Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cargo Cults and Climate Change

I was having a social media conversation with a climate communicator friend the other day. He’d posted a video by the much lauded Bill Nye the Science Guy that fairly closely followed the talking points many climate change realists use when speaking about climate change:
1. It’s real.
2. It’s man-made.
3. We can do something about it.
Check out the video here if you’re so inclined. 

On the one hand it’s a great video – engaging, educational, and hopeful. On the other hand, with the exception of a brief mention of the potential for gains in efficiency, the take-home message is fairly one-dimensional – vote. Without any actionable suggestions as to how to address rampant consumerism or population growth, without ever mentioning our insidious and ubiquitous belief that we’re entitled to take from the earth whatever we want in order to fulfill even our most trivial desires, it just ends. Vote. Just vote.

By all means vote! Vote for politicians who support valid climate research and have the moral courage to take action on the findings. Vote for politicians who will encourage investment in renewable energy and the infrastructure required to utilize it. Vote for politicians who will legislate a tax on carbon-based fuels – the only effective way for the market to price in all the harmful externalities wrought by the burning of fossil fuels. Vote. Vote. Vote!

But what shall we do in the mean time? Elections only happen every couple of years, and environmentalists here in the United States just lost the last one in a big way. Shall we sit around cardboard mockups of wind turbines and electric buses – much as the cargo cultists of the Pacific Islands did in the wake of WWII – patiently waiting for the real goods to be bestowed upon us by the gods of government and technology?

No. There’s actually a whole lot more that each of us can do in order to achieve greater energy efficiency in our own lives while we’re waiting for our elected officials to get their acts together. Toward that end, Katharine Hayhoe’s recent “Global Weirding” video provides a great list of things each of us can do in order to shrink our individual carbon footprint and start making a difference right now. Check out the video here.

But efficiency gains will only get us so far – about 40% of the way toward sustainability, as Katharine Hayhoe points out. Does that mean we’re back to waiting for the gods of government and technology to step in and create a world in which all of our current energy needs are met with renewables? And what if they don’t? Or, for that matter, what if they do? What, then, about the energy needs of tomorrow? Our thirst for electric gadgets seems unquenchable…, and the developing world is more and more desirous of the level of material wealth that we’ve long taken for granted…, and day after day the global population keeps growing… Is there nothing more that we can do?

Katharine Hayhoe is very diplomatic, which is probably a good thing in most instances. She doesn’t make any judgments about the relative extravagance of any particular lifestyle. She simply nudges people toward decreasing their carbon footprint from whatever it might be at the present moment. I suspect that she’s hoping that after people begin taking steps toward greater efficiency they will then begin looking for ways to do away with unnecessary energy usage altogether.

In other words, even though many people with both relative affluence and an awakened sense of responsibility are already installing solar panels and replacing their drafty windows with energy-efficient ones, even though they’re purchasing electric cars and updating their kitchens and utility rooms with high-efficiency appliances, they’re not necessarily changing their lifestyle all that much – if at all. They’re simply utilizing whatever money can buy to shrink the carbon footprint of their existing lifestyle as much as possible. A wealth of potential for greenhouse gas reduction resides in our inherent ability to simply do without much of what we presently consume. After all, most of the world is already doing as much. And therein lies the key point I was trying to make to my friend: We’re putting all of our eggs in one basket when we assume that purely technological solutions exist for our current predicament. What we need is a paradigm shift.

Allow me to elaborate. A very simple but still meaningful equation states that the global environmental impact that we cause (I) is a function of world population (P), our average per capita affluence (A), and some measure of how resource intensive that level of affluence is (T). Note that the letter T is chosen here because the level of resource intensity is largely dependent on our level of technological advancement. For instance, if all of our energy came from coal, a low technology solution to our energy needs, we would have environmental degradation caused by its mining and transportation, greenhouse gas and particulate pollution, toxic runoff, etc. If, however, we generated all of our energy from wind, a higher technology solution, the environmental degradation would primarily be related to the manufacture of the turbines and transmission structures themselves. Thus, environmental impact is a function of population, affluence, and technological development: I = f ( P, A, T ).

When I say that we’re putting all our eggs in one basket I mean that we’re focusing on T to the exclusion of P and A. We’re making any reduction in global environmental impact solely a function of our technological advancement. In other words, most climate change solutions that we hear about are predicated on the belief that we can find and adopt technological enhancements fast enough that, even as global population and average consumption increases, we can still reduce the environmental impact that we cause. In the aforementioned video, Bill Nye echoes the oft-repeated trope: “If your car is headed for a cliff the first thing you do is take your foot off the accelerator.” Of course this is good advice, but it ignores the reality that we have two more gas pedals that we’re still pressing to the floor!

My friend seemed to be getting a little defensive during our conversation. I think he must have interpreted my point of view as a dismissal of all the work being done to advance technological solutions to the problem of climate change. Nothing could be further from the truth! That would be like me saying that we should take our feet off of these two gas pedals while pushing the other one to the floor! We need to take our feet off of all the gas pedals. So, let me clearly articulate my point of view.

Those of you working toward technological solutions, I applaud you! Those of you working hard lobbying Congress to adopt those technological solutions, or nudge us toward them via a carbon tax, please keep up the great work! But we also need to renew our efforts toward reaching the goal of zero population growth (ZPG). This movement encompasses empowering women to make reproductive choices, making family planning assistance available, introducing developing areas to at least a modicum of material and financial well-being such that the need for larger families is diminished, and recognizing above all that we in the West, and the U.S. in particular, are responsible for the greatest volume of greenhouse gases. Which brings me back to my primary point. We in the U.S. need to do more than just power our existing lifestyles more efficiently and cleanly. We need to transition to lifestyles that rely less on material consumption altogether.

This transition involves a multi-faceted evolution of aesthetics. Yes, aesthetics. We need new ways of evaluating beauty, meaning, and worth. One facet of this aesthetic transition relates very straightforwardly to that which we consider physically beautiful or attractive. Maintenance of the average suburban lawn, for instance, with its pristine grassy expanses, sculpted shrubs, and ornate flower gardens, is very fuel-intensive. Adopting permaculture gardens or otherwise letting our backyards be more “wild,” can help out a lot. Similarly, the need to maintain certain clothing fashion standards keeps us on a treadmill of consumption. Why not simply opt for durable, timeless, natural garments that are suitable for business as well as recreation? Look for ways in which our standards of beauty lock us into needlessly elevated levels of consumption.

Our lifestyle aesthetic of being able to get up and go whenever we want keeps the personal automobile high on our list of perceived necessities. But what if our jobs offered us suitable flexibility, and what if we communicated more closely with family, friends, and neighbors such that transportation needs could be shared? And how much of our entertainment and recreation requires us to purchase something or use fuel in some way? What if we got used to visiting local public spaces instead of amusement parks and such? What if we enjoyed dinners at home with friends rather than resource-intensive nights out on the town? What if we opted for staycations and the enjoyment of local attractions instead of fuel-intensive vacations? Thus, how we value our life experiences has an impact on how much fuel we require to maintain our chosen lifestyle.

Another facet of this aesthetic transition is a needed change in our attitude toward technology. Why do we spend so much time at the gym, for instance, purposefully expending as much physical energy as possible, only to come home and make use of every labor-saving device imaginable so that we barely have to lift a finger or break a sweat? Why do we pretend we’re Tour de France cyclists at the spinning class only to then hop in the car for every last short jaunt over to the local drugstore or grocery? Why do we immerse ourselves in the endlessly upgrading milieu of computing, communications, gaming, and entertainment systems? Okay, I’ll date myself by admitting to having bought music, sometimes multiple times, on vinyl, magnetic tape, and compact disc media, and via digital download. Our landfills are stuffed with the detritus of that which was progress yesterday but is merely so much junk today.

