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This Month at OnEarth: Seeking Answers from the Past
Introducing OnEarth’s first-ever theme month, exploring the ways in which cutting-edge ideas about sustainability have been influenced by wisdom from previous generations.

As the editors of an environmental magazine, we at OnEarth spend gads of time searching for what we call solutions-oriented stories. Because even though a lot of bad things are happening to our world, we don’t want our pages overtaken by doom and gloom. So we’re always on the lookout for scientists, politicians, advocates, and innovators who are discovering how to fix problems, whether through city planning, antibiotic-free farming, green chemistry—whatever.

Something we noticed over and over again is that these solutions are often a kind of throwback to age-old know-how. New Urbanism—which advocates for more compact, walkable neighborhoods that require less driving—is really a return to how we built cities before the automobile. Older buildings—as we discovered when reporting about the growing global demand for air conditioning—incorporate energy-efficient methods of climate control through smart construction and smartly selected materials.  And the whole concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” would really benefit from embracing a nearly forgotten R: repair.

To help sate our curiosity, we asked Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and frequent OnEarth contributor, to explore this meme in an essay. The result appears in our Winter 2013/2014 issue and, as of today, you can read it online. “A lot of the best ideas of the past few decades fit this same basic pattern,” Kolbert writes. “They’re old.”

More in this series: Answers from the Past

Don’t misunderstand us: all in all, we have it pretty good. Scientific discovery and technological innovation continue to enhance and improve our daily lives beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We’re certainly not suggesting that we return to living like our primitive forebears. But there is very tangible, practical wisdom embedded in our collective past. From agriculture to mass transit, from energy and water conservation (what our grandparents called frugality or thrift) to eating locally, a significant portion of our modern environmental discourse is built on a sturdy foundation of borrowed ideas.

We wanted to keep this conversation going among our writers, editors, and readers, so throughout December our regular roster of online columnists (plus a few special guests) will pick up where Kolbert leaves off, exploring how our contemporary thinking about sustainability has been influenced—or ought to be influenced—by the genius of our forebears.

Find more “Answers from the Past” throughout the month here at, and also visit Switchboard, where some of the scientific and policy experts from NRDC (which publishes OnEarth) will explore this theme, as well. And we hope to hear from you, too, readers, either in the comments or via letter or email.

Read more of OnEarth's Answers from the Past month.

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image of Scott Dodd
Scott Dodd is the editorial director of NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other publications. CJR praised his expansion of as an outlet for "bang-up investigative journalism." He also teaches at Columbia University. MORE STORIES ➔
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The Transition Towns environmental movement, and more specifically the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) is completely on your wave length here. One of the key ingredients in the our move to "transition" hamlets, villages towns and cities from fossil fuel dependency toward resiliency is what we call a "reskilling." A reskilling facilitates visioning by bringing us, “back to the future.” Reskillings turn back the clock to offer hands-on experiential engagement with heirloom skills and technologies that we can reactivate, refine and combine with carbon neutral modern technology in order to protect the environment in the future. We just conducted a "Waterways Reskilling" at SUNY New Paltz, NY on November 23rd that bracketed participant attention on reactivating sail freight commerce, small, mini and micro hydropower generation at homesteader scale, boatbuilding etc. As we put the brakes on environmental degradation, we are called to create new stories and prioritize: slower, lower-tech, smaller-scale, relationship-driven ways of living in harmony with the magnificent waterways that supported our grandparents. The crowd left with a renewed appreciation of technologies used by past generations that originally breathed life into our towns and river valleys. They spent the day giving some serious thought to the kind of sustainable waterways culture do we want to foster. A retrospective on the Reskilling with presentation info is at this link=> .........and, A full article that prefaced the event is at this link=> Pamela Boyce Simms Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH)
In looking back at our past, these facts should interest anyone concerned about sustainability: 200,000 years ago a new species (Homo Sapiens) arrives on the planet. For 99% of it's existence on Earth, the species lives as harmlessly as any other species, while only becoming harmful in the last 0.5-1% of the time. This ought to lead one to ask, what changed in the last 10,000 years or so? "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn helped me to understand what changed. PRAISE FOR ISHMAEL “A thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel about the role of our species on the planet . . . laid out for us with an originality and a clarity that few would deny.” —The New York Times Book Review "From now on, I will divide the books I have read into two categories — the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after." -- Jim Britell of Whole Earth Review “It is as suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent as any fiction or nonfiction book you are likely to read this or any other year.” —The Austin Chronicle “Deserves high marks as a serious—and all too rare—effort that is unflinchingly engaged with fundamental life-and-death concerns.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution