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

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Nudge Toward Repentance

Every once in a while I experience an apparent synchronicity of events that leaves me musing about the possible existence of some greater intelligence acting in our day to day lives. That such God-like intelligence might be tweaking events in our lives is a foregone conclusion for some. Others are inclined to pass off these occurrences as mere coincidence that the perceiving individual chooses to invest with whatever meaning might be appropriate to him or her. I’m fairly agnostic on the matter. However, regardless of how we might think they came to be, such interesting collections of events can serve to focus our attention on lessons that might be worthwhile to learn, or relearn, as the case may be. For instance, here’s a recent occurrence of “synchronicity” in my life:

Event #1: I was heading home from work last Friday afternoon when I decided to make a detour for an early dinner. I made a right turn at a busy intersection and then quickly maneuvered into the left lane in order to make a left turn about four or five car lengths further along. There was a line of traffic that still needed to move through the intersection before I could make my turn, but I wasn’t in any hurry. I sat with my left turn signal on and waited for an opportunity. As I sat there I noticed the man in the oncoming car almost next to mine growing more and more impatient. He seemed to be glaring at me from behind his reflective shades as he repeatedly pulled hard on his cigarette. Then, when the light at the intersection changed without the traffic moving so much as a car length, he flicked his cigarette butt into the ground in my direction with apparent disgust and shook his head. A curious situation, I thought, as a lane of cars formed behind me. Anyway, as soon as the oncoming cars make their left turn, I’ll make mine. All will be well with the world. But nobody moved. Honking commenced. What was going on?

It took a while, but “cigarette man” and the rest of his line of cars gradually moved along and I was able to make a left turn into the restaurant parking lot. It was only then that my role in causing the traffic jam became apparent. On account of me blocking the left lane so near to the intersection, the traffic backing up behind me prevented oncoming traffic from making a left turn. Without the oncoming traffic being able to make a left turn neither could I! As a result, at least for a couple of minutes, gridlock prevailed. And I was its primary cause. Oops!

Event #2: The next afternoon was gloriously warm and sunny. The urban park where I frequently go for a (relatively) long run was teaming with people enjoying the outdoors in pretty much all manner that humans are inclined to do on such a day. I was near the end of my run – and worn out from the distance and the heat – when I came to an especially scenic stretch that threads its way through a riverine area and crosses several footbridges. Being tired, my attention was primarily on the path in front of me. I veered right and made sure to sufficiently lift up my feet as I hopped onto a suspension bridge crossing one of the waterways. When next I looked up I realized that there was a fairly large wedding party lined up along the right railing, posing for a photographer poised on the opposite bank preparing to take their picture. Given that I was already upon them, I just kept running. I must have assumed that it would be less of an interruption to quickly pass out of the picture and be on my way than to stop and backtrack and call attention to the fact that they were starting to hold up traffic. Well, apparently that didn’t go over well. “Don’t pictures mean anything around here?” one of the groomsmen jeered as I ran behind them. Umm…

Event #3: I was in the middle of groggily pouring soymilk on my cereal the next morning when I noticed a spider nestled in the cardboard fold of the carton. Surprisingly, he was moving a little bit despite having been in the refrigerator for so long. I also happened to notice that he was missing a leg. Had I scrunched him on a previous morning just as I might have done again? Anyway, with as much wakefully compassionate action as I could muster I tried to shoo the little guy out of the fold so that I could find him a more suitable home. Damned if I didn’t end up mangling one of his remaining legs in the process – an ordeal that seemed to throw cold water on whatever spark of life might have remained in his tiny being. Shit…

Event #4: I took some time off the following Monday in order to finish a multitude of projects that had accumulated around the house – one of which was cutting up some pruned tree limbs and stacking them on the woodpile for a future winter’s day. Since the newly cut firewood needed more time to cure, I set about restacking the entire pile with the more recently cut wood on the bottom. Unfortunately, in the process of doing so I disturbed the nest of a little field mouse that had taken up residence in the void between some of the larger logs. She squeaked in dismay and scurried away as her babies tumbled down amongst the bricks and rubble that I’d stowed away down below. My gut tightened and I quickly set about plucking the tiny pink beings from the nooks and crannies where they lay. Surely they’ll die, I despaired, as I gingerly placed them on a remnant of nesting material anyway. Their eyes were tightly closed and their mouths were still instinctively opening and closing – as if suckling on the mother that was no longer there. She’ll never come back for them after all of this trauma, I lamented. I felt sick…

It seemed to me that the universe, via this seemingly synchronistic sequence of occurrences, was teaching me a lesson. Day after day after day I was the source of negative and potentially life-threatening disruption in the lives of others around me. Day after day after day I was the source of negative karma without even trying to be. But here is the important point: this was the negative karma of which I’d become aware. How much disruption do I cause without ever even knowing it? How much pain and suffering do I create just by going about my day to day life?

