Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Such a River Should Not Be Crossed

A group of teachers at my school have been meeting regularly since last summer to explore ways to build cross-curricular connections between social studies, English, and science. We eventually narrowed the scope of our project down to sophomores, and decided on sustainability as an overall theme, and energy as an area of focus within that overall theme.

So today in class I was talking with my students about sustainability. At its most fundamental level, sustainability is simply about the question of how long we can keep doing what we have already been doing. Stay up late too often, and you won't be able to stay awake in class. Go without food and water long enough, and your organism shuts down. Keep taking water out of a reservoir faster than water flows back into it, and eventually the lake disappears. Exponentially increase the number of cars on the road as the supply of oil keeps diminishing, and you run out of oil. Run out of oil, and Oahu goes dark. (More than 90% of Oahu's electrical energy comes from petroleum.) Keep pumping pollutants into the atmosphere, and eventually human life cannot sustain itself.

In chemistry, all of the students are doing or will be studying and designing projects looking at energy use and energy conservation. In English, as we make our way into The Poisonwood Bible, the issue of sustainability arises in a variety of ways. One is whether, in the early sixties, the fledgling Republic of the Congo is going to be able to sustain itself in the presence of so many internal conflicts and external threats. (The answer, of course, turns out to be "No.")

Another has to to with the time, earlier in history, when the Congolese did have a stable, functioning, sustainable culture. Toward the end of the book, Leah describes that culture:
I've seen the drawings published by the first adventurers after they hurried back home to Europe. They reported that the Africans lived like kings, even wearing the fabrics of royalty: velvet, damask, and brocade. Their report was only off by a hair; the Kongo people made remarkable textiles by beating the fibrous bark of certain trees, or weaving thread from the raffia palm. From mahogany and ebony they made sculptures and furnished their homes. They smelted and forged iron ore into weapons, flutes, and delicate jewelry. The Portuguese marveled at how efficiently the Kingdom of the Kongo collected taxes and assembled its courts and ministries. There was no written language, but an oral tradition so ardent that when the Catholic fathers fixed the letters to the words of Kikongo, its poetry and stories poured into print with the force of a flood...

All food was consumed very near to where it was grown. And so no cities, no giant plantations, and no roads necessary for transporting produce from the one to the other. The kingdom was held together by thousands of footpaths crossing the forest, with suspension bridges of woven vines swinging quietly over the rivers. (520)
She re-creates a conversation that she has with her husband, imagining that they are taking a walk on one of those footpaths:

What happens we we come to the river?
We'll cross it, of course.
I laugh. It's as easy as that! And what if the ferry is stuck without a battery on the other side?
In the kingdom of the Kongo, BĂ©ene, no batteries. No trucks. No roads. They declined to invent the wheel because it looked like nothing but trouble in this mud. For crossing the river they have bridges that stretch from one great greenheart tree to another on the opposite bank...

"But what if it's a huge river," I asked him once—"like the Congo, which is much broader than the reach of any vine?"
"This is simple," he said. "Such a river should not be crossed." (521-2)
Such a river should not be crossed. How odd that sounds today, how contrary to the dominant impulse of our own culture, which demands constantly that we go further, build higher, buy lower, sell higher, do more, extend our reach outward as far as humanly possible. How much is enough? How much is too much? What is the price you pay for trying to have it all?

Is there anyone alive on this planet who does not know that petroleum reserves are limited and that petroleum use is growing and is projected to keep doing so? Is it possible that you could know that, you could do even the most rudimentary elements of the math, and not be concerned about what is going to happen when we run out? As I told the students today in class, we're looking at a problem here. If we don't make it our business to come up a solution, either by figuring out how to use less energy or by developing alternative energy sources, bad things are going to happen. How bad? I'd say unimaginably bad, except that people like Cormac McCarthy have already been at work imagining it.

Sustainability is a buzzword. But it's more than that. It's a matter of life and death as well. That's the challenge we all face, whether or not we choose to deal with it.

1 comment:

Peter A. Stinson said...

See the work being done at The Conserve School, a fairly new independent boarding school located in northern Wisconsin. There entire program is built around conservation & sustainability... even the name of the school, The Conserve School...