Golden nuggets for moving away from a technological culture to an ecological culture

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cohen, author of Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, writes about Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, who inspired his book and field of study.

I was a young city and regional planner in the 1970s. It was a turbulent time especially as there was a growing awareness that we are doing some fairly serious harm to our environment. I had heard about a dynamic professor from the University of Pennsylvania who was one of the organizers of America’s first Earth Day. He was scheduled to give a presentation in April 1970 at the University of Delaware and I decided to go and find out what was really going on. Well, Ian McHarg, a landscape architect and regional planner let his audience of over 500 people have it straight and to the point. We are despoiling our environment and if we don’t change our ways we may in fact be threatening our survival. He extolled us that we must embrace ecology in how we plan, design, and build our human settlements. The year before McHarg had published Design with Nature that immediately became a hallmark call for reversing current trends. It was a challenge not just to planners and designers, but to everyone else.

McHarg’s message to design with nature became my professional commitment that steered my professional life for over three decades and has lasted with me to this day. I would later study with McHarg at Penn and that educational experience became the icing on the cake.

Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture_SMThose of us in both the professional and academic worlds that have a curiosity for discovery are continually looking for that little piece of wisdom, brilliance, or revelation that will bring about a new awareness—not just intellectually, but emotionally. We can find these “golden nuggets” almost anywhere as we proceed through life experiences. I discovered one at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in 2006 when I was part of a team that interviewed a number of forward looking thinkers concerned about the present state of our environment. It was Graham Leicester director of the International Futures Forum who somewhat casually remarked: “We are subject to rapid technological change, new interconnectedness, speed of advance; we are in a world we don’t understand anymore. The old rules no longer seem to apply. The new rules haven’t been discovered. What we need is a Second Enlightenment.” This was more than a discovery, it was a jolt of lightening.

In retrospect I can say that my professional work as an ecological planner discovered a new twist with this golden nugget. Yes, I concluded we do need to embrace a “second enlightenment” that will be a guiding mantra to move us away from a technological culture to an ecological culture. The evolution and development of the machine—from the earliest clock to today’s computer—has for sure given us great advantages to make life easier and more enjoyable. And this strikes at the center of the concern: Has the advance in technological achievement begun to steal away our basic humanity? Are we losing a connection with our natural environment?

These two points became the focus of the voluminous writings of Lewis Mumford, one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He bemoaned the reality that human aspiration and purpose was becoming overwhelmed by technological progress. Think about it; think about how our cities and small towns have declined and how suburbia has grown exponentially. Think about how we have damaged our cultural resources; how we have witnessed diminishing natural and agricultural areas; how we have to tolerate increasing traffic congestion; and how we have seemingly become addicted to our Smartphones and other electronic devices. If we all stand back for a moment and take an assessment of where we are in the continuum of history can we say we are satisfied with our lives, our living patterns, and our environment?

This overriding question gave me the impetus to write Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture. I firmly thought when I began this enterprise that I could somehow meld historical trends with today’s realities and provide a future direction. It was not difficult to conclude that the work of both Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg gives us a strong guiding light to examine and even project that the achievement of an ecological culture is both evident and a necessity. This transition takes on special significance when we look at our current educational system. How we prepare the next generation of planners and designers will be crucial to our success. By advancing an ecohumanism philosophy, as the premise to planning, designing, and building our human settlements, we can see the light of an ecological culture on a reachable horizon. We just need to get there to preserve our environment and our humanity.

 

 

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