Wednesday, April 27, 2011

There's a Better Way to Live

A poem came to me out of the blue this morning.

He says to me
There's a better way to live
Can you believe it?

Not sure what he's talking about
I try to listen
But my phone keeps ringing

I like the guy - he seems nice
Something about trees
Something about time

I hang up the phone
It looks like rain
It's going to take forever to get home

He doesn't seem concerned
Maybe I'll check the forecast
He talking, but I'm looking down

He's saying to me
There's a better way to live
I tell him maybe later
I've got errands to run

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Am Grateful For Nature

This week I am thankful; not for what I possess – the luxuries of living in America usually taken for granted – but for the awesome power that the Earth has to inspire and settle me. It has been very cold in Portland recently. And, people are complaining and worrying about what the cold has in store for their inconvenience. It’s difficult to get to the store for that box of stuffing mix if there is too much snow mixed in with the usual rain.

Driving home from work yesterday, I was doing my usual ruminating about the lifeless, arid amalgam that we call culture. Why do I feel forced to work so far from home? There is no life in this suburban industrial zone, just concrete, steel, and faceless others behind tinted windows. I grumbled to myself about an automobile culture that sucks the life and health out of the human condition. As if being snapped out of a nightmare, there it was right in front of me; a beautiful natural vista to the East. The Columbia Gorge emanated with awesome beauty on a frigid, half-lit late autumn day. I could see it (experience it) only in split-second fragments of attention. My life would have been endangered otherwise. Too much attention to the elegant vision off to my side would have meant an ever-so-slight swerve into a freeway lane ruthlessly possessed by a truck laden with product no one really needs or wants. So, the truck, the freeway, the dashboard, my hands gripping the wheel – those were the things that held my attention. They were also the things on which I was ruminating and grumbling. Even so, I was able to swivel my head to the right to take in the view of the distant structures – houses, buildings, trees, hills - lightly covered with fresh snow. Just a flash of view, mind you, but one that overwhelmed my ruminating insistence.

Combined, I “saw” perhaps five seconds of awesome, natural phenomena during my twenty minutes of hustle and bustle commute. Yet, it is the self-constructed vision of those natural phenomena that stays with me. I remember it now as clearly as yesterday. It inspires me and settles me now just as it did then. Everything else about that horrible commute is kaput, purged from my consciousness.

The magic of the natural world to soothe, settle, and inspire us reminds me of a crying baby. I can’t help but believe that our environment is, in some way, crying out to us. Like the baby, it gets our immediate attention. And like the baby, it has the power to cure what ails us. My gratefulness for what nature provides reminds me that I need to listen more to what she is telling me in spite of the noise around me, which is beckoning me to ignore that which has real power to heal, restore, and transform.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why We Ignore Climate Change

Much is currently being written about the communication gap that exists between scientists and ordinary Americans regarding climate change. Most of what is being offered neglects an attempt to explain why such a disconcerting gap exists, and why climate change is being ignored by the average citizen. Science tends to be primarily descriptive; giving us facts about how the world works. The scientific descriptions of climate change are downright scary, and inspire primitive human reactions powered by negative emotions, such as fear. Negative emotions have particular relevance to our sense of survival – when we feel fear, we look for a way to escape. Therein lays the problem with science, using the media as an outlet, in communicating its message about climate change to the public. We hear the message loud and clear. But we do not like it. It summons up our negative emotions of fear, guilt, shame, and anger. We avoid these emotions at all costs and, as a result, convince ourselves that climate change is a hoax.

What science (and the media) needs to do is refocus its message to better communicate the potential positives that behavioral change toward greater Earth stewardship can create. There is an abundance of scientific knowledge showing that the so-called “sacrifices” necessary for sustainable living – such as reducing consumption levels and driving less - actually improve our well-being. Even better, this improvement in well-being, powered by positive emotions, broadens our perspective (negative emotions necessarily narrow our focus) and allows us to identify creative and effective solutions to climate change challenges. Fortunately, despite the message from science that environmental collapse is imminent, average Americans are making positive lifestyle changes that are friendly to climate change, and discovering that these changes are improving their communities, health, and well-being.

Messages from science that are scary sell. But it is the good things about the human spirit that science and the media need to communicate better. Scare tactics will not inspire us to overcome this crisis. Identifying and communicating what is best within us will allow us to first, admit that human-caused climate change is real, and second, change our lifestyles to improve the environment and our life satisfaction at the same time. Could there be a more important message to communicate?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Post Election Sadness and Hope

As I ponder the results of yesterday’s mid-term election, I feel both sad and hopeful. Those of us on the green side of the ledger generally favor Democrats over Republicans – few Republicans openly espouse political reform toward environmental sustainability – and Democrats did not fare well. What I find to be most notable about this election - perhaps because of its obvious absence – is any discussion of environmental issues (one exception was CA Proposition 23, which fortunately went down in flames). Any politician regardless of political bent was compelled to avoid discussion of environmental issues at all costs. The electorate was screaming “it’s the economy stupid” with such deafening bravado that any words that could be construed as impinging on economic development were shot down with laser-like precision.

Humanity has come a long way over the millennia, yet we still struggle with our acknowledgement of the simple truth that our world is a very simple system. The broadest circle is made up of our environment – the natural resources upon which we all depend for survival. Within this broader circle are our social systems – we are first and foremost social creatures, and depend on one another for our livelihood. Finally, nestled within these two much larger circles, we have our economy. This is the circle upon which we place the greatest importance. It is more immediate to us than the two larger circles, with its ebbs and flows seemingly affecting whether we struggle or thrive. And, when our economic system ebbs such as it is now, our survival mechanism takes flight. This powerful and sophisticated mechanism, fueled mostly by negative emotions such as anger and fear, overpowers our ability to see and relate to the bigger picture. This short-sightedness and lack of vision inspires my sadness today.

Our singular focus on the economy would be okay if the ways in which we choose to drive this system did not have such a detrimental impact on the two larger circles upon which it depends. But, our economic system in its present form continues to degrade our social and environmental systems in critical and, perhaps, irreparable ways. This election clearly demonstrated that the general populous wants to continue to throttle our economy toward a date with its own destruction. This is utterly irrational, but it is what we continue to choose to do. We miss the part about how our economy depends on the vitality of our social networks, and how those networks fully depend on the health and vitality of our natural environment. In fear mode, we are unable to see beyond the smallest circle in which we exist – the forest through the trees as it were. Even though the interdependent three-part system on which our long-term survival depends is simple to see in our minds eye, we cannot see it when we cast our vote.

I am hopeful because people still care. Even though the direction of their care is generally misplaced toward material and financial gain, fundamentally people are trying to show love and protection toward those about whom they care most. Caring can inspire negative emotions, such as anger, when we sense that the short-term livelihoods of our intimates are threatened. Caring can also inspire fear, an emotion designed for its short-term effectiveness – our fight or flight capacity is well-honed. In a state of fear, by design we cannot see the bigger picture because it does no good in our effort to survive a perceived immediate threat.

Caring is also part and parcel of positive emotions. And, positive emotions are the ones that allow us to see the bigger picture. In a state of positive emotion, we are more creative and more willing to take in stimuli from the broader world around us (in a negative state we are less willing and able to take in information for good reason – we need to focus our attention to avert imminent disaster). We are more apt to identify with the truth that we are a small part of a much larger interdependent web of life. We are also more able to envision a future which will allow us to thrive, not just for the immediate term, but indefinitely.

If we can learn to approach perceived problems, such as a broken economy, with a more positive perspective, the solutions we identify will more likely take into account the broader circles on which we and our economy depend for long-term survival. We have the capacity to feel positive emotions (which are greater in number and dimension than negative emotions) for good reason. They guide our survival in ways that negative emotions do not allow us to do. They allow us to identify, and act on, creative solutions to our predicaments. Perhaps most importantly, by inspiring a longer term perspective, positive emotions lead us to ways of seeing and experiencing the world that both improve our sense of well-being and ensure that the futures of our children and grandchildren will provide for their maximized well-being. Without taking into account, and working toward, the sustained health of our natural environmental, we are dooming our descendents to the fate that we most desperately want to avoid.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Commercialization of Children & the Environment

I came across a nice essay today from Susan Linn, the Executive Director for The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CFCC). One of the reasons I am so passionate about stopping corporate marketers from brain-washing children is because, as Susan points out, brain-washed kids become brain-washed adults. In her words...

"The primacy of marketplace values-and instilling those values into the next generation-imperils everyone. It's true that children benefit immediately and directly when we limit their exposure to commercial marketing. But the impact is so much broader. Allowing kids to grow up free from bombardment by marketing messages is our best chance to nurture adults who recognize the value of preserving, rather than exploiting, environmental riches-who define themselves more as stewards than consumers".

Our children are the answer to seeing through to a way of living that eschews consumerism in favor of communitarianism. As our limited environment reaches its upward limits at the hands of over-exploitation, over-production, and over-consumption, all people must find and inhabit an environmentally sustainable way of living. Doing otherwise will result in collapse. Children are born with the innate ability and vision to see a way of living that is possible to sustain for centuries. As they become commercialized, and are forced to connect well-being with material gains, they lose sight of their innate capacities; they become brain-washed. And, as many of us know, getting back to the crystal clear understanding that our economic and social health are fully-dependent on a healthy environment takes time and effort. Thanks to people like Susan, and organizations like CFCC, there is a chance that many children will be saved from this cruel exploitation and future.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shared Passion

I believe that one of the greatest joys in life is discovering others who share the same passion and vision that we do. These discoveries often occur when we least expect it; the serendipity of life's journey never ceases to amaze.

Yesterday, I discovered that Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies held an invitation-only conference in October, 2007 to address questions around the issue of environmental sustainability and humanity's moral and cultural disconnect with the health of the living system on which we are all dependent. Fifty-seven leading thinkers from diverse fields participated in the conference. Among them, were Paul Hawken, Theodore Roosevelt IV, Juliet Schor, Tim Kasser, James Gustave Speth, Stephen Kellert, and Duane Elgin. It is my opinion that the issues and questions explored by the participants may be the most important ever addressed by the human race.

The outcome of the three-day conference, held in Aspen, Colorado, was a publication (available at entitled Toward a New Consciousness: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities. I have not yet read the full report. Even so, I am so inspired by what I have discovered so far that I could not wait to share it. I think Stephen Kellert brilliantly describes the scope of the conference in the Afterword. He writes:

"We need to address the roots of our predicament – an adversarial relation to the natural world – and find a way to shift our core values and worldviews not just toward the task of sustainability, but toward a society with a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with the creation. In striving for harmony with nature, we need to seek not just a more physically secure and prosperous society, but one marked
as well by moral and spiritual wellbeing.

Despite the dominance until now of a value system that has encouraged environmental degradation and alienation from nature, we are now coming to appreciate that an impoverished biotic system is not only a threat to our physical security, but also to our fullest potential for fulfillment and happiness.

We may be at a proverbial tipping point where modern society aspires not just for economic sustainability, but for harmony and grace that can only be engendered by a richer and more celebratory relation to creation. The moment is at hand for us to serve as an instrument for noteworthy and enduring change".

Now that is beautiful music to my most passionate ears!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sustainable Consumption - Our Only Hope for Immortality

Break it down again
No more sleepy dreaming
No more building up
It is time to dissolve – Roland Orzabal

Mankind has always been motivated to create something larger than itself, to seek immortality, and to leave a legacy. The Egyptian pharaohs are a perfect example. The pyramids have lasted thousands of years and will last for many more centuries. Today, we are awed by the majesty of these monuments. Hundreds of our most intelligent brothers and sisters have and will become Egyptologists. Millions of our brethren visit these monuments annually. Most visitors report that the experience of being there is like nothing else that they have experienced in their life. The emotion of elevation is felt by most who visit. The same things can be said about the Great Wall of China, the Roman Coliseum, Versailles, the Taj Mahal, and many other great monuments.

Not only do most of these monuments that honor the capacity of human ambition, creativity, and industry represent times of tremendous inequality among humans (masters and slaves). But they represent moments in time when humans had little or no consideration for the impacts that these massive constructions had on the environment. If anything, they were planned and produced in spite of the environment – they were not only representations of man’s capacity for greatness, they represent man’s dominance and control over the land and the other creatures with whom they share the Earth.

We are impressed by what we have built. We travel the world to experience firsthand the magnificence of our creations. We are perhaps moderately saddened but the number of slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the pyramids. But we rarely feel remorse or embarrassment about the environmental effects that such constructions would have had.

This is one of many components of the human condition that works against a sustainable future. Man’s instinct for a legacy works counter to having a small footprint on the Earth. Having little impact (either physically or figuratively) requires tremendous humility. Most of us are not that strong. We prefer that our constructions be viewable from outer space just in case trans-universal visitors happen across our mostly blue planet.

Much of what we build is symbolic; symbolic of our strength, our courage, and our industriousness. These symbols also play to our needs, desires, identities, and our pursuit of meaning. For many, a small environmental footprint symbolizes a life of little meaning or significance. Though most of us will leave little or no legacy whatever, we feel a deeply rooted hope for something much more. Playing down our lives is counterintuitive for us. We can feel pride for limiting the environmental impacts of our lives. But it is a pride in the sense of martyrdom - paying the ultimate price for doing our part to lengthen the life of the Earth, and to improve the lives of those who follow us.

What can be done? How can we get past this innate striving for something greater than ourselves? How can we alter this innate force to guarantee our survival? If this nut can be cracked, then there is hope for a sustainable future. If we do not crack this nut, we (and all of the other living things on the Earth) are likely doomed. What we are talking about here are the psychological forces within us. I propose that these forces hold the key to a sustainable future. Without unlocking the beliefs and emotions that are causing our inevitable destruction, we are fooling ourselves.

For sure, there is a vibrant sustainability movement afoot in the world. Programs such as “An Inconvenient Truth” have had significant impacts. These impacts have been, for the most part, rooted in awareness. We are learning that our actions are damaging our only home in the universe. We are recognizing the reality of the situation. We see it. But do we own it?

Some people own it. They are working toward a sustainable future through everyday actions and organizational involvement. They are affecting change wherever they can. So far, most of this work has been persuasive in nature. The solutions, up to this point, have been predominantly technical. How do we separate the items in our trash for recycling? How do we reduce our CO2 emissions? How do we convince others to change their habits? What laws can be passed to limit pollution? These actions have been effective. There is clearly a ground-swell of support for much of what is being done.

I argue that these actions are a good first step, but we need to take things to the next level. We need to tap the minds of our greatest thinkers in psychology, sociology, anthropology, behavioral economics, and other disciplines focused on the human psyche in order to beat a path to the door that leads to our ultimate survival. The irony is that, if immortality is what we truly seek as a species, then only sustainable living will get us there. The old ways of building great monuments to represent our immortality must come to an end. In a sense we need to deconstruct for our survival. We need to deconstruct our physical environments. And, more importantly, we need to deconstruct our minds. If we can identify those emotional levers that will direct our behaviors to be more sustainable, then we can start working those levers in ways that provide for more sustainable living.

It has taken us thousands of years to recognize that our activities are harming the environment. It will likely take us hundreds more to be able to change our minds about what is important, and have that change be in perfect alignment with our beliefs and emotions. This is a problem that will require much more than technical solutions. The great pyramids were built using technical solutions. But the inspiration and reasons for their construction are found in all of us – our deeply held beliefs and emotions. In the same way, sustainable living will require more than just technical solutions. We will need to get to the sources of our inspiration and meaning before we will be successful.