Even while we sleep in the United States, the world is moving to bring us our every desire. Humanity’s vast global interconnected non-stop network is truly a marvel of modern engineering and ingenuity, political dances and pure grit. The pace of change only seems to accelerate, and the limits of the future appear to be constrained only by the limits of our imagination.

In Chicago we have bananas, strawberries, kiwi, and tomatoes in our grocery stores in January. We don’t worry about the lights going out or not having water flow from our taps. We don’t think twice about what it took to get the millions upon millions of products on shelves in stores across our city. Nor do we consider how those same products are replaced by newer models every season (and where the old ones will go). We put our trash to the curb and it disappears.

For years I have been visiting random commercial and industrial properties to do assessments as an environmental consultant. Before I started, I never thought twice about what it takes to put a label on a bottle of Gatorade, create a veneer of wood for cabinets, put a chrome finish on a bathroom faucet, smelt ore into metal rods, manage a train yard, put fresh fruit on shelves in the middle of winter, manage product inventories on vast scales, manage a landfill over the course of its long life, or turn a grassy field into a giant warehouse. But having seen all that and more, I have a deep appreciation for the complexity of systems that support our every day and I know that I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. Most people never see any of it.

It’s my belief that if more of us are able to begin to scratch the surface of our daily lives to understand even superficially the life cycle of our disposable coffee cups or our shoes or the journey of a banana in January, we will begin to realize that while our modern marvel is amazing, it’s not magic. With globalization and technology, the often dirty and messy and hot and smelly and toxic occur at points in the supply chain that are increasingly further from our view. But the consequences are coming back to nip at all our heels in the form of climate change in ways we are only beginning to understand. And as we begin to accept not only the benefits but also the magnitude of both the known and unknown ramifications of those systems, we will begin to shed light on the fact that not only are we all driving blind in the dark, but we’re hurtling at 100 miles per hour down on a poorly maintained road.

If we limit our imagination to only picture a future filled with technology that anticipates and satisfies our every whim, one in which we are the center of a world that caters and bends to fulfill our wants, we are missing the larger picture. This same world will no longer fulfill our needs as a living species dependent upon the non-human systems that support us. We will imagine ourselves out of existence. If we allow our imaginations to integrate our needs with our wants, the future is what we make of it. Of course this requires an acceptance and clear understanding that our existence is intricately tied to the survival of all life forms and the finely tuned systems that life relies upon and creates.

It’s no accident that a prairie soaks up and holds onto water like a sponge. It’s how it defends against summer drought. It’s no accident that rainforests have rain, and lots of it, year-round. They create their own weather patterns. This too, while magical, is not magic. In biomimicry, we look from the small form to system-wide examples to understand how life works – not just to find fancy new technology, but to understand how life creates technology and systems that allow life to grow, regenerate and thrive so that we too can do the same.

So in this time of year when we imagine how we’d like to move forward into the future, it’s important to understand and appreciate what we have and where we are starting from. And while we appreciate the systems that have gotten us to where we are today, it’s clear that our vision for the future must include a deep reconsideration for how we can continue to do what we do but do it better. Do it smarter. Do it in a way that not only minimizes the consequences but also generates compounding benefits. Do it in a way that begins with and works backward from the most fundamental goal of all life – to create conditions conducive to life, to take care of the place that takes care of us and will take care of our children. It’s time to ask new questions and answer them with completely new solutions. We can get started by looking to the wisdom inherent in the world around us.

Let’s change our story. Today.

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