Please consider product life-cycle in your aesthetic evaluation of things. Is it a quality piece of furniture with character that you can purchase second-hand and pass on to someone else when you’re through with it, or is it a flimsy construction of melamine coated compressed wood that won't survive your move to another apartment? Are the decorations for your big event made of recycled or recyclable materials, or are they merely shiny baubles that will end up in a landfill within a week after the party is over? And we mustn't forget our ubiquitous smartphones. While they might seem shiny and clean and unobtrusive, they nevertheless require the mining of heavy metals and the release of toxic chemicals into the waste stream. If we must use them, can we use them for as long as possible, resisting the upgrade mania and remaining mindful of what their next life might look like?

The entire world begins to look different when we stop looking at things merely in terms of their momentary utility in our lives and start looking at them as resources on loan to us. Do we have a right to appropriate those resources for our own ends, or might they be better used elsewhere by someone else or left where they are? Are our actions promoting or hindering the ability of our fellow humans, or fellow plants and animals for that matter, to enjoy a healthy and peaceful life? Thus, our evolving aesthetic has a spiritual or even religious component to it. Our consideration of the question “Why are we here?” inevitably leads to the consideration of our relationship with all life and all things – when considered deeply, anyway. Do we want to leave this earth with greater life-sustaining potential than when we arose from it, or will we leave it incrementally diminished for our having been here?

We don’t need to wait until the next election in order to affect change. We don’t need to wait until mass transit comes to our neighborhood. We don’t need to wait until our income is high enough, or the price of solar panels and electric cars is low enough. We only need to start deciding what to do with the paper coffee cup that’s in our hands right now, or whether we really need that new gadget that we’ve been ogling. Our lives are about more than just stuff. Changing our lives for the better is about more than just swapping new stuff for old, or finding new ways to power our old stuff. Until we realize this reality we’re not all that different from the cargo cultists of the South Pacific.

Author-manipulated film still from Chariots, Gods, And Beyond on the History Channel.

Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank

Monday, January 2, 2017

Beginning Anew

Perhaps it would be easier if each new year began in spring – when dry stalks pulse again with green, and pregnant buds begin to burst; when the color of renewal is everywhere, and the light of each new day comes calling: “Greet me with full measure of your life force!” So much easier it is to think of new beginnings when all around us is rebirth! How can we not join in when it is so? But no, the year begins in the coldest depths of winter – when our days begin in darkness, and we muddle through their grayness clutching our collars with our hats pulled low, wishing for nothing other than to slumber long and late, with the mind of a cocooning being for whom life resides in the in between.

Nonetheless, we greet the year with noisy revelry and bluster. We rage against the dying of the light with plans for what we think should be. We huddle with those we love on the eve of a brand new year – reminiscing of what has been, so filled with hope for days to come. But then we wake up all alone with a cold wind whistling in our window frames and darkness creeping into every corner of our being. And we flog ourselves with self-recrimination when every seed and bulb and root out in the cold dark earth knows to wait until the time is right, lest its life force be spent in vain.

Ah, but then again, perhaps that means winter is the perfect time to begin anew. Perhaps we need the rest that we allow ourselves when finally we hunker down with the cold winds swirling overhead. Perhaps we must learn to abide in solitude and darkness before we can know what plans the Light might have in store for us. Perhaps in stillness is the genesis of every movement that will take us to the place we long to be. And perhaps from stillness arises wisdom that we might best know where to send our roots and when to send our life force up and out into the world.

Wishing all deep wisdom in this brand new year!

Photo of hyacinth roots with subsequent manipulation by the author.

Copyright 2017 by Mark Robert Frank

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Hunger That Keeps This Whole Thing Going

A couple of months ago I once again hiked the trail that, earlier in the spring, had inspired me to compose that very ominous post: When Faith in the Earth Betrays Us. This time, though, it was an entirely different experience. The air was calm. The leaves were full, and various luscious shades of green. Sure enough, ample evidence remained of the circumstances that had prompted me to write that earlier post. Numerous fallen trees and limbs still blocked the trail. But there was also much more abundant evidence that life would not be subdued. Life, it seemed during this hike, was indomitable. In fact, life was so indomitable, it seemed that the entire forest was literally breathing as one. Yes, literally!

It started softly at first, almost inaudibly. The rhythmic rising and falling of sound became just barely perceptible only to disappear again amongst the chatter of birds and the rustling of leaves. When it returned it was a little bit louder, and distinctly like the sound of breathing echoing through the woods. What was it? I recalled how on a previous hike the sounds of the high school marching band practicing a good mile away up the road had managed to slip through the trees and flow down into the draws through which the trail wended. But this? This was breathing! Strong…, persistent…, breathing. It was almost as if the forest were one body, manifesting its being from breath to breath.

It wasn’t until I reached a spot overlooking the river that I realized what I’d been hearing. The crew of one of the replica longboats of the Lewis and Clark expedition was slowly and arduously, but methodically nonetheless, making its way up the swollen Missouri River – just as had been done over 200 years ago. The “breathing” that I was hearing was the coxswain calling out the strokes, and the crew, in turn, answering with coordinated, and articulated pulls on their oars.

Interesting, I thought to myself. Yes, it would be kind of cool to learn a little bit of what it must have been like for the original crew of the Corps of Discovery. But that’s an awful lot of work to go through, even for a short daytrip upstream just to see what it would be like. One would have to be pretty hungry for the experience in order to sign up for such a workout. And imagine how hungry the original crew must have been – for adventure, for escape, for answers, for fame, for meaning…

Buddhists will recognize hunger – or, variously, craving, thirst, or desire (tanha, in Pali) – as one of the links in the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. The twelve-fold chain, you will recall, is a summary of the various teachings of the Buddha regarding how we cycle through our various incarnations, whether on a moment-to-moment or a lifetime-to-lifetime basis, as the case may be. Indeed, hunger prompts us to appropriate that which we crave, thereby making it our own – thereby making it who we are. Whether it is hunger for damp soil in which to root, hunger for warm sun to stretch our branches towards, hunger for juicy flesh in which to sink our teeth, or hunger for new horizons to explore – it is what makes the world what it is. Hunger keeps this whole thing going. See the conclusion of my blog series on the subject if you'd like to delve into it a little deeper:

Of course, if it is liberation from this endless cycle of suffering that we seek, then hunger is a very negative thing. It stands between us and our goal. But if we’re sick and in pain, or if death is reaching ever closer and we’re not yet ready to say goodbye, then hunger might just keep us alive. We might even be grateful for the hunger that prompted our doctor to learn enough about medicine to cure us – or, for those with a more cynical outlook, which prompted him or her to choose a career where they could make good money and have lots of prestige.

Paradoxically, at least from a Buddhist standpoint, hunger is both the cause of our further suffering and the nudge towards our liberation from it. After all, aren’t many of us just as hungry for liberation as many, many others are hungry for a cheeseburger? Do you recall the admonishment of the old Zen master to sit zazen as if your hair were on fire? Indeed, that is quite a craving for liberation! And aren’t there bodhisattvas out there who are hungry to save all beings from their suffering, hungry to end the injustices of this world that keep us all from achieving our highest potential – liberation, that is.

We’re all hungry for something. Whether it’s something from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or liberation from need altogether, we’re all hungry. Until such time as we can walk through the world like the Buddha walked with his empty bowl – neither yearning for it to be filled, nor yearning for it to remain empty that he might pass away forever from this samsaric realm – we remain hungry. The question that we all must answer to our own satisfaction regards the nature of our hunger. What is it that we crave, and why? How will the satisfaction of our hunger advance that which we value most? How does the hunger itself represent that which we value most? How will the satisfaction of our hunger change the world for better or worse? Indeed, it is hunger that keeps the whole thing going, but we humans do have some control over the objects of our hunger.   

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank