Ancestral Lesson


Becoming Good Ancestors. How We Balance Nature, Community, and Technology. Ehrenfeld, D. 2009 . Oxford University Press , New York , NY . 302 pp. $19.95 (paperback) . ISBN 978-0-19-537378-3 .

Everyone has—or should have—their professional heroes, those who have inspired them, perhaps taught them, or to whom they look for encouragement or guidance in their own career development. Our heroes should be those who provide examples of clear thinking and solid philosophical direction, who can help forge and inspire our own ways in life. One of my heroes is David Ehrenfeld; I am an unabashed fan. I have long found his advice sage, his observations clear and critical, and his path in life unfashionably steadfast and true. Perhaps, then, it is not a good idea for me to review his latest book, Becoming Good Ancestors. But I will, and at least you have full disclosure at the outset.

David Ehrenfeld provides for me a strong counter-weight to the many follies that define much of modern life: the unquestioned acceptance of modernity, the beliefs that technological advances are always good, that faster is better, that newer is better than older, that we are getting smarter, that we can technologize our way out of any problem, that all scientific advances are good and have few downsides. His is a powerful voice of warning and sanity in a screaming sea of bland conformity and blind acceptance. He is necessary, he is relevant, and he is a breath of fresh air. He is, sadly, a minority voice in a world largely spinning out of control. Not nearly enough of the world hears his voice.

If one could boil down the essence of Ehrenfeld's perspectives (always a dangerous thing to try) it might go something like this: humans have both extraordinary potential and great limitations. We tend to run with the potential and ignore the limitations. For the last several hundred years, and especially the last 50 or so, with unbounded hubris we have unquestioningly pursued technologies and models of the world and economic systems with the assumption that more and faster and newer is better, and in the process we have lost our way and our good sense. We casually cast aside the past—commu-nity, knowledge of the local, proven ways of getting along, a slower pace, compassion—and pursue at warp speed all that is glitzy and attractive. The sirens of technology have seductively sung us their songs, and we have unfailingly responded and repeatedly crashed upon the rocks. The saddest part is that most of us cannot even recognize the crashing; we remain in love with the sirens, even as they pummel us to death.

Becoming Good Ancestors is his latest attempt to call our attention to the many dangers and pitfalls that lurk in our industrial, technological, genetically engineered, increasingly homogenized world. It is an expanded, heavily revised, and seriously updated version of his Swimming Lessons, published in 2002. I liked that book and I like this one even more. The revision after 7 years has further expanded and crystallized his observations, arguments, and positions.

He does this in five parts and 37 remarkably error-free chapters. In Part 1 (“In Search of Honesty”) he argues that technological successes have blinded humanity to our limitations and failures and resulted in great hubris. We live under a fantasy of no limits—whether it is energy use, personal consumption, or population growth—and we need to be honest with ourselves. In his first chapter, “Pretending,” he introduces us to the dangers and weaknesses of such efforts as genetic engineering, scientific models to predict future events, and Star Wars research designed to shoot down enemy missiles. He demonstrates how we are fooling ourselves, either intentionally or naively, when we think that such huge and expensive endeavors will improve life with few to no downsides. The efforts are driven by pride, money, and Utopian ideals that are uncritically accepted. Worse still, such pretending sidetracks us and keeps us from pursuing real solutions to real problems. His message: we need to start being honest with ourselves. That is our best hope.

Part 2, “Keeping Track of Our Losses,” reveals what has been cast aside in our rush toward an industrial, technological, and artificial world. Ehrenfeld enumerates losses of many things that to date have made us human, including stability, personal relationships, reading and writing well, and true communities. And he often does so in clever and unusual ways. Sure, we have lost ecological communities, and clean air and waters, but that is too obvious. Rather, Ehrenfeld discusses “Rejecting Gifts,” in which our techno–economic system rejects from its elders the gifts of evolved wisdom. Our accumulated knowledge and wisdom as species, as tribes, as individual families, is often lost if not wrapped in technological wonder and delivered with great speed. For example:

Our demand for immediate gratification and quick, care-free returns on all investments leaves no time to wait for intricate things to be worked out, no time to evaluate true worth, and no willingness to listen to those who contend with natural complexity. Knowledge earned during long years of study of people and nature is being cast aside to make way for technologies and financial systems that must satisfy their own, not human, needs. (p. 40)

Speaking then at larger scales, he says:

The earth is full of gifts, the perennial gifts of nature and the gifts of human creativity worked out over thousands of years of trial, error, and sacrifice. In our insistence that we must reinvent and manage the whole world from scratch, and do it quickly, in our confidence that money and power will replace, with something better, anything that once worked well, we have cut ourselves off from the bounty available to us. But the money is dwindling and the power is waning (p. 42).

