R.O.I.—From Mother Earth’s P.O.V.

imagesPeter Buffett, one of billionaire Warren Buffett’s sons, published a brave, thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times the other day.  In it, Buffett takes to task what he calls “the Charitable-Industrial Complex,” the philanthropic crowd who piously seek to save the world, as long as the R.O.I. is sufficiently rosy and the status quo is not upset.

Buffett knows he sounds like a class traitor here as he proffers this description of “Philanthropic Colonialism” (his term):

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

Buffett says he’s “really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism…. It’s time for a new operating system,” he declares. “Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”

Buffett says that philanthropy should be dedicated to  “trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.

“It’s an old story,” he concludes; “we really need a new one.”

Yes.  And philanthropy is not the only sector of our society that needs to reinvent itself.

Although I respect Buffett for his willingness to sound what will be taken as a heretical note in his own social circles (at one point he adds self-consciously “now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends”), I don’t think he goes far enough.

I don’t want to see a merely “humanist” social system, I want to see humans develop an ecological understanding of our place and role on the planet.

I want us to repudiate our colonialist mindset, which persists not only in our tendency to give “humanitarian aid” with one hand while seizing economic control of a country’s most valuable resources with the other, but also in predatory capitalism at home and abroad—the debt bondage that the majority of people on the planet who buy into the system find themselves lashed to, laboring to pay the bank without ever being able to accumulate enough capital, social or financial, to buy their way into the promised land of security and ease.

The “new story” I’d like to see us live by would rewrite human attitudes towards other animals, insisting on the rights of every living being on this planet to a decent life.

That doesn’t mean a pig needs a condo with a swimming pool, but she does need enough space to breathe and move around in, healthy food and a clean, sanitary living environment.  Her wastes need to be disposed of the same way human wastes are—not sent into the rivers to create dead zones the size of states out in the sea.

100_2435Every aspect of the planet, from trees to minerals to water to fossil fuels, should be seen as precious resources to be safeguarded and cherished for the good of all who rely on them, not merely as sources of income for the few who sit on the boards or own stock in the mega-companies that develop, extract, exploit, and sell before moving on, leaving the devastated land as “collateral damage”— someone else’s problem.

The question is, how to get through to the corporate titans who are very happy with the status quo?

These are the folks who live their whole lives in such a fabulous cocoon of wealth and privilege that they have the illusion that they and their families can remain entirely insulated from the shocks of our poisoned, over-populated, over-heated planet.

If even in their philanthropy these people are thinking in terms of R.O.I., it must be a totally foreign concept to them to imagine conducting business in terms of gross social gain rather than gross individual profit.

Andrew Harvey, in his book The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, recounts a lunch conversation he had with one such business tycoon, “the head of a major agribusiness corporation.”  The businessman chews Harvey out for being a “naïve do-gooder” who does not understand how the real world functions.

“Most of you that I have met truly believe that if the CEOs—like me, for instance—really knew what harm their corporate policies were doing, they would rend their Armani suits, fling out their Rolex-wreathed arms, burst into tears and change.  This is madness and shows how little you dare to know about what is really going on.  And how can you even begin to be effective until you understand what you are up against?

Of course, the businessman then enlightens Harvey on what he and other “naïve do-gooders” are up against in the quest to change the world for the better.

“You are up against people like me,” the man says.  “I know exactly what my company is doing and what devastation it is causing to thousands of lives.  I should know; I am running it.  I know and I do not care.  I have decided I want a grand gold-plated lifestyle and the perks and jets and houses that go with it and I will do anything—bend the law, have people ‘removed,’ bribe local governmental officials, you name it—to get what I want.  I know, too, that none of my shareholders care a rat’s ass what I do or how I do it, providing I keep them swimming in cash.”

I thought of this blunt, self-satisfied description of the view from the top of the capitalist heap when I read recently about how the American electricity industry is responding to the rising popularity of home-based solar panels.

images-1Rooftop solar panels are being compared to cell phones, which, if you remember, created a major sea change in the telecom industry.  In the end, the telecom giants made out like bandits, after initially having spent a lot of money and political capital to try to put the brakes on what was perceived as a threat to the traditional landline phone system.

Today it’s the turn of the electricity industry, which is terrified of losing market share if every homeowner can make their own energy on their own roof.

If homeowners are no longer paying the fees that subsidize the public grid, industry officials argue sanctimoniously, how will this public system be maintained?

No where in the New York Times article about this, which appeared in the Business section, was there any mention of the broader social, global benefits of distributed solar electric generation as compared to fossil fuels or nuclear electric sources.

No mention of the many reasons why every government on the planet should be encouraging homeowners and businesses to convert their energy sources to solar, along with wind, hydro and geothermal, just as fast as they possibly can.

When are the CEOs who are so busy buying off Congressional delegations and creating expensive self-advertising campaigns going to realize that what they really need to be worrying about is not thrifty homeowners taking advantage of tax incentives to install solar panels, but the mega-storms, wildfires and floods that will be coming our way every year, increasing in intensity the longer we wait to make up our minds, as a global society, to give up our addiction to fossil fuels?

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Apparently most human beings can only be swayed by self-interest.

OK—we can work with that.  It’s quite clear that it’s in the interests of every human being on the planet to develop a sustainable relationship with our Mother Earth.

If we don’t, she will just give a great shrug of her climatic shoulders and be done with us.

Where will the R.O.I. be then?

Time for change

Jen light 3 copyIf my blog posts have been a bit few and far between lately, it’s because I’ve been focusing my writing efforts this summer on the bigger project I have underway, the personal/political memoir I’ve been working on for some years now.

The political subtext will be somewhat familiar to followers of my blog these past two years: the necessity for more ordinary folks like me to wake up to the realities of climate change and environmental destruction, and begin to take action in both the personal and the political spheres.

The personal narrative will be somewhat familiar to friends and family who have followed my life, or pieces of my journey, these past 50 years.  Good moments and bad, easy stretches when everything seemed to be going right, followed by inevitable patches of heartache and turmoil.

In the course of charting my experiences in depth through this memoir project, I’ve realized that I have two qualities that have often led me into troubled waters.

One, probably because I grew up in a family with strong values of caring, respect and integrity, I have tended to be very trusting—to believe that people mean well and want to do the right thing by others.

And two, I have been slow to respond to situations that make me unhappy.  I tend to try to stick with whatever I’ve started or gotten myself into, to try make it work even when it’s become quite obvious—even to me!—that things are never going to change for the better.

I’m trying to make some connections between these personal traits of mine, and the larger social landscape that I inhabit.

For example, it seems to me that we have all tended to be too trusting of authority figures like politicians and business leaders, expecting that they have our best interests at heart.

As a kid growing up, it would never have occurred to me that corporations would produce, package and market products aimed to appeal to children, that would, over time at least, make us seriously sick.

I remember begging my mom to buy me Froot Loops and Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, which looked so yummy and appealing on TV.

I wanted Ring Dings, too, and Yodels, and Twinkies.  I wanted Coke, of course, and Dr. Pepper.  I wanted McDonald’s hamburgers, fries, and McMuffins.

I was lucky that my mom was not swayed by the seductive advertising, and went her own way with food, raising my brother and me on fresh fruits and vegetables (often grown in our own garden), premium meats, and homemade, preservative-free desserts.

Others, who bought the advertising and fell for the products, are finding themselves now, at midlife, with diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis and all the rest of our common American ailments.  To some degree at least, the explosion of health problems in the developed world can be directly traced back to our societal trust that Big Business, Big Agriculture and Big Government were doing their best to safeguard our health.

Turns out we needed to be more discerning—a theme that runs through both my private and public spheres.

Likewise, I can relate my own slowness to realize and respond to untenable situations in my personal life to our broader social reluctance, as human beings, to go against the flow.

Let’s face it, we humans are herd animals, as Nietzsche saw clearly more than a century ago. We run in packs, and we fear nothing so much as social isolation and disapproval.

For me personally, the kinds of situations that I’ve been slow to wake up to and act upon have been ones in which taking action means going against the grain of social expectations.

For example, my marriage.  It was very hard for me to let go of my own attachment to being married.  There are so many positive perceptions surrounding married people, while divorced people, on the other hand, are perceived as unstable, difficult, dissatisfied, disloyal, probably neurotic, bad parents, bad partners, bad lovers—in short, failures overall.

Even though some 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, these stigmas still hold a great deal of power, and for me it was hard to finally concede that I could go no further in my marriage.  After more than 20 years, I had to cry uncle and admit that yes, I had failed.  I could not make it work.

The thing is that once I got to that nadir, I didn’t care anymore what people thought, and I came to see the major life change of divorce as a positive liberation, not a failure at all.

Once I’d made the leap and let go of my inertia and fear of change, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined, nor were the repercussions as severe.

It turns out that most of the fears I’d had around becoming single—and a single parent—at midlife had much more to do with my own perceptions than with any reality out there in the world.

I believe that these kinds of fears in the personal realm apply just as much in the political realm.

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Wind turbines on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia

For instance, we know that our longterm relationship to fossil fuels is, in the words of JT, “driving us down the road to ruin,” but so many of us feel stuck, afraid to go against the tribe in seeking out new, more positive relations to energy use on the planet.

We tend to just go with the flow, running our AC on hot days, driving our cars, using our oil furnaces for heat in the winter.  Even though we’re beginning to see that this makes us unhappy—who, after all, enjoys prolonged heat waves, out-of-control wildfires, destructive storms and raging floods?—we still stick to what’s familiar, what appears to be socially acceptable, what everyone else is doing.

It’s time for each one of us to stiffen our backbones and be honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in now.

Climate change is upon us.  It’s past time to start working hard to cut carbon emissions by reducing use and switching to cleaner energy like wind, solar and geothermal.  We need to stand with 350.org and other environmental groups to pressure our government to do the right thing—to put the health and welfare of we, the people, ahead of the profits of them, the corporations.

On a personal level, too, we can also make changes.  We can use bicycles more, and AC less.  We can hang out our laundry to dry.  We can start weaning ourselves off disposable plastics, and put some raised beds in our backyards or on our rooftops.

It used to be that only “granola people” did things like this—“granola people” pronounced with a dismissive smirk.

It turns out that those crunchy folks had it right, and we’re the ones who have stayed in our unhappy fossil fuel-based relationship too long.

We may imagine that breaking with the herd and striking out alone on the path of ecological sanity is going to earn us smirks and sneers.  But a) this is probably just in our heads; and b) who cares, if it makes us happier in the long run?

Here’s what I’ve finally realized, at midlife, on both the personal and the political levels: life is way too short to waste time being unhappy if a path toward happiness is available.

Letting go of our attachment to the status quo is the crucial first step on that path, and it’s not easy.  But it is necessary now, given the critical juncture we’re at as a planet and a human civilization.

Think about it.  And then—act.

Being the change–beyond hope, beyond fear

Every time I write an exhortatory post like the last one, I imagine my readers getting to the end and clucking their tongues in frustration.

“OK, we get it, now the is time to act—but what does she want us to DO?  Doesn’t she have any practical suggestions on what to do in this terrible transition time?  Isn’t she going to lead by example?”

Well, yeah.  In relentlessly focusing my attention, and by extension my readers’ attention, on the frightening facts of environmental degradation–from climate change to toxic pollution to the precipitous decline of millions of species—I am doing something.  It may not be much, but at least it’s better than sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the gathering storm, or selfishly trying to live it up as long as possible—let the band play on!

There are many things I dream of doing, but right now simply cannot.

I cannot build myself an environmentally sustainable, off-the-grid house, nor can I pick myself up and move to an eco-village at this time.

I cannot spend all my time sitting in trees to protest logging or marching on Washington D.C. to protest inaction on climate change.

I cannot devote myself 100% to environmental communications work.

And I can’t wave my wand and stop the poles from melting, or make all the toxic chemicals just go away.

What I can do is take the strengths I’ve been given, in writing and communicating, and use them to try to spread awareness among others, in the hope that the little ripple I may be able to start will grow to a mighty wave of positive change.

