In Resilience Reflections we ask some of our contributors what it is that inspires their work, and what keeps them going.
Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.
Who/what has been your greatest inspiration? And why?
Beliefs matter. So do stories. My inspiration often comes from the written word, and I’ve long been interested in writers who revel in the complexity of beliefs, understand how adept humans are at self-deception, but nevertheless provide a useful roadmap. Regardless of what I am doing or thinking, I circle back through Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and a few others, with some regularity. Among current writers, I find John Michael Greer to be one of the most interesting storytellers; he has impressive range and depth and his writing makes me laugh and rub my hands together with glee. My father, David Lindberg, was an obsessive thinker who was willing to accept truths that could disturb some sorts of self-interest; he had a huge impact on me. Jim Godsil, founder of the Sweetwater Foundation, has been involved, at some level, in almost every interesting thing I’ve done over the past 15 years; he showed me how to combine community activism, a love of concepts, and a life in the building trades.
Knowing what you know now about sustainability and resilience building, what piece of advice would you give your younger self if you were starting out?
I am who my journey has created. Change the journey and “I” would be someone else–and then so would the advice. I don’t think I would have listened anyways.
But I do think that in my first several years of involvement in the Transition Movement I (along with many around me) felt that a great cultural moment of grand awakening was imminent. Getting used to the fact that there won’t be any such event was difficult and makes a certain level of exuberance hard to muster. Greer’s notion of catabolic collapse has been rough comfort (but comfort nonetheless) for this adjustment.
What keeps you awake at night?
My three-year old sons.
What gets you up in the morning or keeps you going?
My three-year old sons.
One of my persistent fears is that they will be conscripted someday to fight in a resource war or civil war.
What has been your biggest setback and how did you recover?
I became interested in deep or real sustainability after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which inspired me to install a roof-top garden or farm on the building that housed my shop. This project, which led to my involvement in Transition Milwaukee and in helping to start The Victory Garden Initiative, made for some exhilarating times. It seemed like we were on the cusp of some big changes and I was on fire. Then I lost the building and the farm in part due to the recession after the 2008 crash and in part owing to my own shortcomings. This experience was very difficult and brought me down to Earth, and then some. But it also reminded me in very important ways that social change, economic disruption, and environmental destruction will not be as fun as Transition Milwaukee steering committee meetings were. While my unearned class status has kept me fairly well insulated from a lot of difficult things, I did experience a sort of vulnerability that my own energy and resources could do little about; this was a giant turning point.
I haven’t recovered from this. Rather I changed direction. This may also be a phase, but I became more inward and focused on ideas and concepts, at least for now. I’m especially interested in expectations as a key political, social, economic, and moral concept.
For you resilience is…?
It has a lot to do with having flexible expectations. Most of the “hardships” and setbacks that most people I know have are largely a violation of their expectations, rather than a matter of life of death, or even of their capacity to lead a good life. Being a little too cold or a little too hot, or losing something you worked hard for, or having to go without something you believed you would have, are only a tragedy if we believed we should never have to.
What one social/political/cultural/policy change would most assist your work/hopes/dreams?
Beliefs, alone, don’t move history; but at the same time history doesn’t change without beliefs changing. The biggest obstacle standing between our current way of life and a truly sustainable one may be the failure of people to imagine a future that does not continue along a modern industrial trajectory, in which we can expect more comfort and security, more automation, more choice, more development, and all the other things that are generally associated with progress (even though they don’t make people happier). That we might happily “make do” with less strikes even the most thoughtful or “radical” people as an absurd suggestion; most liberals will fight tooth and nail to maintain their privilege and are capable of committing awful acts in order to keep what they think they need and deserve. We need a revolution of expectations–hopefully before we dust off the guillotine or invade Canada (or elect Donald Trump).
What gives you hope?
Probably just the misfiring of brain synapses.
What book/film/other resource has most supported your work?
The Transition Movement will probably not “work” as intended. But Rob Hopkins and his collaborators provided us with a tremendously significant act of imagination of the sort I mentioned just above. Wendell Berry sowed a seed for lots of my current beliefs way back in 1988 when I read The Unsettling of America. It took years for the seed he planted to sprout, but that’s the book. Anyone who hasn’t read it should! I’m also grateful to the Transition Milwaukee crew—truly a group of big-hearted, deep- souled people from whom I learned and gained an awful lot.