Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Group mind and the speed of change

Not too long ago I finally got pissed off enough about the insanity of the ethanol situation that I posted a blog about it here, and also made some posts and diaries on other blogs. Not too long after that, I started to see negative news reports about ethanol in lots of places, including an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. It seems as though a whole group of us are having our minds made up at the same time. One year ago, the issue was on the radar of only a few people; now it is getting attention from many different sources and a new (not necessarily conventional) wisdom is in the process of being shaped.

What we see arising, in more powerful forms than before, is group mind. The internet is continuing to make massive changes in the way we think about things. I don't see it as bad; we need the wisdom of groups to tackle the complexity of the problems we will be facing. But it is an eerie feeling to sense that you are operating in the midst of a group mind.

Blogger Dave Pollard is concerned with the costs of group mind, suggesting that we are so affected by what others think that we are in danger of losing contact with our essential self. He says: "unless we are extraordinarily diligent and extremely self-aware and self-competent, we give up everything that make us us – we give up being nobody-but-ourselves and we become everybody else."

I think that the notion that we are separate from everyone else is an illusion. A statement like that demands proof from someone older, wiser, more well-read than I am. So many different mystics, philosophers, poets and theologians have already come to this point of view, I am hard pressed to find only one to confirm this statement. More than 60 years ago, Teilhard de Chardin hypothesized the development of a global nervous system, fueled by the communication which has now been made possible by the internet. "A world network on economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at increasing speed, " Chardin said, in The Phenomenon of Man. "It constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us. With every passing day it become more impossible for us to act or think otherwise than collectively."

For some, this statement may evoke the fear of being caught in a collective trap. But for me, it is hopeful, because the more we can inform one another's point of view, the better decisions we can make for all of us. The painting that I have been working on illustrates my notion of the self within the whole. I am a speck within one of the small circles, which is itself in the midst of a larger circle, which overlaps with other circles and is itself encompassed by a larger circle and square, and so on. When I see my emerging views about ethanol, or any other topic, begin to merge with, and be informed by those of others, I feel hopeful. In the past year, the discussion about global warming and its consequences has begun to move at a very fast rate. Will it be fast enough to make a difference? Who knows? At the very least, it will be very interesting to see how our collective consciousness grapples with, and addresses this reality.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Continuing the search for balance

One of Murphy's Laws that operates in my life is a law of attention: the more focused attention I give to a particular project, the more attractive contrary activities become. For example, the more effort I put into blogging, expressing my opinions, researching topics, and so on, the more attractive free time and unproductive play become. The more time I spend on an introverted activity like making art, the more I crave sociable community action. The more time I spend on sociable community actions, the more I crave quiet walks in the woods. The more time I spend with heady intellectual people, the more I crave the company of expressive feeling types. And so on. In me at least, there is a constant search for balance, the balance between inner and outer, introvert and extrovert, action and contemplation.

In the North American culture, productive, external action is highly valued. The search for balance receives little external support. The cost of tuning into the prevailing norms is that we feel a constant pressure for MORE: more money, more happiness, more time, more play, more possessions, more activism, etc. I did a painting several years ago on this topic, illustrated in today's blog entry. It is called "Thick and Thin," and it portrays the two sides of a duality. I called this a family portrait of a ravenous cat who constantly wants more, despite her corpulent body; with her opposite who, by refusing sustenance, has reached a certain skeletal perfection.

This painting is one of a series of 15 I did, beginning more than 10 years ago, documenting my effort to overcome my fear of depression and identify limiting patterns in my life. The book on the topic is written, but my search for balance meant that I eventually abandoned the single-minded quest to find a publisher. You can read a little more about the topic here.

The image of Thick and Thin reflects a human habit that includes but also extends beyond the material realm. Whether we feel there is not enough money, not enough stuff, not enough time, not enough attention, not enough love—whatever our fundamental lack is, all these cravings blind us to the abundance that is potentially available to us at every moment. Our relationships with money, matter, and the body have an impact beyond our own corpus. Becoming conscious of our habits of consumption and attention can provide respite from the restless and relentless desire for more, that is destructive to us and to the world.

A balanced life: what can be more sustainable? I feel a little sheepish about encouraging visitors to come to my blog, and then disappearing for a week. On the other hand (and with me, there's always another hand), it reflects my healthy and necessary search for balance.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The saturday mess

I was going to call this post, "The Saturday Gestalt", but then I looked the word up and found that gestalt means: "A collection of physical, biological, psychological or symbolic entities that creates a unified concept, configuration or pattern which is greater than the sum of its parts, " from Wiktionary, and its hard to see what unified concept I can make out of this particular Saturday. In addition, why use a complicated word like "gestalt", when "mess" comes a lot closer?

Maybe this is what happens when a crowd of blog ideas meets a multi-tasking Saturday. The hardest thing to fit into the whole mess was my central project this afternoon: the creation of Potato and Cabbage Bundles, for my Irish-themed dinner group which meets this evening. Since my dinner group members do not read my blog, I can confess that this must have been the most complicated cabbage dish anyone could possibly envision, that is, for a normal culinary human being. It involved steaming the cabbage, mashing potatoes with a whole host of yummy ingredients, burning the oil on the stove and filling the entire house with smoke while I searched for new radio goodies to listen to on the internet, cutting up parchment paper... and on and on, more steps than is necessary or sustainable--to stay connected to one of my central themes.

Anyway, the cabbage bundles are assembled and ready to bake, and I thought it might be interesting, to me at least, to list the other ideas, worries and funny things crowding into my brain on this particular Saturday. My last blog entry was on the theme of conversation, and the book, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, arrived and is beckoning to me right now. Author Stephen Miller provides a fascinating introduction to the role of conversation in ancient times, whetting my interest with this description of Socrates by the politician Alcibiades: "Whenever anyone hears you [Socrates] speak or hears your words reported by someone else...whoever we are--woman, man or boy--we're overwhelmed and spellbound." Socrates was reportedly an excellent listener, and treated his fellow conversationalists with respect, urging them to examine their assumptions. If I were to meet such a conversationalist, would I be capable of examining my own worldviews, or am I totally bound up in my current positions?

I love to consider a range of ideas around a theme, so I particularly enjoyed Stewart Staniford's entry, "Innovation in Hard Times", posted on The Oil Drum, one of my favorite blogs. Staniford ponders how humans will respond to the coming challenges of peak oil, the melt-down in the housing market, and the damage caused by the Iraq war, to name the major crises de jour, by examining the number of patents granted each year, and analyzing the perspectives of the gloom and doomers like Jim Kunstler(author of the Long Emergency, which argues that peak oil will destroy life as we know it) to the optimists like futurist Ray Kurzweil, a computer visionary who foresees a future time when artificial intelligence will create technological innovations far beyond our current level of knowledge or imagination. This got me to thinking about whether I am fundamentally a pessimist or an optimist. I think I must fall on the side of the pessimists, mostly because of the ability of a small number of people--disaffected and angry--to make life extremely difficult for the peace-loving majority. So if the number of people whose lives go into crisis mode increases, it could trouble the comfort of many. And it certainly does seem as though a number of crises could come together and start to have spiraling impacts in ways that we cannot now foresee.

The melt-down in the housing market is beginning to receive more attention. Mainstream economic observers, such as Merrill Lynch, are now saying that housing troubles could cause a recession in 2007, and economic bears like Noureil Roubini say that we will have an economic hard-landing making waves throughout the world economy. After reading some of these assessments, I went for a walk through the new subdivision adjacent to my neighborhood. I saw that 4 McMansions, built on speculation by area builders, still remained unsold. At least two of these have been for sale for at least 2 years. This kind of information is not being reported in our local media, which usually rely on local Realtors for the predictable sound byte: "we are having a market correction but the turn-around is right around the corner." When you realize the level of inertia that supports mainstream economic optimism, you begin to worry about how people will cope when the difficult times do come.

As an antidote to all this pessimism, you might want to listen to Radio Canada International's audio feed on the topic: "Laughter is the Best Medicine," featuring about 6 minutes of hilarity with Surjit Lalli from Vancouver. It got me laughing.