***

I need to think more about this question of hope, though.

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley

Lately I’ve been reading and re-reading Margaret Wheatley’s latest book, So Far From Home, in which she talks, rather surprisingly, about the need for activists to move beyond hope.

The problem with hoping for change, she says, is that “fear is the constant, unavoidable companion of hope. What this simply means is that I hope for a certain outcome and I’m afraid I won’t get it. I hope for a certain result and I’m fearful it won’t happen. This is the way that hope and fear are wedded together….So, it might be that the road to fearlessness is only found by giving up hope. By giving up outcomes, by giving up goals.”

This is a challenging idea.  If we give up on goals, doesn’t it mean that we give up, period?  That we just bow our heads in resignation and accept the anthropogenic destruction of our planet as inevitable?

Not according to Wheatley.

Quoting from Thomas Merton, who says that we need to “concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself,” Wheatley gently asks:

“What if we could offer our work as a gift so lightly, and with so much love, that that’s really the source of fearlessness? We don’t need it to be accepted in any one way. We don’t need it to create any certain outcome. We don’t need it to be any one thing. It is in the way we offer it, that the work transforms us. It is in the way we offer our work as a gift to those we love, to those we care about, to the issues we care about. It is in the way we offer the work that we find fearlessness. Beyond hope and fear, I think, is the possibility of love.”

Could this be a kind of answer to those skeptics who would take me to task for writing about environmental issues without doing enough to be the change I want to see?

By giving myself to this work of raising the alarm, motivated by my deep love for the planet and my awareness of the inter-being of all her denizens, am I doing the work I came here to do in this lifetime?

The truth is that I don’t have much hope, anymore, that we will be able to “save the world.”  Nevertheless, I keep on writing, because writing is my way of working through and releasing myself from fear.

Having spent a lot of my life in fear, and having come to know it intimately, I can say with some authority that fear is a useless, paralyzing emotion.  Fear holds us back, it pinions our wings, it pushes us to do things we will later regret.

What we need, Wheatley says, is the clarity that resides beyond fear and its twin sister, hope.  The clarity that comes with knowing that since our time is going to come sooner or later, what’s important is how we spend each one of our days.

We need to do the work we came here to do, as well as we can, without expecting reward or recognition, without depending on external acclaim or tangible, material successes.

Beyond hope, beyond fear, I will keep going on, day to day, raising my children, doing my teaching and writing, enjoying beauty, pleasure and loving-kindness as they cross my path, and conjuring them myself in the way I live my life.  In that sense, yes, I will be the change.

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World on fire

I had to dig deep into the New York Times, my usual go-to source for “all the news that’s fit to print,” to find any mention of this weekend’s train explosion in the province of Quebec, not far from the Maine border.

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Lac-Megantic on fire July 6, 2013

I knew about it only because here in Canada it’s at the top of the headlines, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper taking the time this Sunday to journey to the small town of Lac-Megantic, where the disaster occurred, to size up the situation and offer his condolences.

Officially, so far, five have been confirmed dead, with scores still missing; Lac-Megantic, pop. 6,000, is said to look like a war zone, with black fumes rising from the burning crude oil carried by the 73-car train.

This on a weekend when temperatures in the Canadian Maritimes soared to record-breaking heights, and harmful algal blooms worldwide choked out marine life along all the coasts.

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Algae bloom on the Yellow Sea in China, July 2013

Astoundingly, at least one Canadian pundit responded to the burning crude and the smoldering township by calling for increased building of pipelines!

Another columnist, in the very same newspaper that reported on Nova Scotia’s unprecedented heat wave, had the nerve to call for more drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas on land and sea in the province.

If there are no more fish in the sea, we can at least extract the last of the fossil fuels, eh?

It’s time to get a grip, people.

What we need is not more oil and gas, but more wind and solar.

We need clean sources of energy, and we need to lower our consumption dramatically.

The window of possibility is smaller and tighter than most of us care to realize.

The tipping point is upon us.

