Friday, October 27, 2006
I've thought of myself as a spiritual person. I go to church regularly. I sing the hymns with gusto and recite the creed. But ask me what I think about God, and suddenly I'm unsure. I used to think of God as a friend, a cosmic energy, an eternal listener, but now, the God-buddy system doesn't compute for me any longer. I miss the relationship but the old way just doesn't work anymore.
So I stopped painting and picked up the pen and the telephone. I started to organize, cajole and persuade, around environmental issues that are important to me. But not much later, I had new doubts about it all. As the campaign season heats up to a fever pitch, I wonder whether anyone can really convince anyone else of anything.
I'm now inhabiting a writer persona, but in a culture that is drowning in information, who would want to read one more thing? At least no trees died to bring these words to light (or not more than one notebook page worth).
The good news is, I'm not depressed. I go through my appointed rounds with kind of an edgy energy. One moment I'm researching immigration policy, the next I am writing a letter to the editor, and the next I am looking for a recipe with feta cheese. Something seems to hold it all together. I've read enough of the mystics to think that the way of unknowing is what's next. The mystic's brains must not have been as cluttered as mine, though.
From Matthew Fox's rendering of Meister Eckhart:
"As long as we perform our works in order to go to heaven
we are simply on the wrong track.
And until we learn to work
without a why or wherefore,
we have not learned to to work
or live or why."
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Yesterday I received an inflammatory mass mailing from friends of Minnesota State Senate candidate Brenda Johnson, raising fear and confusion about foreign immigrant workers. The campaign literature relied on language and images of fear, criminality and otherness, showing hazy images of people climbing over walls or through the holes in fences. It got me to thinking about how central framing, the use and misuse of language, is to what passes for political discourse.
Of course, the mailer is misleading. Here, far from the southern border, is a state level candidate focusing on issues of immigration that are primarily set by the federal government. The literature creates a climate of fear about foreign immigrants, many of whom provide their labor at rates that make it possible for area farmers and other businesses to prosper. The images on the mailer evoke dark skinned people; there’s no danger of confusing these with illegal Canadians, for example.
The United States has been debating who to let into our country since the mid 1800s, and those of us who have been comfortable here for many generations have forgotten our roots. Johnson’s own Scandinavian ancestors probably came here for the same reason today’s immigrants do: to escape political or religious oppression and poverty. Norwegian Einar Haugen wrote a ballad about immigration in the 1880s. A verse in his ballad says: “We desired to show we were grateful, And were anxious to be of some use; We took hold of the roughest of jobs here, Just to show them what we could produce.”
The political world right now is being run by the undecideds. In 2005 GOP pollster and strategist Frank Luntz traveled to the UK to examine voter’s moods. Luntz discovered that "nothing riles the undecideds ... more than immigration." It is very distressing to see political talking points developed in a national context, being used to manipulate responses at a local level.
Another verse from good ole Einar says: “We were not in the ranks of the wealthy, And our homes took a long time to build, We sought work that would earn us some money, For our youngsters were hungry and chilled.” Who are these people, who move out of the undecided column only when motivated by fear? And why haven’t we found a way to make the humanitarian issues posed by immigrants part of the frame?
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
The forecast sent me out on the internet looking for corroboration. One link led to another pessimist, the economist Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University. Roubini sees the collapse of the housing bubble, the decline of oil and other commodity prices, and falling demand for durable goods as triggering a recession in 2007. Roubini’s alarm about declining oil prices is contrary to the mainstream economic views that lower energy costs are good news for the consumer.
I also found it difficult to mesh his views with those of the peak oil theorists, who argue that oil prices will be increasingly volatile as world oil production reaches its peak levels of production, within the next decade or so. These pessimists argue that increasing oil commodity prices will start to have catastrophic effects on the economy, as consumers and businesses struggle to adapt too late.