Is the hen that laid the eggs that were used in my omelet living a comfortable life, or is she anxious and cramped and merely existing for the sake of my sustenance? Have the material comforts that I enjoy come to me through the hard labor and suffering of others all over the world? What of the people and animals who live next to the oil drills that pump from the ground the crude oil that eventually becomes the gasoline for my car? Are they being adequately compensated for making life so convenient for me? Do they have clean water and land for their crops? Do they have schools and healthcare for their families? What of the migrant workers who pick and process the food that I eat? And what of the people who make all the gadgets and stuff for my amusement and pleasure? What is life like for those who must live amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the dirty manufacturing processes that help to make my life what it is?

My latest brush with synchronicity – whether it be real or imagined – has me thinking about repentance. Repentance is such a strong word, isn’t it? We usually think of someone needing to repent for a crime they’ve committed. If a defendant doesn’t show any remorse, they may get a harsher sentence. If after being incarcerated they still don’t show any remorse, they may not be given parole. Without repentance, we can’t be confidant that they won’t simply go out and commit the same crime yet again. But the same is true for even my accidental indiscretions. Without repentance, what will keep me from simply stumbling through my life unaware, leaving havoc in my wake? I don’t want to go through life causing traffic jams and spoiled memories wherever I go. I don’t want to live in such a way that I cause needless pain and suffering to the people and animals that make my life possible. I want to act, to the best of my ability, with awareness of the results of my actions.

Many Zen practitioners chant what is called the Verse of Repentance as part of their spiritual practice. The Verse of Repentance reminds us that every word, thought, or deed born of ignorance, hatred, or greed (the so-called three poisons) perpetuates existence in this samsaric realm. What goes around comes around, as it is so often said. Thus, just as the convict is denied parole on account of his or her inability to repent their harmful deeds, so we are denied release from our endless cycle of suffering if we cannot bring ourselves to recognize and (hopefully) refrain from repeating all that has brought needless suffering into the world.

Myriad words and thoughts and deeds, whether for good or for ill, make the world what it is. A traffic jam here, a spoiled photo op there, a spider killed, baby mice cast asunder – whether we are aware of them or not, they keep adding up. You know the old proverb: when a butterfly flaps its wings, a hurricane blows on the other side of the world. Let me repent past indiscretions, and strive for greater awareness.

Oh, by the way, I checked on those baby mice the following day. They had been removed from the nesting material where I had left them. I am hoping that this means that the mother came back for them and carried them away to a place where they may live out their lives in field mouse heaven!

Photo of field mouse courtesy of NOZO via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Healing Awareness

One of the highlights of my work is that it allows me to meet people from all over the world right here in my hometown. A few days a month I help out with an organization that provides assistance to immigrants and refugees who are new to the St. Louis area. I try not to pry or ask unnecessary questions, but often enough I become privy to stories of great pain and hardship. Youths from Sudan and Somalia, women from war-torn Congo, victims of Bhutanese and Bosnian ethnic cleansing, endangered translators from Iraq and Afghanistan – I feel honored and privileged to be a part of their lives. Hopefully I’m able to provide some measure of hope and healing to them after having experienced far too much of the darkness of this troubled and chaotic world.

The other day I was speaking with a young man whose entire family still remains back in one of the cities most devastated by the Syrian civil war. He fled there without many of the documents that all of us here in the U.S. would just assume will follow us wherever it is we might go. Unfortunately, the simple act of mailing a letter home to request them – to the extent that the postal service might actually succeed in getting a letter through – is in and of itself a potentially life-threatening act. Can you imagine what would happen to his family in Syria if the wrong person found out that they were receiving correspondence from someone in the United States – someone in the bosom of the great Satan?

In the course of our conversation, this young man described having met someone here in the U.S. who was totally unaware of the fact that there is a civil war going on in Syria this very moment that is causing dislocations of people as haven’t been seen since World War II. A combination of disbelief, exasperation, and pain crossed his face in the short time it took to describe the interaction. Yes, I can imagine how difficult it must be to realize that people you know and love are facing possible annihilation back in your hometown even as others go about their lives blissfully unaware.

We cause pain with our lack of awareness. Thankfully, though, our awareness can facilitate healing. This is not merely some squishy spiritual talk, it is reality as evidenced by numerous studies related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its onset, and its mitigation. It turns out that when trauma is borne by the victim or victims alone, without any social support or acknowledgment, there is an increased likelihood that PTSD will result. Conversely, when trauma is acknowledged in a supportive and non-judgmental way the risk of developing PTSD is diminished.

Compassion fatigue is all too common these days. There is so much heartache in the world that it seems at times as though the only sane course of action is to focus our energy on shutting it all out of our lives as best we can. We stop paying attention to the news. We stop engaging in anything political. We simply focus on what’s going on with our family, our friends, our job, and our spiritual community. Some even try to reframe their purposeful lack of awareness in positive spiritual terms: “I’m changing the world by changing myself.” “I’m trying to be the peace that we need in the world.” “I’m turning my energy toward that which I can actually change.” “I’m just trying to focus on the joy that exists.” Sadly, such self-serving abandonment of that which is in our sphere of influence only helps perpetuate the deep suffering of the world.

Do you wonder what it’s like to be an African-American from a scorned, forgotten, under-resourced, and underserved part of town; to be kept in poverty with aggressive and disparate policing practices that siphon away your money if you have it, or take away your freedom if you don’t; to have your people treated as expendable if they should run afoul of the law – not worthy of even calling for backup in order to keep their blood from being spilled? Do you know what it’s like to live in such a world and then have that reality absolutely and completely ignored by society at large? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?

Do you wonder what it’s like to be a Palestinian from one of the ghettos created by the ever-expanding state of Israel; to have your land and your freedom of movement taken from you; to have whatever meager attempts at self-defense some of your people might feel compelled to mount be met with overwhelming and indiscriminate death and destruction; to have your very natural anger and frustration at the inequities of your plight be used against you to justify the very treatment that is so abhorrent. Can you imagine what it’s like to live in such a world where the reality of your circumstances are so absolutely and completely ignored or denied by those who have your fate in their hands – and those who would support them? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?

There are times when the causes of the suffering of this world can appear so complex and intractable as to seem unworthy of all but the most quixotic of efforts. And yet at other times it seems that if we would only just bring the full power of our awareness to bear on them, these causes would naturally give way to a much more healthy and just set of circumstances. I’m sure I’ll be thinking often of the young Syrian man that I mentioned earlier. I’ll be thinking of the pain on his face while contemplating that the plight of his people might be unworthy of our attention. I’ll be thinking of the healing power that our awareness can have.

Man carrying child after bombing in Aleppo, Syria via CTV News:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Saturday, April 9, 2016

When Faith in the Earth Betrays Us

Spring has been peeking out of the darkness of winter for a few weeks now; at least here in the city where I live. The occasional warm days have teased us. Hints of green and fleshy buds have enticed us with visions of things to come. The bounty of life is poised to burst forth and grace us with color and fragrance, bird sounds and activity, delicate seedlings and earthy possibility.

I was just a little bit surprised, then, by the relative barrenness of the woods on the outskirts of town during my hike there last weekend. With the exception of the occasional swath of violet where a stand of almost blossoming redbuds seemed to glow, the forest was practically naked. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Urban centers are generally a bit warmer than the surrounding areas on account of the heat stored in the abundant concrete and asphalt. It makes sense that spring would arrive just a little bit later on the outskirts. It’s also the case that I was hiking in a hilly area, with many sheltered draws and hollows where the air stays cooler than elsewhere. Nonetheless, I was taken aback; and more so for reasons that I’m about to relate.

It was a windy day, far windier than seemed the norm for a spring day with no storms in the vicinity. It set the bare trees swaying, and their upper limbs swirling and clunking together like bone wind chimes. Eerier still was the occasional dead tree fallen across the trail, and the not infrequent sounds of limbs crashing to the earth here and there throughout the forest.

I’ve heard of people being killed by falling trees, a possibility that suddenly didn’t seem like all that freakish an occurrence. It seemed more like something that I needed to remain vigilant of as I walked beneath limbs and past trees that could potentially fall across my path – which, in my mind, was every one of them that I passed! Such awareness was necessary, I felt, just in case I needed to take some instinctive action to dodge this way or that based on whether a cracking sound was louder in one ear or the other, or based on how it echoed off the other trees in the vicinity.

The experience conjured up in me an apocalyptic vision. What if this forest wasn’t to wake up after all? What if climate change has already tipped the scale just enough with regards to temperature or moisture such that this woods is destined to become a dead zone until different species can take root and predominate? And what if that scale has already tipped too far? What if this area has already become too hot, too windswept, too dry or too acidic for much of anything at all to grow? What if this area should never again be any semblance of what it has been for me all those times in the past on so many hikes?

Some years ago, I rode my bicycle alone through Yellowstone Park. It was almost nightfall as I pedaled mile after mile through burned up forest stretching as far as the eye could see. The scorched gray remains of the pine trees pointed at various angles like the fallen dead on a vast battlefield. Thankfully, though, the fleshy green of new growth was already poking up out of the earth – less than a meter tall, to be sure, but present nonetheless. So many animals had been killed. So many trees had been killed. I had faith, though, that the earth would rebound.

For so long we’ve had faith in the vastness of the earth and its ability to sustain our numbers, regardless of how selfishly we behave or how wasteful we are. For so long we’ve assumed that we could count on the regularity of nature – the predictability of rainfall and a suitable growing season for our crops, the constancy of the sea level and the coming and going of the seasons, the infrequency of devastating storms such that we can have faith that what we build today will not be blown away tomorrow. Even when we’ve lost faith in just about everything else, our faith in the life-sustaining potential of the earth has remained. Alas, though, are we on the verge of losing even this most fundamental faith that has been with us since human consciousness first arose?

I have no particularly strong fear of death, although I do hope that it is yet many years in the future! I’ve come to feel that my afterlife, to the extent that I have one, is the perpetual right here and right now that I and everyone and everything now living help to create, along with everyone and everything that has ever lived in the past. Any joy that I feel as I pass away will be vicarious joy for those still living in this world that I’ve played a role in creating and nurturing. Any remorse that I feel as I pass away will be remorse that my actions have created or maintained a world still rife with suffering and fear. And I can’t imagine suffering and fear on a grander scale than that of humankind having lost faith in the earth’s ability to sustain it. Those who believe in God might rightly see this as the most Godforsaken of futures that could possibly await those who happen to be alive during such times of tribulation.

