A timeless story in a dash of paint

Sustainability depends on human systems

About six feet up a wall a short distance from Marseille, France, there is a spray painted stencil of a wee hand, a child’s hand. It’s too small to belong to anyone capable of manipulating the paint sprayed across it. Looking at it, you can easily imagine a father hoisting a daughter on his shoulders as she giggles exhuberantly at the fun of it all. She places her hand on the wall while Dad sprays the paint. Maybe Mom is steadying Dad from listing too far sideways as he fumbles with both Daughter and paint. For me, this hand print contains the sensibility of a family spending a day in the park, except it is on a wall of the Cosquer cave and it was painted over 400 centuries ago. The paint is an ochre pigment that was either sprayed directly from the adult’s mouth or through a straw of grass.


Cosquer Cave hand painting

By that moment of intimately familiar but vastly unknowable family time, humanity had already gone through several near extinctions, evidenced by what are called bottlenecks in our genome. We’ve made it through despite all and are now in the Anthropocene, an era where our activity – the actions or non-actions of humanity – will determine outcomes on earth. Many scientists argue we are again at one of those times of crises – this one of our own doing. Climate change, ocean collapse, massive habitat conversion: we need to address these grave challenges at all levels, from the hyper-local to the regional to the global.

Our work on the Next Wave, Forterra’s revamp of its regional sustainability program, has made clear that our sustainability does not solely depend on natural systems, but equally depends on our human, social ones. In fact they are inextricable. Fix our human systems – learn to make our cities and towns places for all of us – and we can take an important step toward making our region sustainable. Accordingly as the work of the Next Wave unfolds, we are more and more focused on three major programs that align our work to conserve key lands and build livable, equitable communities: Cities for All, our New Northwestern Town and our Corridors for Sustainability. We want that bit of spray graffiti on the fence down the street to be wondered about by some human 400 centuries from now.