A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I joined a group of colleagues on a private tour of Chicago’s Center for Green Technology. In the center of the metropolitan rail yards and what was once, but is no more, a thriving industrial district, the Center for Green Technology serves as an oasis with its swaled landscape and deliberately designed gardens. The lesson to be taken from here is that everything is included for a reason: a Purple Martin house sits in the marshy garden area so as to attract the ravenous mosquito eaters as a means of creating a natural balance and keeping the bug population down; chives are blossoming above in the vegetative roof gardens, their dirt and roots soaking up the rains of spring while offering an aromatic addition to the day’s culinary offerings.
As I listened to the story of the cisterns that tower above the building’s landscape in multiple locations, I recalled hearing my father complain about the old cistern water systems in houses and how progress had been made over the years in this regard to make everyone’s life better and easier with city water. It seems as though we forget over time that there were reasons that things were done the way that they were, and that progress is sometimes fleeting. Why not capture rain water for reuse in the garden or for flushing toilets? Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle. As some of the only folks in our housing subdivision who lack a sprinkling system, my husband and I are always tickled by the fact that our grass seems to come out just as green as our neighbors’ at the end of the day, even though we haven’t spent a measurable amount of our summer hunched over broken sprinkler heads. Nature seems to have a way of finding a balance.
Sometimes when we don’t plan for all of the potential outcomes of a situation, we find out why the status quo existed in the first place. Take, for instance, the rise in cases of “Supergerms” such as MRSA, and the correlation with overuse of antibacterial cleansers in our environment. We rid our environment of germs using tougher chemicals, and the smart germs get tougher while our bodies become less practiced at defending against them.
It seems as though we have to look at our actions in the short and long term scenarios: If I proceed with this change, how is it making life better or easier in the short term, and at what potential cost? In going down this path, what elements of the equation am I not taking in to account that might come back to haunt me or society later, and for how long? What are the alternatives? It wouldn’t matter whether you are talking about a process or a product innovation, a website redesign or a miracle drug, the questions would be the same.
Of course, the offshore drilling question looms large as the contemporary poster child for this quandary, with New Orleans readying for yet another hit on its economic well being caused by the relentless and unquenchable quest for oil to fuel our carbon-hungry lives. It probably looked like a good idea at the time to those who needed to feed their families and boost a Katrina-addled economy. The long term toll on the shrimp and oyster supply and upon those whose lives depend upon providing it has yet to be determined, however.
It’s never an easy answer, but perhaps we should always ask ourselves if what’s old is good enough to be new again, because improvements aren’t always what they seem.