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Excerpt from "Beautiful and Abundant"

by Bryan Welch


The Destination Fixation

In July 2007 I nearly killed myself. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I almost died from a case of poor visualization.

That’s right; I almost died for lack of a positive vision of my own immediate future.

The motorcycle and its rider can form a beautiful partner- ship between human and machine. In motion they are graceful, yet their movement defies physical intuition. When a motorcyclist navigates a corner the rider intuitively solves a ridiculously complex equation involving speed, gravity, the road, the tires and a thousand other elements that allow the motorcycle to lean into the curve at an angle that appears–in video or photographs– perfectly impossible. Until a new rider gets used to it, it doesn’t feel much more plausible than it looks.

In the mountains, especially, curves are not always symmetrical. You may enter a curve with a gentle arc and discover that the arc gradually becomes smaller. That contour is called a decreasing-circumference curve and it is the bane of the inexperienced rider. It presents a serious problem when you enter the curve too fast and then discover it tightening down on you. It’s the classic rookie error, and I made it.

There’s only one way out. Slowing down is not an option. To brake a motorcycle in a high-speed curve is disastrous. You’ll lose traction and drop the machine on its side. So the experienced rider leans deeper into the irrational angle and holds his intent. He concentrates on the curve’s exit and visualizes a successful outcome. He experiences the exhilaration of successfully testing his courage and skill against the limits of physics.

I, on the other hand, lost my nerve. Rather than visualizing myself–and the motorcycle–carving our way through the curve and out of our predicament I became trapped in a tentative state of mind in the middle of the turn. I let fear take over. Even though I was following two riders who had successfully negotiated the corner, even though logic dictated that I could follow those other riders, I lost my confidence. I just couldn’t see myself completing that turn at that speed. I didn’t have a clear vision of a good outcome and I started making decisions that led to an undesirable consequence–a wreck. Instinctively, I tried to slow the motorcycle down. In an automobile that would have been precisely the right answer. On the motorcycle it was a bad decision and could have been fatal. The motorcycle and I bounced off a propitious guardrail and went down in the middle of the road at about 50 miles per hour.

I walked away after ruining a good helmet and about $1,000 worth of excellent protective clothing.

Well, “walked” might be inaccurate. I hobbled away. It was about a year before I healed completely.

Naturally I did a lot of reflecting about how the accident could have been avoided.

The most obvious answer to that question is, of course, “Don’t ride motorcycles.” My wife and a number of friends have brought this simple solution to my attention. Duly noted.

But as I considered the lessons I took from the experience–while massaging the deep bruises on my legs, arms and torso–it dawned on me that our species is, in a manner of speaking, right in the middle of a decreasing-circumference curve. There’s a growing worldwide sense that if we don’t make dramatic changes to our lifestyles we may soon begin to feel the painful effects of damage we are doing to our habitat.

At the moment we have our attention trained on conservation, effectively the middle of the curve. Instinctively, we want to slow down our personal consumption. For many people, cutting back on personal consumption is undoubtedly appropriate. Abundance is healthy; excessive consumption for consumption’s sake is a kind of pathology. But looked at from a global perspective, conservation alone cannot be the solution because the rate of human population growth and our growing global appetite for technologies that consume energy make conservation almost immaterial. No matter how much we conserve, environmental damage will continue to accelerate unless we stabilize–or reduce–our numbers. Between 1965 and 2005, worldwide energy consumption increased by about 2.5 times, expanding a little faster than the human population, which grew from about 3.4 billion to about 6.7 billion over the same time frame.6 7 While we invented more and more efficient appliances and vehicles, the savings were offset by the spread of energy-consuming technologies to developing nations, where the rate of population growth accelerates energy consumption. And we are expected to add another 2.5 billion people over the next 40 years, most of them in developing nations where the numbers of cars, trucks, computers and refrigerators are expanding rapidly.

A wreck is imminent if we just follow our instincts. Conservationists are calling for us to slow down. But we’re in the middle of a bunch of phenomena we don’t know how to interrupt. Natural resources fuel economic growth. In fact, the first decline in energy consumption in 30 years was recorded during the economic slowdown of 2009.8 If we slow economic growth it could inhibit innovation just when we need that innovation the most. By focusing most of our efforts on conservation we distract ourselves from more complex and critical puzzles involving economics and population.

We are training our attention in the wrong place. Motorcyclists, mountain-bikers, skiers and steeplechasers all learn the same lesson: When you are moving forward with a lot of momentum you have to focus beyond the short-term challenges. You need to be thinking ahead. You need to picture yourself past the coming obstacles. You have to visualize the successful outcome. Then your reflexes can take care of the short term.

A friend who races mountain bikes calls it “the destination fixation.”

If you focus on the intermediate obstacle, you’re likely to collide with that obstacle. Just like I did on that mountain road. I focused on the guardrail. I hit the guardrail. I was lucky. I survived. But it hurt. Abrasions, deep bruises, a cracked pelvis and a huge repair bill all for lack of a positive vision.

Idealize the Destination (Don’t be Realistic.)

It’s relatively simple to imagine a motorcycle navigating a curve on a mountain road. To imagine humanity emerging, successfully and gracefully, from the present era into a beautiful, abundant future is a more complex exercise in visualization. To start, it seems to make sense to keep it simple. Let’s not try to get too realistic, or too specific. What are the basic components of a terrific future?

It will be beautiful. Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Since we are not there, in the future, we can only work on beauty here and now, according to our own tastes. We’ll leave the job of defining future beauty to the people who will be there to see it.

But the aspiration toward beauty and the preservation of beautiful things require attention and energy from every generation.

My friends Randy and Debra run an investment firm in a medium-sized Midwestern city. A few years ago they outgrew their rented space in an office tower and started looking for new digs. The easy and obvious choice was to rent another floor in the same nondescript high-rise. But they had noticed a 140-year-old three-story building nearby. Plastered and patched, it didn’t look like much but the ceramic brick façade was intact and the original limestone walls were visible inside where the plaster was missing. The purchase price was reasonable. The cost of renovation was daunting. They bought it anyway. They stripped the limestone interior walls, put in skylights and sanded the hardwood floors. In the process, they exposed the architectural ambitions of seven generations. Then they hung art, mostly impressionistic paintings by local artists chosen to evoke the regional landscape. Their office is not only beautiful, it is a working reminder of the aesthetic ambitions of previous generations, and the natural beauty of the land where they live. Their office is beautiful, and it promotes beauty.

On every continent you can see beautiful art, buildings and landscapes preserved over the centuries by people who cared for them. In every city and town around the world people are creating beautiful new things today – buildings, gardens, paintings and sculpture. Beauty, as we define it, is often the product of human aspiration. In our offices, our homes, our farms or on the balconies of our apartments, we have opportunities to invest a little time and energy in beauty every day. That investment earns dividends today in the form of our own appreciation and preserves beauty for the future. Why be satisfied with any office, farm or factory that isn’t beautiful?

Our collective vision should incorporate the aspiration toward beauty in every human community around the world. Our cities can preserve their connection to nature while preserving beautiful historic buildings and creating exquisite new structures where they are needed. Why not plant gardens in our vacant lots and across our rooftops?

By planning for beauty we acknowledge the importance of the work of artists, and implicitly promise our support for the arts. New information technologies give human beings access to all the music, all the painting, all the sculpture and nearly every form of aesthetic ambition in the world. We enhance our ability to aspire together, plan together and build together. If our communities are not beautiful, then we need to talk.

Why settle for anything less than beauty?

Of course people only create and preserve beauty when they have the necessary time and materials, and preferably a little money. To create beauty, a degree of prosperity is necessary. The slums metastasizing around many of the world’s largest cities today are the antithesis of beauty. If we want to create a beautiful future, then we need to plan for abundance as well.

Resources will be abundant. The two primary elements in a plan for abundance are, obviously, supply and demand. Since we invented agriculture we have, ingeniously and continuously, increased supply. Human beings have maintained a remarkably abundant existence through several thousand years of population growth by utilizing natural resources with increasing ingenuity.

Logically, as we exhaust some of our resources and draw nearer the limits of our planet’s capacity to support us, expanding supply becomes more difficult. Conservation becomes more important. Ideas for improving our conservation of natural resources increasingly provide better solutions as it becomes more difficult to find new resources to exploit. Conservation, while not a complete solution to our resource issues, is a key strategy for creating abundance.

In California, Jules Dervaes and his family are demonstrating, on a personal level, the creation of abundance through conservation9. Just a mile from downtown Pasadena behind their 1,500-square-foot home they’ve devoted one-tenth of an acre – about half their property – to a spectacular garden where more than 350 varieties of vegetables, fruits, berries and herbs grow in abundance. In their best year, they say they harvested more than 6,000 pounds of food from the garden. Based on a painstaking technique Jules Dervaes dubbed, “Square-Inch Gardening,” the “Path to Freedom” garden thrives on close human attention. Jules and his grown children, Justin, Anais and Jordanne, tend the plants and soil obsessively. They raise a few chickens, ducks and rabbits and keep two goats and a beehive. The results are stunning: Four adults effectively supporting themselves on a 4,350-square-foot “farm.” Jules Dervaes and his kids are conservation experts. They take a minimum of natural resources, add ingenuity, and create abundance. Through the prism of their garden they depict an abundant human future.

About 7,000 miles south of Pasadena, Doug and Kris Tompkins are securing the planet’s abundance in a different way. Doug and Kris got rich in business. Doug co-founded the North Face outdoor-equipment company and the Esprit fashion dynasty. Kris was CEO of Patagonia, Inc., the adventure-apparel company. In 1991 Doug bought 42,000 acres of temperate rain forest at the end of an isolated fjord in Chile.10 He started the Conservation Land Trust, a nonprofit set up to protect the land permanently. Then he and Kris went about acquiring–or convincing other people to acquire–a total of about two million acres of wilderness in Chile and Argentina to protect it, forever, from development. Their projects include the 700,000-acre Pumalin Park that grew out of their first 42,000-acre ranch; the 726,000-acre Corcovado National Park in Chile; and the ambitious Patagonia National Park project that seeks to connect national parks in Chile and Argentina to protect wilderness at the southern tip of South America. The land is purchased by private individuals, protected by private nonprofits and managed by the governments of Chile and Argentina. Once the parks are established, they are open for the public to enjoy, presumably forever.

Jules Dervaes experiences abundance in the cramped, leafy profusion of his Pasadena backyard. He’s proud to support his family on about $40,000 a year. Kris and Doug Tompkins find abundance in the vast wildernesses of South America. They invest hundreds of millions of dollars to preserve it. They are inspired by similar visions, but different definitions, of abundance in humanity’s future.

We’ll keep on striving toward fairness. It’s impossible to visualize a world in which all human beings agreed on a definition for fairness. Human affairs bubble with controversy.

I realize that if I provide an example for the pursuit of fairness in the world I will be inviting dissent. Any real-world example of the ideal of fairness will, no doubt, be contradicted by someone who has been marginalized.

But maybe an idealistic endeavor, an endeavor like the international Fair-Trade movement, can at least illustrate the aspiration toward fairness, even if we’ll never have a perfect consensus regarding its definition.

Fair Trade certifies the fairness of certain businesses by illuminating the supply chain all the way from original producers– usually farmers–to the ultimate consumers. Fair-Trade agencies certify that products were grown in ways that were humane and environmentally friendly, that original producers and their employees were paid fairly at values higher than commodity prices and that the products were transported by the most conscientious means possible. Fair-Trade certifications are currently available for dozens of products including coffee, fruits, vegetables, wine, soccer balls, tea and herbs marketed in about 50 countries.

In 2008, Fair Trade labeling organizations worldwide reported a 22-percent increase in sales, worldwide, to just over $4 billion. It appears that fairness, as a marketing strategy, may already be demonstrating its value.

Permissions: Excerpted from the book Beautiful and Abundant © 2010 by Bryan Welch. Printed with the permission of B&A Books.

As a writer, farmer and media executive, Bryan Welch is well-known for his

optimism, sense of humor and his commitment to empowering people to live their own versions of the good life. His work is a green business success story, demonstrating unequivocally that it is possible to do well in business without destroying natural or human resources. He is the founder and publisher of Topeka, Kan.-based Ogden Publications (publishers of Mother Earth News, Natural Home & Garden, Utne Reader and other media brands). He and his wife Carolyn, raise grass-fed cattle, sheep, goats and free-range chickens at their farm, Rancho Cappuccino. Read about the daily activities at Rancho Cappuccino on Welch’s blog, http://www.motherearthnews.com/rancho-cappuccino.

Purchase Info: For more information or to purchase Beautiful and Abundant, visit www.beautifulandabundant.com or Mother Earth News magazine.


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