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.”
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 OnEarth.org, 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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