Creative Commons image by Bjoern von Thuelen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

My sister and I would always laugh at my Mom’s stories because they were all told in circles. Characters and locations she’d mention would disappear suddenly, only to re-appear unexpectedly later. There never seemed to be a point or an end to any of her yarns;  they’d always circle back to the beginning, but always from a different perspective. Her circular storytelling drove us crazy.

My dad on the other hand was all about the linear. As a civil engineer, everything began from point “A” and always ended at point “B”; veering off the straight path to him seemed inefficient and unnecessary. My Dad was the dominant personality in the household, so his kids all aligned with his linear perspective. I’ve always wondered how these two very different personalities got married.

It is only now much later in life I’ve come to appreciate my Mom’s stories. I can now relate to her philosophy and connect it to my own. As a sustainability advocate, I recognize the future as circular rather than linear. The linear perspective now seems staid and old-fashioned.

Sustainability is about circles. Take for example recycling: raw materials are taken from the earth, made into objects, gathered after use, then renewed to make the same object again, or an entirely different one. The raw material is only taken once, and then used over, and over again – an efficient and circular process. Unfortunately, most of our world economy does not operate this way. Items are simply discarded after use, only to be buried, discarded into the sea, or burned.

This idea of a linear economy of consumption originated during the Industrial Revolution when products became easily manufactured and more widely available – a consumerist lifestyle further solidified by the introduction of ultra-resilient and disposable materials like plastic. After World War II the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, became enthralled with the notions of the new and disposability. The Depression-era habits of recycling and saving were considered only for poor countries, with the prosperity of the 20th Century equated with the ability to consume only new things and discard them at will. “Efficiency” was only applied in relation to manufacturing as fast as possible. To this day, Americans use “efficient” primarily in reference to linear processes providing short-term gain. For example: it is efficient to channel storm water down the L.A. River, but it is not efficient to slow water flow to recharge the aquifer.

The irony here is linear thinking rarely leads toward ultimate efficiencies. Businesses are only sustainable as long as natural resource are available. Just look back at the once prosperous industries of American Buffalo hunters or leather/fur manufacturers of the 1850s and one can see the peak and collapse reflecting linear consumption. So-called efficient modern thinking was never really concerned with genuine efficiency beyond immediate profibility. However, the connection between our consumptive, linear thinking and prosperity remains. Many Americans still aspire to buy only new items, used until its novelty has worn off, finally to be thrown away and replaced again with something new. This has become the linear timeline of the American way.

This is all a roundabout way of saying: I don’t laugh at my Mother’s stories any longer. I recognize her circular narratives are told with an appreciation of life’s journey from every perspective. Her stories recognize and appreciate various perspectives, both ultimately more interesting to my Mom than the pursuit of any conclusion. Each of her stories are an adventure comprised of meandering paths, dead-ends, new beginnings, and perpetual change – much like nature, sustainability, and life itself.

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