Thursday, March 26, 2009

thoughts on making change in our own lives

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. - W. Edwards Deming

I sent out a few emails after the 2006 midterm election, to get a response from friends of mine who are peak oil aware. Democrats took control of the United States House of Representatives as well as the Senate but I don't think them any more capable of addressing the issues of energy and environment currently facing the American dream than the Republicans who formerly held control. We are about to awaken from our slumber to the cold realities of recently dismissed phenomenon like physical limits and laws of nature. When I sent out my impromptu poll I was curious as to whether any of those concerned about the converging calamities associated with a consumer-based society believed that the recent swing of the political pendulum would have any effect on the readiness of America to weather the coming storm. The results were all but unanimous.

I am an optimist by nature, not out of belief but by practice. I have been told time and again what was and was not possible regarding my future. Sometimes I wanted more than others thought was possible and on many occasions I have been pleasantly pleased at my ability to exceed their expectations. So grew my idea about an ability that exceeds human expectation without forgetting that there are reasonable limits to achievement. In other words I find human beings often underestimate their own abilities while simultaneously overestimating the aptitudes of tools. We are at once ready to believe that we are doomed because we can’t personally change and prepared to be saved by some unknown outside force. Sounds to me a lot like religion.

Those whom I polled saw little hope that reasonable action would be taken in the United States concerning the coming global peak in oil production and the following energy decent- from a governmental standpoint that is. This point emerged: Do not count on the American Democrats to save the day. I could not help but have expected such an answer. U.S. Baby Boomers might turn out to be the most destructive generation in all of human history, but their failure to properly govern democratically, that is their susceptibility to big business as a corruptive influence, has my generation turning up its nose at even an unexpected Democratic victory in the shadow of Hubbert’s Peak. And who can blame them? However, and this is very important, that does not entitle us to adopt an attitude of defeat.

Many conventional environmentalists work from a place of anger. They are angry that others have dirtied their air and their water. They are angry that the government has allowed this to happen. There are a dramatic number of cases of childhood asthma attributed to power plant emissions. Our drinking water is full of toxins and hormones known to harm the health of countless Americans each year. The specific issue that jangled my anger was mercury levels in big fish so strong that when my wife was pregnant she was advised not to eat tuna. Industrial America made it unsafe for her to do so. Yes, that’s enough to make anyone angry. From all of this anger comes an offensive to stop the pollution through active means. Derrick Jensen writing in Endgame Vol. I The Problem with Civilization calls for the active dismantling of industrial civilization. His arguments about fighting back and forcefully creating change are an sell well to those who believe their clean air and fresh water have been taken from them. Many Americans are awake enough to see the extreme degradation of our environment as a direct consequence of our consumptive way of life. Even if they stop short of working to bring down civilization, these concerned individuals are willing and ready to fight back on behalf of Mother Nature. But I'm not sure that strategy will work. It over looks the fact that no one can force anyone to do anything. You can't hold a gun to your head and force them to recycle. People can not be forced to believe in something and unless they believe in something, they can’t commit to the changes necessary to change their own behavior.

I think we need a new imagining our relationship with the environment. Most people view their lives as their turn on the dance floor. They see themselves as having inherited the Earth from their parents and feel free to do with it as they please. Some have argued the opposite, that we are borrowing the Earth from our children. What we do they will have to deal with. This difference in perspective separates the takers from the leavers. Daniel Quinn writing in Ishmael, describes the human race as being made up of two groups; those who take what they can and those who leave as much as possible. Obviously those who are actively involved in polluting our planet are in the former group. They see themselves as free to do as they please and to take what they want regardless of the consequences left for future generations. I argue though that they are human and as such can not be forced to do anything otherwise.

The focus must first be on us. After all, we are the ones using the electricity created by industrial power plants. Each of us is responsible for the products and services we buy and use. Our support of the system is to blame for the destructive nature of the American consumer culture. I agree with those who say that corporations have used psychological strategies through advertising to convince Americans to adopt consumptive lifestyles. The odd reality is though that even after we wake up from the spell of such strategies most of us continue to consume and in doing so prop up a system of destruction and pollution. I am not advocating that those of us who understand how horribly damaging our way of life has become should into the woods and abandon all we have come to know. Such a cold turkey response to the habit of industrial civilization will probably not last long or end badly and will most certainly alienate us from friends and family. I am advocating for a change in focus for those of us lucky enough to understand the great poisoning that has taken place and who want to beat it back.

We must change ourselves. We must change our habits. We must slowly drop out of consumer culture. We must remove our support of corporate monsters and return our support of local businesses. Forcing others to change won’t work but making real change happen in our own lives will. If you don’t support the production of nuclear waste and your electricity comes from a nuclear power plant, find a way to change that; not by protesting in front of the plant but by making your own power or, as my friend Sharon is doing in her kitchen, do away with your need for electrical power. Your first reponse might be to think that idea is crazy but it’s not. It’s the easiest, most effective way to make a difference. You won’t change the nuclear power plant people. You could dedicate countless hours of time to legal battles with those folks and the people doing that work are courageous but there is a job for the rest of us. Those of us who use nuclear power you could walk away from their toxic waste and take our financial support with us. We could reduce the amount of energy we use, trying to eliminate it all together.

At this point I might be losing you because some obvious, classic questions come out of this line of thinking. Sticking with the nuclear power plant example, the question is, “How do you make your own power or do away with the need for electricity?” There isn’t just one answer to this question. Start with evaluating how much electricity you use. Next work to reduce that amount. Don’t give into the idea that the change must be instant. The inability to acheive perfection is an often given excuse for a lack of effort. It might take years to achieve your goals in their entirety but that journey could start today. Perhaps you can produce your own solar or wind generated electricity. Before you scoff at the cost, do some investigation. Check into price, review government programs that offer financial incentives. Look into grants, build our own wind turbine, build a gigantic hamster wheel for your over active dog- my point is that in these efforts you will find, if you work hard enough, the solution to your problem. It lies within you, not as blame to be placed on others. If you start down this road to change I will guess that as you free yourself from the nuclear power plant that others will be eager to learn more about what you did. Maybe you just started cooking in a solar oven. I bet other people will find that fascinating. There will be other people who will want this change as well and your help in making that change, not by storming the gates of the power plant but by removing your dependence on such a source of electricity and then helping others to do the same.

Perhaps you're thinking that there are those who will never change. I understand your concern and I agree that there are those who will resist change with great force. The vast majority of people however will not. Most people are in the habit of following the lead of others. It’s not necessary for those of us trying to make change to convince everyone we’re right. We only have to become a small force of change, maybe 10 or 12% of the population. That number of people doing things differently, making a difference not on the picket lines but in our own lives, will be enough to help fuel a revolution of change across our country. Not a change in political parties but a true change in the attitudes and actions of Americans.

When discussing change there seems to be two typical responses concerning how and why change happens. The first is that the government mandates it and the second is that the invisible hand of Adam Smith makes it economically more attractive. Most people will use these responses as the only reasons for why things do or do not change. These people fail to recognize how defeatist this attitude is. These people have given up on their own freedom of choice and the freedom of others in their society. Of course there are other reasons for making or not making change. In fact for most of the really important decisions we make in our lives, don't require the permission of Congress or rely on rational financial sense. We don't get married to a certain someone for either of those reasons, we don't have children for those reasons, we don’t eat healthy foods for those reasons and I am going to assume that my friends like me because the President asked them to or because they gain economic benefit from me.

Have we completely lost the ability to make our own decisions as a society about what is best without the help of the government or the market? Societies have historically made decisions about common items for the benefit of community and not because of the government or economics. I reject the idea that reasonable responses to problems are possible only if it's affordable or if we're told we legally have to. I am a freer man than anyone who would argue otherwise. At the heart making changes is to understand just how pwerful we are to make such changes in our own lives.

We have great power over those who derive their wealth through the complex systems that force us into dependent relationships. If we step out of their systems of enslavement we can again do for ourselves what they want to make money providing to us. It’s been said before that growing our own food is one of the most radical acts we can perform. As I learn to grow my own food I see how true this really is. I am becoming less dependant on Archer Daniels Midland and other such Agriculatural corporations. ADM is at the heart of industrial agriculture; a practice that is stripping away topsoil that took millions of years to create. It is using non-renewable resources to pesticide poison our foods and creates oceanic kill zones where sea life can’t live. It is irresponsible and destructive and every time I plant a potato I am supporting less of this legacy, this terrible bequest we are leaving to our children. I’m not going to protest at the front doors of ADM, I’m just going to quietly flip them the bird while I work in my garden. Already my neighbors are interested.

There are other simple ways in which we can once again take command of our own needs. Harvesting and recycling water, building clever homes from local, renewable materials. Harnessing the energy of the sun in direct ways; all of these are techniques that have fallen out of favor because of briefly available fossil fuel energy. These behaviors seem strange because during the last four or five decades citizens of the United States have been living in a manner that disregards ecological consciousness. Cyclic systems were abandoned for linear ones in which oil and other fossil fuels were put in at the beginning, products were used in the middle and in the end the waste was buried in the ground. Our recent lives haven’t been dependant on natural cycles so we haven’t paid them any attention. What a long winded way of saying that these aren’t radical new ideas, they’re the wisdom of our mothers and fathers; the ways of doing things that worked well for thousands of years.

We need to go back and retrieve wisdom and use it to move forward. In it lies the key to our future. With it we can step out of corporate dependence and without throwing a punch or filing a lawsuit we can whisper to those who would destroy my daughters' planet, “Go away, we don’t need you.” I can’t say I’m not pleased that the Republican stranglehold on our federal government has come to an end. It is the result I was hoping for. A sense of anxiety in me has receded following Election Day. But almost instantly that anxiety was replaced with a sense of fear. What if this legislative body doesn’t do any better? What happens when it becomes obvious that Barack Obama can't save us. It’s time to stop placing our bets on others and recognize in ourselves the possibility of something hard for ours to conceive- a society of just rule and inclusion; a system of operation that allows human beings to carry on with an experiment that hopefully becomes more benign, more compassionate and more responsive to the ecological systems that hold ultimate veto over our existence.


