A Rude Awakening from Dreams of Termitopia

Bill Birdsall

“Doing it right” means quality craftsmanship, according to norms of quality. “Making it new” has to do with originality. Quality and originality can seem to be exclusive of each other. Original work can sometimes seem sloppy to one who expects and doesn’t find traditional elements of good craftsmanship in the new work. Sometimes original work sets new standards of craftsmanship that take time to be appreciated.

            But original work can also radically change the course of history. The more original artists are usually the ones who are remembered in history books and make the most noteworthy marks on culture.

            Now that climate change and the possible extinction of the human race are factors in our future—maybe sooner, maybe later—the longevity associated with quality craftsmanship may have less importance in thirty years than it does now. If there is no audience to appreciate originality, there will also be no more history books and no lasting marks made by anyone for their originality.

            Most of my creative work (painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, mostly) is done spontaneously, without a lot of planning. For ideas to work, they have to be realistic in the way they interact with physical laws governing materials. For architecture to at least remain standing, basic design principles have to be used that reflect the strengths and weaknesses of materials. Quality craftsmanship keeps refining the interface between ideas and working models of those ideas, allowing the models to work within the physical limits of reality. Originality keeps pushing our creative limits and sometimes the traditional concepts of quality craftsmanship.

            My leaning lately toward climate change pessimism has changed the importance of some of the ideas I was working toward in architecture. For many years I have been trying to develop an “immortal” building material with which to build termite nest-like cities based on tunnels and domes instead of boxes. Projecting a thousand years in the future into a “termitopia” city like that, I could see lots of economic and aesthetic advantages and exciting possibilities.

            For one thing, capitalism can be brutal to losers, and it tends to rape the planet’s resources as fast as it can to sell as much product as possible. Instead of everyone buying a personal hammer, we might all just share a few hammers in communal tool libraries. Similarly, we might share the “termitopia” city as nomads instead of owning fixed property within the city which we return to at the end of every day. There are lots of lifestyle variations that could be experimented with.

            Climate change dropped a bombshell in the middle of my sweet termitopia dreams. Now the human race is possibly going extinct in thirty years, whether or not I would have it be that way. Quality craftsmanship used to have value in a world where longevity was an accepted factor in things, but finding immortal materials with which to build the dream is no longer necessary if nobody is going to be around to appreciate it in the distant future. If there is no human race to appreciate the quality tomorrow, why put any extra effort into it today?

            As far as originality and survival in challenging times go, maybe our creativity can help get us out of this mess in ways I can’t foresee. I hope so. Much of modern medicine treats problems as symptoms and thinks that by putting a bandage on each symptom the problem will somehow be fixed. Sometimes more radical changes to the whole system—such as a leap from capitalism to socialism, or from a carnivore diet to a vegetarian one, or from box architecture to domes—is necessary to eliminate all the sick symptoms in an existing system.

            Tried and true quality craftsmanship and speculative originality both have their value, but their values are variable under different circumstances. The climate change adventure we are all part of now is one of the factors in our present time. At stake is our survival, not just our aesthetics.

Bill Birdsall, a versatile artist and musician, was born in Middletown, NY and raised in El Segundo, CA.  He made his own home, Casa Mucaro, in rural Puerto Rico, where he has lived for 40-plus years.

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