Climbing Bunker Hill

The Bunker HIll Monument, on Bunker Hill in Charlestown (Boston)

The Bunker Hill Monument, on Bunker Hill in Charlestown (Boston)

There is some metaphorical irony to returning to this blog space on the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Revolutionary War occupies a large place in my family history, with ancestors who were United Empire Loyalists who supported the British and lost everything – only to find it again in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Bunker Hill was a battle “we” won – though the historian in me knows that many more such victories and the British army would have had no prayer of ever winning the war.

But I was in Boston, briefly, and had time for a visit – so went to see USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” to take pictures and admire the shrewdest piece of naval technology of the eighteenth century. It was built to outgun what it couldn’t outrun, by people who intended to win and not acquiesce. As I counted the 32-pounder carronades on the top deck and the thick oak planking, I imagined the incredulity of the British and others who discovered what asymmetric war at sea really meant.

From the dock, I could see the Bunker Hill Monument, and so I decided to walk up to it – and discovering I could also climb the stairs inside the monument, asked for my free pass to do so. I brushed off the surprise of the commissionaire issuing tickets, and set out to climb what was diffidently advertised as 294 stairs to the top.

Four weeks to the day, I had woken up in my own bed for the first time in a month, having spent weeks lying about in hospital admiring the benefits of the Canadian health care system while subsisting on a steady diet of antibiotics and jello. So it was a monumental climb from that perspective as well.

Two days later, on the anniversary of the battle, I feel like my legs are now made of jello – and have gotten small sympathy from colleagues or family for my folly.

But there was more to the symbolism than the climb.

I was in Boston after attending a conference on sustainable consumption and production at Clark University in nearby Worcester. We considered the problems of sustainability from a variety of perspectives and had compiled a considerable list of insurmountable obstacles by the time we were finished.

Combat metaphors were hard to avoid, as conflict seemed inevitable between those intent on continuing toward planetary destruction out of their own self absorption and blind greed, and good-willed people of like mind earnestly searching for some better alternative path into a sustainable future.

Naturally, “they” were creating the problem and “we” were attempting the solution. However much we intellectually can identify our own lifestyles as contributing to the problem, emotionally it is far more difficult to realize “we have met the enemy and s/he is us.”

My own presentation compounded the ironies for myself. Still recuperating, I had travelled from Winnipeg to Worcester, Massachusetts (some 2900 kilometers by road) to present a paper called “Live Close to Home: Proximity as a Characteristic of a Sustainable Society,” to people from all over Europe and North America.

It is the inherent problem of a sustainable lifestyle that even those working toward a less consumptive society (pun intended) are inescapably entwined within the web of unsustainable activities. We could have all stayed home and saved the carbon costs, but then we would have missed what we learned from talking to each other.

My “network” has expanded as a result of the conference, but more than the e-mail addresses and invitations to get Linked-In, the real value lay in conversations and sharing ideas with people whose paths I would never otherwise have crossed. Where these relationships – not connections! – will lead, I have no idea. We may only correspond through the electronic aether from this point onward, but any future correspondence is anchored in time we spent together.

In terms of what is said elsewhere in this blog and in Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World, it is all a matter of Presence. That Presence, even only a few minutes spent together, was worth the effort, the risk, the carbon cost of the trip.

In a culture where we are encouraged to be connected but not related, to see and hear but not to touch or smell, the more we encounter the physical Presence of other people, the more sustainability becomes palpable. Shared ideas, feelings, emotions, even nothing more than the physical contact of a handshake and a shared glance of introduction, gives solidity to what otherwise would be immaterial and evanescent as a result.

Returning to Bunker Hill and the Revolutionary War, commanders long since had learned the importance of large muscle groups in empowering and unifying their troops. Marching, drilling, moving in collective response to commands, made a rag-tag assortment of strangers into a group with the discipline and fortitude to march into lethal cannonades and a storm of enemy musketry.

While we did not engage in such martial activity, our presence together was a reminder that the struggle for sustainability is a collective enterprise, shared across the planet with like-minded strangers, comrades-in-arms despite the distance that separates humans by language and culture as well as by place.

Yet as we listened to each other, especially as we shared what became a litany of insurmountable obstacle and unavoidable difficulty, the larger lessons of Bunker Hill became clear. The British won the battle and lost the war, but the bigger losses lay in not finding another solution to the problems of colonial relations that led to the war in the first place.

There were other ways, but they were neither clearly identified nor properly valued. The conflict forged a new nation, to be sure, but the United States was poorer for the loss of those who died or who (like my ancestors) had to leave the country they had helped to build for 150 years.

Conflicts and wars change things. We know this from what history reveals. But history also tells us that it much easier to start a war than to predict its outcome. Nor has there ever been a war in which the benefits have outweighed the costs.

People have felt there was no alternative, or where there was an alternative, would rather fight than accept it. But such an attitude is admission of failure, not something to celebrate.

As we divide the world into “them” and “us” and search for the ways and means to create a sustainable future, monuments of whatever kind to battles fought long ago are metaphors of futility, not of accomplishment.

We need to find another way.

We quite literally cannot afford to fight about sustainability, or about the character of a sustainable society, for in the fight itself lies the inevitability of our collective defeat.

We all must share the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, or none of us can be assured of any likely future in which we or our children would ever want to live.

So, in response to concerns about my health, I climbed those steps because I needed to demonstrate to myself that I could. In response to the difficulty of transforming our society into one that is sustainable, I refused to quit before I reached the top. The view of Boston harbor reminded me of the need for perspective, to place the difficulties down on the ground in the proper relation to each other, and consider the horizon and not just my next step.

But as I descended the stone stairs and wobbled back on unsteady legs toward the dockyard, I was also reminded that it is at least as much of an achievement to climb down from our pinnacles of opportunity to find the common ground we share with the rest of humanity. Monuments are symbols of pride, not of humility, and pride is at the heart of the problem.

Two days later, jello-legged, I am home surrounded by the work left undone when I packed. Whatever pinnacle you have scaled elsewhere, reality always returns with the thud of your suitcase hitting the kitchen floor.

After all, sustainability is about power, not about force. The earthworm and the ant share a power we cannot see that transforms our world more irresistibly than any tornado.

I have watched ants climb obstacles far larger in their world than the Bunker Hill Monument is in mine – and go back and do it over and over again, as long as they are able and there is still work to be done. Over time, the earthworm transforms ground into fertile soil, on which a multitude of living things depend.

It all happens close to home – but in combination, those local efforts have created the world in which we live.

What I do, by myself and for my own reasons, matters to me. But it only matters to other people if what I do is in line with what they also believe needs to be done, where they live, to create a sustainable future for us all.

We need to be wary of forcing our way into a sustainable future, lest our efforts only make worse the problems we know we have to solve — and very soon. We need to find another way forward, one that will not be marked by monuments to our prowess or symbols of our victories over “them.”

Our real achievements will pass unnoticed, enjoyed by future generations that have the chance to live and love as we do without knowing whom to thank or why.

Power, not force. I think I need to sit down and think about that for a while.