Sunday, October 30, 2011

On appropriateness

The forward march of "progress" is something most all of us hold on to very dearly. We constantly envision that the future will be a better place than the past. Human ingenuity and cunning, exemplified through our continual taming of nature--be it disease and death, damming rivers to provide us with energy, or seeding the oceans with iron to make algae grow and absorb carbon dioxide--we hope will liberate us from the current inevitability of scarcity, of mortality, of aging, of conflict over those things which sustain us.

Many times what is left out in our decisions is whether or not our choices are appropriate given time, place, and circumstance. What do I mean by appropriate? By appropriateness, I mean a sensitivity to factors other than personal ones. We tend to think solely of what we want when we make a choice, without really thinking about how those choices fit into larger patters of choices, of decisions, of outcomes. We tend not to think so much nowadays about history, about cultural context, about outcomes. Rather, the possibilities of instant gratification tend to out blinders on our purview, on what we consider as possible alternatives to the "best" choice, on the "cost-benefits" of our choices.

Vagaries, you might think. Let's make it a little more concrete. I was talking to Mrs. McRae a couple of nights ago about the bridge being built in Detroit. We talked about the social justice and sustainability issues raised by the bridge, and how with or without the bridge, the issues facing the residents of Delray will be difficult to address, given the vicious cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and ecological degradation. To build a bridge starts by first making the choice of building the bridge. The bridge, from an engineering perspective, must meet certain criteria of safety, no matter how it looks. Yes, over time, engineers have come up with more and more elegant ways of engineering, of building. But when if it came down to it, brute force engineering would be used to make the bridge. But what about how the people of Delray feel about the bridge? What about the context of the bridge in Detroit, in its history? How does the bridge further ingrain us in an oppressive and ecologically degrading culture, or how much does it liberate us from that culture?

On the same token, do we advocate for Western "solutions" to the "problems" of non-Westerners? How much do we push conventional medical procedures on the peoples of Africa and South America? How many computers do we give them? How many times do we tell ourselves that we are "right" and that they are "backward?" What about our own lives? Do we continue to buy into what this culture throws at us? Its continually more "functional" gizmos and objects? I think appropriateness dovetails nicely into appreciation, into saying, This is enough, I do not want or need more. Because in our continual want for more, we always tend to find deficiencies and limitations in the material objects we are ever reliant on.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"The environmentalists in the United States are damaging the world's environment."

I didn't say that, but Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy (you remember Massey, right? Inez, Kentucky?...yes, that Massey) said that loud and clear. Just watch the video below.

The smugness with which Blankenship speaks about his work, his role, the role of his company, in "providing jobs and "opportunities to improve the environment elsewhere" is frightening, and should be a wake-up call for anyone that is remotely concerned about the air we all breath, the water we all drink. The ill effects of mountaintop removal have been known for decades. Wendell Berry wrote about the tyranny of surface mining in the 1960s in The Long-Legged House.

Of course, it isn't only Blankenship that speaks with such arrogance. Most everyone that sits atop the pecking order in this aristocratic culture (with monetary benefits for a few, emotional, psychological, ecological costs for the rest) portrays the same smugness. We've seen it with criticisms of the Occupy movement. Of course, these criticisms need not be verbalised like Blankenship does--they can also be symbolic, such as by rewarding executives with fat bonuses even when dangerous risks are taken with public monies.

There is a sense of altruism that these elite people project, that the jobs that they provide now are of more benefit than the supposedly "small" environmental costs of their industries, that they can do all they want to the environment, and "reclaim" it and "re-vegetate" it. To say that environmentalists are, on the contrary, complicit in damaging the environment is indicative of a psychopathic or sociopathic mind, of that I am certain. Blankenship talks about "all that we've done over the past forty years" to remove toxic emissions from coal. Well, I doubt that he, or anyone of his ilk has done anything. Rather, it is the environmental movement that was galvanised from the Cuyahoga River catching on fire that resulted in laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

((Sorry for the rant. But there is something more meaningful that I am trying to formulate for this blog. It's just taking a while to wrap my mind around it.))

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adequate answers?