Birdwell said...

Quote: "U.S. Baby Boomers might turn out to be the most destructive generation in all of human history, but their failure to properly govern democratically, that is their susceptibility to big business as a corruptive influence, has my generation turning up its nose at even an unexpected Democratic victory in the shadow of Hubbert’s Peak."

Once again you are characterizing an entire group of people with a broad brush of stereotypes, generality and bigotry. Were you to express this about an ethnic or racial group, I suspect you'd lose a great number of readers.

One of the things that one gets with age is the realization that the "truth" that one saw so clearly in youth becomes less simplistic and more faceted and more understanding of human frailties.

As I read and experience the hatred some people of your (??) generation express for what you call "boomers," I wonder how it is that you came to this hatred.

I won't speak for an entire generation as you apparently feel free to do so. Those around me (family, friends, colleagues and neighbors) are hard working, contributing to changing this country and the world for the better, and are suffering just as much as younger folks.

I suppose that the early and CONTINUING efforts and struggles those of us made in years ago in civil rights, women's rights as well environmental advocacy are meaningless.

Today I'll just go back to tending my garden with my dear 24 year neighbor. She says I have much to teach her... and I have much to learn from her, too. We're a great team. We get results together that we wouldn't get apart.

Meanwhile... you've lost a reader.


nulinegvgv said...


You’re right, such generalities aren't especially helpful. Of course there are people of all ages working to make positive change. There are baby boomers who have been doing that work for decades. And it is impossible to change the decisions of others made in the past.

The result remains the same though. Those running society and those voting for their leaders during the 80s and 90s, of whom a large percentage were baby boomers, made decisions that are coming home to haunt us now.

How would you recommend my generation, who has been handed this mess, vent its anger and frustration?


Birdwell said...

A friend who also reads your blog convinced me that a continued dialogue might be in order. Thank you for your comments...

I more than understand the anger, rage and frustration that you feel at the problems we, our children and grandchildren face. Indeed, I would say that on some level rage has always been a constant travelling companion for me as I see and experience the injustices of the world around me.

You say "Those running society and those voting for their leaders during the 80s and 90s, of whom a large percentage were baby boomers, made decisions that are coming home to haunt us now."

You seem to think that baby boomers were some sort of monolithic group, voting and acting in lockstep. Unless you have empirical numbers to back that up, I think you need to re-think your assumptions.

The problems that confront us now did not have their beginnings in the 80's and 90's.

These problems are the fruit of an entire century of the moneyed, ruling corporate classes manipulating society and political systems for their own gain.

Indeed the vilification of groups, the scapegoating of particular segments of a society is a well-honed tactic of the ruling wealthy classes to divert attention from what is really going on and to divide and keep citizens from banding together and keep them in fear.

One needs to look deeper into the tags that a generation is "selfish or narcissistic or destructive" or only cares about money and material things. Who said that and with what authority?

As I recall this characterization arose out of the Reagan campaign machine and the media blitz of the "Moral Majority" PR creators. It was calculated to smear and repudiate some of the progress in social and environmental rights and justice that many liberal baby boomers had worked so hard to achieve. It was calculated to dissipate the strength of a growing political force. Ironically, just a short time before that boomers were characterized as "too young, too idealistic, not practical,not grounded in traditional society... too liberal...drug addled."

You ask "How would you recommend my generation, who has been handed this mess, vent its anger and frustration?"

You seem to think that this is a new mess. It's the same mess as it's always been. It's the same mess that I was handed. It's the same mess my parents were handed.

But there has been some progress. Some things have improved.
Human society moves in increments and tiny steps... not in great leaps.

Yet it's no small thing that we have an African-American President when once we had slavery and segregation-- regardless of whether one voted for him. Indeed, I can vote now, when once women were legally chattel and denied the vote.

The gains that we do have now in improving the food supply, civil, environmental and women's rights come out of the work that many people of all ages and persuations did in the 50's, 60's and 70's.

Every generation thinks it's been handed the worst mess ever and rages against the generations before.

I graduated from college in 1975 which-- in more ways than you know---seems just like today. Rotten economy, no jobs, corrupt and venal politicians and business "leaders"...dreams stolen... fear of the future... and as well as the added bonus political leaders that demeaned the good work that many of us were doing.

The way to vent the anger and frustration is to channel it and direct it against the people who have a stake in keeping the status quo... the people who hold the power.

The way to channel it is to work with like-minded people with common goals all ages, persuations etc. to shift the balance of power away from the greedy monied classes who have a vested interested in keeping us all divided.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond.