Artes Perditae

Artes Perditae is Latin for lost arts. And now it is time for us to find, recall or unearth as many lost arts as we can. We are going to need them. Why? Because as Paul Gilding tells us in his book “The Great Disruption”:

“We’ve been borrowing from the future, and the debt has fallen due. We have reached or passed the limits of our current economic model of consumer-driven material economic growth. We are heading for a social and economic hurricane that will cause great damage, sweep away much of our current economy and our assumptions about the future, and cause a great crisis that will impact the whole world and to which there will be a dramatic response. We know this to be true.”

“The science says we have physically entered a period of great change, a synchronized related crash of the economy and ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change, and global geopolitical instability. It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived.”

Or as the distinguished environmentalist Bill McKibben said so clearly: “We’re in the rapids now, heading for the falls: too late to swim for shore.”

The current economic model that Mr. Gilding is describing we can call, in shorthand, the linear economy. A diagram of this economy – our economy – might look like this:

This linear economy is responsible for ransacking natural resources, creating vast amounts of pollution, and spawning climate change. It is a form of economy that makes two critical assumptions. First, that we enjoy infinitely available materials from which to fashion our lives. And second, that we can employ increasingly cheaper labor and material costs – ever-expanding growth – to fuel increased profits. What is truly needed is to disconnect our unsustainable consumption and accompanying environmental decline from the way we conduct our economic lives.

So the decades (or is it centuries) of extraction, fabrication and disposal need to be replaced with some other economic model that substitutes for dumping and discarding. What we need instead is to create things that we can maintain and reuse, or repurpose and recycle. A diagram of this kind of economy – the circular economy – looks like this:

And therein lies the difficulty: can we invent a world in which we maintain, repair, reuse, refurbish, instead of consume and toss? I wonder if you can recall the last time you gave your car a tune-up? For me it was circa 1980.

Or repaired your microwave? Or mowed your grass with a push-mower and swept up the clippings instead of using a noisy blower?

Technology and industry have now moved most of the products we use in our lives well beyond the limits of our ability to repair or maintain them for an extended life. We simply replace them. And worse, most of what we acquire is obsolete as it comes into our hands; another product (house, car, phone, computer, TV – it’s a long list) has been envisioned as superior and more desirable and necessary than whatever we have now.

Take a moment and stroll through the places you inhabit every day and imagine a ‘repair or maintain/refurbish or reuse’ for all you see and touch. Start at home, and then move outwards from there: it can get quite daunting if you reflect on the ways our lives are arranged for a ‘one-and-done’ existence. Our consumerist ethos is deeply imbedded in American life. Even if you have solar panels on the garage and a compost pile in the backyard, you are still almost certainly enmeshed in the linear economy. The era of more and more of everything, or anything, has closed. At last, and somehow, we must confront facts: what we thought was infinite about life on this earth is, most definitely, finite.

But let’s say that somehow we can make the transition from a linear to a circular economy. Mr. Gilding, and dozens of others, insist that we WILL make this transition, one way or the other (mostly the other – perilous and bellicose). I say maybe yes, maybe no. In the U.S., seeing what lies immediately before us and taking action to avoid the unfolding cataclysm that we are now beginning to experience is a nearly overwhelming task. And in our current polarized social and political context, as Robert Rubin said recently in a NYT Book Review of Adam Tooze’s “Shutdown,” “The separate understandings of our world and its risks have become so divergent and so entrenched that they pose their own existential threat by impeding our ability to plan for, prevent and react to the crises to come.”

So it is with this pandemic, as a relatively small minority imperils the health of the planet. And so it is with those who scoff at the changes we see all around us in the environment we inhabit, thinking them and calling them trifles. But they are not trifles, as some are now forcefully learning.

Recent floods in China
Recent Floods in Germany
Drought in the Loire Valley in France. Photo by Ronan Houssin

It is time to remember how it was that we lived before we came under the cold spell of consumerism. The circular economy describes a pre-modern and pre-industrial way of living – not based on growth without limits. Because there was no other option, towns and villages were self-sufficient and “sustainable” – the power grid was still years away, as was all the rest of the exotic infrastructure of our contemporary life.

Perhaps we lived like this:

Sabine Hill, Tennessee

Instead of this, with it’s plastic and vinyl windows (in every shape and size), cement board siding and polyester trim:

And perhaps we made our cities in a fashion that was traditional, like this:

Gaza City today – image by Salem Al Qudwa

Or this:

Prague

Instead of the modern city of shapes and forms, like London today:

Or even this, Vincente Guallart’s ‘Self Sufficient City of the Future’ (featured here in July of this year), which may or may not meet the test of the circular economy:

But of course only a tiny few of us live in beautiful, simple and traditional homes, and likewise a tiny few of us live in cities whose urban fabric has survived unsullied by self absorbed architects bent on expressing themselves and cheap and greedy developers putting profit before people. The rest of us live in immodest houses in the modern city (and suburbs) of strips and malls and cars and subdivisions and expressways that a century of defective thinking has given us.

Modern life has ruined our homes, our cities and, we now know, our future existence. And solving this circumstance cannot be accomplished by contemporary technology. We will have to change our minds about the way we live our lives, wherever we are.

Certainly technology has made astonishing gains in the last two centuries, and we can be very thankful this is the case. In science, and in healthcare and medicine, and in a thousand other ways, we are the lucky heirs to huge progress and much of high value. And so it is tempting to believe that the extraordinary progress of technology over the last passing years will advance at an even quicker pace now that this turbulent and potentially tragic act of the human drama has begun.

But technology will not save us: it hasn’t yet and it won’t. We must stop thinking of technology as civilization and begin thinking about civilization (a sustainable, livable, just and beautiful good life) that is served by technology.

It is time for us to look wherever we can, in search of lost arts. We are going to need them.

2 thoughts on “Artes Perditae

  1. Holy Cow Howard, An incredible piece of thinking on your behalf! The power of words and pictures is greater than the sum! Thank you.

    May I share this somehow? Rachel

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