Thursday, September 29, 2011

What if you don't live in Ann Arbor?

While many of us do appreciate living on Earth, enjoying and wondering about its beauty and mysticism, what concerns us mostly is what surrounds us--it is our immediacy that is most important to us. As Wendell Berry has said in The Long-Legged House (an absolutely exquisite book of essays), he cares more for Port Royal than he does for the State of Kentucky, more for Kentucky than for the US, more for the US than for some other country, but he cares as much about the Earth as he does for Port Royal. The trick is reconciling your behaviour in your place with what your hopes are for the world.

I have written and said several times, including in my last post, that living trash-free is purely an expression of my appreciation for where I live, for it is the least I can do to fully appreciate where I live. But such an appreciation can be difficult given how communities are set up in other parts of this state and this country. While talking to Will yesterday morning, he asked me what I would do if I wasn't in Ann Arbor? Now while this question is purely speculative, it is an extremely important one, for Ann Arbor isn't the only place on Earth contributing to ecological degradation.

Honestly, I don't know what I would do if I lived elsewhere, because I don't know what those other places are like. But there are some key features of society and culture that I have been able to assimilate in the past year and a half, and if one was to do anything about social and environmental injustice, ecological degradation, living in a way that treads more softly on the Earth, it would be to think about and act on these cultural phenomena.

First, our individual and collective behaviours stem from a deep-rooted unappreciation materially for where we live, in time and space. For those of us who are privileged, why do we want more material? While physical things are limited, as any conservation law would say so, and while physical things have the potential to scar the Earth, the spiritual journeys that we can all take can lead to emotional growth unbounded. This growth, this learning, does have significant physical impact, but hopefully in a good way.

Second, this culture erects barriers between those that are privileged, and those that are not. These are physical barriers, political barriers, and emotional barriers. We build highways and box stores using eminent domain only in places that cannot afford monetarily to put up a fight. We cite landfills and incinerators in places already downtrodden. When a homeless person approaches us, we don't seek to understand why this person is homeless.

Third, this culture has continually centralised decision-making, and we have given away much responsibility such that we are reliant on others for many of our basic needs. While this can be fruitful to a certain extent, claiming back that responsibility, and being able to live without being impacted or influenced by major corporations and corrupt governments becomes more and more difficult. Goodwill and compassion seems to be rare with these elites. We lose our power as individuals and small collectives of people.

All of these thoughts will most certainly play out in different ways depending on where we live and who we are surrounded by. And so while it may be difficult to live trash-free in some other places, there is so much more that can be done, given an understanding and appreciation of place.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More reflections on where I live

It has been a while since I traveled at home; I haven't had the directed attention that traveling at home requires. But even still, when I look around me, and I see amazing people doing amazing and creative things, things that are intended to bring communities together, intended to create dialogue and discussion and conversation. While many scenes that I see around Ann Arbor are suffused with privilege, there is more genuineness here than many places I have been to in this country.

It is hard to think that the place I live in is a part of a bigger "sovereign" place whose values don't necessarily align with mine, or many of the people I know in Ann Arbor and elsewhere. But that is okay, I guess, as long as we have the energy for more good work that will turn the tides of injustice, inequality, and ecological degradation, into those of community, kindness, a true acceptance, and a true appreciation for all that we have.

In a previous post, I mentioned how this town provides each one of us the option of choosing to live experimentally and experientially, how this town makes it easy to live so. But while talking to Samantha about living trash-free on the Diag today, I came to a different realisation, one that I am going to go with from now on (until, of course, I have another realisation), and it is this--I realised that given this time, and given this town, living trash-free is the least I can do to fully appreciate where I live. Living trash-free isn't an experiment, and it isn't extreme either. Instead, it is something normal, it is a foundation on which to be more creative and more imaginative. It is the zeroth step on an individual and collective journey of reflection, introspection, and change.

I am very excited about the next steps.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Furthering what's best and forestalling what's worst

How wonderful that quote from Mark Slouka is! It is the quote that I ended my last post with. I was just thinking about how it encapsulates fully the dilemmas we face as we move forward with addressing issues of the environment, culture, society, and justice. He said that we need " and women capable of furthering what's best about us and forestalling what's worst."

Slouka comes to the table from the position of an educator and a strong proponent of humanities education. He makes some fascinating points in a recent Harper's Magazine article titled Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school. But regardless of what position he comes from, and what he is advocating for in particular in the article (which is actually incredibly expansive and provocative), his statement is almost axiomatic. It speaks to me at a level that is very deep, touching on ethics, touching on greed, touching on power, touching on the good work that people are doing, touching on the forces at play that keeps that good work from being recognised. What I believe it says, partly, is the following--that there is something in most all of us that can be tapped into to cause introspection and reflection about the choices we are making as individuals and as a collective, and that the culture and society we live in have definitely not lived up, even partly, to the ideals they pay lip service to.

