With David Butterfield’s passing, Victoria has lost one of its major investors in social capital.
BECAUSE A LIFE TAKES PLACE IN, and is significantly defined by, a social and historical context, a here and a now, let’s reflect on the times.
We have a back foot still resting in the vestiges of something recognizable as history—that is, agreed-upon terms for living and a legible arrangement of hopes—and a forward foot poised above states of discontinuity that a catastrophist (not me, of course) could easily interpret as oblivion’s hot button. Someone presumably as rational as Elon Musk of Tesla and soon Neuralink (linking human brains and computers) fame, calls A.I. a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” (Musk’s blind eye to Neuralink noted.)
This threat didn’t emerge yesterday. Humanity has been building toward this sci-fi third act for a while, and you would have to lack all emotional radar not to pick up on the atmosphere of growing agitation surrounding our lives, or the increasingly tormented and nihilistic output in every branch of contemporary culture and social practice. Some academics would say frenzy and hints of destruction are characteristics of and precursors to all transformational moments in social evolution. I think that’s an academic view.
Our southern neighbours just chose for president the personification, the apotheosis, of their own current suicidal despair: an unrestrained, crazy, angry child—the kind of human who tailgates you, high beams on, punishing you for driving the posted speed limit or having the gall to occupy his private passing lane. He’s a conscienceless, divisive, self-aggrandizing, always-right-never-wrong monster who, pledging to make America great again (crap, but also a world-risking formulation), has pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, even though credible climate predictions are, in a word, apocalyptic. He’s a living guarantee that four years of everything wrong with and within the US will get wronger, and of Code Red danger levels for all of us. Like evil foretold, he embodies some unknowable break with our imperfect but operable social contract; or maybe, representing only its imperfections and deficiencies, he’s its culmination.
The “base”—whoever that is, whatever that means—no longer recognizes risk or its signs, because things have gone past any chance of national recuperation or repair, intensifying an anxious and pessimistic mood which, in case you hadn’t noticed, doesn’t respect national borders. Everyone feels it; no one knows what to do about it.
In such times of duress, “small L” liberal expressions, practices and values are just social conceits and cocktail chatter nice-to’s, almost laughable irrelevancies; and as political or social practice they are collapsing before this Shakespearean tragedy of red meat politics and looming social tumult. If there was ever a moment for the call, “All wise hands on deck,” this is it.
Why David Butterfield left the world, just when his aptitudes and his attitudes are most required, is beyond my comprehension.
David expired at his Shoal Point home around 7pm on Saturday, June 17, ravaged by cancer and little more than skin, bones and defeated innards. He was just sub-70 when he died, and left behind lifelong wife, partner and soul-mate Norma, talented and successful son Stewart (Flickr, Slack), older brothers Alf and Lyman, and hundreds upon hundreds of friends, colleagues and admirers (and a few critics possibly judgmental about his accomplishments, not, God knows, disappointed by his lack of them).
David Butterfield (l) and Gene Miller. Photo by Denton Pendergast.
As you could easily learn from the testimonials and remembrances delivered at a mid-July celebration of his life, held in the orchard of St Ann’s Academy, David was impulsive and uncommonly openhearted, philanthropically generous, eager to make a difference and to believe that doing so mattered, making all of us beneficiaries of his remarkable capacity for conceiving and executing aspirational, community-creating, aesthetically meaningful and ecologically-attuned development. His Trust for Sustainable Development carried the vision (though not with universal success) to Bamberton, Civano in Tucson, Mexico’s Loreto Bay, Shoal Point, Spirit Bay...a prodigious and prestigious roster of would-be utopias from a man who, in my experience, chose to integrate, not separate, the values of business, lofty aesthetics and the social/environmental agenda.
More personally, I’ll remember him as a Master of the Long Pause, as he made room within his mental apparatus for novel considerations or formulations. There was a rare quality to his thought process: You could practically hear him thinking his responses, judging, weighing, long before he spoke.
By the way, his last words were: “On the other hand…”
Okay, I made that up.
You could pose to him: “David, you know those small seeds with the hairy hooks that attach themselves to your pants when you’re walking through the park meadow? Science says it’s a propagation strategy, that the seeds are hairy and hooky so they can attach themselves to passing furry animals. But that implies plant consciousness and intention, an anticipation that there would, in future, be furry animals walking by; and that’s impossible, because plants don’t think or forward plan.” Instead of an eye-roll suggesting your concerns were, uh, subjective, you would get serious consideration from David and, eventually, a contributive or an amused but novel response.
Of his various gifts, I most appreciate that he had an instinct and aptitude for community. I sense that he attempted, much of the time with most of his projects, to create the conditions within which social capital could expand and the human family could flourish.
“Community” requires explication because the word has become somewhat rote in usage, one of those uh-huh words like “democracy” or “freedom” or “progress” or “private sector” in an expanding list where common meaning is assumed but ideological spin prevails, and also because the prospects for community—the palpable, the lived sense of shared endeavour, of mutuality—are rapidly disintegrating. In a historical eye-blink, it seems, the conditions nourishing community have diminished, lost their potency, and in this new, atomizing, technological world with its shape-shifting, post-truth politics, community has become as antique and quaint as square dancing.
I need to take a slightly roundabout path to explain this to a finer point. Rolling Stone political writer Matt Taibbi has written a new book, Insane Clown President. The book is not just a postmortem on the collapse and failure of American democracy. It offers the riveting, surreal, unique, and essential experience of seeing the future in hindsight.
A reviewer notes: “Years before the clown car of candidates was fully loaded, Taibbi grasped the essential themes of the story: the power of spectacle over substance, or even truth; the absence of a shared reality; the nihilistic rebellion of the working class; the death of the political establishment. The stunning rise of a ‘bloviating and farting’ Trump marks the apotheosis of the new post-factual movement.”
Ask yourself: Where, in such a state of things, do you find room even to frame the requirement for personal obligation to the civic group—that is, effort in behalf of a civic entity larger than oneself, such effort also known as social utility? It’s also reasonable to ask what, in such a self-aggrandizing, self-absorbed, humility-deficient culture does social utility even mean? Promote or practice such values in the US, and you’re like a bunny amongst the carnivores, a sucker, a dope, a mushy throwback, an irrelevance.
In The Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons, Peter Doran acerbically describes the American new normal: “Minds and culture are being colonized by markets, and the hidden political and economic struggle of our times is focused on shaping our inner lives.”
He continues, “This is a large, complicated story based on neoliberal capitalism’s impact on everyday life: frantic work schedules, declining wages, wealth inequality, and austerity politics, all of which have led to a degradation of public services, social amenities and neighbourliness. It turns out that consumerism and market growth, diligently supported by the state, are not in fact ‘maximizing utility,’ as economists would have it. They are breeding personal despair, precarity, alienation and social dysfunction.”
The challenge, then, is somehow to remain an accomplished optimist on a bloody and dangerous battleground. David was that and more. He was, in the best sense of the word, a social romantic. A romantic, as I mean it, isn’t someone who gilds reality, but someone who’s mindful of and navigates by humanity’s dream for itself: hopes for equity, personal fulfillment, the righting of wrongs, common meaning and purpose to life, authentic social connection, creative expression, surprise, delight, fair-dealing, and so on. While it’s difficult to know what lies at the root of someone’s thoughts and acts, I think I would apply an uncommon term to David: publicly hopeful. This made his intentions lofty, to use that out-of-fashion word. Or, as the carved inscription on the beautiful Skidmore Fountain in the oldest part of Portland, Oregon states, “Good Citizens Are the Riches of a City.”
That’s our boy: a good citizen.
My take? The world needs much more David Butterfield.
Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.
Edited by Gene Miller