My contention is that the scale of the largest problems a social structure or culture can create is larger than the culture is able to deal with. Let's take the example of climate change. For years now, countries have done very little substantively to address the issue. Sure, there may be some countries that have adopted renewable energy standards, while some have signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol and have made progress towards reducing their climate-changing emissions. But unfortunately, we can still wave many Small Island States like the Maldives bye bye--the levels of greenhouse gas emissions has steadily increased over time, and we are probably not going to keep surface temperatures below semi-acceptable levels:
“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions,” [IEA chief economist] Birol told the Guardian. “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below two degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

The IEA says that for a two degree increase to be averted, global energy-related emissions in 2020 must not be greater than 32 Gt. This means that over the whole of the next decade, emissions must rise by less than they did between 2009 and 2010. (emphasis added)

The agency also estimates than 80 percent of projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are “locked in” – that is, they will come from existing power plants or those currently under construction. This will make it even harder to meet the two degree target, Birol says.
For me, climate change has been caused because of a continued reliance of society on technology. Sure technologies have become more efficient, afforded people longer lives, increased mobility, the ability to talk to people from across the world, and so on; I cannot deny this. But it would be foolish to not think that many of those technologies have resulted in ecological degradation and climate change, be it electricity generation, mining, and transportation. Technology and society have a dynamic role--one shapes the other in an endless interplay. At the same time, however, our answers to the problems of technology have created more technologies...and more of them...and more of them, rather than ask deeper, more powerful questions.

What this represents is a mindset that is ingrained in the social structure. This ingraining takes away our ability to think about what is causing the problems we face. Instead, we try to forcibly bin or address the problems we've created using the structures in place. Add on top of this political processes and inequality of power, and we are mired in gridlocked decision-making, in which traditional forces of society are called upon to address problems it could not foresee. I can see how "internalising the externalities" (say by having a carbon tax) can alleviate problems of greenhouse gas emissions, how "efficiency" can lead to decreased extraction of materials from this Earth. But are the mindsets [a reliance on technology, "It really doesn't matter if I do anything to reduce my environmental impact, what we need is a large movement," etc.] and social structures [like large government, like "industry," like "free (ish, kinda, maybe sorta) markets," etc.] we have really adequate enough to deal with the problems we've created? I am not so sure.

What does this mean we do in our daily lives? It means that we continue to question what is thrown at us, that we continue to question the motives of large entities (for many governments and corporations advocate for "solutions" that do not hurt the bottom line), that we make choices here and now that would be obvious in a more sustainable world.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A gap in communication and language

I was in Montreal all of last week for a biofuels and aviation workshop. It was a fascinating time to say the least, particularly because I experienced first-hand how large scale technologies, particularly those that are meant to address environmental issues (biofuels are aviation's response to climate change), supported by the government and industry are implemented. At the same time, a block away, Occupy Montreal was growing in strength.

Here are pictures of Occupy Montreal from Square Victoria. The movement there was completely democratic, super peaceful, yet incredibly energetic.


The Occupy movement I have written about in the last couple of blog posts. I appreciate it, especially after seeing a large one such as that in Montreal, because it has been peaceful. And although the individual messages of the movement is changing in time and location, the rhetoric and sentiment expressed is resolute, constant, and resoundingly clear--that people (and the environment by extension) have been treated unfairly, that "the system" is set up in such a way that it maintains a power gap between decision-makers and the larger public, that there is a concentration of power and influence the higher and higher up you get. "The system" is comprised of government, of industry, of military.

More broadly, though, the Occupy movement raises questions that I think all of us need to be thinking about, which are, What's the point of it all? Why do we choose to live our lives this way and be bound to this system? Such questioning is of course social and environmental. The answers to these questions make our lives unfold in ways that affect people and the environment. In response to such questions, take a look at the following picture, which is of a massive poster (six feet by eight feet maybe?) by We Are Beings.

In stark contrast to this is how and where the powerful make decisions that affect all of our lives, our environment. The workshop I went to was put on by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which is a UN body that governs all international aviation. The meeting was full of business persons, economists, technologists, government officials, engineers, and so on. As you can tell by the venue, the workshop showed privilege and power--sixty foot ceilings, big, cushy, comfortable chairs, individual microphones in front of every attendee, suits, suits, and more suits.

But the most important difference and gap between the Occupy movement and its demands, and "official" meetings and its way of operation is the language being used. If you take a close look (you can here) at the sentiment being expressed on the We Are Beings poster, it is one of compassion, of care, of respect, of kindness, of empathy. On the other hand, the language that the people at the workshop use is that of economic and technological efficiency, of growth, of money. The point is, the people that social and environmental activists are trying to get to listen to them just don't use language that the activists are using. They probably don't understand it. I doubt that government officials think about compassion, I doubt that they think about power dynamics.

And so, if activism is to have a chance, we must first of all communicate using a language that they can understand. In no way does this mean we "turn into" one of them. Instead, it means that the movement must be adaptable and thoughtful enough to speak to those that really need to listen.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Traveling at home: Dave Trombley occupying Ann Arbor

When Ann Arbor empties, be it for fall break, Thanksgiving, or summer, the town gains a charm, an energy, a peace that pervades the air you breathe here. There are few cars on the road; you want to walk more slowly, and become more observant of those daily routes you take. This isn't forced, but rather what seems natural. Why walk fast when there is nothing fast surrounding you?

During fall break, I met someone who was occupying Ann Arbor. All you have to do is ask a question, and new worlds open up in your backyard.

Dave Trombley of Ann Arbor
Tell me about yourself. What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do in life?
My name is Dave Trombley. I was born in Clinton Township, in the Detroit Area, and have lived in southeast Michigan for most of my life. I am a machinist by profession. I work in Wixom now. I started off in the automotive industry, but am now in pneumatics. My advocation, however, is poetry. I have been writing for five or six years now and also teach with the Ann Arbor Free Skool. I write about my experiences, my worldview. You can do what you want with poetry. It helps me stay centred in the here and now. It is about creative ways of approaching life. It is a positive cycle, an inspiration cycle, an exercise in mindfulness. If you are mindful, you open yourself to inspiration. Once inspiration comes, you can get poetry out of it. Poetry leads to more inspiration, making you stay more mindful.

Where do you call home? What do you love about where you live? What sets it apart?
I have lived in Ann Arbor for a year now, and it is definitely home for me. People are really amazing here. They are friendly, aware, open, and have different ideas, different ways of living, and are into finding out about the world they live in. People are so resilient. But you have to get outside of Ann Arbor to get a feel for it. Before Ann Arbor, I lived in Blissfield. There wasn't much going on there. There was a set way of living, and was not as diverse. 

How has southeast Michigan changed over time? How has the environment here changed over time?
Well, the auto industry became consolidated, and it shrunk. All of this computer progress has degraded with working class. People used to be able to aspire to the middle class without a college degree. The environment has improved over time, I feel. The Rouge River has been cleaned up, and the lakes are probably in a little better shape. There are cleanups for big rivers with volunteers. I feel like the environmental laws put in place in the 1970s have helped. In this area of Ann Arbor, the environment is very beautiful...the Huron River...the green space.

You talked about positive cycles of life. What are negative cycles?
The negative cycles are those that we see pervading society today. Greed leads to violence, makes people take chances. You also open yourself up to addiction with these cycles.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy it all, fear nothing

I went to Occupy Ann Arbor yesterday, a movement in solidarity of the Occupy Wall Street movement. There were about fifteen of us just sitting and talking, holding signs, learning, and sharing stories. We managed to attract the interests of several people walking by, as well as a few car horns.

I wondered, though, why there weren't more people out there, showing support. The message of Occupy movement is something that most all of us can sympathise with, even though some people have portrayed it as some sort of hippie sit-in. I asked David and Heather (the two people to my left in the photo) about this, for it is something I have been thinking about ever since talking to Avik about getting the more "comfortable" people out in protest against continuing ecological degradation and the deviousness of government and corporatism. (These are the people that comprise the middle to upper middle class in the US, those that have enough money to pay the mortgages, have their two cars, two children, and food available from just a few miles of driving.) Are people just not getting the memo?

I am convinced that we live in a state of constant fear. Fear was instilled in us to convince us of the Soviet threat during the Cold War, fear was instilled in us to keep us quiet and keep debate to a minimum when invading Iraq, fear was used as a tactic in response to addressing the housing mortgage bubble, fear was used on us when the government said that AIG was "too big to fail," and fear is being used on us in the politicians' and financiers' responses to the Occupy movement. Fear is being used as a tactic in response to addressing the most obvious and large scale of socio-ecological issues, like climate change. "Things can't change, because they will get worse. We'll lose jobs, and our economy will tank. So just keep doing what you're doing," we are told time and time again. Consequently, we fear that speaking up will make us lose our income, and that we won't be able to pay off our bills and support our families if we do so. We are slaves to fear.

Heather said something very profound. She said that fear is a more primal state of being than what is needed to address the issues that face us. What we really need right now is compassion, and the energy, solidarity, and action that comes out of a compassion towards people's lives, and the Earth that supports us. Instead, our primal beings are catered to when fear is used. Compassion is a higher state of being than is fear, and therefore, it is more difficult to be compassionate than it is to be in fear. Then again, straight-laced people, who have "listened" and done everything they have been told to do by the corporations and the government are losing their livelihoods, and are being kicked out of their homes. These are the people that will hopefully join the Occupy movement. 

At Liberty Plaza, showing support. From left to right: Katie, me, David, Heather, don't know, don't know.
The Occupy movement is ostensibly one whose message is as clear as it is vague. What is clear is that most all of us have continued to be duped by "the system," that grand government-industry-military-corporate complex. Many have worked with the ideals that this country has "epitomised," and yet have been left behind in the name of continued centralised power, centralised money, and the too-big-to-fail mentality. On the other hand, the vagueness of the movement's message allows people to bring in their own views and own concerns to the table. Rather than a singular issue movement, the Occupy movement represents a vast spectrum of anti-corporate, anti-government sentiment.

In the end, however, as this trash-free journey has made me realise, change comes from within. It is very easy to point fingers to the government, or to Goldman Sachs, or those other sleazebags on Wall Street, who are sociopaths of the highest calibre. But this country is at least semi-democratic. (Do not be fooled into thinking that this country is fully democratic.) So where have we gone wrong? How could we have let this happen? We have not had actual guns to our heads forcing us into this situation. Somewhere, we have lost sight, we have lost track, we have not paid attention, and we have let the power grab happen. The corporations have, on the other hand, not lost track, and have continued to pay attention. It is only then that they have such a power hold over this culture. We must find the chink in the armor.

I am fascinated to see how this unfolds.

(I will be away from the blog for a week. Tune back in on Saturday.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

What makes us so special?

You know that feeling when things just really come together in your mind? When you've been trying to learn and comprehend for a long time, but some words and statements are read or heard that just act as the glue that binds the facts you know, your interpretation of them, and your consequent emotions? I am feeling a little bit of that right now, as I am part way through reading Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. (I am, of course, waiting for my mind to be completely blown by the end of the book. I will keep you posted :))

There is a righteous entitlement that humans feel about their lives, their rights, their wants. This is so, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of ecological degradation and human health degradation because of human activities. (Read for example, Mind Games, an essay by Sandra Steingraber in Orion, which talks about neuro-developmental disorders because of chemical loading in the environment.) There are of course many characteristics that make us different or special from other species on this planet, be it language, the way we modify the environment, the way we develop technologies, the way we think about the past, and so on. But, Ishmael's point is (to the point that I've read the book), these differences do not exempt us from the fundamental processes and laws that guide all life forms and communities. In thinking we are are god's gift to Earth, thinking that this Earth was meant for human domination, for our lives, we rape it unabated to the extent that we feel we are benefiting from it.

This is something we really need to think about. I see themes of this "special" thinking in the reactions of the elite to the Occupy Wall Street movement, in the responses of the investment bankers and financiers to reform, in the responses of oil and gas executives to stricter environmental regulations, and so on. These people think that they are entitled to the profits they reap, that they are being righteous in their efforts, to the point of benevolence. (See, for example, an eye-opening essay by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, about Art Pope...a really rich man with a lot of influence in North Carolina.) I think that a major movement in environmentalism and sustainability must be founded on the acceptance and understanding that we are decidedly not special, that we cannot hold nature at bay, that we are subject to the ebbs and flows of it.

What do you think makes us special? How can we move away from it?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Knowing no boundaries

Today, while working on my experiment with Scott, we listened to The Story (as is the daily ritual), and heard a wonderful little one produced by Roman Mars for his radio show 99% Invisible. His story was about "the national public art competition held in 1989 to create a monument that would honour the Free Speech Movement, which began on the campus of University of California-Berkeley in 1964." The winning monument, by Mark Brest van Kempen, is a sixty-thousand foot column of air, six inches in diameter, in Sproul Plaza, at the University of Berkeley...sixty-thousand feet tall because that is the height to which the airspace is American. The inscription surrounding the monument reads:
"This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity's jurisdiction."

Free speech monument at UC-Berkeley. Photo by Eric E. Johnson.

The ironies of this monument are beautiful. It itself is boundaried, yet it belongs to no one. van Kempen needed to set aside space that is common to us all. Juxtaposed with this boundaried space is that it is made of something we all share--air. And I believe what is lacking characteristic in the environmental and sustainability movement is exactly that notion of commonality, of being shared. Indeed, the environmental movement itself is boxed in, is boundaried, unfortunately. There is no common goal for everyone to move toward a sustainable world. And that is why Avik said that we are preaching to the choir; that is why  that the middle class just doesn't care about the environment, really, that is why

I cannot blame the environmental movement for that, but rather this culture, in which we have made people into robots, mindlessly doing their own thing, without concern or greater imagination of the larger world. I have written a lot about the boundaries we've created in our minds--boundaries between people, boundaries between people and the environment they live in, boundaries of specialisation, boundaries in action--and how these fictitious boundaries, while potentially powerful in teasing out what is important to address, are nonetheless damaging to everything we should be striving for. Boundaries that are created because some people think they are "right" and the others are "wrong," and we dismiss what the other side has to say, creating false dichotomies. Boundaries are created because we live in bubbles of "civilisation" with the larger world "out there," and we end up with broken cycles of waste and trash and ecological degradation. We have people that spend their entire lives thinking about and acting on single things, not understanding how their actions affect their local watershed, their neighbourhoods, their states, their regions. We tend to reduce the intricacies of our world by limiting the scope of actions and reactions we think about.

While demolishing the boundaries in our minds and in our politics may be an existential challenge for some people, I believe however that it can lead only to a greater connectedness, with people we have continually misunderstood, misrepresented, or derided, and with the Earth, which continues to support our lives.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Educating "sustainable" individuals

DJ Ferguson is a teacher at Chelsea High School here in southeast Michigan, and is an incredibly inspiring individual. He filled the amphiteatre at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor yesterday with vigour, passion, and enthusiasm when he gave a talk for TEDxNicholsArboretum. The theme of the conference was Actions and Reactions, and was focused on how to change the decisions we make that are inevitably degrading the environment not only for future generations (of everything), but also degrading our lives, here and now.

To that end, DJ Ferguson talked about the importance of creating "sustainable" individuals. The choices we need to be making, the changes we need to be advocating for, the emotions we must have invested in this spiritual journey must be embodied and articulated in teaching and education. Instead, as DJ mentioned, the education we promote is one focused on scores, and one in which there is no emotional investment in what we learn. The process of learning itself is void of any play, of any creativity, of any end other than the grade, the job, the money. There is no money to be made in education, and so of course the government and private institutions neglect the importance of truly critical and questioning individuals. (They probably don't want critical individuals, anyway. Look at how the government and the finance sectors have responded to the Occupy Wall Street movement.) This makes me think about how Wendell Berry has written about the mindless slavery of industrialisation and capitalism.

According to DJ, most everything about how we educate people is counter to the creation of sustainable individuals. First, in no way is learning balanced between mind and body. To him, there is an excessive focus on mind (and mindless) education, and almost none focused on the body. Therefore, it is not surprising to see ever increasing body image issues and diseases, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Second, the motivators for education are always the end goal, or are external motivators. For example, we go to college so that we can get a job, or we go to college so that we please our parents. It is like being paid a hundred dollars to push a button again and again and again and again. If we were internally motivated, however, we would see that education is not an end goal, but a process of constant thinking, of constant learning, of constant criticism, of constant enjoyment. Education is then a spiritual journey that knows no bounds, hopefully leading to an understanding that we live in a physically limited world, but one in which our love and emotions can continue to grow. Thirdly, the education we promote is decidely unintegrated with the greater world. We are tested in isolation, we sit indoors, no longer under trees as students learned in ancient India. But as with most everything we do, our actions unfold in contexts larger than the testing room, larger than the classroom.

I highly recommend watching his talk when it is put online. I will be sure to post it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

With guilt comes motivation

The Green Belt Movement, started by the recently departed Wangari Maathai (the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner), gets people to be in charge of their environment, their trees, their cooking fuel. Their goal is to "mobilize community consciousness- using tree planting as an entry point- for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation." The movement was started in the face of large-scale deforestation and soil erosion, conspicuous corruption in the Kenyan government, and consequently great oppression to the local Kenyan people.

The problems facing rural Kenyans was of course massive, and it isn't difficult to imagine that many people can feel helpless in such situations. In an interview in 2004, Dick Gordon (who was at the time hosting a show called The Connection out of WBUR in Boston) asked Maathai how she motivated people to do something about the situation they are in. She said that she told people that to a certain extent, "the problems people face are of their own making." I started thinking about this statement, and wondered why it worked.

Granted that I am not a psychologist, I believe it works because it does two things. Firstly, it gives people agency over their own lives. In saying that "your behaviour/actions may be part of the problem," you tell people that while culture and society affects your life, you yourself are essential in your determination. Unless we are imprisoned (physically or emotionally), we all make choices for ourselves. We have to make choices for ourselves, whether to stay, whether to leave, whether to fight oppression and ecological degradation, or whether not to.

Secondly, the statement goes straight to the heart of what makes us human--that in the exposure of guilt, we seek to better ourselves. We can be motivated by someone telling us that we need to do more, that what we are doing isn't enough, that we can do better, especially if it comes from someone we respect. (Maathai was indeed highly respected and admired.) If the person we respect truly cares for us, we feel a genuineness about their assessments. (Maathai spoke genuinely.) We change behaviour then for many reasons. We may change our behaviour to seek approval, or to feel better about ourselves. Maybe changing is the "right" thing to do.

Lasting, meaningful change cannot come from coddling and fawning over how "amazing" we are. "You are doing great! Just change your lightbulbs." Rather it comes from pointing out the key questions and problems, and our willingness to accept those challenges.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Children, legacy, and meaning

Given the way we think about legacy and the influences we leave on the world, many wish to leave the world a better place than they found it. That's how those that fought the "Great" Wars thought about the future, and that's how many of our parents think when they sacrifice ("negatively," some might say) for the betterment of their children's lives. 

But there is a disconnect then between the way we are acting now, and of the future we wish for our children. Our actions are in many ways not leaving behind a better world for our children. Rather, the future is one of increased conflict over increasingly scarcer essentials of life, one of climate change (unintentional, or fossil-fuel based, and intentional, or geo-engineering based), one of mass migrations, and (instilling fear in the West) one of a more dominant Eastern hemisphere. In more ways than one, we have conducted ourselves in a libertarian sense. We want every social service that large government and society can offer, like roads, airports and the fire department, but we live insularly, on big plots of land, with our big cars, with our fences, with our increased xenophobia and utter impunity for those that aren't like us. This has definitely created a more complicated world within which to bring children into, ecologically, and consequently politically.

In a post from a couple of days ago, The "entitlement" of having children?, I quoted Lisa Hymas, who decided not to have a child as an American, especially because the burden of American children on the world is much more massive than, say, Indian or Ugandan children. In response to that post, the most regular guest blogger, Jason Lai, said:
"I feel like this attitude is antithetical to what the majority of people would derive meaning from in life... beyond material wealth and (especially) family, what really drives a person? How do you convince a man to save the planet for the children he's not supposed to have? Which is to say, yes, we would not have environmental issues if there were no people, but then what would be the point?"
Jason is wonderfully insightful, and I agree with him. Given biological urges, I can see why many people do decide to have children. But on the other hand, there are other biological urges that we curb in the name of ethics and morality. Some people might choose not to kill even in self-defense. While people can hoard and gorge ourselves with all the so-called "essentials" of living, many live simply, in respect of the world, cherishing its finiteness. How does a biological urge and the quest to derive meaning through children unfold in response to actual problems of culture and society?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

First as tragedy, then as farce

I want to point you to a video that Dan (thanks!) found, in which Slavoj Zizek, a fascinating thinker and philosopher, talks about how sometimes the things we do out out of good intentions, like give charity to a homeless person, only perpetuate the reason why we need to give charity in the first place. There is a kind of reinforcement of a system--if we don't address problems at their root, then anything we do is just applying bandages, slowing the hemorrhaging. This is the same with issues like "greening" consumerism, or just plain-old greenwashing. Even though recycling is a lesser evil than maybe throwing something away, it makes us think that recycling is enough; it makes us think that we are "doing our part." This is a super interesting video, even though you may not agree with parts of what he says. But there is some awesome animation to go along with it. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The "entitlement" of having children?

In any talk or discussion about climate change, the issue population is like the dark energy of the room. You know the issue is there, and despite its invisibility--some fail to recognise it, others don't want to recognise it-- everyone knows it is affecting every single policy, every single outcome of these talks. Countries such as China and India would likely not even be at the table in climate discussions if one of the discussion points was the issue of their populations. (Let's not forget that the US has the third highest population in the world, and considering the ecological footprint of every single American, as well as how the US chooses to conduct itself internationally, the US's ecological impacts probably far outweigh those of India and China.)

Let's even leave aside "environmental" issues of climate change. Costs of "social" welfare programs like social security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as the outcomes of "political" tussles like gerrymandering and redistricting are all affected by changes in population and their values. Costs of all kinds can soar if populations soar; how can you keep everyone that is living now, and that will live in the future, happy?

Population is clearly a massive issue in sustainability, and for some reason(s), we cannot seem to address it. I cannot claim to have a cogent argument apart from the standard, "Population increase is leading to unsustainability." I have to think about it. But a reader of this blog believes having children is a matter of entitlement. In a previous post, On entitlement, I wrote about how there is an entitlement that pervades this culture, an entitlement that allows us to conflate our rights and our wants. In response, Paris said one of the most provocative things I've heard:
[Y]ou forgot a slightly older entitlement, the most controversial one: living children.

Once upon a time most children died in young age, only the strongest, fittest, and most lucky survived, but today we feel entitled to have all our children alive.

And it results in population surpluses that stresses the environment. [A] "scarce future" might mean fewer people, which means (sadly) more deaths. 
Lisa Hymas, an editor for the Guardian Environment Network and a writer for has "decided not to have children for environmental reasons." She calls herself GINK: green inclinations, no kids. She writes:
Population isn't just about counting heads. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. My carbon footprint is more than 200 times bigger than an average Ethiopian's, and more than 12 times bigger than an average Indian's, and twice as big as an average Brit's.

When a poor woman in Uganda has another child--too often because she lacks access to family-planning services, economic opportunity, or self-determination--she might dampen her family's prospects for climbing out of poverty or add to her community's challenges in providing everyone with clean water and safe food, but she certainly isn't placing a big burden on the global environment.

When someone like me has a child--watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution.

Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I'm one of them. I get around largely by bus and on foot, eat low on the food chain, buy used rather than new, keep the heat low, rein in my gadget lust. But even putting aside my remaining carbon sins (see: flying), the fact is that just by virtue of living in America, enjoying some small portion of its massive material infrastructure, my carbon footprint is at unsustainable levels.

Far and away the biggest contribution I can make to a cleaner environment is to not bring any mini-me's into the world. A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that the climate impact of having one fewer child in America is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, things like driving a high-mileage car, recycling, and using efficient appliances and CFLs.
What do you think?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

There is no single answer

We are possessed by and at the mercy of the powers of centralisation and absolutism. The way many of us think of and frame problems is in the hope that there is some definitive outcome at the end. "The answer is forty-two!" we would like to hear. When we are interested in the outcomes of a policy option, we ask, How many people will this give cancer to? or, How many people will this save from cancer? This is the way policy-making is done--through some sort of quanitfication of outcomes, through cost-benefit analyses, through some sort of Pareto optimisation. Unfortunately, this is a massive mischaracterisation of the problems that face us, and of the way we need to be addressing them.

Engineers like to think about energy, and most of the engineers that are interested in sustainability and ecological issues tend to focus on the issues through the lens of energy. If you were ever to go to a talk on the energy "future" given by some engineer, you will inevitably here this statement: There is no silver bullet. When it comes to where our energy ought to be coming from (in all actuality we should be using less, in conjunction with a move away from extremely ecologically degrading sources), there are advantages and disadvantages to each kind of energy, be it coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, petroleum. Some are more "convenient" than others, some are more "easily produced" than others, some are more ecologically degrading than others, some are backed by more powerful interests than others. We must have the right "portfolio," some might say.

That being said, I want to tie together a few posts and themes that have emerged over the past months, which I have written about in, for example, The right, the wrong, and the other, Traveling at home, and What if you don't live in Ann Arbor?. I have realised that there is no definitive way in which I, or anyone else for that matter, can address the myriad of socio-environmental issues in existence. Issues are specific to time and place. However, what is true is that they have been influenced by a common ethic of domination, violence, greed, disrespect, hegemony, and carelessness. Such an ethic expresses itself differently in different places.

The desire for absolute, definitive answers masks the messiness of complexity, makes us simplify debate in terms of "right" and "wrong," "us" versus "them," and moves us no closer to a much-needed introspection of social norms. This was brought together beautifully, although in a slightly different context, by David Remnick, writing about what we have and have not learned since 9/11, in the September 12th issue of The New Yorker.
A decade later, we also continue to reckon no only with the violence that [Osama] bin Laden inflicted but with the follies, the misjudgments, and the violence that, directly or indirectly, he provoked--the acts of government deception, illegal domestic surveillance, "extraordinary rendition," "enhanced interrogation," waterboarding. The publication of Dick Cheney's memoirs is the latest instance of Bush Administration veterans serenely insisting that they "got it right," that the explosion of popular discontent that began in Tunisia last December and spread through the region is the direct result of the American-led invasion and the occupation of Iraq. This is as dubious as it is self-serving...Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves--questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about countervailing limits. Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.
There is nothing absolute when it comes to dealing with social or environmental problems, because each place is unique. This we must understand. What works here doesn't work there. Solar power in cloudy regions doesn't work, but it may in sunny regions. Damming rivers nonchalantly doesn't take into account the specificities of seismic activity. Building a bridge in the name of "economic development" at the expense of community, consequently disenfranchising a group of people, just isn't sustainable. On the contrary, empowering people knowledgeable about the place and watershed they live in, a thoughtful education of the interconnectedness of the local and the global, and a sincere understanding and acceptance of the differences that define us, can lead to more sustainable, more respectful outcomes. If we have a fertile foundation upon which our actions can bloom, we will be much better equipped in dealing with the uniqueness of place and time.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wangari Maathai - inspiration

When you think of role models, who do you think of? It is not difficult to see that many people don't really have role models, because if they did, people wouldn't behave the way they do. They would strive to live, breath, and act on the ideals of their role models, social "norms" be damned. And if people do look to others for "inspiration," look who is paraded around as role models these days--reality TV personalities, uber-consumerists, and people that make a lot of money. For some reason, the "realities" of the world--that we need to destroy the Earth for us to survive, that as individuals we are helpless in the face of systemic oppression--seem to supercede any wisdom we can gain from true sources of inspiration. We are left with truly slim pickings as role models.

Having said that, few others come to mind when thinking about how one person can move masses of people and their hearts to take up the cause of fighting against injustice and ecological degradation. Wangari Maathai was that person. Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and women's rights advocate, died last week. As a founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, she has helped Kenyan women plant more than forty-five million trees across Kenya, "mobiliz[ing] community consciousness- using tree planting as an entry point- for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation." How amazing.

She definitely stood tall and strong, social "norms" be damned. Here is how Richard Black, the environment correspondent for the BBC has explained Maathai's past.
Opposing a major government-backed development in Nairobi, she was labelled a "crazy woman"; it was suggested that she should behave like a good African woman and do as she was told. Her former husband made similar comments when suing for divorce: she was strong-willed, and could not be controlled.

I had heard about Maathai a few years ago when listening to Speaking of Faith (now called On Being). Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, writes...
A Remarkable Woman for All People and Places
I am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour. I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees. 

Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that "the earth was naked. For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green."

For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya's tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi's fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country's parliament with 98 percent of the vote. 

My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya's central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family's ancestry.

The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa's second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya's rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
That intensity of voice and passion I also heard in her conversation with one of my role models, Dick Gordon, when he interviewed her shortly after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 on a show called The Connection.

The significance of Maathai's work cannot be understated. Anna Lappé and Frances Moore Lappé defended the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maathai by saying,
Maathai’s genius is in recognizing the interrelation of local and global problems, and the fact that they can only be addressed when citizens find the voice and courage to act [emphasis added by me]. Maathai saw in the Green Belt Movement both a good in itself, and a way in which women could discover they were not powerless in the face of autocratic husbands, village chiefs and a ruthless president. Through creating their own tree nurseries – at least 6,000 throughout Kenya – and planting trees, women began to control the supply of their own firewood, an enormous power shift that also freed up time for other pursuits.
Let's draw from Maathai's wisdom and genius.


To see more interviews with Maathai, you can go to Democracy Now!