A World of Difference
Looking to Mother Nature for lessons in diversity
PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN
As someone who cares about the state of civic life in our community, and by extension in America, I am often frustrated by the analysis by various social and political scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists and the like of the ways we interact with each other. We humans typically appear somewhat flawed, to be generous, when viewed under such microscopes. We can be rightfully described as distrustful, angry, envious and worse; not as people so much as citizens. But what really scares me is how our actions are viewed by botanists. That’s right, botanists. Folks who study plants. Because what they will tell us is that we are killing ourselves.
Botanists and other people who care about living things will tell you that diversity is required to sustain life. Our world is a complex interaction of various ecosystems, all of which include a multitude of organisms, and the various interactions of those organisms. And an ecosystem needs all of the component parts to function. Take one away and it’s not the same ecosystem. An ecosystem may be able to accommodate a slight change in makeup, but the more dramatic the change, or the loss of too many interrelated parts, and the system dies. That’s the other part of the equation. Monocultures kill. Plant too much corn over too large a tract of land for too long, and the earth loses its ability to sustain anything that grows. Monocultures are deadly. Diversity is required for life. We disregard these truths at our peril, and yet disregard them we do.
We’ve actually gotten quite good at justifying monocultures. Through yet another branch of social science, the science of convincing ourselves we like familiarity and consistency and reliability, we’ve become a culture of risk-averse brand loyalists. Food is one of the best examples. Many of us like the same foods, that have the same tastes, that are purchased in the same places and often shared with the same people. That’s one of the reasons the corn example is very real and very dangerous. Corn syrup, and chemical-laden processing, helps food taste familiar. We like that, so we buy those foods, and farmers plant more corn. To satisfy that preference for familiarity, for sameness, we create monocultures. Which, in addition to being unsustainable, are dull, boring and no fun. Much of modern American politics is predicated on a desire for monocultures versus a desire for diversity. A great deal of energy, and money, goes into promoting policies that benefit wealthy white men. Many of these wealthy white men are most comfortable around other wealthy white men, and they think that if they can arrange the political cards just so, they can protect that arrangement and keep things just the way they are. But if the last presidential election proved anything, it’s that that way of doing things can’t work much longer. The human ecosystem has a pretty strong survival instinct and an innate understanding that diversity is required to thrive.
Cities, counties and regions are ecosystems of their own. They’re made up of ever-changing organisms of environmental resources, food systems, infrastructure, institutions, culture and above all human capital. The greater Madison region has each of these assets in abundance. How we protect them, nurture them and ensure that they continuously complement each other will determine our future. Great cities are vibrant, welcoming, inclusive centers of creativity, energy and curiosity. They are places that celebrate differences and promote new thinking and big ideas both homegrown and imported. They have the diversity necessary to support the urban-dominated, economic necessities of twenty-first-century life in a global America. Spectrum is both a compilation and road map of those necessities for just such a global American city. Cities that are failing to embrace this essential dynamic are not just falling behind, they are dying.
Neil Heinen is editorial director of WISC-TV3 and Madison Magazine.