I’m an analogy guy. I like hearing them, I like making them up, and I like to extrapolate them to unnecessary lengths. To me, analogies are like cheat codes for logical understanding. And yes, I did just make an analogy about analogies. That’s about as on-brand as I get.
My favorite analogy is now more than 50 years old, and it comes from the legendary Buckminster Fuller in his 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. In it, Fuller reflects on humanity’s overutilization of Earth’s essential resources. He analogizes it to a bird inside of an egg which has just enough liquid nutrients, the egg white, to develop up to a certain point. When the bird is physically mature enough, the nutrients run out, and in search for more the bird inadvertently pecks its way out of the shell. It now must find regenerative sources of sustenance and either learn to flourish and fly or perish.
I first encountered this analogy when I read Bucky Fuller’s book for my Principles of Sustainable Management class at the Presidio Graduate School in 2014. We discussed the analogy further in class, and my instructor Amanda Ravenhill invited us to reflect on the emotional feelings of the bird when it begins to run out of nutrients. Yes, I recognize the anthropomorphic nature of this thought exercise, but go with me here.
I think the bird would feel a sense of initial frustration. Why isn’t there more? Things were going great up until now! That frustration might then give way to fear. With a growing realization, it understands that starvation is upon it. The bird will come to see its status quo as unsustainable, and the fear then gives way to panic. It thrashes out in desperate hope, and in doing so takes the next important step in its life. It emerges from the egg to find a world so much grander than the one it had lived within the confines of its shell. Importantly, it needed those last few moments of struggle and fear to make progress.
As I reflect back on a challenging and difficult year, this analogy comes to mind. It’s been the hardest year of my life, and I know that my struggles haven’t held a candle to those of millions of others. So many lives have been lost to this pandemic. Careers have been derailed. Frontline workers have been pushed to the brink of their endurance.
On top of that, America’s struggle with racism has been once again thrust into the limelight, where it should stay until it is fully and finally defeated. For those who feel the daily burden of that struggle, this has been a year of pain, loss, and grim determination. For people like me, this has been a year of long-overdue learning about the need to break the cycle of systemic injustice.
It's also been a year of sharpening polarization of our communities and our politics; a year filled with wildfires and hurricanes; a year with rising parts per million of greenhouse gases; and a year defined by the unique challenges that each of us have faced in our own realities. I think I can speak for us all – it’s time for 2020 to come to an end.
Looking ahead, I choose to do so with hope and a commitment to action. As a species living on Spaceship Earth, we desperately need both, and I firmly believe they will be the keys to redeeming this past year. With hope and action, we can make sure that the hardships of 2020 were the challenges we needed to break free of humanity’s shell, leaving behind the unsustainable status quo and embracing a new world, a healthy world, a regenerative world, and a just world. Here’s to doing just that in 2021.