The more I read about any of these issues, the more I am aware of my own limits as a consumer of information. It is tantalizing to think that one could scope out the future blossoming or unraveling of the economy, and make decisions to protect yourself and your family. There is too much uncertainty in the system. Mike Jay says the level of complexity in our systems has gone beyond the ability of most of us to make sense of it all. As peak oil, global warming, the housing bubble, high levels personal and governmental debt converge in my mind with global tensions and insecurities, I tend to fall on the side of the pessimists.
We are all prisoners of our own points of view. I called the painting at the top of this blog the fortune teller demon, and I painted it about 9 years ago to become aware of my habit of making predictions about the future based on the past. We all do this, but very few of us truly have the skill of precognition. Most of our crystal balls are cloudy. Perhaps I am a prisoner of my own tendency for pessimism, but the optimists could be similarly deluded.
So what is a person to do? The crystal ball is cloudy, but it’s a good idea to be prepared. We need to prepare ourselves and be committed to creating the kind of community we want to live in. The strategy I find most convincing was expressed by permaculture activist Rob Hopkins. Hopkins said: “I deeply question the morality of responding to a crisis by running in the opposite direction and leaving everyone else to stew. For me, peak oil and climate change, and the challenge that they present, are a call to return to society, to rebuild society, and to engage society in a process that can offer an oil free world as a step forward and an improved quality of life.”
About the fortune teller demon:
This creature frets about the future, staring in a crystal ball where the worst things are sure to unfold. Its pessimism comes from its curious evolution in the desert, far from the watery habitat in which more viable species usually flourish.
From the Facing the Beasts book project.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
The Bioneers conference offers a one-stop shopping experience for people who are interested in learning about everything from electric cars, to solar energy, to community activism, leadership, local foods, organics, global warming, alternative currencies, to mushrooms and biomimicry. We left the conference yesterday, midway through the second day, overwhelmed with information and the weight of the alternately stirring and depressing assessments of the state of earth.
When I last wrote about communicating about global warming, I was filled with enthusiasm for an assessment done by the Institute for Public Policy Research, in the UK, which concluded that a discourse about “ordinary heroism” could capture the imagination of a subset of citizens who have yet to engage with the issue of global warming. The argument was that the groups framing messages about global warming should engage the public with the meme of being ordinary heroes who would help save the environment.
In the wake of the Bioneers Conference, I am less enamored with the ordinary hero strategy. On one hand, a speaker who heroically challenges us to question our lives of complacency and ease, can trouble our thoughts and inspire us to change. All too often, however, I find the outrage drains my energy. I fear the tendency of all too many people to heroically elevate their points of view contributes too much to the gridlock and divisiveness that seems so prominent a feature of our everyday discourse. I respect what the advocates have done, but it doesn't seem to energize my own desire for action.
James Hillman, scholar, Jungian analyst, and one of the national keynote speakers, said that a great many of us suffer from thinking disorders. We think we know what is wrong, and we can be paralyzed by this critical knowing. Every positive proposition meets immediate criticism; the wrongness of others grows in dimension as we focus on it. As a result, Hillman said, everything and everyone divides into opposing positions. The cure, the basic therapeutic move, is to search out the meaning of the symptom.
If our society suffers from too much superficiality, too much certainty, too much independence, the answer, Hillman argues is in “doubt, disorder, deviance and dependency.” It’s already too easy for us to think we are special, ordinary heroes, because of what we buy or wear, the solar collector we put on our house, or the raw food diet we so virtuously adopt. It’s a lot harder to hold our positions lightly, to be open to learn from others, or to question our basic assumptions. But these practices may be precisely the form of ordinary heroism most called for these days.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Yesterday’s newsletter from Open Democracy writer James Crabtree is on the subject of global warming. It asks the question: why is discussion about such an important issue missing in the American elections? One of the reasons, Crabtree says, is that views about global warming are split along partisan lines. “Only 23% of Republicans think it's important, but more than half of Democrats do.” Do Democrat message framers reason that they need Republican votes to win, and decide to avoid focusing on this issue for fear of alienating them? Or is it simply the fact that other issues are currently better at motivating political change?
