Ingenuity is Sustainable

How can I get the radio to work?
How can I get the radio to work?

I feel like I’ve written about this several times- maybe in former blog posts or on or just in my own notes? But if it has made it to the blog it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves; so I’m devoting an entire post to it.

Sustainability doesn’t mean tree hugging (although trees are extremely sustainable). Sustainability means being able to keep doing something for a really long time. Fasting is not sustainable because you’ll die. Competing in Nathan’s hot dog eating competition is not sustainable because you also die. The activities that are the most sustainable are somewhere between the extremes.

Sustainability is often discussed in terms of actions; is eating a single hot dog sustainable? Is driving your car to Coney Island to get one sustainable? Is taking the bus? Is biking? Is walking? Is swimming from Breezy Point?

Sustainability is not often enough discussed in terms of thinking. Our actions don’t act themselves; they come from our mindsets. And some mindsets are more sustainable than others.

“I want that!” is not a particularly sustainable frame of mind. “I want that NOW! is even less sustainable. We can’t think like that 24/7 because we’d take candy from babies, punch our bosses in the face, and shoplift every pair of fly kicks we saw in the Niketown display window.

“I don’t need anyone or anything” is just as extreme and unsustainable. You won’t make it very long sitting cross-legged and naked in the middle of the forest by yourself.

“Do I really need that?” is a more sustainable way of thinking about things. “What can I do with what I already have?” similarly so. Sustainable ways of thinking are those that come in the forms of questions, because when we ask questions we’re analyzing things; we’re looking at them closely and critically to figure them out. And that is something you can keep doing forever and ever.

All creativity comes from some sort of necessity; artistic creativity comes from the absolute need to express something. Practical, inventive creativity comes from the need to get something done. We’re inventive not when someone tells us to be; we’re creative we have to be.

Artists will tell you that’s every day. For people living in challenging circumstances, it’s also every day because no mindset yields as unprecedented creativity as, “how can I survive?”

If you need a place to live and the road dead ends at unused railroad tracks, saying, “I can’t live here,” is not going to sustain you very long. Asking yourself, “how can I live here?” is what will get you going.

It is what will lead you to build marranitas, homemade shuttles that run back and forth along the tracks.

Fernando approves.
Fernando approves.

It will inspire you to attach wheels to a wooden pallet/sled and propel yourself along with a long bamboo pole,

Don Alfonso shows us how it's done.
Don Alfonso shows us how it’s done.

or to cut a hole in the sled/pallet to fit the back wheel of a moto into so that they’re on one of the rails and thus propel the sled along, but then you can just pop the moto out and use it as a moto.

So cool. So genius.
So cool. So genius.

Or use a bike instead of a moto and pedal yourself and your cargo (or children or chickens) down the tracks.


Or build a little plastic roof over the sled and screw in some benches to create a shuttle to and from the nearest town, charging a dollar each way. And then you can build houses and buy groceries and commute to school and work and it doesn’t matter that there isn’t a traditional road, because you figured out a creative solution to the problem. Because you needed a place to live. And you ended up with riverfront property and almost zero carbon footprints. Creativity has its hidden benefits.

Complaining that, “picking coffee is really hot and buggy! I’m just going to sit down under the trees and mope,” will get you kicked off the picking crew and thus booted from your room, board, and source of income. Asking yourself, “how can I make this sweaty, insect-laden job more bearable?” will lead you to find ingenious ways of tying a t shirt around your head so that there’s no skin for the sun to burn or the bugs to bite.

Manuel knows how to pick coffee.
Manuel knows how to pick coffee.

It will lead you to cut a custom plastic “raincoat” for your radio that you’ve creatively hung around your neck so that it doesn’t bump into your basket or get in the way of picking. Discomfort is inspiring.

It seems like being comfortable would be a sustainable human state, but when we’re comfortable we have a tendency to be less creative. Is then the most sustainable human state being in a state of moderate need (and thus discomfort)- because that’s when we’re at our most ingenious? It might not be quite that simple. We’re always creative when we’re in need, but do we have to be in need to be creative?

Can we predict future need and states of discomfort and be just as ingenious? Can we catapult ourselves into creativity while we’re still comfortable; can we be creative before we get to a place of dire need? Can we all be like the guy who built the electric car way before anyone ever thought we’d actually reach the bottom of the oil barrel?

I think so. Because once you start asking questions and thinking of creative ways to answer them, you usually start to think of more questions, and your creativity fuels itself. But this kind of “hypothetically prompted” creativity is harder, because the need is projected rather than present, and if the theoretical need/discomfort is a tricky problem to solve, it’s tempting to just throw in the towel and say, “well sea levels haven’t actually risen two meters so we don’t really need to do anything about preparing for that to happen because they might never rise at all.”

The reason creativity in the face of pressing need is so downright genius is because it’s the product of having no other choice but to solve the problem at hand. Even if the dilemma is tricky, you just keep creativing until you figure something out. Because that’s all you can do. Unless you just curl up in a corner and cry. Which humans are not known for. Maybe you cry for a few hours and then think, “this is silly,” and get up and figure something out.

Complacency is unsustainable in the way that stagnant water is unsustainable; it’s not immediately lethal but overtime it will yield enough mosquitos to eat you alive. Ingenuity is sustainable in the way that a river is sustainable; water tumbles down gravity’s tug just like ideas roll off one another until you’re treading in the swirling pool at the bottom of a waterfall of ingenuity.



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