The other recent humor source came from a paper sent to me by a group called Sustainable Belmont (SB), from Belmont, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. It described efforts of SB to persuade community residents to cut down the amount of time spent in idling cars. SB received a grant that allowed them to obtain anti-idling signage, handouts and stickers, the Board of Selectman granted permission to hang the signs, the police agreed to issue complaints, and city staff was enlisted to distribute some of the signs. They must not have believed in the whole idea, though, because staff were observed idling their vehicles while hanging anti-idling signs. Somehow, this just hit my funny bone, especially since I also am involved in an all volunteer local sustainability group that has faced this kind of bureaucratic intransigence. I need to look further into the problem of car idling. I did find at least one case study that started to suggest some aspects of the problem.

So that's the Saturday Mess.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

World Cafe, how to have a conversation

Last night our local sustainability group hosted a World Cafe on the subject of global warming.

About seventy-five people came together to discuss the question: “How can we meet the needs of current and future generations in the face of global warming?” Our assembly included students from local K-12 schools, university students, educators, elected officials, community activists, health care professionals, entrepreneurs, business managers, and people who question the reality of global warming.

The positive aspects of the experience included an extremely diverse group, who seemed to want to continue the conversation (we didn't lose people to breaks), and some truly phenomenal ideas that were reported at the end of the event. Many people said they enjoyed the experience...I hope they weren't just trying to make us feel good.

The challenges: our conversation patterns are pretty many cases the quality of conversation didn't meet the ideals I imagined. The World Cafe process is supposed to help people build on each other's knowledge, and I got the sense that many people found this difficult or counter-intuitive. It is much easier to hang onto our own ideas than to actively examine, respond to, and develop the ideas of others.

What constitutes good conversation? I suspect that our hyper-technological, fast-paced, individualist world gives us few good opportunities to really learn what good conversation is like. Every once in a while I have a really great conversation with someone: I listen, I learn, and I feel heard, and I can think of few more satisfying experiences. But it's rare. I have the same bad habits as others do. Joe states his opinion, I state mine. We think we're having a conversation, but in reality we are two people speaking into our own bubbles.

The next book I want to read is Conversation, a History of a Declining Art, by Stephen Miller. I just listened to a radio conversation on his book, and learned some succinct critiques on the state of conversation in the United States: first, we have a fear of offending people, so we shy away from in-depth conversation on the topics that divide us. Second, we are suffering from an epidemic of opinionatedness--we are not really interested in listening to others but instead believe we must hang onto and express our opinions as a way of being authentic. In other words, we wear our opinions on our sleeves as if they were essential to our identity. Third, most of our conversations are functional in nature: we want something from someone. The best conversations are purposeless in terms of outcome or accomplishment.

America has a history of seeing conversation as a means for getting ahead. Books like Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking with the Stakes are High, express the purposefulness behind many of our conversations. I had a great deal of enthusiasm for this book and even received training in Crucial Conversations, but I can't say it made me a better conversationalist. The implied aim of conversation in Crucial Conversations is to work things out, to promote harmony, to help a company or organization advance its purpose. But these conversations may lack the beauty, humor, and good natured disagreement which Stephen Miller says is one of the hallmarks of a good conversation.

Our World Cafe was purposeful, because we were interested in learning what insights people might have on a complex topic. I did learn from some of the viewpoints expressed at our event, even as sound bite summaries. But I long for something more. As one caller to the radio show above said, "conversation is an end in itself--it is part of being a healthy human being. You've got to be willing to have your mind changed." I continue to want to have this kind of conversation, both for the pure joy of it, and also for the way it sustains the human community.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A question of balance

After many months of not making art, I am once again working on a painting. This is a work in progress, which illustrates my current search for balance.

The sustainability of the earth is an issue of balance. When our own lives get unbalanced, our bodies become unbalanced; when many bodies get unbalanced, the parts contribute to an unbalanced whole. Al Gore's first book on environmental issues, which he wrote in 1992, was titled Earth in the Balance, and the title itself has become a popular metaphor for a world that seems to be tilting in a profoundly unbalanced manner, due to our human actions.

My recent meditation on the issue of balance was inspired by a memoir by Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, entitled Balancing Heaven and Earth. The book describes Johnson's attempts to create balance in his own life, between being and doing, between his desire for community and his need for solitude, between his feeling orientation and the necessity of living in a world that values thinking and sensation. I felt profoundly connected to Johnson's sensibilities: in Myers-Briggs terminology, we are both INFP's, a shorthand that describes us as intuitive introverts with a feeling orientation. Certain personality types predominate in different countries, as Johnson learned in the course of many visits to India.

"America is," Johnson said, "collectively speaking, an extroverted culture that prizes rational thought above all else and values people accordingly. We also place a high value on material things and how much money one can collect, and in that way we are a sensate culture. Our thinking and sensation functions have brought the scientific, technological, and mechanical aspects of existence to an apex in the West, of which we are justly proud. But we have done this at the expense of our feeling. Practically everyone in the West becomes lonely, discontented, and uneasy because our capacity for feeling is in a terrible state of disrepair..."

I have recently become aware that my introverted feeling function was feeling desperate and deprived. I have been wandering in extroverted thinking realms for the last 6 months, blogging, starting community projects, speaking before the City Council, and doing volunteer work. At the end of the day, I became aware that I craved silence, that human speech itself felt painful to me. To arrive at some balance, I restarted my morning meditation practice, and set aside some of my continuous striving for community improvement in favor of painting. It's unsurprising that the subject of my current work is a mandala. Mandalas are visual manifestations of our need and capacity for for wholeness, centeredness and balance.

Several people expressed dismay over the past few months that I had stopped painting. Two of them were artists. This isn't because of a thirst to see my work; rather it reflects an anxiety that access to the creative flow that feeds us all can be interrupted. This is why we need art on some visceral level. It is not so much that we need the material manifestations of art in our life, but we need the lubrication that artists provide for the human spirit. If we truly are interconnected with one another, cessation of the creative flow in one person affects others. This extroverted sensate world may not fully appreciate the creative liquid of the arts, but it nonetheless craves the oxygen that creative expression provides to a world out of balance.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The wisdom of the markets is a joke

We Minnesotans have long prided ourselves on our problem-solving abilities, but today I read about a Minnesota first that should go down in infamy: the construction of the first coal-fired ethanol plant in Heron Lake, Minnesota. Folks, this is nuts! Is there any chance that this event will drive a nail in the coffin of the old "wisdom of the markets" adage? Investors, in their infinite wisdom, are putting their bucks behind a process that is going to burn coal, generating greenhouse gases, mercury and other pollutants, in order to fuel a corn-based ethanol plant. Robert Rapier, one of the main bloggers on The Oil Drum, recently wrote a lengthy overview of energy options which pointed out that the energy return on corn-based ethanol is very low, "Published studies put this number at around 1.3, but the return for fossil fuels in and ethanol out averages less than 1.1, " Rapier said. This means that for every one unit of energy input we expend on producing the energy, we get only 1.3 units of energy output.

The wisdom of the markets supported a coal-fired ethanol plant due to the rising price of natural gas, which is used in the 16 other Minnesota ethanol plants. The $97 million dollar Heron Lake plant is reportedly being financed by investments from farmers, which makes it clear whose interest this plant serves.

Could there possibly be a sugar lining to this whole fiasco? The idea of a coal-fired ethanol plant should remove all illusions that we are actually trying to solve our energy problems by producing ethanol. Instead, let's look at ethanol plants as what they are: an elaborate scheme to prop up corn prices in the Midwest, and to heck with any of the negative side-effects, including soil erosion, pesticide and herbicide use, increase in food prices, nitrogen run-off into the Gulf of Mexico, the drop in the Mexican peso and the rise in Mexican poverty due to the increasing price of tortillas, and on and on.

I'm also tired of Democratic politicians pandering to the corn-ethanol crowd. The standard party line is: "ethanol is a transitional fuel, until the technology improves so that we can..." and then they fill in the blank with something like cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol could come from a variety of materials, including prairie grass, wood chips, or agricultural waste. Credible people argue for the feasibility of cellulosic ethanol, but the fact is, the wisdom of the markets has yet to support commercial production of cellulosic ethanol. If politicians really believe that corn-based ethanol plants are a transitional energy source, then they are perpetuating the same throw away mentality that got us into all this trouble in the first place.