Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Suffusing our world with positivity

How you say it is as important as what you say.

We all want to live in a peaceful, ecologically conscious, thoughtful, and sustainable world. I do not think anyone would disagree with that. This means that we do not live in the world we envision; of course, all the evidence point in the opposite direction. Given all the massive challenges we face, it is difficult not to think that they are "too big" for each one of us as individuals or small communities to address. But we absolutely need to be doing something, anything at this point. Here are two ways we can use our words and our energy to encourage people.

First way:
Humans are altering the Earth's climate irreparably. Our energy sources are at the same time threatening national security, as well as causing global warming. We need to use less energy. We need to cut down on transportation. We need to eat less meat. We need to learn how to refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle. The government is being blocked by corporations from regulating industry. Stop buying things. Stop doing things just because you can. Needs and wants are completely different. Stick with the needs.

Second way:
We must reimagine the world we live in. We can be neighbourly, build community, build resiliency, and build hope by eating locally. Get to know your farmer, and your neighbour. Growing your own food and vegetables, tending a garden is an act of kindness and care. It is proven that being outdoors, appreciating the space and time you are in can reduce the stresses of this culture. How might this kindness and care and compassion unfold into other parts of your life and world? How might a peaceable mind interact in situations of dissonance? If you find peace in yourself, how do you react to inequality and oppression? If you appreciate the space and time you are in, how does that affect your choices?

I agree completely with everything in the first way of saying things. But, I am getting at the exact same things with the second way--the way in which we live and interact with each other, and this Earth must fundamentally change. Of course evidence to support massive changes in our lives helps, and knowing what changes to make helps, too. But, can we empower people to make these changes themselves and see tangible changes in their lives? Or do we, in a sense, bully those that need to change the way they live into thinking that "we are right" and "they are wrong"?

The more and more I think about it, it is not as if I think that the powerful have acted innocently, or there is no blame to be put on us for continuing to feed the system and live beyond our means (case in point: debt). But what we advocate, what we say, what we encourage people to do in light of the evidence is in no way suffusing their lives with meaning, purpose, and place. Saying positive things is much better than a ban, although bans are necessary. But I would love it if things didn't come to a ban. So, can we act and advocate in a way that gives us confidence in the choices people make? A well-trained child needs not to be kept on a leash, but rather let free on the world with faith and trust that she will do well. Appreciating the here and now, and everything we have means that we are not compelled to constantly surround myself with new objects with planned obsolescence built into them.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Some thoughts on fear and forgiveness

What is needed is a sort of catharsis. We must wash ourselves of all the ecologically and humanistically debasing things that pervade our culture. What we must seek instead is, as Tim DeChristopher has said,
...a humane world...[a] world that values humanity...a world where we meet our emotional needs not through the consumption of material goods, but through human relationships...[a] world where we measure our progress not through how much stuff we produce, but through our quality of life—whether or not we’re actually promoting a higher quality of life for human beings.
And such a world can only come from a deeply changed ethic that values (not monetarily) Earth and everything that resides in and on it. But how do we overcome the fear that can be paralysing when taking new, bold steps? I don't claim to know about this in any great depth or detail, but it is apparent to me that any meaningful, positive steps that will lead to a more holistic future must be hopeful, be courageous, and come with an acceptance of newness and the unchartered.

Fear is a powerful controlling force. (But hope and courage are liberating.) Fear is primal, and is the fear that is tapped into to convince us that the "enemies" are "planning to attack our way of life," allowing those with power to use our "consent" to act violently. At the same time, fear prevents us from presenting ourselves as whole before the world because it prevents us from admitting defeat or apologising for our mistakes; we are fearful of vengeance and retaliation. I wonder, do those that engage in ecologically degrading activities, and know that they are, not come clean because they are scared of the consequences of doing so? Possibly, for many companies and people try to hide their mistakes and disasters by not confessing or owning up to them. How has the way we've structured adjudication and law made people scared? If we are able to forgive, will we live in a less fearful world? I think so. How might fear look in an ecologically holistic world? For now, I'll leave you with these words from Conversations on Forgiveness)
Forgiveness is an opportunity for transformation, both individually and collectively. It not only helps relieve mental and emotional anguish, but it offers the possibility for change, for redemption, for restoration—for hope and even love to blossom from pain and suffering. It can stop a cycle of hurt and create opportunity where there seemed to be none. Most of all, it has the potential to heal and open our hearts to love again and more fully, strengthening and building our capacity for compassion and understanding.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Experience and possibilities

As an experienced engineer, one can easily look at a proposal for something, parse out the important details, and point out flaws and oversights in design. An experienced psychologist can recognise depression by looking at someone's face. An experienced cook will know just how much water to add to rice, not a drop more, not a drop less. It is with age, with awareness, with an openness to the world, that comes experience--experience that allows us to see the world as it is, experience to understand why, and hopefully, experience to change what is not working.