In “The Uses and Risks of Adaptation” Ehrenfeld introduces us to an interesting perspective: the dangers of human adaptation to and acceptance of degrading conditions. We are passively adapting to enforced helplessness; less personal contact with others; television as our source of news, entertainment, and companionship; less courtesy and consideration from others; erosion of privacy; indoor climate; removal of nature from our lives and replacement with symbolic substitutes; and other such dangers. All of these adaptations allow damaging forces to continue to do their work, with no resistance.

Perhaps my favorite (or at least the most entertaining) example of what we are losing is in his chapter “Writing.” In it he discusses the overwhelming loss of student's abilities to write coherent sentences, paragraphs, and papers, replacing good writing and proofing skills with technologies such as spell check. In an amusing but frighteningly realistic manner he uses their (student's), you know, style, to like demonstrate his point. The really hole breakdown of the ability of todays student's to wright and how they go on in runon sentences and say the same thing over and over (and over) to fill the page because thay have no real content to share; and cant use, proper punctuation. Or spelle. They like lost the ability to write or, spell yeah. Really; Or construct complete sentences because they don't read & don't rite. They speak & right text messages mostly. And cant punctuate, two. Rather then, teaching them to write, student's are constantly being tested in standardized tests. To satisfy central administrator's. And this is they’re result.

And bad paragraphs too.

Yes, we have lost much, and David Ehrenfeld helps us keep track of the things that many of us have simply adapted to.

In Part 3, “Toward a Sustainable Economics,” Ehrenfeld highlights many problems associated with translating all of our personal and societal values into economic terms and of making most public or personal decisions on a techno-economic basis. In “Affluence and Austerity” he suggests affluence is a smokescreen that hides increasing isolation and an exploitative economy dominated by corporations that have no connections to and feel no obligations toward our neighborhoods. We see the dangers of this reflected in the “great recession” of the past year or so: when “wealth” is stripped away the lies are exposed and people return to basic values—family, simplicity, frugality, and basic comforts.

In a chapter called “Energy and Friendly Fire,” the problem of cheap, unlimited energy is examined. This may seem an oxymoron, but a source of cheap, unlimited energy, he argues, would—far from being a savior—simply allow further and more rapid expansion of the human endeavor to use resources faster. As we are apparently unwilling to place any sensible limits on ourselves voluntarily, energy limitation may be our best hope for a sustainable future, along with alternatives such as “slow food,” community-supported agriculture, and development of local currencies.

Other chapters in this section discuss such topics as the flagrant waste of capital as a recent phenomenon, the dangers of pursuing conservation of rare species for profit, placing monetary values on nature, and the dangers and ill effects of laws that created corporate immortality. In these and most other chapters throughout the book, David Ehrenfeld has an uncanny way of developing his arguments using simple, unprofound, and everyday personal events that he and his family have experienced, many of which occurred during his childhood in post-depression New Jersey. This technique works well not only because these are good stories, but also because many of us (or at least those of us over, say, 45) can relate to them nicely.

Part 4 is “Relating to Nature in a Human-Dominated World” and is the largest section of the book. Here, Ehrenfeld begins the task of bringing humans and nature back together, healing the rifts caused by technology, growth economics, and the other ills of modernity. I admit that parts of this section were more of a stretch for me, with perhaps more subtle messages than in previous chapters. For example, in “An Opposing View of Nature,” a conversation with an artist-friend of Ehrenfeld's who sees nature only as an artistic expression—and an often poor and inferior one at that—left me a bit unsatisfied (or perhaps frustrated with this artist who sees the world from only that perspective). To him, the Grand Canyon is on too large a scale to be artistically satisfying and Meteor Crater is a significantly lesser artistic expression than an open-pit copper mine, whose lines were “much more satisfying.” A long story in “Death of a Plastic Palm” led to the simple message that we cannot successfully imitate nature and it is a forever costly endeavor to do so when we can accept nature's gifts for free. In “I Reinvent Agriculture,” Ehrenfeld describes the folly of taking shortcuts and ignoring the slow knowledge that has accumulated over thousands of years of human endeavor. Other chapters in this section likewise offered various lessons that will be useful in improved human–nature relationships: the tricky dance of culture and nature in teaching field ecology in a predominantly urban–suburban environment, the long-term knowledge gained from forests and forestry in Great Britain, the importance and appreciation of context in understanding and appreciating our world, where old-growth forests in northern Quebec consist of 1000-year old trees less than a meter high.

