I grew up in Spring Green, Wisconsin, on the southern edge of the "Sand Counties", next to the Wisconsin River, land of scrub pines, whippoorwills, torrid summer nights and storms, and 30-below wind-chills in the winter. Aldo Leopold's country, and Frank Lloyd Wright's. For Leopold, ethics grows out of the land, and for his ethic, that means my land. For Wright, architecture must be "organic", open to and intensifying the spirit of the setting. His own way of shaping space still has the power to make tears of gratitude and astonishment flow every time I come into one of his buildings. Wright's social vision, a kind of extended, quasi-agrarian suburbia he called Broadacre City, was a workable vision for only a fleeting mind-century moment, if ever, but the very possibility of such a thing -- reconstructing the whole lived world around modes of inhabitation -- also permanently shifted something vital for me: it brought forth the same organic aspiration on the broadest scales. Why not utopianism, eh?
In those years environmental consciousness was rising as well -- this was the early 1970's -- so much so that my second serious professional ambition (after being an astronomer) was to be an environmental lawyer. But barely embarked on that path I found philosophy in turn, though it was still some time before my philosophical thinking found, or rather remembered, the larger-than-human world. Philosophy itself is proudly and persistently "on the edge" in certain ways, but eventually you begin to realize, when you think from the point of view of the more-than-human world, that most official philosophy follows narrowly circumscribed paths, and that even the country that lies over the first range of low hills just beyond philosophy's usual thoroughfares may be quite different and far more fabulous than what shows up along the usual routes, or even on the maps. I like to think that I have been bushwhacking in this kind of country ever since.
I am also a parent, cook, builder, tinkerer, gardener, chicken-keeper, backpacker, weaver, and singer. Another thing I like to think is that all of these practices keep me rooted in the concrete world, where after all so much is possible, so much is open-ended and moving. Philosophical pragmatism -- the corresponding philosophical stance -- is sometimes accused of a deep kind of conservatism, on the grounds that a rootedness in practice necessarily confines the imagination to the world that defines and calls forth those practices. In my experience, though, it is more the other way around. Actually working with things -- the experience of the fluidity of the supposedly fixed, the endless depth of the world, and the primacy of action -- opens up a sense of possibility unavailable in the academic armchair. Whatever else can be said, anyway, the ideas in Mobilizing the Green Imagination are all based on practice -- many of them grow out of my own practice -- but they also look forward to another world.
Certain words of Paul Goodman's (I hope some visitors will know who I mean) stick with me:
I seem to be able to write only practically, inventing expedients... My way of
writing a book of social theory has been to invent community plans. My
psychology is a manual of therapeutic exercises. A literary study is a manual of
practical criticism. A discussion of human nature is a program of pedagogical and
political reforms... I find that I know what I don't like only by contrast with some
concrete proposal that makes more sense.
Is that an apology? No, or not quite: underneath there is an invitation too; he takes some pride in "only being able to think this way". Me too. If we really are to change things, or even to imagine that we can change things, above all we need practical, effective imagination. Not merely endless critique, certainly not resignation -- no: real, concrete alternatives. "I know what I dont like only by contrast with some concrete proposal that makes more sense." But nothing says that that concrete proposal can only tweak things as they are. This very quote is from Goodman's aptly-titled book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals. I would be honored to think that Mobilizing the Green Imagination might be in some small way a successor to Goodman's work. Again: why not a practical utopianism?
And while I am at it, here is one other favorite line, this one from Herbert Marcuse (yes I am a child of the 60s: the very idea that the world is open to dramatic reconstruction for the better is, I would argue, a 60s idea): "Naming the things that are absent," says Marcuse, "is breaking the spell of things as they are." So think of Mobilizing the Green Imagination as doing just that: working out concrete proposals -- radical as they may be -- that represent some very special "things that are absent" in order to create room for real movement, breaking the spell of the world that seems so "given", so fixed, so resistant to change. In fact it is changing under our very feet, right now, in a thousand ways at once. Why are we, of all people, holding back?