Both parties have access to the same focus group information, indicating that volatile gas prices and hurricanes have attracted people’s attention. Most of the campaigns are about reinforcing the frames people already have around the global warming issue, with slight tweaks using code words their target groups will respond to. Many people, particularly men, don’t believe in global warming, but think that temperature extremes are a natural cycle. You can see the current frames-in-use by comparing the issue statements of Democrat Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, who says “I will fight to reduce global warming by adopting legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions,” to her Republican opponent Mark Kennedy, who makes no mention at all of either global warming or climate change, but instead speaks of protecting the environment and reducing dependence on foreign oil.
GOP Pollster Frank Luntz says, “nearly all Americans agree that our nation’s current energy policy is behind the times and needs a new, 21st century approach.” You can review the Luntz memo here: it outlines how Republicans should address the issue. Several days after I learned about the Luntz memo from a media organization called Action Media, my own Republican congressman, Gil Gutknecht, hit his constituents with a glossy mailer that hit all the Luntz talking points. The talking points that many partisans agree on is advocating renewable energy and decreasing dependence on foreign oil. Neither global warming nor climate change are part of the Republican pitch.
Those of us who would like to be effective advocates for change on a national, state and local level face some of the same dilemmas as the politicians. If we say it’s a crisis, people will tune us out. They won’t respond to messages blaming them for their destructive, consumptive habits, and they may feel insufficiently compelled to action by messages urging them to do “one small thing”. Here it is important to acknowledge the contribution made by Al Gore in his movie documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore found a way to communicate effectively about the science behind global warming. His movie may prove to be the tipping point that moves Americans to a new attitude.
Many thinkers are trying out new frames that will capitalize on this new attention. George Lakoff, who is best known for his examination of the stern father frame that informs the Republican message, says that people who hope to change attitudes about global warming would do well to cast the issue in terms of health and security. Jeffrey Feldman, a frequent blogger on the subject of frames, says that progressives need a larger frame than global warming. He cites Thom Hartmann, arguing that the gradualism implied in global warming fails to capture the magnitude of the response needed. Instead, he says, we should talk about parts of the planet “shutting down,” which is a big story that will elicit greater response.
I thought this was an interesting approach until I read the more lengthy and nuanced background information on communicating about climate change, put together by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I was particularly impressed by some recommendations developed by the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK. The academics, policy experts, and media advisors seem to agree on several keys points:
*We need to treat the argument over global warming as won. The deniers will make lots of noise, but the weight of scientific information will make these folks increasingly irrelevant.
*Quiet down the rhetoric; instead make efforts to show people exactly how patterns of climate have changed, so that acceptance of global warming becomes the new common sense. Use visual images and stories wherever possible.
*Treat climate friendly activity as a brand that can be sold. Highlight stories of “ordinary heroes” who are achieving success in battling global warming through purchases or new behaviors.
This blog entry is a distillation of information from a variety of sources. Obviously, any particular communications campaign about global warming or its constituent solutions needs to be targeted to the learning curve of a variety of different audiences. A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.
Action Media makes a very important point about advocacy and persuasion on environmental issues in their booklet, “Defining We in Environmental Advocacy,” which you can download. For too many years, caring about the environment has been the province of environmentalists. This has allowed an entire movement to be pigeon-holed and marginalized. Instead, we should realize that we are all environmentalists: mothers, writers, artists, accountants, car dealers, teachers and entrepreneurs. Concern about global warming is something that affects us all, and calls forth our engagement whatever our position is in life. The stories we use to engage with others around the issue should reflect the commonality we experience within this diversity.
