Wednesday, November 24, 2010
This week I am thankful; not for what I possess – the luxuries of living in America usually taken for granted – but for the awesome power that the Earth has to inspire and settle me. It has been very cold in Portland recently. And, people are complaining and worrying about what the cold has in store for their inconvenience. It’s difficult to get to the store for that box of stuffing mix if there is too much snow mixed in with the usual rain.
Driving home from work yesterday, I was doing my usual ruminating about the lifeless, arid amalgam that we call culture. Why do I feel forced to work so far from home? There is no life in this suburban industrial zone, just concrete, steel, and faceless others behind tinted windows. I grumbled to myself about an automobile culture that sucks the life and health out of the human condition. As if being snapped out of a nightmare, there it was right in front of me; a beautiful natural vista to the East. The Columbia Gorge emanated with awesome beauty on a frigid, half-lit late autumn day. I could see it (experience it) only in split-second fragments of attention. My life would have been endangered otherwise. Too much attention to the elegant vision off to my side would have meant an ever-so-slight swerve into a freeway lane ruthlessly possessed by a truck laden with product no one really needs or wants. So, the truck, the freeway, the dashboard, my hands gripping the wheel – those were the things that held my attention. They were also the things on which I was ruminating and grumbling. Even so, I was able to swivel my head to the right to take in the view of the distant structures – houses, buildings, trees, hills - lightly covered with fresh snow. Just a flash of view, mind you, but one that overwhelmed my ruminating insistence.
Combined, I “saw” perhaps five seconds of awesome, natural phenomena during my twenty minutes of hustle and bustle commute. Yet, it is the self-constructed vision of those natural phenomena that stays with me. I remember it now as clearly as yesterday. It inspires me and settles me now just as it did then. Everything else about that horrible commute is kaput, purged from my consciousness.
The magic of the natural world to soothe, settle, and inspire us reminds me of a crying baby. I can’t help but believe that our environment is, in some way, crying out to us. Like the baby, it gets our immediate attention. And like the baby, it has the power to cure what ails us. My gratefulness for what nature provides reminds me that I need to listen more to what she is telling me in spite of the noise around me, which is beckoning me to ignore that which has real power to heal, restore, and transform.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Much is currently being written about the communication gap that exists between scientists and ordinary Americans regarding climate change. Most of what is being offered neglects an attempt to explain why such a disconcerting gap exists, and why climate change is being ignored by the average citizen. Science tends to be primarily descriptive; giving us facts about how the world works. The scientific descriptions of climate change are downright scary, and inspire primitive human reactions powered by negative emotions, such as fear. Negative emotions have particular relevance to our sense of survival – when we feel fear, we look for a way to escape. Therein lays the problem with science, using the media as an outlet, in communicating its message about climate change to the public. We hear the message loud and clear. But we do not like it. It summons up our negative emotions of fear, guilt, shame, and anger. We avoid these emotions at all costs and, as a result, convince ourselves that climate change is a hoax.
What science (and the media) needs to do is refocus its message to better communicate the potential positives that behavioral change toward greater Earth stewardship can create. There is an abundance of scientific knowledge showing that the so-called “sacrifices” necessary for sustainable living – such as reducing consumption levels and driving less - actually improve our well-being. Even better, this improvement in well-being, powered by positive emotions, broadens our perspective (negative emotions necessarily narrow our focus) and allows us to identify creative and effective solutions to climate change challenges. Fortunately, despite the message from science that environmental collapse is imminent, average Americans are making positive lifestyle changes that are friendly to climate change, and discovering that these changes are improving their communities, health, and well-being.
Messages from science that are scary sell. But it is the good things about the human spirit that science and the media need to communicate better. Scare tactics will not inspire us to overcome this crisis. Identifying and communicating what is best within us will allow us to first, admit that human-caused climate change is real, and second, change our lifestyles to improve the environment and our life satisfaction at the same time. Could there be a more important message to communicate?
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
As I ponder the results of yesterday’s mid-term election, I feel both sad and hopeful. Those of us on the green side of the ledger generally favor Democrats over Republicans – few Republicans openly espouse political reform toward environmental sustainability – and Democrats did not fare well. What I find to be most notable about this election - perhaps because of its obvious absence – is any discussion of environmental issues (one exception was CA Proposition 23, which fortunately went down in flames). Any politician regardless of political bent was compelled to avoid discussion of environmental issues at all costs. The electorate was screaming “it’s the economy stupid” with such deafening bravado that any words that could be construed as impinging on economic development were shot down with laser-like precision.
Humanity has come a long way over the millennia, yet we still struggle with our acknowledgement of the simple truth that our world is a very simple system. The broadest circle is made up of our environment – the natural resources upon which we all depend for survival. Within this broader circle are our social systems – we are first and foremost social creatures, and depend on one another for our livelihood. Finally, nestled within these two much larger circles, we have our economy. This is the circle upon which we place the greatest importance. It is more immediate to us than the two larger circles, with its ebbs and flows seemingly affecting whether we struggle or thrive. And, when our economic system ebbs such as it is now, our survival mechanism takes flight. This powerful and sophisticated mechanism, fueled mostly by negative emotions such as anger and fear, overpowers our ability to see and relate to the bigger picture. This short-sightedness and lack of vision inspires my sadness today.
Our singular focus on the economy would be okay if the ways in which we choose to drive this system did not have such a detrimental impact on the two larger circles upon which it depends. But, our economic system in its present form continues to degrade our social and environmental systems in critical and, perhaps, irreparable ways. This election clearly demonstrated that the general populous wants to continue to throttle our economy toward a date with its own destruction. This is utterly irrational, but it is what we continue to choose to do. We miss the part about how our economy depends on the vitality of our social networks, and how those networks fully depend on the health and vitality of our natural environment. In fear mode, we are unable to see beyond the smallest circle in which we exist – the forest through the trees as it were. Even though the interdependent three-part system on which our long-term survival depends is simple to see in our minds eye, we cannot see it when we cast our vote.
I am hopeful because people still care. Even though the direction of their care is generally misplaced toward material and financial gain, fundamentally people are trying to show love and protection toward those about whom they care most. Caring can inspire negative emotions, such as anger, when we sense that the short-term livelihoods of our intimates are threatened. Caring can also inspire fear, an emotion designed for its short-term effectiveness – our fight or flight capacity is well-honed. In a state of fear, by design we cannot see the bigger picture because it does no good in our effort to survive a perceived immediate threat.
Caring is also part and parcel of positive emotions. And, positive emotions are the ones that allow us to see the bigger picture. In a state of positive emotion, we are more creative and more willing to take in stimuli from the broader world around us (in a negative state we are less willing and able to take in information for good reason – we need to focus our attention to avert imminent disaster). We are more apt to identify with the truth that we are a small part of a much larger interdependent web of life. We are also more able to envision a future which will allow us to thrive, not just for the immediate term, but indefinitely.
If we can learn to approach perceived problems, such as a broken economy, with a more positive perspective, the solutions we identify will more likely take into account the broader circles on which we and our economy depend for long-term survival. We have the capacity to feel positive emotions (which are greater in number and dimension than negative emotions) for good reason. They guide our survival in ways that negative emotions do not allow us to do. They allow us to identify, and act on, creative solutions to our predicaments. Perhaps most importantly, by inspiring a longer term perspective, positive emotions lead us to ways of seeing and experiencing the world that both improve our sense of well-being and ensure that the futures of our children and grandchildren will provide for their maximized well-being. Without taking into account, and working toward, the sustained health of our natural environmental, we are dooming our descendents to the fate that we most desperately want to avoid.