Healing the Metabolic Rift

8th April 2020 | Originally published on Medium | Revised in 2024

During my first frugal winter in the mountains, I had one obsession in my head. How to work on what John Thackara calls ‘the metabolic rift’“the alienation between humans and nature that opened up with the growth of the modern economy”.

I thought I would first familiarise myself more with the surroundings. The Buttignan, the Frascola, the Lovet, the Rodolino, their peaks and forests. From home, I can comfortably follow them from morning mist to moonlight. I’ve been observing them, catching their silence distorsion, learning useless things. In a few weeks, I’ve been searching for them during the day, up to the point where spotting them from a new angle would excite me more than anything else. We have ended up sharing some of the most beautiful moments of solitude as true soulmates. I’ve started to care more, to feel for them: the lack of snow has become a worry, a warm Christmas twice a nightmare.

This new look at my natural neighbors made me understand how real the climate emergency is. I witness it every day up here. I’m not rifting anymore, I don’t follow digital feeds distractedly, I see the droughts, the effects of unprecedented storms, the landslides, and the fucked up vegetative cycles – to name a few.

This should concern us more, much, much more – esp. those who are trained to think systemically all day long. As designers, the context should always be way larger, the purpose so different. How? I grew more and more convinced that it’s about concretely caring for territory -the combination of people and other organisms in a definable space. Which one is your territory? I mean the one you care and operate for. Try to sincerely ask yourselves.

You don’t choose, the land does1

One of the reasons why I came to live here was the harsh landscape. I fell in love with it and I was even more struck by the vicissitudes of gone generations in such a territory. Centuries ago this was a rich and powerful community, with trade happening in Florence and Amsterdam. The valley quickly became overpopulated, forests were progressively turned into grazeland until the economy collapsed due to uncontrolled growth and extensive extraction. Sounds familiar?

Nature regained control over the exploited fields and the abandoned hamlets but local society never recovered -it crumbled under the pulling forces of the Italian economic miracle.

I never made plans to help out with small things here, it just happened. Day after day, I ended up seeing my profession develop where it would be less obvious to many, even the most social-oriented ones. To design in a scarcely populated valley affected by a progressive socio-economical decay is not cool. Almost no one invests resources to collaborate with the baker, the farmer, the postman, or a teenage student commuting 100km a day, on how to transition this neglected territory from a miserable today to a tomorrow of epochal changes the world will soon face.

Resurgence is the new innovation2

Patrizia is an energetic primary school teacher, a folk musician, and a former Assessor for Culture in the local government. Moreno is a geek landscape designer, urban planner and passionate historian, awarded honorary citizenship for his long-term studies on the valley. We set no expectations, we have no budget, we simply decided to invite the population, average age 55+, to:

  1. trust someone again, after years of political disappointment;
  2. describe their real needs, both as individuals and community;
  3. map available resources and constraints;
  4. agree on a first challenge to tackle;

No social media but phone calls and a couple of A3s hung on the local bars’ walls.

Amazingly, we had 60 out of 650 residents from the larger Meduna Valley district showing up, actually making it my biggest session ever to facilitate. The audience was quite heterogeneous: shop owners, innkeepers, a dozen youngsters, some 80+ vibrant folks, the two mayors, and a few councilors, including a couple of visitors involved in cultural activities in nearby towns.

Moreno and I gave brief talks about the last centuries’ facts and figures, why a wicked problem should not be intimidating, and how design is what we all use to turn imagination into reality. The plenary activity was again surprising: the first demand was to build a true, participative community. Even in such small contexts, people are suffering from individualization. This was followed by the necessity to attract new, young residents to further vitalize the territory. However, in a surprisingly frank analysis, a lack of openness was seen as the main limitation in fulfilling the above goals.

We had imagined that when discussing resources we could end up in some sort of materialistic talk, but the majority considered land and water as their only richness up here. Quite naturally, people indicated water as a priority. The region is characterized by three connected reservoirs created in the 1960s. An intervention that radically modified the nature, society, and economy of the region. We resolved we would take a closer look together at the fragility of this ecosystem. To reconnect with the land, to start from there to build a new, inclusive identity. To imagine a sustainable future for a new (old) territory.

The aforementioned metabolic rift is so strong these days, that even people who have been living surrounded by nature for generations are experiencing it. We will try to collectively heal it. With urgency and patience.