Repairing the Hudson Valley

John Wackman

by Andrew Willner


Recently, our friend John Wackman died unexpectedly. His loss is tragic on many levels. He will be missed by his loving family, his many friends, colleagues all over the world, and the thousands of people whose lives he touched through his Repair Café, climate action, ideas and actions for a circular economy, and an innovative recycle-reuse park. John was an outstanding communicator and collaborator. He was also the kind of person who led by doing. John’s book, Repair Revolution, How Fixers are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture, co-authored by Elizabeth Knight, is part of his legacy.

John was by nature a collaborator, and many of us spoke often of our shared aspirations for creating a resilient future for upcoming generations. We shared our hopes and the work and actions that must be taken to assure that there will be some light during what is likely to be a very dark near future.

We spoke often about the tales that traditionally inspire cultural development. Narratives found in Gilgamesh, the Bible, or folk tales all served in their time as action plans. They described what worked well in the past so cultures could move into a productive future. In time, some of those tales have become outdated and the stories that once guided us to safety now lead us into danger.

The tale of the last 300 years, since the Age of Reason and on into the Modern Age of Expansion, is that we live in a time of limitless progress, of ever-expanding opportunity and possibility, in which there is a high technological fix for every problem.

That old tale, arising not from folk but from corporate interests, said that unlimited growth and soaring GDP is the measure of economic health and community wellbeing; that a rising stock market protects us, no matter how rundown our neighborhoods; that deregulation stimulates investment, even as climate destabilizing emissions rise; and that national security need only focus on existential threats beyond our borders, and not on quality of life and preservation of civil liberties.

It is long past time for us to tell a new story: one that recognizes the turbulent sea of change we sail in [; a story that recognizes the dangers around us but doesn’t just induce a fear or grief response. This new story inspires us to prepare together as communities with open eyes, minds, and hearts — ready to face the risks of impending calamity while embracing the promise of resilience and hope of regeneration.

We need to change the narrative now, embrace a new story truer to circumstance — a storyline in which we heroically face adversity together, creating abundance out of crisis, moving with agility through chaos toward new community values that will sustain us in the unsettled years ahead. That story, based on John’s vision, could be called Repairing Place.

The roots of that story are certain: we will thrive only by being earth and community stewards, rather than exploiters; only by demanding that our leaders address not only the economic balance sheet, but also our ecological and equity balance sheets. Only then will we be able to go ahead with hope and find a safe harbor. Only then can we leave a better world for the next generations.

Next Steps in the Repair Revolution

Embracing the imperfect ways that we celebrate our strengths

John’s vision for a Repair culture transcended the idea of fixing objects. During discussions about his vision for both the expansion and formalization of Repair Cafes, he advocated for a cultural transformation that included Repair as a philosophical and pragmatic way of addressing a way of life that included a “circular economy” as cultural kintsugi , an ancient Japanese practice that beautifies broken pottery. It is a way of repair using golden glue that celebrates the breakage as part of the object’s history, rather than as the end of the story. More than merely a craft technique, kintsugi is an outgrowth of the Japanese philosophy wabi-sabi, a belief in the beauty of imperfections.

Taking on a broken system as an opportunity to repair it beautifully and functionally is now the work of John’s friends and colleagues. John, as many of who are older, was interested in succession, turning over the work of the Repair Café to a new generation invested in a transition to a resilient Hudson Valley.

By acting now with foresight and hard work, we can care for each other, reinvesting in people and the land, creating a future for the Hudson Valley that emphasizes the Permaculture principles of Care of the Earth, Care of People, and Fair share of resources.

Local sustainability organizations and institutions are plentiful. All are endowed with ethical values that serve all citizens not only a privileged elite. We need to strengthen and work with these organizations and institutions as well as create more as needed. In our Hudson Valley Repair Culture, the emphasis will not be on blind, reckless progress at all cost, but on the creation of an equitable society that avoids resource depletion while fostering slow growth, and most importantly, hope for everyone, including the most vulnerable people and species.

Repairing Hudson Valley Communities

Repair is a path of participation for lots of people which is a benefit in its own right.   Focus on a short list of arenas where customized, loving approaches are most needed – bringing our communities back from the economic crisis by engaging all the resources available in a less cookie cutter way, from local food resources to work opportunities.

While it is true that there is little that small communities can do to independently reverse climate change, there are many things these same communities can do to mitigate the climate crisis in their area as it unfolds, and to future-proof themselves against climate chaos. Importantly, because communities are smaller than states or nations, they have the capacity for rapid change and quick course corrections. They are better able to bring citizenry together, to reach consensus and to act decisively.