Yet, experience that is not a positive force can also close off possibilities, for many times, all that we know comes only from what we have experienced. Such experience can ward off imagination. If we cannot imagine, how do we move forward given many of the messes we've created? How can we get past the same old, same old (neoliberal economics, utilitarianism, capitalism, communism, socialism, competition, World Trade Organisation, World Bank, United Nations) that many elders are stuck in? How can we reclaim the possibilities of envisioning a fundamentally different world, and acting on those visions? It is clear then that experience and possibility share a complex relationship.

Grace Lee Boggs, the most youthful ninety-six year old philosopher and activist from Detroit, points out in a conversation with Krista Tippett (embedded in this post below) that first and foremost, we must recognise that,
[w]e have so much to rediscover. There are so many creative energies that are part of human history that have been lost because we've been pursuing the almighty dollar. We haven't recognized at what expense we've done that, expense not only of the earth, not only of people of color, but of our own selves. We no longer recognize that we have the capacity within us to create the world anew. We think we are only the victims.
What possibilities open up for us with this new mentality? Only experience can guide us, says Gloria Lowe of We Want Green, Too!:
Ms. Tippett: So I think, when you tell those stories of working with these guys who are so broken, right, I mean it's just layer on layer on layer of grief and loss and tragedy, it sounds debilitating to work with that, right? It sounds like you would lose hope.

Ms. Lowe: Oh, not at all, not at all. Part of my own personal transformation — I think it's probably the transformation that anyone who has a brain injury goes through — is that you lose contact with the things that you've been taught and, in doing so, you become like the birds. You start to do things instinctively. So you know about the human spirit. So all I did was transfer what I already knew and these guys did what was in their spirit to do. They rose up, they rose up, you know, just by, oh, yeah, I've been doing this for years...

...This floor is laid by a guy who had two head injuries in the military, two. I mean, he's lucky to be alive and just the perfection to see him pull a line all the way from the kitchen to the living room, he's so focused. In their art, in their creativity, and laughing, and they were like a family. So the big to-do is really upstairs. People need to see possibilities once you've begun creating them because then the questions come. What is the advantage of doing this? And it's a very real advantage if the law firm that I worked for did Social Security. If a person hasn't worked, their check is $674.

A house this size was roughly 2,000 square feet. The heating bill in this house, heating and light, was $510. So that leaves you $160? It's very difficult to survive off of that. The heating bill in this house now is like $272 after doing a lot of baking and stuff on the holidays. It's a big difference. That $300 allows me to do something else. I talked to Wayne and Myrtle because the field over here, we're going to take that and we're going to create a garden where kids have raspberries and some fruit they can eat and fruit trees and they'll create their own benches and we'll do things so that they can see a different kind of world, a different kind of life. These kids don't know butterflies. I mean, come on. That's kind of — you don't know butterflies? You know, so this was a part of rediscovering who we are as human beings.

Many, especially those that are so embedded in the way things are, might view these words as romantic and idealistic. They are right, for that is the goal. What comes before being able to see new visions of the world, though, is the ability to overcome the fear of leaving behind what we've created so far. And to do that...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What has brought us here will not take us there

I have been thinking a lot recently about the messiness of listening to elders. Having come from India, from a culture that is founded on respecting elders and listening and following their views, I am constantly battling the tensions between the wisdom that comes from old age and experience, and the ways in which that experience limits the possibilities of change and renewal.

As I wrote previously, I realise more and more each day that much of the advice that my parents gave me when I was young was spot on. I just wasn't mature enough to understand what they were saying. At the same time, the ways in which their experiences have shaped their outlook on the world makes elders bound to the past, a past that has created the present. Last week during the Union of Concerned Scientists and Erb Institute conference on communicating climate change, it was difficult not to notice generational gaps in discussions, and the frankly limited actions that many of the elders in the room thought would be sufficient in changing how the general public viewed climate change and acted on it.

It is clearly the youth that will be living in a drastically changed world, not the sixty and seventy year-olds deciding policy. It was not encouraging to hear from Ana Unruh Cohen, assistant to Congressman Ed Markey (D-WA), that even though the youth were instrumental in garnering public support for the Waxman-Markey bill that would have changed the face of this country, the youth were not present at the table when the policy was being debated and finalised. In the end, of course, the bill did not pass. But the choices we make today, the policies that are passed, the lessons that are taught, are those that we will be struggling with and dealing with in the future. We are where we are today because of what has been presented to us by the past.

It is clear though, that what has brought us here, what the elders have put in place, will not get us to where we need to be. Nothing less than the way in which we fundamentally conduct ourselves in the world will allow us and future generations the resiliency of coping with a changing climate. Climate change presented as an energy problem will only cause future conflict over scarce lithium and rare earth metal reserves. Addressing the problem so builds no resiliency. Following that thread of thought, an ecologically sustainable world is possible only if everything is up for debate.

All is not lost, though. There are some things we can learn from some very inspiring elders. There are ways to create communities of people that are dynamic and resilient, all with a deep respect for other people and most fundamentally this Earth. I am excited to write about these things over the next few days.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A few more thoughts on privilege

I received some verbal criticism from Shelley for my thoughts on a recent post We might need their help more than they need ours, particularly centred on privilege and romanticising people that I have had no contact with. I want to elaborate a little bit on these criticisms; they are important to think about.

Haiti is economically the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, likely because of various political reasons that I do not claim to fully know or understand. To add salt to these obvious wounds, the 12 January 2010 earthquake demolished entire inhabited areas of Haiti, with many building structures collapsing because of poor building codes. It is clear when you see pictures that there was intense social devastation caused by the earthquake. But I don't think the pictures are telling the whole story. 

Over the past few years, I have been listening to stories about the recovery efforts underway in Haiti, stories about art and cultural preservation, about people from the US giving up their lives here to lend their hands and their hearts to the Haitians. In each of the stories that I have listened to, in each interview with a Haitian, I have come away time and again with the sense that the resiliency of many Haitians allows them to find a silver lining to most any situation. These stories have made me consider moving to Haiti, at least for a while, to see and to understand, if possible, what this is all about.

However, I was criticised for two reasons. Firstly, I was told that unless I navigated my time with the Haitians carefully, I would be taking advantage of them because of my privilege. In many historical cases of anthropological studies of underprivileged, disenfranchised people, the studied group has been taken advantage of, particularly because the studies in no way empower the group of people to change the situation they are in. Secondly, I was told that I don't know the Haitians, and that making blanket statements about their optimism or whatever else is dangerous, romantic, and just plain wrong.

I must admit that my intentions have been to understand a different culture, not for some sort of intellectual gratification or "to find myself", but rather to relay messages, customs, and worldviews that allow the optimism and hope that I hear from the stories. Honestly, it is difficult not to be in awe of the people that I have listened to, especially because I imagine that their compassion and empathy, if allowed to unfold in other contexts, can allow a markedly different world, one much less materialistic and ecologically degrading. I recognise at the same time that Haiti has staggering ecological problems, particularly those of deforestation and soil erosion, because of the demand for wood as fuel, degrading agricultural practices, and population growth.

How to navigate the privilege that even allows me to go to Haiti is challenging, and I don't think I could be able to chart a path without a complete immersion. Furthermore, it is important to be constantly aware that because of privilege, one can extricate oneself from most any situation, consequently leaving the underprivileged high and dry in their situation.

I think these issues are essential to think about when engaging in international work, particularly that of the (unfortunately) dominant "sustainable development."

Traveling at home: The Huron River

It has been a while since I have traveled at home, in most part because I have actually been on the road several times in the past few months. But the road has made me miss home. I have not directed my attention to the place that I live in for months now, and something thus feels amiss.

Home is not just the physical shelter we live in. Rather, it is comprised of places and spaces, many of which we go to to focus on the biophysical world we live in, rather than on the incessant thoughts that consume much of our energy. These are places of comfort, of meditation. The Huron River, which flows just a hundred yards from where I live, is that space for me. Here are some sights and sounds that I captured on my last visit to the river.

Water hitting the ice on the river's edge

Flocks of geese

This river has also inspired Collin to make this spectacular animation.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The eternal question

Does it really matter why we do things as long as they get done?

I am attending a conference on issues of communicating climate change to those who don't believe or accept it. Leaders from all areas of the debate, including academia, activism, non-profits, conflict resolution, and corporations have convened in Ann Arbor in an event co-sponsored by the Erb Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nancy Jackson, a community organiser, and executive director for the Climate+Energy Project in Kansas. She said that to the atmosphere, all that really matters it the amount of carbon dioxide in it. Therefore, it doesn't matter what people think, it matters what people do.

While I find this argument compelling for a second, I am quickly led to think about the greater umbrella that guides our behaviours. Say that we are able to fully "solve" or "address" the issues of climate change through energy efficiency, "smart growth", "green" consumerism, and eating away at the carbon stabilisation wedges. Say we are able to steer the world away from the worst-case scenarios of climate change and sea-level rise. Say we are able to have our cake and eat it too. I wonder then, say one hundred years from now, or one hundred and fifty years from now, will the world be faced with some other massive existential problem? I wonder, if people aren't made to really think about their choices and the consequences of their choices, are we setting ourselves up for an even bigger challenge and hurdle (if that is fathomable) in the future?

Several questions then abound. What sort of legacy do we leave people with? How do we educate and train the next generation? What values do we instill in them? How might we best equip them with the capacities to think through issues facing them and the collectives they are embedded in? Are we making the next generation more resilient than ours? Or are we setting them up for problems that they, too, will kick down the road, if possible?

I think it is powerful to play this out in our own lives. Most all of us would agree that the ends do not always justify the means. For those of us that are not in desperate situations, we would think that selling drugs to pay for the monthly electricity bills is not acceptable. We might start making due with less or cutting costs by being inventive and creative about our electricity use. Many of us would think it unacceptable to leave our very children unprepared for the world by not equipping them with an understanding of human relationships and how to treat other people.

For some reason, we continue to want a better world for future generations, while at the same time undermining their abilities to address the challenges they will face, while at the same time creating even larger problems. So, does it matter what people think? Absolutely.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Haiku #4




"You have had your chance!
Gates and guards around the park!"
Protest quelled, not rape

Freedom and the status quo

There is no better day to write a few words about freedom than on this most inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a day on which I had lunch with Michele Norris...you read that right!). MLK advocated for and engaged in activism that vehemently challenged the status quo, and envisioned a nation in which non-whites were freely accepted and integrated into the greater American community.

It is ironic then, that when viewed differently, freedom itself is the status quo and a small space around it. Freedom is comprised of the social and cultural norms that our lives are embedded in. It is the very average of our individual thoughts and opinions. Anything that falls outside of the bounds of this freedom is deemed "radical". And we all know what everyone thinks about "radicals"...

I find it extremely motivating then that Tim DeChristopher was able to find his freedom in committing an act that, under current laws, was illegal, and indeed radical. It was radical when viewed conventionally as outside the bounds of "normal", but more strikingly, it was radical in its originality. 

The most visionary acts are those that imagine a truly different world, and a truly different world must be guided by a completely different set of norms and moralities. Freedom then is the expression of discontent. This expression must come with the understanding of the brutal consequences one may face because of it. It is very true, though, that the nobility of an act of freedom, a freedom that is in the interests of all, not just a few, throws even more light on brutal repression. Such is what has transpired in Yemen and Syria, and such is what has transpired with Tim DeChristopher. 

Freedom manifests itself in different and contradictory ways in this culture. We have the "freedom" to consume, but not the freedom to change what drives ecological degradation. We are preached at, from young age, about the freedom we all have to determine the courses of our lives. We hear our politicians and leaders preaching to other countries about what freedom is to us, and what it ought to be to them. Freedom it seems, is about liberty and self-determination. However, it is as clear as the Michigan winter is long that the freedoms that have the largest effect on us as collectives are those that allow the almost free and limitless destruction of this world. They are the freedoms of free pollution, and the freedoms of the creation of a culture that has enslaved its people and left them in many ways bereft of the power to self-determination. (Many of the Republican candidates for president would think otherwise.)

On this MLK day, let's explore the faces of freedom from all angles. I am certain that once you scratch the surface, you will be shocked at what you find.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tim DeChristopher on "freedom"

For the next couple of posts, I want to elaborate on the word "freedom". For today's short post, I want to share with you some powerful words from Tim DeChristopher during a conversation with Terry Tempest Williams.

Tim DeChristopher is an inspiring climate activist and leader. Better known as Bidder #70, on 19 December 2008, after having taken a final exam in an economics course at the University of Utah, Tim took the train to observe and protest a Bureau of Land Management auction that was leasing land to oil and gas companies. He ended up bidding on vast tracts of land, for which he owed  two million dollars, just to keep the land out of the hands of the oil and gas companies. Of course, he didn't have the money to pay for the land. On 2 March 2011, Tim was found guilty of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act on two felony charges, and later sentenced to two years in federal prison and ordered to pay a ten thousand dollar fine. Writes Terry Tempest Williams, "Minutes before receiving his sentence, Tim DeChristopher delivered an impassioned speech from the courtroom floor. At the end of the speech, he turned toward Judge Dee Benson, who presided over his trial, looked him in the eye, and said, 'This is what love looks like.'"

We might think that Tim gave up his freedom to protect land from oil and gas corporations, our atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions, and our future from climate change. But what Tim now thinks about freedom is a challenge and call to all of us wanting to envision and create a fundamentally different culture.
TIM: If you look at the worst-case consequences of climate change, those pretty much mean the collapse of our industrial civilization. But that doesn’t mean the end of everything. It means that we’re going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced. And that’s certainly not hopeless. It means we’re going to have to build another world in the ashes of this one. And it could very easily be a better world. I have a lot of hope in my generation’s ability to build a better world in the ashes of this one. And I have very little doubt that we’ll have to. The nice thing about that is that this culture hasn’t led to happiness anyway, it hasn’t satisfied our human needs. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.
TERRY: How has this experience—these past two years—changed you?

TIM: [Sighing.] It’s made me worry less.


TIM: It’s somewhat comforting knowing that things are going to fall apart, because it does give us that opportunity to drastically change things.

TERRY: I’ve watched you, you know, from afar. And when we were at the Glen Canyon Institute’s David Brower celebration in 2010, I looked at you, and I was so happy because it was like there was a lightness about you. Before, I felt like you were carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders—and you have broad shoulders—but there was something in your eyes, there was a light in your eyes I had not seen before. And I remember saying, “Something’s different.” And you were saying that rather than being the one who was inspiring, you were being inspired. And rather than being the one who was carrying this cause, it was carrying you. Can you talk about that? Because I think that’s instructive for all of us.

TIM: I think letting go of that burden had a lot to do with embracing how good this whole thing has felt. It’s been so liberating and empowering.

TERRY: To you, personally?

TIM: Yeah. I went into this thinking, It’s worth sacrificing my freedom for this.

TERRY: And you did it alone. It’s not like you had a movement behind you, or the support group that you have now.

TIM: Right. But I feel like I did the opposite. I thought I was sacrificing my freedom, but instead I was grabbing onto my freedom and refusing to let go of it for the first time, you know? Finally accepting that I wasn’t this helpless victim of society, and couldn’t do anything to shape my own future, you know, that I didn’t have that freedom to steer the course of my life. Finally I said, “I have the freedom to change this situation. I’m that powerful.” And that’s been a wonderful feeling that I’ve held onto since then.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Taking class

Given that this may be my last full semester here at the University of Michigan, I thought it would be great to take one last class. I haven't seriously taken a class in about two years, and I also figured that I ought to take a class with a focus on issues of philosophy, sociology, ethics, and history, given that I think it would be great to teach such classes in the future, if I were to be a teacher. The one thing that comes with such humanities and social science classes though, is reading material...physical reading material.

I bought ten books, seven of which were new, from the local bookstore. I could have bought the books used online, but I figured for a couple of reasons involving a lot of subconscious calculus that I should just buy the new books here versus the used books from elsewhere. Firstly, I would have had to deal with all of the packing material that comes from ordering books online, and it was likely that I would have ordered each book individually, therefore requiring individual packaging. Secondly, each book was likely to be shipped from a different, faraway location. Now, I understand that the books that I got at Ulrich's also came from variegated locations from all over the country...but those books were already here. Of course, since I was the one to buy the books from the bookstore, someone else in the class probably had to buy books from online, for I do not think that the bookstore had enough copies for everyone taking the class. It is impossible to know how my choices affected everyone in class...unless I was to ask everyone in class...maybe I will...

As you can tell, situations like this quickly can get complicated. Where are the books coming from? What kind of paper was used in them? Was the paper bleached? Which trees came down for these books? What are the tree management practices that are used from where the trees came down? And these are exactly the kinds of questions that can be avoided by modifying the choices we make. However, I chose to take a class, and therefore, I have the responsibility to entertain these questions, and deal meaningfully and concretely with them.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

We might need their help more than they need ours

If we think about issues of justice, of environment, of sustainability, many in the West claim some sort of moral superiority over how things ought to be, not just for themselves, but for the world--capitalism must be "greened", the authority of the World Trade Organisation must continue to be respected, the unquenchable thirst for energy here must only be dealt with by creating unquenchable thirsts for energy elsewhere. But I believe such arrogance in world view requires a constant boost of ego. It is the same constancy with which a drug addict needs a hit. Egos are boosted by selling war machines to an unstable Middle East, by giving "aid" to parts of the world that we think need it, by bullying other nations into adopting practices that make scarce essentials of ecology and life even scarcer. But as with all addictions and all inflated egos, they must come crumbling down sooner or later, and helplessness soon follows, for addiction cannot go hand in hand with resiliency. What can we learn then from those in Haiti?

I continue to find inspiration in those people that have the the least materially, yet the most spiritually--not only spiritually in the sense that we generally think of, but spiritually in the sense of fullness of spirit and hope, no matter what becomes of them and their loved ones.

It has been approximately two years since the massive earthquake in Haiti. Since then, other events have taken the limelight in our daily lives--the Arab Spring, elections in Burma, the Occupy movement. Yet, as one of my role models, Dick Gordon, and his team at The Story continue to remind us, things aren't back to what they used to be in Haiti. For us, those that live in the comfort of a home, with enough food and clothing, and enough material possessions around us to keep us distracted from most anything, what people go through in Haiti in their day-to-day lives serves as shining examples of humanity, of courage, of happiness, of contentment. Their spirit shows that there is much for us to be content with, and much that we can do without, allowing ourselves to tread more lightly on this Earth and show it some care and respect. Please click here and listen (at least) to the first story to hear what I am talking about It is one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard. I thank Under the Sun for their tremendous production of this piece.

Some thoughts on motivation and responsibility

Today, a major computer network problem disabled most of the mechanical engineering department, and wiped out huge parts (and for at least one person, the entirety) of dozens of people's work--data, computer codes, everything. The problem affected our lab server, too. We store most everything we work on in our lab on this server, and we even back it up after that. We knew that the IT guys were probably being flooded by people shouting and screaming and complaining to and at them the entire day. However, the circumstances of the entire situation, which we talked about and debated endlessly today, were such that our lab group did not find it burdensome on the IT guys for them to get our lab server up and running by the "end of the day". Honestly, though, there shouldn't have been an "end of the day" for them today, for, it is their duty and responsibility to fix things that go wrong, and the expectations are such that when something major like this does go wrong, that, well, work turns into responsibility. Responsibility seems to arise more fundamentally because it seems like someone in the IT department caused the problem. It was sad to hear then that when my lab mate went downstairs at 5:05 pm to see if the computer was fixed, he found the IT office empty and the door locked. Everyone had left, like workers punching their time cards.

It got Mohammad and I talking about motivation and responsibility. As individuals, the only responsibilities we are made to think of are paying taxes, bringing home a paycheck, and promptly spending more than that paycheck using our credit cards. (We are indeed encouraged to do so.) But apart from that, we are faced with few responsibilities. We see no responsibility to our neighbourhoods and communities, no responsibility to our watersheds, no responsibility or obligation to participate in this so-called democracy. We let things happen as they may, each person fending for themselves.

In my entire education, it is only in India that I was talked to about individual responsibility. I wonder how much citizenship and individual responsibility is being talked about in schools in America. Indeed, in our university education system, individual responsibility and citizenship are never mentioned. We are always taught about collectives. We study microeconomics and economies of scale. Depending on your major, you may talk about issues of large scale oppressive systems. Yet, we never study home economics, or responsibility to our neighbours. We are treated as grains of sand, and told that our individual actions and decisions don't matter. But when aggregated over, we suddenly end up with supply and demand curves that dictate large-scale and local policies that affect our individual lives. How do we, as individuals, conduct ourselves responsibly in the world? And how does that responsibility unfold in situations when we've made mistakes?

And so, to come back to the IT guys today who left without reparations after a major fault of their own causing, I wonder, do they lack motivation? I can imagine that someone that has spent the bulk of their life doing something that hasn't satisfied them, or has left much to be desired, has lost motivation. And when you see millions of people drudging away their lives in jobs that leave massive voids in people's happiness and spirituality, expecting responsibility in the workspace can seem utopian. How does the loss of motivation in our lives, stemming from the practical slavery we are put through for our lives, affect the responsibility we feel towards the world and ourselves?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Education and expertise

It is no secret that education, or what is commonly thought of as it, changes us. Education has the capacity of changing our perspectives on human relationships, our interactions with the man-made parts of our world, as well as with the biophysical parts of our world. It changes, fundamentally, the way we think. In the hyper-specialised culture that has developed out of "competition" and industrialism, our education has become hyper-specialised, too. But there is one thing that I haven't really thought much about, and that's one reason why I love being around people that know so much about so many other things!

As Avik told me yesterday, there is a whole body of literature that has studied expertise. What has been particularly defining of the recent environmental movement, is that scientists have tried continually to raise awareness about the dire situations and scenarios we face with climate change and yet, we see very little mass acceptance of their findings in this country. There are several reasons for this. One, of course, is that people's lives, and what defines them, are fundamentally challenged because of what issues of the climate dictate we ought to do. Secondly, different people comprehend issues differently because of their cultural identities. Thirdly, and quite interestingly, those people that are aware of the issues actually view the world differently because of their "education." When I say education in the post, I mean the education that most of us think of--become a scientist, or a doctor, or engineer, or lawyer, or accountant, or whatever.

As we become more and more educated, while we are exposed to more and more things, we also bin ourselves more and more in our worldview. As I said previously, when you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail. Therefore, the more educated we become, the more we forget about what it was like to be uneducated, or what it is like to be educated differently. What this can result in then is a loss of capacity to communicate with those that are different than you. As a scientist, it may be entirely obvious to you that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to global warming, increasing hormones in water leads to hermaphroditic frogs, increasing the efficiency of something doesn't lead to decreased overall consumption of it. How do we explain to those that aren't experts? How much danger is there in being experts? Many have talked about the guardianship model of policy-making, in which 'experts' in a 'field' are given full responsibility to decide the course of actions that need to be taken about something--those that 'know' about health insurance decide national health insurance policy. This, of course, comes at the expense of so-called 'democracy'.

In the environmental movement, it would do us well if we are able to relate to those that do not accept what we say, to those that are not 'experts' in pollution or deforestation or fracking. We must be able to have the capacity to think like those that don't agree with us, so that maybe we can communicate with them in ways that are more approachable to them. More thoughts on the expertise literature to come.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Step outside your life and thoughts

One of the reasons why it is difficult for us to make changes in our lives is because we are too immersed in them, and people of different socio-economic statuses (SES) are immersed in them in different ways.

Many people of low SES live day to day, paycheck to paycheck, and always live in the uncertainty that the government will make some stupid decision to further trample on their lives "for the greater good". As an outsider to this group, it seems to me that it can be difficult for many people of low SES to think differently of their lives because they struggle to make ends meet. Although it may seem difficult to blame them for this, Wangari Maathai did, with incredible outcomes.

Many of the people of middle SES, like me, are caught up in their lives differently. Although we do not struggle to make ends meet, we are immersed in our lives because we are now constantly distracted; there is no time for us to think about anything other than our material gratification. With constant streams of stimuli and minutiae from things like Facebook and Twitter and e-mail, it is easy to get caught up in cycles of unawareness of what is around us. Tim DeChristopher, more famously known as Bidder #70 believes that this stream of stimuli has been concocted precisely so we remain unaware of what is truly going on around us, so that we do not question how we ought to be living or changing our lives. (Read this revealing conversation about his life and thoughts with Terry Tempest Williams.)
But also just my views on how to live, and what actually makes me happy; how to form a little community out there with a few people; how human actions really work when there isn’t a TV telling us what to do—that all formed out there. And I think that’s part of why some people fight against wilderness, fight to extinguish all of it. I mean, I think there’s definitely a lot of folks who don’t understand it, and have never experienced it. But I think some of the opponents of wilderness really do understand it. They understand...
Those of high SES, like the one percent, are caught up in glamour, glitz, and fashion, and, well, "work". Many of them have purposefully been involved in the creation and coercion of policies that have taken away the wilderness, that have produced the streams of stimuli and minutiae, just so that we remain unaware, uneducated, illiterate, a few steps behind the curve. There isn't really much that I can say about these people, for many have known nothing other than lives full of material and monetary wealth.

What got me thinking about all of this was my time home with my parents, and a claymation video that Acacia showed me a while ago based on Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger. My dad and I have very different views about the world, which makes conversation very interesting and challenging for me. Below you can find the video to Mysterious Stranger. While it is a little freaky and portrays humans in a rather negative light, (at least) I found the manner in which the little village was outside of the children's lives to be a very compelling way of communicating how immersed we are in our lives.

I, too, get caught up in my thoughts, it seems. Over the past years, as I have become more and more immersed in writing and thinking that you see on this blog, I have been guilty of not viewing events from different angles. And I think that this can do a disservice to my advocacy, to the advocacy of the justice movement. It is only if we understand the forces at play from all directions that we can come up with meaningful steps and actions and find chinks in the armor of this culture.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Money - Comparing apples and computers

I have been spending a lot of money recently, and realised that I haven't written much about it in several weeks. But I have been thinking about what money lends and affords me, and how it affects my choices, which inevitably have ecological and social consequences.

When we want or need something, we are always confronted with the choice of how to "pay" for it--we can exchange for it our services, count it as a favour or a gift or donation, or as is the case in most social transactions, exchange money for it. When we want to pay for something with money, we pay for it its "value"--apples are $1.69 a pound, a laptop computer is $699, getting a car repaired costs $40 an hour in labour fees, and so on. Money thus has the tendency (and ability) to assign numeric values of money to an object or service, and that's super convenient. But consider this, if apples are $1.69 a pound, and a laptop computer costs $699, is a laptop "worth" 413 pounds of apples? I am not so sure. What about if the price of apples sky rockets to $2.19 a pound? Then is the computer "less valuable"?

As you can see, the complexities that this presents are manifold, and one might question the reasonableness of making such comparisons. But, in the end, we are always making these decisions, and I want to unpack what such decisions mean for our environment. One might think that solving issues of hunger are more basic than issues of access to the internet. Many would argue that access to internet is now a "human right", but that aside, the impact of spending money on 413 pounds of locally grown, pesticide-free apples on the environment is likely far less than a computer. Yet, they are both "worth" the same amount of money.

Money is absolutely unable to account for all of the ecological costs of a product or service. The way in which a group of people, say, the West Papuans value a mountain is very different than the way Indonesians or Australians value a mountain. But when viewed under the lens of money, swept under the rug are these different valuations; what we are left with a number, and someone's "willingness to pay" for something.

As individuals, we prioritise our expenditures--the basics (food, clothing and shelter) generally come first, followed by gas for our cars, cable and internet, and so on and so forth. But, crucially, from a macroeconomic standpoint, our governments do not really care about what money is spent on, as long as money is spent. Indeed, ecological disasters such as oil spills can be viewed as "beneficial" to the economy because of the money spent on cleanup services and the like. What we are doing here is making apples to computers comparisons of the value of the biophysical world, and the importance of the biophysical world, to at times fictitious values presented to us by money.

I have heard the argument (way too many times) that degrading the biophysical world is no problem, as long as we leave the future with "enough money" (or "value", whatever that means) or a "large enough" "economy" to deal with the problems of environmental remediation. What I highlight in response to such inane arguments is that first of all, we do not know what the future is going to "value", but we do know (or hope) that the future still needs air, land, and water to survive. Secondly, the fads and fashions that prop up the economy are just that--ephemeral. The "value" of the existing housing in the US dropped vastly in the past years, resulting in many people's mortgages to be higher than the actual "value" of their homes. How sad this situation is, given that the house is still a house, able to provide shelter. What is the "value" of shelter?

And so, when we monetise the value of many objects and services, when we commodify nature and the environment, we end up many times comparing apples to computers. I can understand that different people value different things differently (ethically and morally), but what money does is allow, even for a split moment, comparisons that just do not make sense.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An optimistic future

There is something so arbitrary about New Year's Day. The new year could be celebrated on any day, really. Who is to say that the new year should start on the first of January? What if the first of January was two weeks from now? Or two months?

Yet, there is something so defining about New Year's Day. Somehow, mentally, we are cleansed of the burdens of the past year, and we look, almost always optimistically, to the future. And it seems to make sense. Why would so many people be so happy that it is the new year? The new year represents, in a way, a clean slate--days of new adventures, days of new beginnings, days of new changes.

The changes that are needed in our individual and collective lives are not arbitrary, but are rather deliberate, intentional, and essential, and they need to be happening now. One thing that is particularly true, especially for the younger generations alive today, is that major changes will be seen in our lives. Now, it is up to us to decide whether we will continue to be passive and have those choices and changes made for us, or whether we find leadership in ourselves, and actively shape a future of justice and minimal ecological impact.

One of the great things of today's time is that the cracks of this culture are clearly visible more than ever before--the ongoing debt crises in Europe and the US, the mortgage debacle, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, the increasing corporatism of government, the ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions. If one pays even cursory attention to the political debates surrounding these issues, one can see quite clearly that all that is being done is that the stone of the problem is being kicked down the road.

Therefore, it is easy to conclude that the optimistic future we celebrate is one that involves major changes. This is an incredibly positive thing.

What was your New Year's resolution?