This is not another action movie, a “White House Down”-style disaster flick, ending with the good guys reliably saving the day.

As we saw with the Arizona fires the other day, even the most hot-shot of heroes can go down in a blaze of glory when the fires burn out of control.

Do we really want to wait until the entire world is going up in flames, literally and figuratively speaking, before we act?

This is not a rhetorical question.  And the answer, I believe, is NO.  We can’t afford to sit on our hands any longer.

The time to act is NOW.

You can run but you can’t hide

As the heat and humidity of summer bore down on my home turf of New England last week, I made a run for it, spending two days traveling northeast at breakneck speed towards the normally cool coast of Nova Scotia.

I arrived just in time for a rare heat spell here on these windy islands sticking out into the north Atlantic.

Today it was up in the 90s Farenheit, the sun golden-bright and merciless.  Too hot to go out to the beach—a day for staying in the shade and drinking lots and lots of water.

musselsThinking of having something light and cool for dinner, my son and I drove down to the store to get some mussels.

The Canadian Maritimes are a prime source of farmed mussels, and I was eagerly picturing a pot full of the glistening blue-black beauties, steamed in a fragrant shallot and wine sauce.

Ignoring the sad, dried-up looking fish at the Atlantic Superstore fish counter, I confidently asked for a 5-pound net bag of mussels, and placed it in my shopping cart.

I started walking around the store briskly, revived by the freezing air conditioning.  But I kept getting whiffs of a strange smell, like something rotten.  After a few minutes, I realized it was coming from my cart.  It was the mussels.

I returned the bag to the fish counter, where the server took it back without argument.

So much for my fantasy of a mussel dinner.

***

warnsignOn the way home, we stopped to pick up a local newspaper, and while waiting in a long hot road construction line, I noticed a small headline tucked on the inside pages: “Shellfish Harvesting Suspended Due to Red Tide.”

My son and I looked at each other in dismay.  We had already noticed, on our first walk on our normally pristine local beach, that the water was a strange rusty-red color.

We had noticed too that there seemed to be fewer seabirds around, and that when we went down to the rocks to look for the normally numerous crabs, we could hardly find any.

We had been planning to go clamming over the weekend, out on the mud flats at low tide.

That plan would have to go the way of the mussel dinner.

When we got home, we went to the Internet to look up Red Tide, learning that it was more properly known as Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), and that it was almost ubiquitous along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, especially during the summer.

We learned that eating shellfish that have been harvested from HAB water can cause “paralytic toxic poisoning” in humans, characterized by gastrointestinal and respiratory distress.  Good thing I left those stinking mussels at the Superstore!

HABs have disastrous effects on other species like fish, waterfowl, dolphins, whales, and seals.

If I can’t eat mussels I may be piqued, but I can find something else just as good to eat on land.

Ocean denizens have no such options. I began to picture cormorants and seagulls with bad tummy aches.  No wonder we’d seen very few of the big blue herons that used to be so numerous in the salt marshes.

 ***

Red Tide - Mary Mackin 2My admittedly superficial Internet search did not bother to mention the cause of harmful algae blooms, speaking of them as an inconvenient fact of life, like a rip tide or a thunderstorm.

While HABs are sometimes natural, there is nothing normal about the dramatic spike in coastal red tides we’ve been seeing for the past 25 years or so.  They are part of the same phenomenon that causes the dead zones around the mouths of rivers that run through densely populated agricultural regions.  This summer, scientists are forecasting the largest dead zone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico—some 8,500 square miles.

It’s human and animal sewage and fertilizer run-off that upsets the natural chemical balance of the coastal waters, feeding the destructive algae at the expense of everything else.

What we humans break, we can also fix.  We could fix this problem if we wanted to.  But I found mention only of closing shellfish beds to harvesting, not of trying to turn the entire problem around by reducing the amount of shit we allow to run off into the sea.

***

I thought that up here in Nova Scotia I might be able to escape from the relentless, depressing awareness of the cascading, ever-quickening destabilization of the natural world.

That’s just another little fantasy I’ll have to give up.  There’s nowhere to run, much less to hide.

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