Part 5, “Restoring the Community,” brings us to the difficult task of actually changing our relationships with each other and with the nonhuman world. For me, the key chapter is the first one, “The Utopia Fallacy.” Here, Ehrenfeld urges us to be honest and realistic and to not expect some Utopian resolution to our challenges:

…in our preoccupation with the problems of our time, we often find it convenient to evade reality and assume that the future will take care of itself in a benevolent way—if only we patch things up now. Sensible people who should know better act as if the resolution of today's troubles will usher in a golden age tomorrow; as if the ending of one evil could not possibly lead to another (p. 203).

He goes on to say,

A central problem of our age has been bigness: bigness of corporations, weapons systems, international trade organizations, human populations, media conglomerates, climate change, and—enabling all other bigness—the power of technology…so relentless has been the advance of bigness, so rapidly has it swallowed up much that is small and self-contained, that it often appears to be about to engulf the entire world—ending in one global production system and a few remaining global currencies, languages, and cultures (p. 203).

After further discussion of bigness and its likely demise, he brings us to perhaps the punch line of the book:

Now is the time to prepare ourselves for the world that will likely follow, a world of increasing smallness, fragmentation, and decentralization, a world with re-empowered communities and exciting possibilities but also great problems—not Utopia (p. 205).

How can this transformation possibly happen in a world that is so strongly globalized and so deeply and irreversibly entrenched in technology and the power of centralization? Ehrenfeld gives a clue when he calls upon John Ralston Saul, philosopher of history, quoting that “Nothing seems more permanent than a long-established government about to lose power, nothing more invincible than a grand army on the morning of its annihilation” (p. 205).

Ehrenfeld wisely goes on to warn us that the changes we will undoubtedly experience will be no Utopia, will be painful, and will not be easy. But they will happen, if not by choice then by circumstance and an avalanche of problems that know no other resolution than wholesale change.

In subsequent chapters in this section, he provides further clues on where success might come from: organic traditions that help keep communities together in mutual dependence and healthy relationship with the land (he uses the Jewish holiday of Sukkot as an example), and preparing our children for a respectful, law-abiding future (again he uses his own Jewish traditions as examples). In a position with which I wholeheartedly agree, he chastises our larger universities for becoming yet another force for our collective demise and abdicating what should be vital roles in repairing and healing our cultures and world:

The problems that the universities are doing little or nothing to address—either in teaching or research—are those that we must confront if our civilization is to prosper. They are materialism in our culture; the deterioration of human communities; anomie; the commercialization (privatization) of former communal functions such as health, charity, and communication; the growth imperative; the woes of agriculture; our ignorance of the ecology of disease…; the loss of important skills and knowledge; the decline in the quality of the academic and experiential education of children; and the turning away from environmental and human realities in favor of thin, life-sucking electronic substitutes. Far from confronting these problems, universities are increasingly allying themselves with the commercial forces that are causing them. The institutions that are supposed to be generating the ideas that nourish and sustain society have abandoned this function in their quest for cash (p. 223).

Ehrenfeld finishes, appropriately enough, with an epilogue chapter entitled “A Call for Fusion and Regeneration.” His focus is the predominant conservative–liberal dichotomy in thought that fruitlessly expends so much human energy and divides so much of the world in a win–lose battle. He argues that conservative and liberal thought each have both good and bad features, have been used wisely and foolishly, and we need to glean the good from each if we are to make headway in regenerating our declining world. Thus, from the conservative side, we need to embrace values such as patriotism (not the vacuous flag-waving of mindless buffoons following the flock, but true love of and dedication to place), thrift (so that resources are not wasted), an appreciation of history (to avoid past mistakes and provide benchmarks for changes), and love of community (that we be vested in a time and place and function well together). From the liberal traditions, we must seek willingness to change laws and practices (that we may be adaptable in the face of change), environmental justice (which ties people to places and context), and reverence for nature as a role model and guide for human activities (that we may use nature as a model of how to structure a healthy human existence). It is only through such melding of diverse values, he argues, that we can make it through this crisis and emerge into a more hopeful (though not Utopian!) world. It makes good sense and is a good alternative to the “I win, you lose” mentality that seems to drive the world today. In fact, we all lose under that schema.

Radical change is coming, argues David Ehrenfeld, and it will bring monumental changes to our lives. It will be (and in some ways already is) a hugely difficult time, but he provides us sensible and well-considered ways forward. The big question is whether anyone but the choir (a distinct minority) is listening or even wants to hear the song. I have my doubts, but for those who wish to engage, here is a fine songbook. In a world wildly out of control, in love with technology, and duped by the shallowness of modern life, this is a strong antidote and a powerful guide.