So, what is the nature of your faith? Have you placed your faith in an earth so vast that no amount of human negligence can possibly diminish its life-sustaining potential? Have you placed your faith in a God so loving that he or should couldn’t possibly let us destroy the very earth on which our lives depend? Perhaps you’ve placed your faith in humankind’s intellect and ingenuity being so great as to provide us with technological solutions to all the messes we've made and devastation we've caused. And me? Where do I place my faith? I have faith in our ability to wake up and transform ourselves – individually and in community – thereby transforming our relationship with the earth so that we never lose faith in its ability to sustain us.

Aftermath of Yellowstone forest fire by David L. Sifry via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ideas For Treading More Lightly on the Earth

You may not have had the opportunity yet to see that I’ve totally revamped Crossing Nebraska’s Contents page. Please take a few moments to explore it here if you so choose. The various categories that I’ve created will make it easier to find topics that are of interest to you. I’ll be adding hotlinks shortly in order to make navigation even easier.

In going through this process it occurred to me that I’ve written quite a few posts that in some way encourage the reader to tread more lightly on the earth. Whether more generally related to living simply and sustainably, or more specifically related to the human-caused threat of climate change, these posts all encourage mindful living for the benefit of ourselves and all living beings. For a time I had a separate blog page detailing specific things that I’m doing or have done in order to tread more lightly on the earth. I’m updating that page and republishing it here since the new Contents page will make it so much easier to find. I’m also including things that I’d like to do, or things that others are doing but which I can’t find the time or money or energy for right now. In this way, this post will provide many more suggestions and ideas for possible action. Here goes:

Ideas For Treading More Lightly on the Earth


  • Consider a vegetarian diet. Eating lower on the food chain requires fewer resources, in addition to being healthier and minimizing the suffering caused to animals. If you can’t embrace a totally vegetarian diet at the present time, try minimizing the quantity of meat that you do eat. Our protein needs can be met by eating a lot less meat than is present in the average American diet. If you decide to eat more seafood in lieu of red meat, be mindful of environmental pressures on individual species. If you decide to eat more chicken and turkey instead of red meat, be mindful of the environmental and ethical issues involved in factory farming. Consider free-range chicken and turkey instead.
  • Shop at the local farmer's market in order to support local and regional agriculture. Doing so minimizes fuel-related shipping costs and eschews big agribusiness for the sake of supporting individual growers and small businesses.
  • Purchase unprocessed or less highly processed foods. Doing so makes more intimate our relationship with food and the earth from which it comes. This fosters greater understanding of and appreciation for that which sustains us. Which in turn leads to our making wiser and more sustainable choices. It also requires less energy.
  • Stay away from bottled water if you can. Often there is no appreciable quality difference between bottled and tap water. The manufacture and shipping of bottled water is extremely wasteful, and the plastic may even be unhealthy.


  • Try composting your kitchen waste for use in the garden. In addition to nurturing the soil it is a regular reminder of the processes that sustain us.
  • Forego municipal leaf collection in order to compost on-site, thereby replenishing the soil and decreasing fuel used during the collection process.
  • Consider returning paved areas to the earth. This allows more rainwater to soak back into the earth, in addition to it acting as a carbon sink and providing habitat for local fauna.
  • Plant trees! They can reduce your cooling costs by shading your house, and they also act as a carbon sink.
  • Plant a vegetable garden. It will provide you with healthy food without any shipping costs. And it will give you healthy exercise and a greater appreciation of the earth.
  • Maintain a spiritual practice that keeps you centered, fosters greater awareness, and makes you better able to make healthy decisions for yourself and the planet. Stress prompts us to act in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and the environment – whether by prompting us to eat in unhealthy ways, to act in uncaring ways, or otherwise making it easier to view ourselves as separate from the earth that sustains us.
  • Take time to appreciate the peace and beauty of the natural world around you. You will be reminded of your connection to it.

Organization and Awareness Raising

  • Consider a political candidate's environmental stance when determining how to vote.
  • Become informed about simplicity, sustainability, climate change, deep ecology and other environmental issues. Check out books such as Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, or the resources offered by the Northwest Earth Institute, for instance.
  • Sign petitions related to environmental ballot initiatives.
  • Support local and national environmental organizations.
  • Lobby your political representatives.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Repurpose

  • Replace incandescent bulbs with higher efficiency ones. Invest in low-wattage LED bulbs for those fixtures you have lit most often – like porch lights.
  • Consider moving towards a simpler lifestyle – one that requires less energy and fewer material goods in order for you to get your necessary chores done and enjoy your leisure time. Do you need all of those electrified gadgets? Does your entertainment and recreation really require you to expend so much energy and resources? What is really necessary for your happiness and fulfillment?
  • Learn of ways that you can donate leftover paint, construction materials, and home maintenance items to charity. For instance, the Habitat for Humanity ReStores are a great place to donate leftover items and help a great cause at the same time.
  • Find a resale shop that will find happy new owners for all of your unnecessary knick-knacks, tchotchke, and underappreciated remembrances.
  • Donate unused clothing in order to help someone else save their hard-earned dollars even as you keep resources from being wasted.
  • Take advantage of your community recycling program. Consider organizing a workplace recycling program if you don’t already have one.
  • Take advantage of special collections for electronics, batteries, chemicals, etc.
  • Consider product life-cycle and packaging waste when making purchasing decisions.
  • Use public transportation when feasible. Walk, bicycle, and share rides. Efficiently plan the running of errands so as to minimize fuel usage.
  • Considering owning your automobile for longer than has been your habit if it is still dependable and reasonably fuel efficient. I strive to get ten or more years out of any new vehicle I buy.
  • Determine what you really need to be comfortable. For instance, in winter I keep the thermostat at 63 F at night and when I am away, and 65 F during the day. I wear a sweater if need be. Sometimes I build a fire in the fireplace in order keep the thermostat lower. I usually have enough firewood from pruning the trees on my own property. I utilize passive solar energy to heat my home by opening the shades of south facing windows during the day.
  • In summer I keep the thermostat at 83 F whenever I have the central AC on – higher if I’ll be away for an extended period. I utilize a window AC unit in my bedroom at night prior to the weather becoming so consistently hot as to require turning on the whole-house unit. I keep the house cooler by closing the shades of south facing windows during the day.
  • Collect the cold bathwater in a bucket prior to it being warm enough to begin showering. This yields enough water to flush the toilet, water a few plants, or fill the birdbath.
  • Think of ways to be more efficient with cooking water. Steam vegetables as you’re boiling potatoes, for instance. Then use the waste water to soak the dishes prior to washing them.
  • Collect tap water in a watering can prior to it getting warm enough for washing dishes. Fill the basin just enough to wash the smaller items and let the rinse water fill it up the rest of the way so that you can wash the larger bowls, pots, etc.
  • Consider installing a rainwater collection system in order to help water the garden.
  • Consider planting perennials that don’t require as much water, and which will reduce the amount of lawn you have to mow.
  • Wash and reuse plastic sandwich bags and utilize bread bags and such for storing produce.
  • Use durable shopping bags. Use any other plastic bags that might accumulate for trashcan liners.

I hope you find this list helpful. Share it with a friend. And add a few more to it when you do!


Earthrise by NASA via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Freedom, Responsibility, and the Price of Fireworks (and Carbon)

A week or so ago I wondered aloud on social media about the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl. Just how much fossil fuel ends up being burned in order to bring that annual spectacle into existence? Of course, I wasn’t really expecting an answer. I was simply hoping to get the question percolating in people’s minds as they watched. Despite its rhetorical nature, though, my question does indeed have an answer. It would just take a whole lot of work for us to arrive at a reasonable estimation of it.

Not surprisingly, I was taken to task for my elitist attitude. After all, I enjoy a good film festival now and then, which has a carbon footprint, and my blog resides on servers that require a lot of energy to power up and keep cool. What’s the difference? We’re all creating carbon dioxide with our various endeavors and diversions. This person here sits in front of a television screen watching a football game. That person there sits in front of a computer screen blogging. Different strokes for different folks. This is a free country, right? Indeed, this is a question that touches on some of our most deeply held beliefs about freedom and personal responsibility. Before I delve into all of that, however, let me tell you a story.

When I was a child my family vacationed over the week of the Fourth of July at a little resort on one of the scenic rivers in southern Missouri. Most of the guests returned year after year so it was a week spent getting reacquainted with old friends. We rode horseback. We played cards and tennis and miniature golf. Mostly, though, we went swimming and floating in the river, or hiking and exploring along its rocky banks. On the evening of the Fourth, however, we all gathered down on the riverbank for a makeshift fireworks display put on by one of the families. And as the show progressed to bigger and louder and more colorful pyrotechnics, so the good-natured jeering of the beer-drinking adults grew more and more boisterous. Whooshhh…Pow! “Yeah, that was probably a couple of bucks!” someone would feign dismissiveness as the pace of the ignitions picked up. And so the ritual would proceed. Whooshhh…BAM! “There goes five dollars!” someone else would exclaim. The jeering and the laughter became contagious. Whooshhh… KerPOW…Bang, Bang, Bang! “Ooohhhhh! That had to have been a ten-spot!” And so it would go until the last ordnance was fired, its monetary value assessed, and the good-natured jeering gave way to sincerely appreciative applause.

The next day, however, would always be a little bit sad down by the river. The remnants of the previous evening’s festivities would be littering the beach and floating in the water. Half-burned cardboard tubes, tinfoil rocket fins, and plastic propeller blades from the various projectiles could be found here and there and far downstream. It took a while for the river to clean itself and return to more pristine condition.

In economic circles, such litter is referred to as an externality – negative in this case. The river was diminished by some amount that was not accounted for in the price of each of the fireworks. There was no clean-up crew that accompanied those fireworks, nor was there any credit given to those river visitors whose aesthetic enjoyment of the scenic beauty was decreased by all of the trash that seemed to be everywhere one might look. But that’s not all. There were chemicals and heavy metals in those fireworks that disbursed on the air and dissolved into the water. Such potentially harmful pollutants eventually worked their way into the bodies of living beings, with very difficult to calculate effects resulting over time.

This is a free country, and, depending on local ordinances, we have the freedom to shoot off fireworks. But we also recognize that freedom comes with responsibility. We can’t shoot fireworks at people; we can’t burn down the property of others, etc. And if we really take seriously the responsibility that goes hand in hand with our freedom, we shouldn’t diminish the health or aesthetic appeal of the environment around us either. Or if we do we should pay the community for whatever damage we have caused. But how exactly should we quantify this negative impact on the environment so that we might add this onto the cost of the fireworks? And what should be done with the extra revenue that is generated. Here’s a public health report that might stimulate thinking in this regard.

Which brings me back to the Super Bowl. Nowhere to be found on the balance sheets of any of the NFL teams, the league itself, the product manufacturers and suppliers, the entertainment companies, advertisers or television studios is a line item related to the incremental cost to the environment of the fossil fuel burned in order to bring the entire spectacle to life – the carbon tax, if you will. In other words, the incremental cost of a degraded environment vis-à-vis climate change represented by the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl is borne by all of us in some way, but especially by those who live close to sea level or in other ecosystems that have begun to feel the effects of climate change already in the form of drought, destructive rains and winds, the spread of tropical disease, and extinction of local species.

So, how would we even begin to calculate what that carbon tax should be? Should it be a proportional share of whatever amount is sufficient to fund efforts to remediate the impact of climate change? Or is it sufficient that the line item merely serve to nudge energy users away from fossil fuels and toward alternative energy sources? It is a complicated question, but one very worthy of our consideration.

If we were to account for the externality of the carbon dioxide that we create, if we were to have fossil fuel use priced appropriately, then we would be appropriately balancing our freedom to burn whatever fuel we might choose with our responsibility to reimburse others for whatever harm that we cause. Such a carbon tax or surcharge, if implemented, would prompt companies to either find alternative ways to power their operations or else pass the additional cost onto those who buy their products or services.

Think about how this would ripple through the economy for the better. Companies that continue to fuel their operations with greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels will find their products relatively more expensive than their competitors who utilize alternative fuels. No longer will fossil fuel-powered operations be subsidized by all of us, to the detriment of all of us. Think about how this would impact the Super Bowl. Unless it could be transitioned to alternative fuels then maybe the entertainment would need to be scaled back. Maybe the media coverage would need to be stripped of some of its pizazz. Maybe those commercials would become too expensive to make and the airtime charged too expensive to purchase. Maybe the extravaganza would need to be televised as pay-per-view if it ended up being too big to be underwritten by advertising fees alone.

But why only pick on the Super Bowl? Film-making would also need to adapt to the new right-pricing of fossil fuel use. Production would either need to be revised or else ticket prices and what have you would need to go up. And if all the companies that keep the internet up and running can’t find a way to power up and cool all those file servers with renewable fuels, then maybe all of us bloggers and video watchers and web-surfers will need to just pony up a little bit of money for the freedom to do so.

One thing is certain though. Once we have fossil fuel use appropriately priced we really will be able to say: “This person here sits in front of a television screen watching a football game. That person there sits in front of a computer screen blogging. Different strokes for different folks. This is a free country, right?” Yes, and it will still be a free country. It will also be a more responsible country.

New Year fireworks in Valparaíso, Chile by Difuntoman via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Economic Recession

Did this title get your attention? I hope so. I intended for it to be provocatively absurd for reasons that will become apparent by the end of the post. I also intended for it to call attention to a fundamental assumption that seems to undergird the thinking of even some of the most intelligent individuals with regard to economic growth and climate change mitigation. Namely, that growth in overall consumption can and in fact must continue, and that we merely have to transition away from fossil fuel use in order to halt and begin to remediate the effects of carbon dioxide on the global climate.
A tin can perfectly positioned to be kicked down the road.

Alright, I’ve already said a mouthful. Please allow me to take a step back and unpack what I just stated by sketching out some basic parameters and a couple of definitions:
  1. Our world population is projected to grow at about three quarters of a percent per year between now and the year 2050, at which time the earth is expected to be home to some 9.7 billion people. United Nations
  2. The U.S. population is projected to grow slightly faster than the global rate to about 438 million by the year 2050. Most of that growth is expected to come from new immigrants and their offspring. Pew Research Center
  3. Globally aggregated GDP growth in recent decades has for the most part bounced around in the range of 2-3% per year. World Bank
  4. For all practical purposes we can consider “healthy” U.S.GDP growth to be in that same 2-3% per year range. This is the rate of growth that is generally considered optimal in order to balance inflation and employment.
  5. An economic recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction.
  6. A depression is a recession lasting two years or more.

Anyone old enough to be reading this likely has vivid recollections of what it felt like during the so-called Great Recession of the previous decade. There was grave uncertainty then as to whether the nation and the world would slip into another depression which, given the realities of our nuclear armed, militia-riddled, drug cartel-influenced, post-9/11 world, likely prompted visions of a very dystopian future. Indeed, the requirement of stable GDP growth is taken to be almost as indispensable for us modern humans as are the requirements of air, water, food, and shelter. Without it, economic chaos and social unrest are feared to almost certainly follow.

Ah, but something has to fuel this growing world economy on which we’ve come to rely. Whether it’s fossil fuels, alternative energy, or nuclear power, we need something. And we need more than just a replacement of the amount of energy used today; we need an ever-increasing supply of it!

Now, some economists will tell you that economic growth is not inextricably tied to growth in energy use at all. They will argue that the right combination of efficiency gains, innovation, and specialization can produce an ever-growing economy without necessarily requiring an ever-increasing supply of energy. Having said that, however, I must also say that I can’t help but think of such pronouncements as belonging to the realm of hubris, belief, and wishful thinking. It doesn’t take much digging to find more sober and scientifically based assessments of this proposition. See, for instance, Energetic Limits to Economic Growth (Bioscience, Volume 61, issue 1), Can Economic Growth Last? (a nice blog post by U of C, San Diego physicist, Tom Murphy), or Economists Are Blind to the Limits of Growth (an op-ed piece by Bloomberg View columnist and physicist, Mark Buchanan). Ah, but we’ve seen sober scientific analysis displaced by wishful thinking before…

We humans have gotten ourselves – and the entire planet – into quite a pickle, haven’t we? We’ve got exponential population growth. We’ve got a world economic system perched precariously in unstable equilibrium – propped up on a foundation of steady growth in consumption above and beyond that which is commensurate with our increasing population. We’ve got built-in expectations that everyone’s standard of living will continue to rise. We’ve got a thirst for energy that just can’t be quenched. AND…, on top of all of these constraints…, we’ve somehow got to find a way to start reducing our total carbon dioxide emissions.

So it is that some of the top climate scientists of our time – Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Dr. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, Dr. James Hansen of Columbia University, and Dr. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research – signed on to a letter advocating nuclear energy as an appropriately scalable solution to the prescient demand for huge amounts of energy. You can find a copy of the letter on the New York Times blog, Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin.

The letter is addressed “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power.” I’ve pulled out some of the highlights:
[W]e are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change….
Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer….
While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power….

Okay, you’ve got the gist. Now let me break it down a little bit further, adding commentary as I do:
[O]pposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.
What’s interesting is that there are a number of variables to the climate change equation which these scientists seem to be taking as constant, or nearly so. Population, consumption, and energy needs will continue to grow, it is assumed; the only choice we have available to us is what energy source(s) we will rely on. But why isn’t opposition to discussing the attainment of zero population growth considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? Why isn’t opposition to decreasing global per capita consumption considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? Why isn’t opposition to decreasing our global average per capita energy usage considered a threat to humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change? 
Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies.
Notice the implicit assumption here. The ability to provide energy for the needs of developing economies will not be offset by reductions in energy use by developed (overdeveloped?) countries; it will be in addition to the growing energy needs of even the developed countries.
While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.
Notice the implicit assumptions regarding the nature of the “real” world and what is considered to be credible. In the “real” world we just keep reproducing like mice in a cage until we overrun the earth’s capacity. Arriving at zero population growth (ZPG) is not considered credible. In the “real” world we behave like addicts who need more and more and more “stuff” in order to be content. That we might actually be able to live in contentment is not considered credible. In the “real” world we could never imagine voluntarily scaling back our own consumption so that others with a lower standard of living might be able to live in improved circumstances. In other words, it is not credible that we would begin to look at our fellow human beings as family and behave accordingly. Can you picture sitting down for a Thanksgiving gathering wherein some of you feast on the lion’s share of the food and drink even as your brother or mother or cousin goes hungry? No, we don’t treat family that way.

In actuality, I totally get where Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen, and Wigley are coming from. Discussion of reining in population growth is often considered a “non-starter” – a conversation that by its very nature is seen as likely to impinge on one of our most cherished freedoms, the freedom to choose the size of our family. Talk of limiting consumption, likewise, is considered anathema to our cherished way of life. Furthermore, the possibility of a healthy economy that is stable and without GDP growth would seem to fly in the face of everything we believe in and value about our capitalist system: that it is good, that it is just, that it is our engine of progress, and that it is the means by which we solve our problems. We would never embrace the concept of a Command Economy or a Planned Economy here in the West.

Yes, it might seem that Caldeira, et al. are merely pointing out a reality that should be obvious to those who are thinking clearly and rationally. Rather than allowing ourselves to be ruled by a knee-jerk, anti-nuclear response, why don’t we just roll up our sleeves and get down to the business of making nuclear power as safe as it can be? But isn’t this nuclear “solution” really just kicking the can down the road to such time as we’ve totally overrun the carrying capacity of this finite earth? Aren’t we once again relying on technology to solve one problem even as it leads to the creation of other problems that we don’t know how to solve? Aren’t we merely forestalling the great reckoning at which time we will have to cobble together an economy that is static and sustainable?

By the way, I’m a Buddhist. We Buddhists are familiar with how our conditioning, our karma, can trap us in patterns of thinking and being that cause suffering to ourselves and others. Isn’t it bizarre that we allow so many survival options to be taken off the table by prematurely declaring them to lack credibility, or to be unworkable in the so-called “real” world?  And so I return to my provocatively absurd title, and I add a few others:
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Economic Recession.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Reining in Consumption.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Living in a Socialist Economy.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Reining in Population Growth.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Being Content With What We Have.
The Only Thing Worse Than Human Extinction is Having To Change Our Way Of Life.

If you are interested in exploring how you might begin living a more sustainable lifestyle, please check out the following posts:

Image of an empty tin can by Sun Ladder via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Getting Real On Climate Change Mitigation

It’s a brand new year, but many of our old problems remain – climate change being one of them. To be sure, progress has been made toward the recognition and measurement of the problem. But we’re still a long, long way from having a clear picture of its full extent, let alone a solution.

An obvious recent highlight is the success of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change which ended last month in Paris with 193 countries coming to agreement that a problem exists and that its mitigation requires reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately, no legal mandate exists for countries to follow through on commitments made there, so it remains to be seen what actual impact this accord will have. Interested readers might want to check out how merely changing a single word from “shall” to “should” drastically changed this agreement. Nations agreed that they should take action (yeah, they really should) as opposed to allowing themselves to be bound by the legal implications of agreeing that they shall take action. Legally binding or not, the agreement is an important milestone.

There have been other recent milestones vis-à-vis the reduction of carbon emissions. There is the recent adoption of the Clean Power Plan by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – a plan that will result in an appreciable reduction in the burning of coal for electricity production. I just wish that the obvious first step towards complying with the benchmarks of this plan didn’t entail switching to the burning of cheap natural gas made available by our domestic fracking boom. Of course, there is also the scuttling this past year of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Hurrah! Wouldn’t it be great, though, if this decision had hinged on the desire to keep that huge carbon sink intact up there in Alberta, Canada rather than the economic reality (at present) of that expensive tar sand fuel just not making sense when there is cheaper fuel available from elsewhere in the world?

With so much to celebrate regarding the recognition of climate change and what we need to do to mitigate it, why do I have such a jaundiced view of things? You did pick up on that, didn’t you? Well, the fact of the matter is that we’ve blown past the 350 parts per million (ppm) measure that was once considered the point of no return standing between us and global chaos resulting from runaway climate disruption. We’re now looking at a new baseline measure of atmospheric carbon dioxide of 400 ppm.

I wish I could be as positive as my friend, Brian Ettling, whose indomitable spirit should be tapped as an alternative energy source! Brian is a tireless climate communicator, lobbyist, and park ranger who for many years has been trying to get the world to recognize what the entire world now seems to recognize – that climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity, and we can take action to do something about it. Check out Brian's blog and listen to him advocate for a carbon tax on this podcast.

I’ve tried to at least do my fair share with regards to getting this message out. However, I have to admit that I can’t hold a candle to Brian’s positive outlook. You see, of late I’ve felt about the topic of climate change much as I felt when the Iraq War seemed to be marching on endlessly. Namely, that America needed to really deeply feel the horror of war before arriving at the conclusion that enough was enough. I protested at venues in Chicago, Washington D.C., and St. Louis in order to try to keep that war from happening or try to stop it once it began. Finally, though, I simply had to accept that we as a nation needed to experience the negative consequences of our actions prior to ever changing our ways. Similarly, I have felt as though American’s needed to really feel the chaos of climate disruption prior to our ever agreeing to changing our fossil-fuel thirsty ways.

Has that time come? Glacial melting, sea level rise, thawing permafrost, droughts there and flood-inducing rainstorms here, massive hurricanes along the coasts and massive tornadoes sprouting like mushrooms all across the Plains and Midwest – are these enough of a wakeup call to those of us who’ve lived in denial of climate change for so long? If so, I must begin again to add my voice to Brian’s and begin to talk about solutions.

Yes, some form of a carbon tax seems undeniably appropriate and necessary. We’re presently subsidizing the cost of fossil fuel by paying separately for the aforementioned havoc wreaked in the form of property loss and loss of life. If we were to price these externalities into the cost of fossil fuel, we would begin to make more economically informed and appropriate choices as to how to furnish and heat our homes and energize our cars and devices.

And this is where I feel that I have something to add to the conversation. You see, it is my perception that many of those who are 100% certain of the reality of climate change still believe that all we have to do is power everything with clean energy and we’ll be good to go. Rather than our materialistic lifestyle being seen as a fundamental part of the problem, it is merely viewed as needing a tune-up – a carbon tax here, a clean energy breakthrough there, and we will all live happily ever after.

So, to those of you for whom the subject of climate change is finally gaining traction – fantastic! And for those of you who can only reflect upon technological solutions to what is fundamentally a problem of consumption – look deeper! Think about it: If the current standard of living of the average Westerner becomes 50% more carbon efficient even as the number of people actually living that lifestyle doubles, then we are no better off than we are at this moment. If everyone’s carbon footprint is cut in half, but world population doubles, then we are still merely treading water. Remember, we’re at 400 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide and we need to start bringing that measure DOWN!

It’s a New Year! Let’s take a moment to take stock of past successes; and then let’s begin taking a long, hard look at how we’re living our lives.

If you're interested in exploring how you might begin living a more sustainable lifestyle,
 please check out the following posts:

Image of supercell storm by Topazwoolenwick via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank