...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Season of Peace in a Time of War

adapted from a sermon by Rev. Ken Jones, delivered December 5, 2010

You ever have this experience when you pick up a newspaper just hoping for one nice little story of good news now and then? But then all you find is bad news?
Like the news that we're set to break the Soviet Union's record for the longest futile military occupation of Afghanistan.
Or like the news about the initiation of so-called “war games” between the US and South Korea, apparently in response to North Korea's own version of “war games?”
Or the news about that crazy outfit that published all these “leaked” documents from the US State Department, showing us that our high and mighty diplomatic corps is, at heart, not always very diplomatic? Or how they seem to relish the thought that some repressive Islamic kingdoms that happen to be friendly to our oil companies secretly want the US or Israel to attack some other repressive Islamic clerical states, drawing us further into a religious war between Sunni and Shia Muslims?
Or how about the news about that disturbed young man in Portland who almost blew up a van full of explosives in the middle of a family-oriented Christmas tree ceremony?
Or how about the news that the President we elected two years ago on an anti-war platform, has yet to demonstrate that his year-old “surge” in Afghanistan is doing any good? How about the continued stream of violence and mayhem that eminates from that country? Or about our inability to even be sure who the enemy is?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Illusion of Democracy

I wish I remember which Soviet dissident once said that the difference between people in the old Soviet Union and people in America is that the Soviets knew they were being lied to. The pathetic display of bravado and self-importance displayed in this week's election reminded me of this truism. Not only did we have to put up with the usual empty rhetoric and meaningless slogans, we were subject (just as we were by the Obamaniacs two years ago) to countless propositions that this or that politician is going to change the way things get done in Washington. The saddest part about it all was listening to all the naïve dupes interviewed on places like NPR – so called everyday normal voters – who expressed some degree of enthusiasm that their vote, and the mandate of which they felt a part, would actually make a difference. People in America – at least the politically naïve, who account for the majority – actually believe that changing who is “in charge” in Washington is actually going to change the system! It seems completely lost on them that the system gives them these so-called choices every now and then precisely to distract them away from doing anything that actually might change the system. It is their votes, in a very simple sense, that keep up the very status quo they hope to change.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Don't Legalize!!!!

It seems as though there is momentum building toward a day when marijuana use and sale will be legal.  This is the libertarian's and the pothead's best dream come true, and I admit that I have often yearned for such a sensible policy decision.  The war on drugs does untold damage -- not only is it completely ineffectual, it also causes crime, violence, and increases economic disparity.  So legalizing it, I've often thought, is a good thing.  Wrong.

Just imagine if you will that future day when pot is marketed and sold by the likes of Phillip-Morris, Pepsico, Wal-Mart and Monsanto.  Just imagine what a sweet deal legalization could be for all these mega corporations, who will most likely simply make deals with the existing cartels in Mexico and Columbia, and then draw in incredible profit margins bringing the stuff into the US and selling it in mass quantities.

I'm not against marijuana use, both medicinal and recreational, but what I am against is our current global corporate economy.  One the other hand, the current underground economy in which small growers grow and sell the stuff in informal networks is exactly the kind of economic model on which we should rebuild our whole economy.  The only problem is this god-forsaken war on drugs, which introduces a whole slew of problems into the existing network (the fact that the underground network survives so well even with all these externally-imposed barriers is testament to how strong small local economic networks are.)  The war imposes greatly increased startup costs and overhead, violence, mistrust, and, with all these, encourages consolidation. 

So what we should be doing is not legalizing, but simply defunding the war on drugs.  Just let the underground networks survive, leave them alone, and I predict we'll see the most efficient, safe, well-run sector of our economy in no time.  Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of hope that this will come to pass.  As soon as we pass the threshold in which pot use becomes socially respectable enough to be legal, I predict that the corporations will once again see dollar signs in their eyes and pounce on it.  And smother us all -- potheads or not.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Gandhi Meets the Matrix

So I recently re-watched The Matrix (movie) and was reminded again that the idea that humans are cancer is not new nor mine.  The idea was articulated in that movie by one of the (apparently) evil "agents" of the computer that dominates and enslaves the human race.  It was one of those instances in which a scriptwriter attempts to momentarily confuse the viewer, when this agent of evil is torturing one of the good guys.  But wait a minute, he says something we know to be true, so, even for a moment, are we to think that maybe this bad guy isn't so bad after all?  Maybe fighting against this evil computer is not only pointless, but also misguided?  Then after that brief moment, we return to the vivid and chair-gripping action we paid good money to see, and all ambiguity is gone once again.  Whew! close one.

There's no need for ambiguity, you see, because the "evil" that the computer (or "Artificial Intelligence") perpetuates is enslaving the human race, even though almost nobody is aware of it.  So while the computer provides for everyone an illusory and yet seemingly real existence, it is evil because it deprives us of the one thing that we seem to think is worth fighting for -- our freedom.  (It would probably be more correct to call it "freewill" in this context.)  The implication of this scene, and really the whole struggle on which the film is based, is that it matters not whether there is truth in the statement that humans are cancer, it only matters that we fight to maintain our freewill, even if that freewill is only an illusion.  (Just as the computer provides an illusory life, part of that illusion is a certain amount of freedom.  It is not altogether clear from the film [at least the first one] if freewill exists outside the illusion created by the AI.)

Is freedom more valuable than truth?  If it turns out that our conception of freedom exists only to gratify our egos, is it good to kill and destroy whatever gets in the way of our maintaining that freedom?  I wonder about these things.

It occurs to me that I'd like to do a re-make of this movie, one that takes the basic precept of the script but takes out all the violence and with it all the violence-glorifying implications.  In Keaneau Reeve's role, I'd cast a Gandhi-like character whose enlightenment is not "the one" that can fight the machine, but the one who learns how to non-violently non-cooperate with it, and teaches others to do the same.  Come to think of it, maybe that's what really happened in India nearly a century ago, and we've all been living in an illusion since then.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fascism Runs Deep

Matthew Rothschild's commentary in The Progressive about the yearning for Fascism in America is important reading.  It's important because his warning is real, and because it represents a rare example of more or less "mainstream" media taking the work of people like Chris Hedges seriously.  It is not enough for good-hearted liberals and traditional, tolerant Americans to simply dislike people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, we need to do more to discredit them, relieve them of their audience, and put them to work at minimum-wage jobs doing things like cleaning bathrooms and cooking "freedom fries" and whatnot.  Yes, this rising anger and intolerance is approaching truly dangerous proportions, and we ignore it at our peril.  But we have to remember that this wave of hatred has been building for quite awhile, and Mr. Rothschild and others fail when they attribute it to the lack of jobs and the current recession.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Restoring Honor with Dishonor

Yes, one more comment about Mr. Glenn Beck's insane antics in Washington this weekend.  Most of it has been said, but I'm just wondering one thing more.

Mr. Beck will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the same day when 37 years ago Rev. King inaugurated the Civil Rights movement with one of the most -- if not the most -- important speeches in US history.  He will do so under the guise of "restoring honor" to our troops, and with a stated intention of "reclaiming the civil rights movement."  Mr. Beck has also previously urged people to flee from any church that advocates social justice or economic justice.

So let's get this straight -- Mr. Beck is being presumptuous and arrogant enough to claim some aspect of the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, a man who named "militarism" one of the three core evils of American society, and who possibly did more than any other human being to urge churches to take stands on social and economic justice.

Let us all pause for a moment to consider this question:  which is more disrespectful of sacred space and history: building an Islamic Cultural Center a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site in the middle of a very crowded city?  Or standing on the very steps made hallowed a generation ago by one of our great spiritual leaders and attempt to undo what he accomplished while pretending to carry his torch?  Geez, even Joe McCarthy had a little bit of shame.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Would Jesus be a Fascist?

Every now and then, I am overcome with "shock and awe" in reaction to some amazing feat of intellectual contortion-ism coming from some unlikely place.  Today it came from a facebook post, from someone I don't know.  It was a "comment" from one who I believe is a "friend" of a "friend" of a "friend," in reaction to a post from a different "friend" of a "friend" of a "friend," the common thread being that I think the second "friend" in each chain is actually a real live relative of mine.  (I'm explaining this using facebook terminology in part to illustrate the contortions that much of our popular discourse goes through, suggesting that that could be one reason for the bizarre contortions themselves.)

In any case, here's what I saw: one person, apparently a Christian, posted a link to a newspaper article about the novelist's Anne Rice's aversion to "organized religion."  Several varying comments later, someone else, also claiming to be a Christian, weighed in by saying that standing up for something can make one unpopular (a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, as I will explain.)  As an example, this person suggested that Jesus would object to someone calling a person an "immigrant" when the term "illegal Immigrant" might also apply.  The commenter when on to ask if Jesus would condone "people breaking the law, stealing from other people's children, etc." apparently referring to people that this commenter (and popular opinion) would label "illegal immigrants."

It boggles my mind that a person who claims to have a close relationship with the spiritual essence of Jesus of Nazareth, and, apparently, some level of understanding of the gospels, would and could completely turn the message and theology of Jesus so completely around.  I can think of no other political question today in which the theology of Jesus is more clear: those termed "illegals" are the Samaritans of our day, God and compassion are unaffected by trivial political boundaries, and the higher law of God clearly trumps the imperfect laws of humankind -- especially laws, like our immigration laws, that are designed to protect the privilege of the rich over the problems of the poor.  There is no question that if he were walking this Earth today, Jesus would stand on the side of those who risk life and limb migrating across artificial boundaries to try to provide sustenance for their families in the best way they know.  It is also clear to me that not only would Jesus not object to someone using the term "immigrants" when "illegal immigrants" might be more popular, he would furthermore object to just about any usage of the dehumanizing and divisive term "illegal immigrants" in any circumstance.

Yes, taking stands with moral purpose, including the kind of morals for which Jesus was crucified, is often unpopular.  I feel this when I say that we ought to hand out green cards at the border to any and all coming to look for work, but I take comfort in the knowledge that even though many people think I'm crazy for saying such a thing, the spirit of Jesus is on this side.  Yet I am still shocked and amazed when people can turn Jesus' message around so completely and still justify it because of the popularity of the sentiment expressed, and then in the same breath justify such an anti-Christian sentiment as being "Christian" merely because the person expressing it might feel some twinge of guilt knowing, deep in his heart, that such sentiments are simple-minded and wrong.  But hey, if on some level I feel bad expressing my intolerance for immigrants (er, excuse me, "law-breakers,") I can feel better merely by claiming that Jesus and his disciples were persecuted for their beliefs, so any criticism of my arrogance must be the same!  After all, all I need to do is claim a personal relationship with Jesus and voila! He's on my side!  How easy it is to be a "Christian" in our world today.  And what a shame that is to the spiritual legacy of Jesus.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Deepest Fear in America

Okay, not yet another commentary on this week's biggest overblown news story, the Shirley Sherrod incident?  Yep.  But I want to say very little about Ms. Sherrod, confident that as far as I can see, she has been completely cleared of all the false charges.  But I do want to reflect on these false charges, where they came from and why.  For I think it is indicative of something that is so profound and deep, something that prompts the fear of mainstream American so violently that all talk of it is nearly censored out of popular discourse.

We know pretty much what happened.  A sleazy blogger, looking for attention and fame, doctored up an old speech that Ms. Sherrod gave in a way that made her look like she favored black farmers over white farmers many years ago (back in the days, for example, when South Africa was still ruled by a white minority.)  Then the rat-infested filth that calls itself the newsroom at Fox News jumped on the story, and gave yet another boost to their undeserved ratings by pouncing on it and making every effort -- without bothering to do the one thing a professional journalist should do more than anything else, which is check the validity of the story -- to pipe it into every TV set in America to prove how racist black people in power are.  Then the final blow came when our "hope for change" administration, including President "racism is a persistent evil in America" Obama, cowered in fear of those big, bad, bullies over at Fox and instantly -- again, without bothering to check the facts -- fired Ms. Sherrod, the only sane person in this whole ordeal.

Of course there's lots in here to make even the laziest journalist or pundit happy, lots to prove that political discourse in this country is about on a third-grade intellectual level (except that I can't imagine the worst bullies on my elementary schoolyard being so sleazy.)  Yes, Fox News -- if only it's millions of idiot viewers didn't actually believe their crap -- makes even the Daily Show look like old Dick Cavett reruns.  What troubles me, though, is their very deliberateness that they displayed in this affair.  And it is only one particularly grievous example of what they do every day.  But as an example of what they do every day, I want to examine it for a moment because I do think it reveals something about the deepest fear in America -- the fear that if "we" give them any power, people of color might turn out to be almost as bad as the white people who have ruled this country for the past two centuries.  The fear, in other words, that white people's privilege might yet turn out to be ill-gotten gains, and that judgment day is coming.

We all know, of course, that Hannity, Beck, and all those other blowhards are just that -- blowhards.  But they, and more importantly their "editors" are not stupid.  (I put the term editor in quote marks because I'm not sure what you call a decision-maker at an entertainment organization that poses as a news organization; I suppose "decision-maker who plays the role of an editor" would do, but that's kinda long.)  I have complete confidence that these people at Fox knew that this story was a sham, and they probably figured that they would get "busted" for it -- but they went with it anyway.  Why? Because they knew it would sell.  That's what they do -- sell entertainment.  Why did they know it would sell?  Because it was an image that people fear more than anything else -- a black woman, allegedly in a position of power, saying that she just might have the guts to every now and then treat a white person the way that black people have been treated for just about forever.  Oooo, white people don't like that -- it's almost like saying that white people might deserve to be treated like that sometimes, which is awfully close to the truth.  Maybe we don't actually deserve it, but it would be understandable if it were to happen.  That's why white people fear it so much, and that's what white people fear about Barrack Obama.  The demagogues at Fox News are eagerly awaiting (and seeking out) confirmation that Obama's hidden agenda is to give whites what they, in many respects, deserve, which is second fiddle.

Of course, as his reaction demonstrated, that fear is unfounded.  As one of those hard-core lefties who never had much faith in Obama from the start, this episode was not surprising to me.  It was not surprising that he cowered more quickly than an ostrich can even find the ground in which to duck his head.  It was not surprising because we've seen it happen before -- with candidate Obama.  Remember how quickly he distanced himself from his Pastor, Rev. Jerimiah Wright, when the same sleazeballs assassinated his character?  Obama distanced himself, called Rev. Wright some obligatory bad names, and then boosted his popularity by making a stirring speech about the persistence of racism in America.  It was obvious then that Mr. Obama was all talk and no action -- for action would have been to actually stand up for his friend and fellow citizen and defend Rev. Wright as one who is entitled to express his views, even if his views make some people uncomfortable.  Furthermore, upon election, Mr. Obama would have included Rev. Wright as a key member of his special anti-racism team that he would have appointed on his second day in office.  That would have been action.

One day, these sleazeballs might actually find someone, a person of color, working somewhere in this person of color's administration, who might actually have the audacity to, even once or twice, side with a person of color in an effort to correct history.  When they do find such a person and crucify him/her, I'll know who the real hero is.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Possibility of Cancer in our Genes

I'm going to write something here that would likely prompt many people to call me negative, a cynic, a dark and joyless creature.  So before I write it, I want to plead with any such reader (or one who would be sympathetic to such claims) to not judge too quickly.  I want to be considered, or rather I want my words to be considered, not as a negative assessment or a cynical vision of doom and dread, but merely as one possible vision of reality.  And if a reader is able to hear these words with an open mind as such, I hope that she/he would furthermore be able to grasp the implications of hearing what I have to say as a possible truth of our existence.  I, for one, have been thinking a lot about the implications of this version of reality, and it makes me wonder if we human beings are capable of grasping and accepting as truth something that makes all claims of cynicism or negativity moot – namely, that reality is far worse than we are capable of imagining.  In other words, perhaps it is not me who is biased toward negativity, but rather it may be that just about everybody else who thinks about the state of the world is hopelessly blinded by unfounded optimism and hope.  Perhaps the lenses in our eyes are, as a result of our own evolution, themselves rose-colored – no need for glasses.

Without further prologue, here is what I'm going to say:  I'm wondering if we human beings are Gaia's cancer.  I'm wondering if our mission on Earth – intentional or not, conscious or not – is to kill the Earth.  If we think of the Earth as a living organism, as the Gaia Hypothesis suggests, and all living creatures and organisms and species as various cells that make up this living Earth, there is good evidence to suggest that we human beings are the cancer cells in this big organism.  I know that Edward Abbey and others have made striking metaphors suggesting that we human beings – those in the industrialized world, anyway – are like a cancer, for we consume our surroundings at an unsustainable rate only to feed our irrational “growth.”  Those are powerful analogies, for sure.  But what I've been pondering is not metaphor – it's not that I think we are like cancer, I suspect that we are cancer.  Take a moment to ponder that: you and I and everybody we know, young and old, mean and kind, stranger and friend, are all cancer cells with a mission to consume our host before our host's own immune system kills us off.

I admit I'm in over my head.  To ponder this possibility, one has to understand what cancer is – not cancer the metaphor but cancer the disease that kills people, and I'm not sure I really know what it is.  I do know that cancer is identified as a condition in one's body in which certain cells, probably acting on bad information, start growing faster than all the others and consuming more resources doing so.  They also tend to multiply quickly, and either kill off or transform other cells in the host's body with which, if all information was good, they should be more or less harmoniously interacting in a way that benefits all – cells and host.  Given that basic knowledge, it is rather easy to see the metaphor relating to the way we humans in the industrial world treat this world that could be thought of, in this metaphor, as being like a living host.

But what is cancer, really?  These rouge cells are acting on information that apparently is not entirely random.  The information that they are getting from their DNA is surprisingly common, tends to be passed from one generation to the next, and exhibits many somewhat predictable patterns.  This suggests to me that cancer is not any type of substance or chemical or anything like that – cancer is information.  It is information that has made it way into, or developed within, the human genome (among other genomes.)  It is information that instructs cells to act in a particular way, just as other information contained in DNA does.

So, if the Earth actually is a living organism, perhaps we humans simply have bad information in our genes that predispose us to rape and plunder, extract and pollute, grow and consume, and gobble up countless other species on our own road to ruin.  Perhaps we do all this not so much because we don't think we have any other choice – perhaps we don't really have any other choice.  Perhaps our consciousness or our intellect gives us reason to pause and reflect, and try to do better.  But at the end of the day, we can't seem to stop extracting and consuming, etc. – we just find different ways to do so.  If we understand this precept, the most relevant question is whether we'll kill our host before our host kills us.  The secondary question is the one I started out with: are we capable of accepting this as our destiny?  Perhaps part of our “cancerous information” instructs us to believe that this couldn't be possible – we are divine creatures on a divine mission and we simply can't believe that the human race, in all its supposed grandeur and glory, is simply a disease that is best killed off as quickly as possible.

I don't like being dark or negative (though I admit cynicsm is often fun,) but I'm not sure I can find an easy way out of this one.  Do I believe what I wrote above to be true?  I don't think so, because if I did I'd probably be filled with much deeper despair than I seem to be.  But as the rational arguments against this proposition seem to crumble more every day, I wonder whether my more optimistic belief is just a symptom of this bad information I've been given.  I can't dismiss this possibility.

To any who have read this far: thank you.  I don't like being alone here.  I'm well aware that when people write or talk about things as “negative” as this, they usually try to conclude on a positive note, try to instill a little hope in the face of despair.  I want to resist the temptation to do so, for I fear it might diminish the chances that readers will be capable of fully accepting the possibility of this proposition (I don't expect readers to accept it, just accept that it is possible.)  But at the same time, I feel compelled to offer one hopeful thought in the context of this possible reality.  That thought is that if we are indeed cancer, and can accept it as an ontological truth, then we also might have the capacity to transcend our programmed mission.  We might have it within us to choose to live differently than we feel accustomed to living, and to intentionally work to balance our relationships with all other species and our host organism with the goal of a harmonious and stable relationships among all.

We might.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Jobs, jobs, jobs: what are they for?

The story on NPR yesterday was probably typical.  In it, we heard about campaigns for Congress this coming November (still four months away, but it's always more interesting to talk about what is going to happen than what is happening.)  The reporter's impression?  To win in November, you (politicians) must talk about jobs, jobs, jobs.  That is the mantra, the winning formula, the simplistic bumper-sticker dumbing down of complex issues for a bubble-gum culture of political discourse.  The story, of course, featured real people with real problems, like the woman in Missouri who has been unemployed for well over a year now.  Even though she's been getting by with contract work and other assistance, things are looking grim -- her unemployment benefits are set to expire next month.  Listening to this story, my thoughts go to profound tragedy -- is this woman going to survive?  Is she going to wind up homeless?  Being "unemployed" myself, I think of these things; having known homeless people and heard many stories of unfortunates dying on the streets while others pass by, I realize how close we all are to the sharp edge of death.  Every day, thousands of children die around the world for lack of basic clean sustenance.  Will she be next?  Will I?

The story went on, her story, to report that if something didn't change for her soon, there'd be no "big ticket" purchases in her future.  Her problem?  Her car has 180,000 miles on it, and she's going to have to get a new one.  But without a job, she can't.

I have no desire to make light of this woman's situation.  But two thoughts came to mind.  The first: is this the depth of tragedy that awaits those who are negatively affected by the bad economy?  No big ticket purchases?  What about food and shelter?  Does anybody in this crazy economy ever have to worry about those things?  Do we ever wonder whether we'll survive?  (We should.)  I think the answer is yes, many of us do worry about those things, but apparently NPR caters its programming for listeners who don't -- they are more interested in how economic anxiety might play out in the grandest of all sporting events that happens every year in this sports-obsessed culture: the big game between Democrats and Republicans.  The other thought was that this was a perfect illustration of how addicted we've all become to something over which we have no control.  No wonder we have to rely on politicians to constantly try to "fix" the economy -- because it's irrevocably broken.  We have to get jobs, keep jobs, and always get more jobs just so we can do things like buy new cars so we can get to our jobs every day.  Many have been saying it, but few are listening: WE'RE A NATION OF ADDICTS!

I do wonder how we'll survive.  How will we find ways to feed and shelter our families?  How will we keep ourselves reasonably healthy?  How will we protect ourselves?  The answers to these questions are complex, I'm sure, but I can tell you what they ain't: no amount of "jobs" is going to save us.  In fact, as long as we continue to rely on "jobs" we're doomed.  I know this -- I'm looking for a job right now, and am worried how I'll survive if I don't find one.  But I'm hoping to find a part-time job, so I can have enough time left over to do things that really matter, like learning how to wildcraft and preserve food and make clothes and all those other things that everybody did just a few generations ago before we became addicted to jobs.  In fact, jobs exist and are so omnipresent precisely because they keep us dependent upon them.  Remember back in the pre-welfare reform days when welfare was routinely derided because it would create a culture of dependency?  How is welfare any different than jobs?  Jobs drive the economy?  Well, no, we have to implore politicians to create them for us.  Jobs provide for the public welfare?  Well, no, most of the truly important jobs are done by illegal immigrants or in foreign factories or by poor people who seldom get interviewed by NPR.  Jobs less addictive?  Doubt it.  Why is it so important to tie health insurance to employment?  That's right: to keep us addicted.

We all have work to do.  If we wake up and truly pay attention, we'll see that the vast majority of it has nothing to do with our "job."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Eyes on the Prize"

First I read this article by Christine Ahn about the just-finished US Social Forum in Detroit.  In it, she contemplates the uneasy alliance between those working for economic justice and the peace community.  Ms. Ahn's perception is that the peace community is primarily a white, middle-class presence, while the economic justice people tend to be a broader cross section of racial and ethnic groups working to achieve some sense of fairness as they have not benefited from several decades of prosperity.  Yet she found that when these two groups came together, they did indeed find common ground in their shared opposition to the militaristic aspects of the US economy.  The common ground could very well be summed up by the old phrase "butter, not guns."  If we de-fund all our illegal wars, occupations, and reckless military escapades, and cut the "defense" budget down to a fraction of its present size, we could invest even a small portion of all that money into local communities, in things like health care, education, renewable energy, etc.  This is all well and good, and indeed is critically important at this time.  That is the beauty of bringing together disparate groups with similar values yet differing agendas -- larger and more fundamental truths emerge.

Then I thought about the chair I might sit at in such a gathering.  I am a peacenik and have been involved in a number of peace-oriented groups over the years; and yes, I am a white, educated, middle-class American male, and I know that the perception that the peace community is mostly white has truth in it.  I've also long been an advocate of economic justice, though in a less public way, mostly in my own personal opinions and not so much by my direct actions and involvement in community organizations.  To make matters worse, more recently I've become, somewhat reluctantly, known as an "environmentalist."  Shudder the thought.  As I look at my own writings on this blog, and the way I've chosen to live my life, this label certainly might fit (thought I totally agree with Wendell Berry in rejecting that label; he prefers "conservationist" and I lean toward "ecologist.")   Nevertheless, as I live off-grid in a rural intentional  community, work part-time at a number of odd jobs, and spend much time and energy doing things like working in the garden and making solar ovens, labels like "green" certainly are applicable.  As if to confirm all remaining stereotypes, I live and interact with mostly other white, educated, English-speaking people and tend to be wary of massive "investment" projects in job creation and urban infrastructure.  I even wince a little when well established lefties I support like Michael Moore or Jim Hightower lament the disappearance of the old "middle class" and the exportation of all our good manufacturing jobs.  Sure, it is a tragedy that these jobs are no longer here, but the last thing in the world we need is to bring them back!  Good Lord, I can't help but listen to myself and think "am I just one of those elitist liberal environmentalists who wants to protect my precious green world by keeping a third of the world's people living in abject poverty?"

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fish, Oil, and Trees: The Productivity Ratio

Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is, like in most communities, a dichotomy between “jobs” and “the environment.” Ours in particular revolves around forests, demonstrated by the decades-old debate between loggers and tree-huggers. I've lived in the most liberal, most urbane parts of the Puget Sound's big cities, wearing sandals with socks and all. I've also lived in rural Washington communities (still do) just a hop skip and a jump away from some of our finest lumber mills. In fact, the community in which I live now is economically dominated by two major lumber mills, and so I'm used to seeing the bumper sticker that reads “Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Where to Begin -- Cereal Boxes?

I try hard to be "green" as the popular phrase puts it.  I live off-grid, grow vegetables and raise chickens, and try very hard to avoid driving unnecessarily and especially flying.  It seems like a natural way of life for me, but I know its not for all people.  It's hard, I know, to unlearn all that we have been taught and to live differently.  I was thinking back on it this morning, and I realized that it all began with cereal boxes.

When I was a kid, one of the few rituals I truly enjoyed was breakfast.  I would choose my daily dose of nutrient-blast, fortified with 10 essential vitamins and minerals, from the few that my Mom would deem acceptable amongst all the fare offered by the likes of the Kellog or General Mills corporations.  And I would sit at the table, quietly chewing my precious meal, splashed with some of that wonderful pasteurized, homogenized, Vitamin D milk, and I would read the cereal box.  Sometimes there were special prizes inside, or even on the outside like the time I got a 45 rpm record of the Jackson Five singing A-B-C on the back of the box.  I would read all parts of the box on different days, often taking in the latest sales-pitch propaganda from the aforementioned cereal companies, and sometimes even getting desperate enough to actually read the ingredients and nutritional information, provided according to the prescription of the US Food and Drug Administration.  To this day, I wonder if these cereals more aptly apply to the "food" part of this agency's purpose or the "drug" part. 

But somewhere along the line, it hit me:  what are these cereal boxes for?  To hold the cereal?  Well, no, the cereal is actually contained in a plastic bag within the box.  And now that I've been eating bulk and non-boxed cereals for a number of years, I know that my suspicions about the integrity of the packaging having nothing to do with the cereal box were well-founded.  Bagged cereals don't crumble to dust just because they are not boxed.  No, I realized some time ago that the only true purpose of these boxes is to advertise, to help brainwash the kids and adults who buy the cereal how important and nutritious and, well, fun it is to buy and eat cereal as a way of life.   That may not be a terrible thing, or at least one we can ignore just like those awful commercials that interrupted my favorite TV programs as a kid like The Brady Bunch or Emergency!  But these boxes are not just inconveniences we can ignore: they are made from trees.  Trees killed so that those who sell cereal can sell more cereal.  So even though I loved my cereal, and I confess that I still do, I swore off cereals that came packaged in individual boxes some fifteen or twenty years ago.  It didn't happen all at once, but I gradually came to not buy boxed cereals at all, and in the process discovered that bagged and bulk cereals are generally much healthier than those that come in boxes, and, further still, that pre-made cereals themselves are not very healthy at all.  What I read on the boxes as a child were all lies. 

That was probably my first step, the first time I made a conscious decision to do something different for reasons that were not directly related to my personal self-interest.  And it was, as such, perhaps tone of the smartest things I've ever done.  When I talk to people now about making a shift away from self-centered consumerism, I suggest that they find one thing, one relatively simple thing, to do differently.  Today.  Then we'll see what happens tomorrow.   

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Glimpses of the Future?

I wrote the other day about conservation -- how we industrialized peoples, people living in developed countries like the US -- need to cut our resource use in half and then in half again before we can begin to imagine creating a sustainable economy.  This is a challenge that quite possibly dwarfs all other challenges we've had before.  You can make comparisons to the Apollo mission, World War Two, or the Great Depression, but I doubt if any of that compares to what we would need to do.  And this challenge requires both individual and collective action.  We must all learn to live differently, and we must also restructure our economy and society.  Half-hearted "reforms" simply will not do -- we need to change our foundations.

So I am a student in this regard -- learning what I can learn about how to live differently, for living differently is something that will be required of all of us and something that will be necessary when our economy breaks down as we try to build a new one.  The main thing I've been learning for the past two years living "off the grid" and without full-time employment is how much I need to learn.  Today I want to share a few random thoughts about things I've been learning, particularly things that seem to contribute to the developed world's disproportionate exploitation of nature.

  1. Showers are over-rated.  I realize now that I can live quite comfortably more like the majority of people in this world by not taking a shower every day.  I'm quite comfortable with two of three a week.  I often hear people talk about installing low-flow shower heads and taking shorter showers and the like, and these are indeed good ideas.  But not enough.  In fact, I think we should stop automatically including showers or bathtubs in every new house we build, and instead build bath houses that could be shared by every five or ten households.  One thing I've learned by not having a shower available to me whenever I want is that a good shower is an amazingly welcome thing.  So maybe I should re-phrase my earlier sentence to say showers are under rated!
  2. Mechanical refrigeration is largely unnecessary.  One of the most insane things we do in the modern world is heat our big houses all winter long and in the middle of our warm house put a metal box that we then cool to a temperature that might naturally be occurring outside or in the basement or in some other close proximity.  I only use mechanical refrigeration during the hottest summer months, and have found that most food keeps quite well even outside the very narrow temperature range that all the food safety experts say we must follow.  Sometimes food does go bad more quickly, but the chickens don't seem to mind!
  3. There is, I have to say, beauty in the quiet beauty of a less mechanical existence.  To not always hear the constant din of the refrigerator, the buzz of electric lights, and the frequent interruptions of nature's quiet bliss by various electrical appliances makes for a very good life.  Many everyday chores are much more difficult and time-consuming when we use less power, such as cooking or laundry, but devoting more time to these simple tasks (simple when you begin to get used to them) prohibits excessive time utilizing electric appliances such as computers or TV, or engaging in any number of other things we do when we get "bored."  It's a new way of life -- or perhaps a very old one.  And it might well turn out to be, at the same time, the life of the future.  At least I hope so.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Seventeen Million Honeybees

The ecologist and the philosopher meet at the question: What is 'natural'?  And upon considering this question, also come to the question: Is 'natural' always good, everything else bad?  After all, human beings are a part and product of nature, so doesn't it follow that everything human beings create is inherently natural?  And if the ecologist and philosopher agree that 'natural' is good, then doesn't that mean that Ayn Rand was right after all, that all human activity, including those that don't seem to be virtuous on the surface, are, in fact, good?  Maybe we should all quit complaining and simply celebrate all we have achieved and renew our efforts to do more.

I read in Acres USA of an "accident" on Interstate 35 in Minnesota in May which involved a semitrailer.  This particular accident might not have made any news nor ever come into my consciousness had it not been for the rather unique cargo of this truck.  It contained about seven thousand honeybee hives and an estimated seventeen million honeybees.  That's right -- seventeen million bees on one truck.  Apparently, the bees were rather pissed at the whole situation, and began swarming around the scene of the accident, which I imagine made for less than optimal working conditions for the responders who's job it was to clean up.  So the bees were doused with fire hoses in an effort to scatter them away from what was left of their homes.

Seventeen million bees on one truck.  Yes, that is a rather unique cargo and challenge for an accident, but neither the cargo itself nor the accident are unique.  Truth is, there are literally thousands of "accidents" on our highways every year, many involving trucks carrying various loads of "natural" (i.e. man-made and glorious) cargo.  And the presence of some seventeen million honeybees on one truck is, unfortunately, not an unheard-of load for one of the thousands of fifty-three foot long boxes that careen across this country at sixty-some miles an hour every day.  And while it is not unheard-of, and while I am not in this precise moment going to attempt to define what is natural and what is not, I am going to go out on a limb and say that containing seventeen million honeybees in one box and sending that box hundreds or thousands of miles across the country on highways crowded with lots of other metal boxes of various sizes all going this way and that at sixty-plus miles per hour is definitely not natural.  At least not to the bees.

Bees are, naturally, territorial creatures -- they establish themselves in a hive and workers go out and about to what is probably to them distant lands, searching for nectar to bring back home.  And in the process of doing this, these "distant lands" become part of the their territory.  In this sense, they are not too different from us humans, in an evolutionary sense.  That can pretty much describe how humanity has lived for most of our several million years of existence, until perhaps the last two or three hundred.   Somewhere along the line, we abandoned our "natural" way of being for something different.  One consequence of our adapting this new, non-natural way of living was that on one day last month seventeen million honeybees were suddenly and "accidentally" shaken from their homes in a completely foreign place and then sprayed with water until they "dispersed."  Another consequence is that every year millions upon millions of bees are transported thousands of miles away from their own territories to perform a service for us humans, each time having to reacquaint themselves with their new environments.  Scientists aren't sure, but many suspect that this is a rather stressful experience for bees, and living with this kind of stress may be one reason that so many bee colonies are disappearing.

I write this reflection so that we may consider one important indicator in attempting to answer those questions about what is natural and what is good.  That indicator is scale.  Humans have invented a world in which everything, they believe, must grow, must become big; and have at the same time lost some of our capacity to appreciate how nature's scales are often different than our own.  Yes, we know there are insect colonies in nature that number into the millions of creatures, and we know that there are animals that routinely migrate thousands of miles.  But the scale of our honeybee commerce is anything but natural, and may ultimately cause the collapse of a part of nature on which we depend.  When we ask what is natural, and by implication at least a hint of what is good, we should consider scale.  We should seek to live and tinker within the bounds of what is natural, that is, what was common before and outside the onslaught of human industrialization.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

War is the Problem, Not the Answer

I couldn't help but cheer as I began reading Robert Scheer's new post on truthdig today.  Yes, President Obama's attempt to label our response to the oil leak in the Gulf as "war" is pure poppycock at the very least, part of the same problem that led to the leak at worst.  Hearing Obama's insane analogy reminded me that we, this nation, has little to depend on other than our self-perceived military prowess.  In the end, it is the only thing we can count on.  So we talk about a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terror, and now, silliest of all, a war on oil leaking out from it's natural place of being through a hole drilled in the ocean floor in our attempt to seize it for ourselves.  Scheer is correct in implying that it was war that created this leak, and war and the mentality it evokes will not end it and will virtually guarantee that it will happen again.

My only wish is that Mr. Scheer's thinking on the subject had not devolved into his own little war-like mentality as he takes sides in a political dichotomy that is supporting more war and more war-like thinking.  The problem, Mr. Scheer, is not simply "deregulation" or "unfettered pursuit of corporate profits."  The problem is an open-ended, growth-oriented  economy, supported by both major political parties, that seeks to exploit and provide material comfort for more and more people at a level beyond that which is natural or sustainable.  This is why even so-called "liberal" politicians like Obama will approve new offshore drilling, new nuclear power plants, and new military bases and weapons with only some vague reassurances that such enterprises are "safe."  But they are not, they never will be.  It is like trying to find a way to wage war that is safe.

The alternative?  Let us renounce violence and instead work to find ways to live and support ourselves that work in harmony with nature, not against it.  Both Capitalism and Socialism, when operated as a means to support the industrial, war-like lifestyle, fail in this regard.  

Likewise, his clarion call for development of "renewable energy sources" is, as yet another call for an all-out, war-like affront, certain for failure and far worse.  We are not going to solve these problems with the same thinking and processes that created them.  Yes, we need to develop and encourage renewable energy, but it is never going to come anywhere near filling our current demand.  Before we go down that road we need to take seriously the conservation challenge: first, we need to cut our per capita energy use in half; then we need to cut it in half again.  Then we can start making a dent in what remains with clean, non-exploitive renewable energy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two Stories: Immigrants in America

The oil continues to bleed into the Gulf of Mexico from this great injury to the ocean floor that was intended to be benign. As I've been despairing the past month hearing about the gulf oil gusher, I've been feeling far greater despair and anger over the fact that the state of Arizona has passed legislation, the infamous SB1070, that takes the unprecedented step of enlisting state law enforcement resources to seek out and either imprison or deport those who have come to this nation without obtaining a permission slip. I feel greater despair and anger over this because it is another example of our culture accepting that which should not be accepted; considering normal that which is anything but. SB1070 is an expression of a fundamental brokenness of a culture and her people, the culture that I have to call mine.