Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Signs?

Why Signs?

I admit it: in the days of mobile internet and GPS, the concept of posting physical signs as a way of generating community may seem “retro” and outmoded. Nonetheless, I like them.  For one thing, a physical sign works regardless of weather conditions, operates just fine regardless of power outages or internet connectivity gremlins and, moreover, has the distinct advantage of providing information that is directly relevant to the viewer’s immediate environment.

Awash in media, we tend to forget the value of immediacy.

Over your shoulder right now is some kind of household, a work environment, or perhaps a stranger on a bus.  Take a look around.  Maybe engaging these people and this environment is more important than reading this blog post. Perhaps better yet, consider right now that you can engage the family member, coworker, or stranger over your shoulder about this very blog post and why you’re reading it.  By wedding your experience of media with the immediate experience of those around you, I guarantee you will create a richer experience.

On a practical level, I like to think of the Green Hands Reskilling Initiative as a kind of ground-level “Green Mapping.” Green Maps are an online resource helping people to locate environmental and sustainable enterprises in communities ranging from their own hometowns to places on continents around the world.  It’s a great idea!

Yet, I don’t feel that a Green Map will ever take the place of physical signage. Partly, my reasoning is based on the much-discussed distinction between a map and the actual territory.  It’s not that there’s anything bad in general about maps; they can be extremely useful. But negotiating a map is not the same as negotiating the territory it covers, as anyone who will tell you who attempts to ford an actual stream depicted on a topographic map when the stream is suddenly running swift and swollen by a summer storm. Signage amounts to a mapping feature that is incorporated into the actual territory, thus bridging the navigational advantages of maps with the immediate experience and reality of the territory itself.

Plus, there is something to the related idea of locality. As we inhabit a given landscape, we interact with it according to a number of different travel parameters such as where we are going and how far, how fast and by what means of conveyance.  Now suppose, as some do, that energy scarcity may reduce our ability to travel by motorcar.  This shift would make locating community resources nearer to home all the more important.  Finding resources in the course of our normal daily movements is direct, efficient, and full of the possibilities inherent in the manifold layers of existence that engage when we interact with our living immediate environment full of synchronicity and the richness of unexpected events.

My understanding is, the walking range of pedestrians has historically been a whole lot more than what we typically cover on foot today.  Though we aren’t used to the idea here in the US, a purposeful 5-10 mile walk to a local destination should really be no big deal for most people.  But regardless of our range, the beauty of the Green Hand sign, should the idea catch on, is that it will show up precisely where we live, and should our range of mobility be reduced, access to instructional resources and mutually beneficial relationships does not have to necessarily shrink with it.  The local world, when truly known and explored, can in our personal experience feel larger than the world going by at a 70mph blur, even if that blur extends dozens of miles. Green Hand sites are but one possible feature of that local world, and a way of exposing the richness of a given locality.

However, the success of the Green Hands concept will ultimately rest on whether or not people are sufficiently alarmed by developments to take a stand and do something, like being the first in the neighborhood to identify themselves by posting such a sign.  My sense is, we have not reached that tipping point yet on a broad social scale. It’s still important, however, for as many people as possible to start publicly proclaiming through their Green Hand signs (or by whatever other means, of course!) that indeed business as usual will not carry us through the economic and social transition we now face, and that we are presently willing to do something about it.  Even the conversations generated by people asking about the significance of the Green Hand sign will ultimately result in more-aware and connected individuals and communities. Building a conspicuous and flourishing garden takes a bit more time, but it might accomplish much the same thing.

When I allow myself to dream, I imagine a world with communities founded around the Green Hand concept: neighbors reaching out to help one another acquire the skills and resources to live well in an age of increasing resource scarcity.   I’d like for there to be so many Green Hand signs dotting the landscape that they start to suggest a universal community and widespread willingness to work together, a project many people will choose to participate in motivated by a sense of enlightened, community-centered, self-interest.   

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