Moving beyond our efforts to become ordinary heroes with our behaviors around global warming, it sure would be wonderful to have visible political leaders making use of their policy powers and the bully pulpit to push the issue into a new dimension.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Deer prefer native plants and do not browse on garlic mustard. However, they spread the small seeds, which get caught in their coats and dispersed throughout the woods. In our neighborhood, deer are also over-abundant. Our house similarly sits on the edge of an urban forest. Some of my neighbors think feeding the deer is a lovely thing to do. They have trained the deer to associate our neighborhood with LUNCH. Not only do we have large number of deer, but the deer have gotten used to munching on just about anything we plant. In our yard, this has included baby rhubarb (and I thought those leaves were toxic!), tomato plants, a spruce tree, and a newly planted cherry tree. As a result, I have developed a certain level of hostility toward deer. I even had a dream in which I was inciting my spouse to the murder of baby deer.
If you think about it, deer, garlic mustard and people have something in common. We are flora and fauna that are extraordinarily good at adapting to this environment. All of us are responding to the biological imperative to be all we can be. Garlic mustard plants are opportunists who have found a biological advantage, and played it for all that it is worth. Deer populations have roared back from their low point in the 1930s, when there were only about 300,000, to approximately 30 million at present. Motor vehicle collisions and crop damage are some of the problems associated with our high deer numbers.
We could go on at great length about the problems associated with the adaptable success of humans. Pollution, global warming, extinctions, war and violence are a few of the issues that come immediately to mind. Like deer and garlic mustard, we humans also have some redeeming qualities. Unlike deer and garlic mustard, we have the capacity to be aware of our role in the ecosystem. When I get discouraged about damage we humans have done, I think about the deer and garlic mustard too. All of us are living out our biological imperative. Unfortunately, the fittest and most adaptable survive, and then we must all deal with the consequences of their success.
I try to look for the silver linings. On November 4th, hunting season begins in these parts. The style of hunters varies greatly from one person to the next, but the season reinforces a habit of attention to nature, which is not a bad thing. The hunters need to do their work, or deer numbers around here would be unmanageable. Many hunters donate their venison to food shelves and feeding programs, which is a good thing. Venison is a lean, healthy meat and is not raised in industrial conditions, unlike most of our other meats. I have acquired a taste for it, benefiting from the gifts of hunters I have known.
Garlic mustard is certainly a pest, but Wildman Steve Brill, a well-known naturalist and forager, has identified it as a tasty edible plant. The infant plants, mustard sprouts, taste like garlic. The rosette-shaped leaves are an edible green that tastes best in the early spring or the late fall. During a time of the year when there is little left to forage in the woods, the garlic mustard is still there.
I guess there are some silver linings associated with humans too. I’ll leave you to think about those.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
In addition to fuel efficiency, one of the big benefits of a hybrid car is its ultra low hydrocarbon emissions, those gases that promote global warming. Honda has plans to bring a cleaner burning diesel engine to market in 2009. The advanced engine design will have a catalytic converter that runs as clean as conventional gasoline vehicles. Diesel cars are about 30% more fuel efficient than gasoline engines.
I am the happy owner of a Honda Insight, and hope the designers at Honda and other car companies have success in bring less polluting and more fuel efficient cars to market. I fear that the rate of technological innovation and consumer acceptance won’t happen fast enough, however. As reported on World Changing, many observers share my pessimism. The climate is catching up to the reality of increased carbon levels with alarming speed. Meanwhile, less than 1% of the cars on the road in North America are hybrids.
We are starting to wake up to the reality of global warming; the question is, how long will it take to translate this awareness into action? In August 2006 Zogby International surveyed American voters and found that 74% are convinced that global warming is happening. Furthermore, 72% say that industries should be required to reduce their emissions to improve the environment. A growing number of opinion leaders also believe in the concept of peak oil, which states that the era of cheap oil is over and our economies will have a hard time coping with higher and more volatile prices.
Regions with the highest level of social capital may be in the best position to cope with the uncertainties that ripple through our lives as a result of global warming and peak oil. Social capital is a term that refers to our willingness to help each other out during times of crisis. Hurricane Katrina exposed the low levels of social capital in Louisiana, as thousands of individuals were stranded without help when the levees broke. Communities with high levels of social capital may be early adopters of practical conservation strategies such as carpooling. What does this mean for you and me? We need to reach out and create relationships with neighbors, building the basis for trust and hence greater social capital. Last weekend my spouse carpooled to a conference in northern Minnesota with someone from the same town. Two others from our town also attended, driving alone on the 600 mile roundtrip journey. My hope is that we alter our habits at least as rapidly as the car companies do, developing enough social capital to make such individual-centered decisions increasingly rare.
Friday, October 13, 2006
With the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere already at record highs, and no sign of change in consumer habits, the planetary science experiment called global warming continues on its roll.
Even motivated advocates at first find it challenging to change driving habits. We unloaded my father’s station wagon earlier this summer and bought a used hybrid car at a premium price. Then, we struggled to change our household driving habits, carpooling on our trips downtown. We continue to come to terms with the fact that family members live at some distance away, and long travel is sometimes necessary to keep in contact. Moreover, we are finding it difficult to let go of the lure of the road. A stay-at-home lifestyle, parsimoniously avoiding any energy expenditure, is unappealing.
A transitional solution is now available to those who need or want to travel: purchase Green Tags. Green Tags are an exchange mechanism that function like carbon credits. You can analyze your household carbon expenditures by entering your household and travel information into a calculator that will determine how much carbon you generated during the year. There are many carbon calculators online; one is found on the Inconvenient Truth website. We did the calculations on this site, and found that our household contributed 8 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere last year.
Then, we purchased Green Tags from Native Energy to provide financial support to this privately held Native American energy company that is involved in wind energy. Another popular Green Tag organization is called Terra Pass. A search on Google or Wikipedia will reveal additional Green Tag providers.
We need to continue doing the hard work of changing our travel habits, but until we get there, Green Tags are a constructive approach.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
I’m not going to write about that stuff, because you, me and everyone else are tired of hearing about crises. “School Funding in Crisis?”—reads a headline in this morning’s paper. What does that make you want to do? Does your cup of coffee drop from your hand as, trembling, you grab the phone book to call, and register your concern with your elected official? Not likely. The more common response is to move to the next article, concerning the crisis in Iraq, to skim the editorial page, where someone is talking about the crisis in health care, to read Dear Abby, where someone is having a crisis with a 3-year old, and finally settle, with great relief, on Sudoku or the comics, where at least no one is trying to bum you out about anything. Or maybe you are like the majority of the population, tuning out the whole news enterprise, because there are too many real life diversions and responsibilities capturing your attention.
This situation is a real problem for people like you and me who care passionately about certain issues. We’ve got to find a way to frame the issues so they can be understood in bite-sized pieces. We have to find language that gains allies, rather than language that polarizes and turns people off. We have to ask people to do something they can do, so they can feel they are part of the solution. And we have to be willing to ask them nicely at least seven times, because marketing specialists say that’s how many repetitions it takes before an idea sinks in.
Yesterday was the last day of Try It! Transportation Options week in our fair city. I was going to call it Sustainable Transportation Week, but a marketing guru I contacted nixed that idea. “Nobody understands what sustainable means,” he said. “Why don’t you name the week after what you want people to do?” That marketing guru was Dick Brooks, of Action Media in Minneapolis. If you go to the website, you can get a great little book in pdf format. It is called “Defining We in Environmental Advocacy,” and it attempts to give advocates some ideas about framing their issues, so they can be understood, and heard. I heard Brooks speak at a regional meeting last December. He specifically said that advocates should avoid using the word crisis, because it means it’s too late.
So I made my best attempt to communicate around the issue of transportation. I pointed out that a lot of us could stand to lose a few pounds, observed that obesity was jacking up health care rates everywhere, reinforced the readily held opinion that gas prices are going to be volatile, and slid in global warming as a small subtext. There are some very simple things we all can do about these problems: we can walk more, bicycle more, take the bus, and carpool. I know from personal experience that the habit of carpooling takes some time to develop, even in a family of two. We just need to try it!
So, we got a start at tackling a problem that has huge ramifications. Now, I just need to find a way to ask people to Try It nicely, at least six more times.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
The solutions we need to pay most attention to, in order to deal with the challenges we face, are the simplest ones. It would help if our elected officials and business leaders paid attention to these solutions, but most of them aren't, so it's up to all of us.
Our converging challenges, as I see it, are these:
- Poor health, chiefly obesity, which is going to put a huge strain on our own pocketbooks, as well as those of government and employers. Sweetgall said that for the first time, the life expectancy of Americans is now expected to decline, due to our low physical activity levels.
- Peak oil--which doesn't mean that oil is going to run out, but that the cost of extracting it will become increasingly expensive.
- Global warming, which at the very least in the Upper Midwest will lead to increased cooling demands during the summer months.
Among those who accept these propositions as real threats, there are many who hope technology will provide the answer. While I agree that technology could provide some answers, on an individual level, the more productive solutions will be the simple ones.
Why? Let's just look at a household like ours. We would like to cut our electrical use. Most of our electricity comes from coal burning power plants, which contribute to global warming. Over the past year and a half, we have been investigating alternative energy solutions. Our home consumes roughly 570 kwh (kilowatt hours) of electricity per month. We have a nice, south facing roof that would be perfect for a some solar panels. A solar installer came to our home, and told us that we could get a 2 KW system for $18,000. This would cover roughly half of our electrical usage. The State of Minnesota offers a $2,000 rebate per KW solar system, and the federal government offers a $2,000 tax credit. This would reduce the cost to $12,000. But this is not a financially sustainable solution for a household that only spends $700 a year on electricity.
Wind power is also not a financially viable solution for an existing residential household. Even though our home is on top of a hill, surrounding vegetation and low prevailing winds in this area of the state make wind power a marginal proposition. When this is combined with the still emerging state of rooftop wind systems, wind is a technology that doesn't measure up to the pragmatic tests.
So the homeowner interested in reducing household energy use must fall back on the simple solutions, largely passive cooling strategies in the summer. Next spring would be a great time to plant trees on the south and west sides of your house. Until the trees get large enough to provide real shade, consider blinds that reduce the amount of sunlight coming into your house.
Cities also need to get behind tree planting. Many of our neighborhoods lost massive number of trees from Dutch Elm disease. There is no better time than the present to start growing a replacement forest.
My real complaint is about our belief in technology. As long as we believe technology will bail us out of our fixes, we remain locked in a passive attitude towards our energy future. Simple, cost-effective solutions move us into an active role as problem solvers, contributors to the collective solution.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
I am learning about how to do this. Many of the available blog names were gone. I settled on hickory bud because it was available, and it is a tree native to this area of the country. In the spring, the hickory buds are of surpassing beauty.
The tree is prized for its strength and flexibility, assets I consider important for these times. Also, the tree apparently symbolizes storm energies, driving rain and thunder, the kind of "brainstorms" that hail down from above. All of these attributes make it an attractive tree from a symbolic perspective.
I am an artist who has arrived at a point where I find it impossible to just sit in my studio and paint. I am interested in connecting with people who have sustainable visions they are trying to put into action.
The entire house is a system that pleases in every way imaginable: from the aesthetics of the limestone stove, to the Vermont slate floors that will keep cool in the summer and retain heat in the winter, to the overhang on the southward facing windows (with a high solar heat gain coefficient) that keeps direct light out in the summer but allows it in during the winter, to the non-toxic clay paints.
You can read more about the house at www.lichtnstein.org.The house is a manifestation of my vision, both for myself, and this blog, which is to find a marriage between beauty and preservation of the world.