I have not written much about education explicitly on this blog (maybe once), although I have alluded to education by writing about dialogue and conversation, features necessary in a critical education. Education comes in many forms, and the idealist in me hopes that education never ends for anyone, anywhere. Of course, this isn't the case, with many public examples of people being uninterested in open dialogue, standing resolute in their beliefs in the face of well-founded facts. Regardless, the wisdom of what's best about us, and the knowledge of what's worst about us, a continuing education, that is, comes only from an openness of mind, the ability to accept that some things just aren't working, and the fortitude to expose the deficiencies in social norms, as I wrote in my last post.

Collin said to me today her vegetarianism can seem like a judgement on non-vegetarianism. To me, it is a judgement, because really, every decision we make is a judgement, and any critical thought stems from a judgement we make about norms and values. It takes fortitude to stick to these judgements, and it takes mettle to continually have the discussions provoked because of them. Only then will we able to expose what is best about us, and what is worst about us.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Openly speaking about norms and values

One of the most important things to come out of any experiment or project or different way of being is the conversation that is provoked because of actions that go in the face of social norms and values. Any project like living trash-free is provocative for several reasons. First, the tangibility of trash and waste and their embeddedness in our every day lives allow everyone to relate to the messages I am intending to elaborate on. Second, living trash-free just isn't the norm. If it was the norm, then it would say something differently about the society and culture we lived in, that social interactions are not dependent on trash and waste. This is definitely not the case. Third, it serves as a judgement of the norms. As Ethan, a sociologist, mentioned to me, what is most fascinating about such projects is the way they provoke people and at times make them uncomfortable.

Norms and values aren't talked about unless someone breaks them. Breaking them exposes underlying assumptions. But norms and values can be broken in our individual lives, secretly (like celibacy, maybe?), or they can be broken in public and criticise social construction more broadly (like trash and culture). To me, living trash-free has been a journey on many levels, spiritual and social. Again, the goal is to unearth and unpack individual and social values and norms, and to have a conversation.

But today, we see very little explicit talk about norms and values. Erik Reece writes in his essay, The Schools We Need, that
I suspect the hesitancy by many high school teachers to hold active class discussions about real moral and ethical dilemmas may be a byproduct of how contested and politicized the word values has become. No one wants to talk about them because someone might become offended, or someone might say the wrong thing, or the messiness of open debate might get exposed.
Although debates about ethics and behaviour are prevalent, they are more and more detached from our every day experiences, as Aidan Davison has written in Technology and the Contested Meanings of Sustainability. More generally, however, as has been seen on this blog, as well as on other websites and media, resistance to the breaking of norms, and explicit voicing of values (having been provoked by doing something like living trash-free and writing about it openly) don't necessarily have to have a face to them. We can pass judgement against those that are indeed willing to be activist or change convention by saying whatever we want to anonymously.

This is also applicable to those who want to speak out and against social norms and values, going to show that many of us are scared to speak out, fearing that we will lose social standing and acceptance. Derrick Jensen writes about this self-censorship in a recent essay, This Culture is #/?*#-+, in Orion:
When I give talks, I routinely ask audiences: Do you fear the U.S. government? Do you censor yourself for fear of government reprisals? If you spoke honestly about the near corporate control of the United States government, and how so-called elected representatives better represent corporations than they do living, breathing human beings, and about what you believe is necessary to halt environmental degradation, do you believe you would be arrested or otherwise harmed by the United States government? Nearly everyone--and I'm talk about thousands of people over the years--says yes.
We can all say what we want, and be cast as lunatics. That is what many environmentalists and activists have been branded as - "extreme," "unrealistic," "treehugger," "job-killer," "soft on terrorism." Individual attempts to get anything done then are quickly silenced and quashed. What I believe Jensen is trying to get at is that any meaningful attempt at dismantling the environmentally and socially-degrading industrial complex will be met with a strong resistance from those in power. Okay. And what does Jensen say about social standing?
The truth is, we no longer need the government to censor us; we now preempt any such censorship by censoring ourselves. This self-censorship has become utterly routine...But fear of state repression or loss of funding are trivial, I think, compared to our primary reason for self-censorship: fear that we'll lose credibility. We are, after all, social creatures, to whom credibility  can be more important than finances or even safety (when global warming is threatening...the planet..., the weakness of our responses makes clear that safety has long since been left in the dust).
Cartoon along with Derrick Jensen's essay
I encourage each one of you to take on challenges, projects, experiments, and movements that challenge, question, criticise, and overturn social norms. These are the norms that keep people silent when they should be speaking out, the norms that keep massive industrial systems in place that wreak havoc on our environments, the norms that condone and accept violence as a means to end conflict or dominate this Earth. Take on these challenges, and develop the conversations. As Mark Slouka recently wrote, we need "men and women capable of furthering what's best about us and forestalling what's worst."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A prayer against violence

I will break my sabbatical because there is much on my mind, and hopefully much on yours, too.

A likely innocent man may be killed by the state today, or tomorrow, or the day after. How does that make you feel?

It is very easy for us to resort to violence to act against violence. It is easy because we do not have to think. If we somehow claim that we are being "just" in our violence, all that remains then is to find the best way, the most effective way to be violent. The violence itself is never questioned. And so we end up with guns dotting our streets, bombs demolishing other parts of the world, and the arrogance to think that we are the supreme gift of the world. The mindlessness with which people cheer violence, as evinced by a recent Tea Party debate, and the calmness with which we accept violence as a form of entertainment on movie and television screens says much about this perverted culture. We can condone the killing of the innocent, by basically saying, "Whatever." All of this in the name of a system of benefits to some, at the expense of others. I cannot get away from this, or stress enough how this mindset pervades every choice we make.

This violence does not stop there. It doesn't end with the physical killing of someone, or some place. It diffuses into our being and our psyche, to surface when we are exasperated, or when we feel that revenge is needed. And so we see it fit to act violently against people and nature; we degrade and debase people's environments, and we degrade and debase the lives of the people dependent on those environments.

It is clear that here, violence isn't the erratic behaviour of a few; it is deeply ingrained in everything we as a collective do, from the way we war, from the way we make money off of war, from the way we divide people, from the way we oppress them and silence them. Violence that is this culturally ingrained isn't stopped by denying previous criminals firearm licenses, or by locking them up in jail. Violence is dealt with by freeing ourselves from the culture that creates and condones it. It should not be acceptable to show someone being blown up on television. If the skin of humans cannot be shown without offending some people, which is understandable, how can we condone the depiction of acts that denigrate and debase our humanity? Or is that what humanity is?

I saw a National Rifle Association bumper sticker a few years ago on North Campus that read:

I can see their point to an extent. But it is impossible to deny that a culture of guns is necessarily one of violence. Nothing about guns, a technology influenced by social norms and construction, is peaceful, nothing from where the metal came from to the processing of the metals to the intention of a gun. A gun serves as a deterrent by instilling fear in someone, and we all know what fear leads to. When we look at and make objects themselves with capacity to harm, we are compelled to pull a trigger or push a button that will blow someone or some place up. As long as these objects and thoughts and intentions exist, they present themselves as options in debate, they present themselves as options in action.

Violence is a deep manifestation of our insecurities. Because violence is overtly forceful, it gives us a sense of domination, and of power. We can bulldoze lands, blow the tops off of mountains, frack rocks for natural gas, or electrocute someone for a crime with no remorse. All of these actions in no way preserve the sanctity of life (which many death penalty loving people love to talk about), or speak highly of us as ethical and moral agents. Violence for peace makes no sense. Peace, on the other hand, is decidedly peaceful. There can be no violence in peace. Peace may be forceful, steadfast, determined, resolute, and intentional, but in no way can it be violent.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A week long sabbatical

Things need to be done elsewhere, and so I'll be off the blog for a week. Check back next Monday.

I hope all is well with you.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Preaching to the choir

As a novice activist, I have realised that not many people are concerned on a day-to-day basis about the environment and this Earth, and are ambivalent about how their individual choices affect the environment. Yes, as individuals, we do have agency. We have the power to make differences. Pressure must constantly be applied, so that when the earthquake happens, it is because of the constancy and unabated and unswerving pressure that has been applied from all angles, for a long time. I have written about this at length, several times.

Yet we see that in light of all of this ecological degradation, all of this unsustainability, all of this injustice, that the masses are barely moved. As environmentalists and activists, we preach to the choir, and this blog is complicit in that, I suppose. I do not want it to be this way, but of course, it is hard to deny that it is this way. While it is important to surround ourselves with people that agree with us and challenge us (especially because we are a minority), as a recent comment from Tanny said, the divide to those that are unconcerned must be overcome.

Last night, I got to know Avik, my Argentine tango dance instructor, a little bit more. He completed his undergraduate and master's degree in electrical engineering, but then switched gears and got a Ph.D. in environmental policy and behaviour...and he is of Indian descent. (Awesome! That is so nice to see. There are very few non-White people in the environmental movement. It is not hard to see then that many people think the movement is elitist.) He said that for all that the environmental movement has done, it has not been able to move the masses and reach across the divide. Of course when the Cuyahoga River was burning a few decades ago, people took notice. But he said that the reason why people haven't latched on to the movement is that impacts of people's choices need to be felt immediately, and with environmentally-conscious choices, it is very difficult to achieve this. For example, when someone buys a car, the "positive" impacts of that choice are felt immediately - you gain mobility, and accessibility, and the ability to drive cross-country on a whim. (Of course, we would rather have it that you don't need a car to be mobile and to have access.) But what if you don't buy a car out of some environmental awareness? Are the positives of that choice evident to you immediately? Likely not, unless you choose to bike, you become healthier, you feel better, have better endurance, eat healthier, and so on. All of this can take a while, though, and it requires effort, and every day awareness.

It is not as if the negative impacts of environmental choices aren't felt directly or tangibly. They are, to those people that are least capable of defending themselves. Environmental justice can be a framework under which it is possible to mobilise the masses. But how do you take the masses to Delray? Can you take them all to a landfill? Will everyone watch Waste Land or Gasland? And when there is success in getting to the mainstream, as Al Gore did with An Inconvenient Truth? How do you tell the masses about the heroes that win the Goldman Environmental Prizes?

How much has the middle class been adopting environmentally-guided behaviour in their lives, then? Not much, apart from maybe switching out light bulbs and calling it good. All of these people live in comfort. Unemployment may affect them a little bit, but in all seriousness, the middle class is well off in suburbia. How do you connect to these people, those that form the bulk of the population, and those whose choices have massive implications in legitimising large corporations and corrupt governments?

I have thought to myself that environmentalism is a spiritual journey, that in our effort to reduce our ecological footprints, that in our efforts to tread lightly and respect this Earth and its creations, we realise more about ourselves as individuals - our fallibility and our power as ethical beings. Yet Avik said that discussion about ethics and morality outside of the contexts of religion can be very academic. I agree with him to an extent, and yet I have still held on hope that people can more holistically think about and understand their choices, through morality and ethics, and contemplate the influence that their lives have on other people and this Earth.

There are a couple of forces at play here. First, the powerful have put up boundaries and barriers between those well-off, those that serve in the interests of their existence, and those that face the negative outcomes of our collective actions. They have set up physical barriers (like highways and dams and bridges) and mental barriers ("Those that are not well-off are so because of the way that have chosen to lead their lives."). But as individuals, we too have set up mental barriers ourselves so we don't have to deal with challenging situations. Think about the barriers we put up when we are approached by a homeless person asking for money.

How come there were only one thousand people that got arrested in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline between Alberta and Texas? Why not ten thousand? Or one hundred thousand? How do we not preach to the choir? How do we make discussions about environmentalism less academic? How do we move the masses? The masses are powerful, because they have the capacity to take down oppressive systems. I will try my fullest to write in a manner that appreciates Avik's thoughts, because he makes very valid points.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The right, the wrong, and the other

It is not difficult to see how environmentalism can be infused with righteousness. This righteousness is just like sexual harassment; it doesn't matter what your intention is, it is what is perceived that is what matters. In our advocacy, how do we deal with coming off to others as elitist and righteous?

This is something very difficult to deal with, especially because environmentalism stems from a judgement - the judgement (based on experience, on seeing, breathing, living, and, well, science) that what we are doing to the planet is destroying its ability to sustain the ecosystems that have characterised it. Unfortunately, however, this is the way we've structured almost all of our social interactions - we are judgemental. Some people are ostracised because of the way they look, some people aren't taken seriously because of stereotypes. This judgementalism we see throughout the most important of social processes - politics. The Republicans seem bad to the Democrats, and the Republicans think that the Democrats are bad. We think that what we are doing is the right thing to do, what the rest do is the wrong thing to do.

But things weren't this way in the past. Of course, they couldn't have been. Because before politics, the politics that stem from a society like ours, there was the notion of the other. There was nothing right or wrong about actions, because all human life tread lightly on this Earth. Groups of people tread in different ways, but all in ways that are unique to place and time, and all in ways that at the very least leave minimal damage to ecosystems.

It can be difficult to tell people that what they are doing, in all sincerity, is detrimental. But if we don't do it, then the behaviour continues. Treading the line then between righteousness and passivity is a delicate balance. It is important that the ethics that guide our actions do our utmost not to alienate by branding some thoughts as right or wrong, but rather as those that have the most potential to reduce the tradeoffs we make on a day-to-day basis with the environment and people's lives, those that have the ability to allow us to accept, respect, and see the other side. There is an honesty and humility with which those that care about the environment must operate. While we do partake in this culture, out of an unfortunate coercion at times, we mustn't identify with it. Yet, we must pass our judgements with humility, in knowing that this isn't a competition or a race, but rather a meaningful attempt to tread lightly on this planet, to keep it a safe and enriching place for this generation and the next, of everything, not just humans.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

One step at a time

I want to revisit something I wrote back in May, in response to Matthew's comments on my post What does it mean to be a "pragmatist"?. Matthew's comment is bolded, and my response is below his comment.
Most of your specific criticisms seem to be condemnations of our society as a whole more than specific problems with the bridge (i.e. choose your battles wisely so you can be sure that you are addressing the main source of the problem). I think the best strategy for building momentum in the environmental movement is to attack the very worst offenders first. By choosing battles that most people can agree on we get to solve some of the most important problems without giving fuel to distracters who accuse us of being anti-progress. 
Absolutely. There are so many easy targets for this - polluting incinerators, mountaintop removers, fracking companies. The list goes on and on. There are so many targets, though, that rather than providing a hit-list of entities to take action against, we are overwhelmed by how ingrained ecological degradation is in our behaviour, and how our choices encourages and patronises their existence. We may also convince ourselves that we are trapped with their existence, that there is no way out. For example, many people probably don't like sitting in traffic for many hours each week along their fifteen-mile drive to work, but we have do bear it because work is fifteen miles away. Now, we can try to take down the very worst offenders, of course. As much as I support it and advocate for it, I feel that this won't adequately address the foundational problems that result in such industries. It will only allow others to come up with new ways to harm nature, and consequently people.
I still stand by what I said back in May, but I am seeing Matthew's point more and more, especially in light of the recent civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline that might be built to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Texas, something I wrote about a few days ago.

Everything is connected, and we cannot do one thing without affecting many things. A more holistic understanding of actions and outcomes is always a good thing. Yet, there are scales of action, there are scales of outcome, and there are scales of effort. The Keystone XL pipeline, while being a single pipeline, is representative of a vast system of decision-making that discounts ecological and social impacts. Action against one major offender is likely representative of our attitudes towards other major offenders (or at least I hope so). And in addressing the complicated issues facing us, as Matthew points out, taking down the major offenders hopefully brings down the foundation that many of the minor offenders operate on.

I think the important thing to remember is that in all we do our individual actions should not be ends in themselves, but rather steps towards something bigger. Refusing to use plastic bags must surely lead to driving less, which must surely lead to regulating your home temperature better, which must surely lead to a discussion with neighbours, which must lead to actions that ban plastic bags altogether, and so on and so forth.

Living trash free is only a step in a much larger journey with much larger outcomes. 

Shout out to Matthew L.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What does peace mean to you?

While both require planning, perseverance, and a steadfastness, peace stands in stark contrast to war. Peace preserves, accepts, and cherishes differences. War obliterates them.

I cannot say whether or not we are closer to living a life of peace or not, particularly when it comes down to the different cultures that make up this human world. Peace is likely not going to come from a compromise of our differences. Indeed, if even Americans cannot resolve their differences through compromise, then how can we expect the Western world to compromise on their differences with people in the East? Peace will come only when we accept the differences that exist. But acceptance is only a first step. We must cherish the differences, while at the same time making an intense effort at truly understanding why people would resort to flying planes into buildings. And so today, a decade on, how has peace influenced the debate on conflict resolution?

It amazes me that we think humans are the greatest thing in the world, but when it comes down to our differences, we will resort to violence to make sure that power stays concentrated with certain people. There is a clear discrepancy, it seems then, between doing all that we can to keep humanity alive, and then resorting to violence to kill humans when we don't agree. Of course, someone that has power might say then that it is in the interest of the broader humanity that their power is being used as violence against others, but that is unjustifiable.

Just as with many of the most complicated issues of our time, words have jumbled meanings. War can happen in the name of peace, and people convince themselves that this must be true. But what about this statement?
Since the Second World War, more than four fifths of the people killed in war have been civilians.
And despite the grief that comes with the loss of human life, there are many more dimensions that we don't think about when we think of war, and the environment is one of those things. How is the Earth's capacity for life changed when we war? Asked another way, what do our differences mean for the environment? Well, differences themselves are borne of the environment. Cultures are outcomes of environmental conditions, different ones, all over the world. This cannot be denied. And so when we resort to violence, we not only kill people, but we disturb and disrupt the ecosystems that build a culture.

There are many historical cases in which the ecological degradation has been used as a weapon to wipe people out, to oppress. In a prescient piece The environmental damage of war in Iraq from The Guardian, written eight years ago before the war, the potential ecologically degrading outcomes of war in Iraq were explored in the context of previous wars, both in the Balkans and in the Middle East:
During the 1991 war devastating damage was done to the oil industry in Kuwait. Iraqi forces destroyed more than seven hundred oil wells in Kuwait, spilling sixty million barrels of oil. Over ten million cubic metres of soil was still contaminated as late as 1998. A major groundwater aquifer, two fifths of Kuwait's entire freshwater reserve, remains contaminated to this day. Ten million barrels or oil were released into the Gulf, affecting coastline along 1500 km and costing more than $700 million to clean up. During the nine months that the wells burned, average air temperatures fell by 10 degrees C as a result of reduced light from the sun. The costs of environmental damage were estimated at $40 billion. Estimates of the numbers likely to die as a result of the air pollution effects were put at about a thousand. Since Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves of any nation on earth, the potential environmental damage caused by destruction of oil facilities during a new war must be enormous.

Other environmental effects of the 1991 Gulf War included destruction of sewage treatment plants in Kuwait, resulting in the discharge of over 50,000 cubic metres of raw sewage every day into Kuwait Bay.
Secondly, specific weapons likely to be used against Iraq will also create environmental damage. Top of the list of concern are depleted uranium (DU) projectiles.
Guess what? Depleted uranium has wreaked havoc in Iraq. Surprised?

When it comes to "just war theory", both jus in bello and jus ad bellum, how do we hold warring factions to these customs that make attempts at doing "minimal damage to the environment"? Is it even possible? The government and corporations we patronise deal with the issues of defense and war on a day-to-day basis. They in fact make a huge profit from war. The tentacles of war have weaved their way into each and every one of our communities, in all fifty states, from manufacturing to financing to politics to constitutional amendments. So how can we think about peace when war pays the bills?

There is a lack of peace within us. In fact, being peaceful and thoughtful is made to seem passive and subservient. When we find it tasteful to use guns against other people, and use guns as a sign of power and control, we will no doubt find it tasteful to use bombs to blow tops off of mountains to reach for coal - indeed this is a sign of power and control, not over people in this case, but the environment. What may be hindering our cause to find harmony and peace with nature is the violence we are able to perpetrate against our own kind. Or maybe our ability and willingness to perpetrate violence against nature, beautiful and delicate, is standing in the way of finding peace with our own kind. In the end, if we cannot find peace within us, we cannot find peace without us. 

I believe that if we find peace within ourselves and where we are, we can radically redefine notions of "progress" and "community." When I say peace, I in no way mean complacency. When I say peace, I mean that we recognise, understand and internalise our place in the world, our place in our communities, our place within our families, and our place in our own minds and bodies. Being at peace doesn't necessarily mean being satisfied with where we are ethically and morally; clearly, given our increasingly complex world, much of the complexity of which is man-made, there are ways in which we need to be redefining what it means to interact with each other, what it means to be a good citizen and a good steward. As a society as a whole, we are far from the ethical, moral and spiritual heights we need to be at to fully understand our impact on other humans, as well as the environment. There is no way we can envision a sustainable future when we find peace in violence. But if we can find peace in where we are materially and in physical place, we will have reached some level of peaceableness with the environment. Peace with the environment allows us the time to think and appreciate about its marvels, of which humans are one. Such a peace will not allow us to use violent force against any aspect of our environment, humans included. 

What does peace mean to you?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

When push comes to shove, where will you stand?

The hopelessness that pervades environmental issues can be debilitating. Because of the scale of the problems, does the one piece of trash avoided count? How about the car you didn't buy? Does that make a difference? What about the dam that you lobbied against? That surely has an impact, right? Or not? And the civil disobedience in protest against the building of a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, all the way down to Texas? Does the avoidance of building that make any difference?

Most everyone will tell you no, that these individual things don't matter. What matters really is the policy of action - a systemic change. Andrew Revkin, who has very interesting posts on his environmental blog on the New York Times, Dot Earth, comes down on the side of policy. He says,
But that’s my stance on the project outside of broader contexts. Overall, I think Obama should not stand in the way of the pipeline. While it’s a potent symbol and convenient rallying point for campaigners, it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The pipeline plan doesn’t exist in isolation. With the economy in its own tar pit and a presidential election approaching, it’s very much in the national interest for Obama to avoid saddling himself with an unnecessary issue that would be easy for his foes to distort into an Obama anti-jobs position.
This particular pipeline has a good chance of dying on the vine in any case if and when easier, less expensive sources of transportation fuel come online, including domestic oil and natural gas (and there are competing pipeline options and routes).
The greenhouse impact of the oil sands is also far less significant than some claims, particularly given the reality that oil consumption rates are what matters — not the amount of gigatons of carbon sitting in deposits of this sort in the ground.
But this again is a defeatist and elitist attitude towards the environment. Of course, Andrew Revkin and Michael Levi aren't affected by the pipeline directly. Most all of us are unaffected by infrastructural projects - we don't live in the line of the pipeline, and so our mobility, our accessibility, our immediacy isn't what is trampled upon. Here's what one comment in response to his blog says,
I don't see any mention in here of the pipeline being built over the Ogallala Aquifer that provides water to over 30 million people in five states. You may poo-poo the carbon effects, but you can't deny the disaster that will arise with one break in the 1,700 mile pipeline. Further, there is no mention of the destruction of arboreal forest, which covers an area the size of Florida, that the fracking has caused in Alberta. It will continue to grow in size. It is so large it can now be seen from space. Even the oil companies agree it can never be reclaimed. The food and water supplies of indigenous people in N. Alberta is being destroyed. Cancer has increased seven-fold. Caribou meat from a hunt is so full of sores it cannot be eaten.
Revkin says that the pipeline project doesn't exist in isolation [I assume he means it is not a purely "environmental" issues], but rather within the context of President Obama's politics. Of course, if the president wants to do anything, he'll have to wait until his second term, because which president would want to be a one-termer?

Revkin is correct in saying that the pipeline doesn't exist in isolation, but he is not correct in his contextual association. The pipeline in fact exists as a symbol within a wider system of dominance over nature, an unquestioned reliance on technology to solve our problems, of a thirst for energy unabated, of a imaginative and moral deficiency that is debilitating us from doing anything at all. And so we degrade our environment in the name of jobs.

Sure when you view it like that, then protesting against anything doesn't matter at all. But then do we do anything at all? Do we just live in the fear that someone will not get reelected and twiddle our thumbs? Or do we rise to the occasion, and take steps, concrete steps, in our neighbourhoods, communities, cities, to do something, anything?

Individuals and individual actions matter, because they are understood from within the context of their existence, and speak to systemic issues. It is individual efforts that provide tangible examples that provide for reflection, introspection, and consequently systemic change. Mandela, Gandhi, du Toit, Lisitsyn, Kelley, and Pineda are heroes, because they stood their ground, didn't get pushed over, didn't get shoved over, in their efforts to save their homes, their environment, our environment.

Ninety nine is not one hundred.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Going green, but getting nowhere"

I borrowed today's post title from a New York Times op-ed contribution with the same title, written by Gernot Wagner, an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. (Thank you, Colin, for sending this article to me.) The article makes for an interesting read, but it raises several issues of individualism and collective action that I do not agree with, since they stem from an old mindset of large-scale regulation driven by neoliberal economics, the same economics that has gotten us into this mess.

I agree with Wagner's sentiment on the importance and need for collective action. Of course we need collective action in the face of collectively-made problems. But Wagner almost belittles individual effort, because, it doesn't affect change. He writes,

"But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet."

I do not agree with him. He is saying that the agency for change is not us, that individuals have no agency, but rather economic policies are what will free us from ourselves. Unfortunately, the economic system that is vague and murky, the policy of which is set by economic wonks in secrecy (look at the Federal Reserve). I agree that individual action doesn't add up when we are not communicative of our efforts, when we are not consciously trying to instill change in others. Of course it wouldn't work, because such individual action is almost selfish and elitist. I have mentioned this several times.

"And economics teaches us that humanity must have the right incentives if it is to stop this terrible trend."

Wagner implies with this statement that humans are "rational" actors, and act rationally when shown a price of their choices. Nothing could be further from the truth, because no one really acts rationally. Look at how many people smoke, and how many eat unhealthily, how many people continue to buy Hummers even when gas "prices" are so high. Furthermore, the costs for environmental compliance are terribly low. Many factories find it cheaper to pay fines for breaking regulations than upping their standards and complying. The boundaries between domestic law and transnational law further provide little incentive to think about cumulative impacts of choices. Law and economy are set up with loopholes - you can prove your case not to pay, or be luckily powerful, or just pay your way out of your problems.

Wagner raises how economic incentives allowed us to get rid of lead from gasoline. But the economy didn't stop us from creating another problem. The economy is not self-correcting, and our faith in it cannot be blind. The reason why all of these problems keep arising is because we have a structure in place that allows them to pop up. As soon as the "problem" of climate change is "solved," something else massive will come up. I know it. Because unless we change the foundation, the offspring are all rotten.

What such articles have the tendency to do is put the burden on the governing elite. But as President Obama said tonight, we all have responsibilities. I have continued to believe in the ability of human emotion and benevolence. Constantly we are surrounded by stories and images and media that tell us stories that are inspiring, not because a price is put on their actions, but because they speak to something deeper, something that is more powerful than rational action and choice. We are guided ethically and emotionally as individuals, so why should we be guided by "rational market principles" that in no way question the status quo? Aren't we more than that? I am not convinced that we are. We are animals, and we have a conscience. It is for that reason we find things beautiful, and some things despicable. Unfortunately, right now, such emotion shows up only when we are manifestly and tangibly distressed, when we actually see something going wrong in front of us.

As individuals, we cannot act in isolation. Rather, we must recognise that we are a part of a community - of people, of species, of ecosystems - forming this Earth. A restructuring of our lives, individual and collective, is in order.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On those most vulnerable

I want to revisit a post from last November, A new kind of Pareto optimality, in light of a recent article I read in the Metro Times, Kick the needy. The article mentions that the State of Michigan will cut twelve thousand six hundred families from its welfare payroll, saving the state more than seventy-seven million dollars. Of course, this is in a state that has a flat-rate income tax. Now, this post isn't about taxes, but it is rather about the skewed priorities, and ways we interact with the things and people most vulnerable. Indeed, it is because they are vulnerable that we are not.

What do you think is the most vulnerable part of your life? Your health? Your paycheck? Your relationship with your parents? How do you deal with that vulnerability? Do you neglect it, like a cavity that you just don't want to take care of? Or do you tend to it, nurture it, and hope that it changes into something strong and healthy? I would hope the latter. What does vulnerability look like in our civic life, and of our collective lives? Our freedom to respectfully and graciously discuss and speak uncensored? Our public education? Our welfare system? Our Earth, its water, air, and land? We have viewed these vulnerabilities as distinct ones, ones which can be tended to without tending to the web of interactions. At the same time, it is clear that those things which are most vulnerable, particularly to exploitation, have been suppressed and oppressed in order to strengthen those already strong - I am talking about politicians, corporations, and those of us who have the privilege of daily food, shelter, and comfortable lives.

We have a tendency to only pay attention to the things that grab our attention - dazzling military machines, computers and touchscreen phones, reality television with personalities of people that should not serve as role models. This takes away from where attention is needed most - those that are hurting, truly hurting, because of this culture we've created for ourselves. When it comes to how our governments and corporations make decisions today, it is the interests of not the most vulnerable among us, not on the vulnerable grounds we stand on that give us food, but the interests of the most powerful among us that are front and centre.

Many people have an almost evolutionary sense of socioeconomic (or socioecological, more broadly) classes and strata. They think that just because they have made it, because they no longer live in polluted neighbourhoods or close to mountaintop removal sites, that everyone can do so, too. Many feel that those that suffer do so because of their own doing. Many people feel that the Earth is theirs for dominion, that there is some god-given right to be libertarian and use and degrade as they please. There is a lack of compassion in these people, and in this system, in this culture. When we see vulnerability, we don't ask Why? with open eyes, but rather we judge blindly, and continue old behaviour.

We must act in ways that first and foremost recognise vulnerability. We need to dig deeper than the surface and really sort the healthy from the not-so-healthy. And we must act on vulnerability. Because much of this is our own doing, and we do have the power to correct it. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Haiku #3

Another school year
when we shed belongings
to buy them anew

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Keep at it

I have written a few times about motivation (here) and individual action from various perspectives. In the end, it is up to us to change our lives, and be guided by a new morality. Personal efforts guided by a motivation to to open, honest, accepting, and in the end radically paradigm shifting is essential, but personal action without the goal of broader social implications can be selfish. And  The goal is social change, and it will not come easy. 

Trying to consider the impacts of your individual choices, and of the collective choices of society does not make for leisure time. When living, we can't let our brains go into standby mode. We can't be awake and process only some things. In that case, we aren't fully aware, conscious, and present. And while it takes at least some effort to pay attention to trends, to fashion, to what a materialistic world, this is not the consciousness I am talking about. Rather, this is the state of being that the moneymakers would want you to have - not fully asleep so as it miss their cues, but not fully conscious so as to question their motives.

Being observant and conscious can be consuming, and I mean that in the least materialistic way possible. What I mean is that as soon as you start questioning something, you start questioning another thing, and another thing, and soon enough, you realise that this culture, this society is one that is founded upon "out of sight, out of mind." We shun people, we cut them off, and this allows us to degrade their localities, which means we degrade all of our localities. It doesn't take long to realise that these systems are so ingrained, that as an individual, we think that our efforts are not worth it, that "human nature" is human nature, that greed is fundamentally human. It's a reason why many people just give up.

Over dinner the other night, Crystal asked Professor Larimore, "How do you deal with things not changing? How do you stay motivated?" Professor Larimore replied, "You just never know when something will happen. It's like an earthquake. Over time, the pressure builds, slowly but surely, and then one day, there is the release."

You just never know when something big will happen. Sometimes, it takes a split second. The world can change, or at least, parts of it can. Who knew lasting dictatorships in the Middle East, eras that lasted half a century, would crumble in a matter of weeks? Movements can go from being dormant, to all of a sudden being catalytic and inspiring. But it is important to realise that such massive changes are few and far between. What about our daily lives then? How do we spend time in between these moments? Constantly working toward a change is essential. So her, a woman of seventy years, message is, keep at it. While this may sound cliche, I don't think it is said often enough.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Social justice and sustainability - the conflict of time

The way we've posed the problem of sustainability has had a huge impact on the outcomes we've deemed as feasible. As I've written previously, the world has basically defined three pillars of sustainability- environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and economic sustainability, all of which intersect with each other but can also be mutually exclusive. The way the problem of sustainability is currently set up is such that goals and targets must be met for all three pillars - environmental, social, and economic. A "sustainable" outcome is some sort of "optimisation" of the three pillars. What this means is that there are some compromises that need to be made, and one or two of the pillars will be compromised more so than the others; there are conflicts and tensions between these pillars. Add on to this the issue of time - injustice now vs. injustice in the future - and what you have is a full-blown case of complexity and politics.

So how does a contemporary environmental justice problem fit in this paradigm? Not well. We can all agree that what we need to strive for is a world of lasting peace within ourselves and with the Earth we live on. But there are injustices that are happening right now that are a result of massive systems of oppression and violence towards people; we've exposed people to horrific living conditions, and have gotten them mired in a cycle of poverty that they honestly cannot leave. We need to deal with these issues right now. Unfortunately, as we witnessed in Delray, a semi-"just" (I cringe to use this word here.) solution now means affording people the opportunity to leave Delray by buying them out, or by beautifying their streets by funneling some money from the New International Trade Crossing project to the neighbourhood. But the bridge itself is not something that is sustainable in the long term. Rather, it further imprints on us the need for cars and trucks and shipping, while the fourteen thousand trucks passing over the bridge daily will worsen air quality for the residents left behind.

We're stuck in this mindset of trade-offs. We can give people money, but only at the expense of the environment. Short-term social justice trumps long-term sustainability. If we try to do less harm on the environment by not building the bridge, Matty Maroun will continue his monopoly, and people will have no money to leave Delray. Long-term steps toward sustainability might keep oppressive systems in place today. What I've realised is that there is no way we can live in a sustainable world unless everything (except the environment) is on the table for radical change - economy, society, culture, international politics and diplomacy.

We must act now in the best interests of those that have borne the brunt of our actions, and that means allowing these people a nicer place to live in. We must care for the abused, and welcome them into our neighbourhoods and circles, and break down the barriers that have held them back. This means that we, the privileged, need to change. Posing sustainability as a win-win problem ("sustainable development"), a problem in which we can alleviate ecological burdens on some while enjoying the lifestyles and privileges that others currently do, will only continue ecological degradation. We must therefore simultaneously envision a more holistic world - a world in which our human choices (say, of building a bridge or a dam) are tempered by an understanding that the long-term consequences of these choices lead to situations in which future short-term decisions will not be in conflict with future long-term actions needed.