As such, individual Hudson River communities can serve as laboratories, where citizens work together to build lifeboats, to stock and staff them against the dangers ahead. Moreover, many local communities acting in this way throughout the region could ultimately “float all boats” in a climate emergency — increasing our chances of mutual survival across the region.

Where to begin? Every community needs to start by objectively assessing threats. Then we need to unflinchingly evaluate the greatest points of weakness — whether these take the form of infrastructure; social, public health, economic and political structures. Finally, communities need to fortify those weaknesses against the storms to come — work that will enrich our towns and neighborhoods in the present, while reducing risk and enhancing resilience for the future.

A few practical repair ideas: community flood proofing in preparation for climate chaos, implementation of drought resistant landscaping, institutionalization of green building practices, zoning against development in climate disaster-prone floodplains, the installation of redundant stormproof energy systems, the establishment of community-wide food security, and the creation of damage control centers equipped to deal with sudden disasters — all of this and much more can protect our communities now, while future-proofing them against the harms common on a much warmer, more turbulent planet and in a post-carbon future.

Repaired resilient communities are at the core of a “Too Small to Fail” future. If we don’t plan for more robust proactive communities, and implement solutions for looming problems, a catastrophic crash seems inevitable. However, in our new storyline, crisis can equal opportunity — as our nation learned during the Great Depression and World War II.

These goals

These goals can seem utopian, especially if we look at them through the lens of the old story of “progress.” There are, of course, also hard realities to contend with as we develop a Repair Culture.      The Hudson Valley and the New York City Bioregion — is connected to the rest of the world by literally thousands of lifelines, all of which are now at risk. These include an aging and increasingly failure-prone power grid; an aging and leaky water system; and a vast network of roads, rails, shipping, and air routes that rely exclusively on fossil fuels whose supply is prone to sudden cost spikes and shortages.

Like a patient on intravenous life support, any major interruption in the flow of these resources to the region can hamstring or harm its economy and people. With global oil, gas and coal production predicted to irreversibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, a related economic collapse becomes not a question of if, but when — unless we act now to soften and deflect the blow, creating redundant energy, food, product, and transport systems that kick-in as international resources become unreliable.

In the face of this reality, how do we transition from the storyline of unlimited growth and intense capitalist competition to a storyline that calls for community union, local shared economic prosperity, and the building of a Repair Culture?

The repair Journey may begin with steps like these:

  • The region and its communities commit to being a leader in sustainability and resilience.
  • Local people hold their elected officials responsible for inaction and reward effective action.
  • We recognize that real economic pain is associated with the changes needed to mitigate and avoid the effects of sea level rise and climate change, and find ways to reduce that pain.

Revival of the Commons

Shared Management of Shared Resources

A key strategy of our Repair Culture, if it is to succeed, will be for communities to take back the commons — finding ways to manage our waterways, fisheries, pastures, forests and other local landscapes in a sustainable manner that can be productive for hundreds of years.

This means reinstituting many of the rules that people created and used in generations past to protect shared resources for future generations so that they could be harvested and shared without degrading ecosystems. [While local supervision flies in the face of 21st century trends of federal and state management, corporate exploitation, or privatization — it helps to build community resilience. Like a bank account, a farmer or fishermen never removes more from a commons ecosystem than nature can replace in a reasonable amount of time. And it is the community that ultimately benefits.]

The co-operatives model

Co-operatives in various forms (production, retail, housing, and credit) are another organizational model in which ethics are embodied and embedded, and which are vital to a functioning local Repair Culture. Co-operative principles confer greater resilience – which matches the priority for safety and security in difficult times.   Although there are no panaceas and co-ops can fail too, it is also true that co-ops have a track record of longevity and survival that is superior in many cases to private companies [that is vital in times of economic contraction and environmental turmoil.

Living fully in a world of “what if”

We can move steadily away from dependence on increasingly undependable fossil fuels, giant transnational companies, and international finances. We can build energy, food, and economic redundancies into local communities to buffer them against international and national shortages and systems collapses. We can invest in our neighborhoods and our neighbors, working together to create “too small to fail” Main Street businesses, non-profits and local governments that strive in union to serve their communities and the people.

None of this will insure us totally against the dangers ahead, but preparedness as engendered in a Repair Culture, will give our communities resilience and staying power. By acting now with foresight and hard work, we can care for each other, reinvesting in people and the land, creating a future for the Hudson Valley.

We can create organizational and institutional structures that are sustainable, endowed with ethical values that serve all citizens not only a privileged elite. In our Hudson Valley Repair Culture, the emphasis will not be on blind, reckless progress at all cost, but on the creation of an equitable society that avoids resource depletion while fostering slow growth, and most importantly, hope for everyone, including the most vulnerable people and species.

Ultimately, the journey begins simply, with the joining of hands; the breaking of bread; and in taking a first step together, in your community or in mine.