Darron’s Human Ecology Essay, Take 2

Darron’s Human Ecology Essay, Take 2

Going through papers recently, I came across my 1992 Human Ecology essay and didn’t think much of it, so I took a second crack at it and expect there will be a third and fourth editions to come …

My daughter Maggie and I have gotten completely sucked into the Discovery Channel show Alaska: The Last Frontier.  After a day of romping in the snow, we love nothing more than to enjoy hot cocoa and watch the Kilcher Family survive the much colder climes of coastal Alaska.  The Kilchers are an extended family of homesteaders whose ancestors got away from it all in the 1950s.  If you haven’t read McPhee’s Coming into the Country, I highly recommend it; if you have, you also have a pretty good understanding of what ATLF is all about.

I hear the snide, snarky comments about sensationalism, Hollywood, naïve, romantic visions of what is really a miserable existence, etc.  I get it.  Maggie has said more than once, “Dad, if a bear comes after them, the camera crew is right there – they’re not going to let the bear eat Atz Kilcher and just sit back and film it all.”

Recognizing that ATLF is first and foremost entertainment that appeals to low brows like me, the show has inspired fun, interesting, and marginally educational experiences between father and daughter: canning apple butter, making what I consider to be an impressive snow fort, and debating vegetarianism.  I’ve suggested a moose hunt, but Maggie hasn’t taken that bait quite yet.

The rationale for introducing my fascination with the Kilcher family isn’t about the merits of reality television; it’s about my intellectual wrestling with self-reliance.  Reading McPhee, watching Discovery Channel, building snow forts, and writing a recent grant have brought my thoughts on self-reliance into focus and have even got me thinking about the subject as a pillar of the COA curriculum. 

As a context-setting introduction to a recent grant, I put the following paragraphs together:

Energy generation – how we harvest food and power  – poses the most pernicious threat to the ecological integrity of the planet.  Over the past century, we have become increasingly disjointed from – and ultimately ignorant of – the origins of these two sources of human fuel.  As such, we have naively accepted the myth that we can buy or consume our way out of the problem: “Just purchase this or that green product and you can feel good about yourself and the fate of the Earth.”

At College of the Atlantic, we feel the path toward sustainability begins by re-connecting to production rather than consumption, by becoming intimately aware of the costs and benefits of our food and power choices, and by uniting two intrinsically connected movements.  

I took a few liberties with the first line of the second paragraph and may have stretched “I” into “we,” but I feel good about that generalization and those paragraphs. 

Many of us have intellectually and practically toyed with self-reliance in the form of the back to the land movement, which reached an apogee in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  That movement focused primarily on reconnecting with food, saw science and technology as inherently evil, leaned on a naive nostalgia that hoped to “roll back the clock to a time where man and nature existed in harmony,” and, in the end, was a movement that affected only the fringes of society. 

I’m certainly not proposing the tenets of back to the land as the or even a cornerstone of our academic setting.  But there’s a new, not-entirely-unrelated movement unfolding that does seem relevant and useful to COA.  I hate the thought of hitching a wagon to what might be seen as trendy, but, in my eyes, there’s something important and revealing about what’s typically labeled the maker movement.  Like the back-to-the-landers of time’s past (or, present, in the case of the Kilchers), this maker movement begins with the assumption that sustainability requires making more with less, that sharing knowledge is important, and that using old materials or ideas for new purposes is inherently good.  But unlike back to the land, today’s makers/hackers balance these beliefs with a realistic but optimistic vision of the power of science and technology, they don’t cut the world up into what’s “human” and what’s “natural,” and they want to extend the power of making and creation beyond the realm of food and into all forms of production: digital, creative, and entrepreneurial endeavors seem right at home with work on food and energy.

As such, I imagine the blend of the back to the land movement with the emerging maker movement as Back to the Land 2.0.

Self-reliance is central to BTTL 2.0 and seems like the most intellectually and practically important commonality between coding a computer program and pruning an apple tree.  It’s about developing a sense of intimacy in knowledge acquisition.  It’s about empowerment, experimentation, and learning from re-inventing the wheel.

For the maker community self-reliance is not the same thing that drives someone to join a militia in the panhandle of Idaho.  For today’s makers, the value of making comes from knowledge gained and knowledge shared.  It’s a compassionate, community-focused self-reliance, not an “I know this, so I can survive an apocalypse; I don’t need your help, now go away” approach to the world.

To me, this compassionate, community-focused self-reliance feels like it should become a core component of how, what and why we teach and learn human ecology at COA.  I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but I think there’s enough interest and expertise within the faculty, staff, trustees, students, and – importantly – the MDI community to figure it out.  Plus, my intention is to engage this guy in the thought process as well:


I just got off the phone with Marcin and I’ve got a good feeling about that connection.  Stay tuned.



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