We humans have it pretty good. Blessed by evolution's wheel of fortune with binocular vision, seriously honkin' brains, and opposable thumbs, we've turned ourselves into the uncontested tool leaders of the animal world. Those tools enhance our capabilities more than any claws, fur, or antennae could. We move faster, fly higher, change the courses of rivers and even affect the temperature of the atmosphere. All this can give a mammal a pretty big head -- big enough to think that without us to save it, nature is somehow in danger.
This attitude is a very recent development; your great-great-grandmother probably still regarded nature as an unpredictable force which caused high infant mortality, famine (even in industrialized countries, as during the Irish potato famine or dust bowl) and was full of untamed wild spaces. Nature was master, and we were lucky if we made it to next year.
Little by little, we have convinced ourselves that the converse is true; There but for the grace of Us goes Nature. Books like Silent Spring and public service campaigns like Smokey Bear laid the foundation of the "humans as stewards of nature" idea. More recent discoveries like the CFC-produced ozone hole and CO2 emission-induced climate change seem to solidify our position as poor guardians (even destroyers) of nature.
The truth is, nature is a pretty resilient system. Even as humans have gone to impressive lengths to throw ecosystems out of whack -- importing pigs from Spain to everywhere, for example -- these food webs still continue to function, albeit with slightly reduced biodiversity. Nature reconfigures things. That is the reason for biodiversity in the first place. Suburbia might seem like a bad thing for the ecosystems it displaces, and it does cause serious biodiversity loss, but some species like opossum, raccoon, squirrel, and robin just do better in the suburbs. We should be worried about the interesting opportunities we are missing by losing species diversity in plants and animals, but we shouldn't worry about losing nature. Nature will survive.
Humans, on the other hand, are another story. Our tools have allowed us to work our way out of some serious spots, but the reality is that we are still reliant on natural food, material, and energy webs to sustain us -- if our goal of reducing fossil fuel use is to be realized, we will become vastly more reliant on these natural energy sources. We need to make sure that the next reduction in biodiversity doesn't include removing us. In order to preserve our place in nature, and the free and irreplaceable support that this position gives us, we must again re-imagine our relationship.
Instead of imagining ourselves as entities who need to tread lightly to keep from hurting nature, we must see that our success is intimately related to the success of natural systems. We need to stop trying not to hurt things, and start trying to make the natural pillars that support us more sturdy.
Even the "greenest" manufacturing hasn't fully embraced this idea. Take the example of biodegradable Natureworks PLA plastic; Maybe it biodegrades, but it's still based on a monoculture of synthetic-fertilizer-supported GM corn. That natural support pillar is just as weak as fossil fuel -- one day, the right mosaic virus mutant comes along, and boom. No more corn crop. No more plastic.
Though manufacturing may not have understood the interconnectedness of maker-nature webs, food producers have been thinking like this for at least the last 20 years. The Slow Food movement grew up as a rebelion against "Fast Life", but it quickly became a force for building and maintaining artificial food webs populated with human eaters, human farmers, and hosts of plant and animal food participants. The slow food model is to make ever human in the web -- grocer, shopper, farmer, chef -- a "co-producer" of food. In this way, no-one is any more responsible for the quality of the food than anyone else. This may seem a simple concept, but it is quite subtle in its effectiveness. For example, a shopper, when described as a consumer, is immediately placed in a frame of reference of working to consume -- trying to get the most stuff for the least money. Since an easy way to get more food is to buy lower quality food, markets fill with lower quality items.
Re-defining the shopper as a co-producer completely re-frames the situation. Now, since the shopper is producing the food they are buying, the optimal solution involves producing the "best" food possible. Since "best" in this case is usually assumed to mean high quality, fresh, or tasty, the shopper is encouraged to spend as much money as they can to buy fresher, tastier food. Think about it -- in your mind, does the "best" food ever mean the cheapest?
By involving all levels of food handler in the co-production loop, each person has the capability to alter the system to make it more conducive to "better" food. This pursuit of better, rather than cheaper, leads to healthier animals and plants, more sustainable growing methods, and a stronger tie to the natural systems that give us food.
So, just as slow food co-producers work hard to identify and reinforce the ties that connect us with the natural world, truly sustainable manufacturing must do the same. What we find in doing this is that the best way to stay safe is to work hard to be relied on. Michael Pollan talks about this extensively in The Botany of Desire. An apple started off as a sour, tiny fruit many tens of thousands of years ago. But through a co-evolutionary process with our human ancestors, it developed into something so well liked by humans that it will likely never go extinct. In fact, it has even managed to hitch a ride in freezing temperatures for the next 10,000 years just in case of extinction -- something that few, if any, non-food wild plants have managed.
But, if inter-dependence is something to strive for, we need to change our "top of the food chain" attitude. Someone who wants to become useful to others must acknowledge that they are currently useless. This requires humility. When we become humble, we see how improving the situations of others will benefit us.
Humble manufacturing would see that the strongest material is one which strengthens the networks that already support its consumers. Humble manufacturing would work harder to create the right methods of making than it would to make the right objects. Humble manufacturing would sacrifice power for resilience.
Without a more humble conception of making, we are only making ourselves less likely to survive each successive iteration of nature's re-organization. We make ourselves more powerful without making ourselves more safe.
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