Sunday, June 15, 2008

Putting Down Roots

There is a missing piece in the discussion about sustainability. It is the significance of place and rootedness. Of humans putting down roots by once again becoming literal parts of their ecosystems. As long as we remain divorced from the land, above it and separate from it we will not live harmoniously with it.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her wonderful book about her experiences with the !Kung bushmen in Africa (The Old Way), depicts a society of humans who were beautifully interwoven into their ecosystem, as full participants in a complex and healthy web of life. Particularly striking to me was her discussion of the relationship between humans and lions; how they co-evolved and lived harmoniously together over the ages (only to have that balance finally destroyed in recent times by the arrival of pastoralists). The Old Way is now gone for the !Kung, as Thomas made depressingly clear in her final chapters, and today you'd be hard-pressed to find even a few examples of societies which still fully participate in their ecosystems. But for the bulk of human history we all lived immersed in an ecosystem, coevolving with the plants and the other animals, adapting to local conditions and occupying vital niches.

As we developed culture and especially as we moved off the land into cities, we stepped out of our niches. We stepped out of nature and placed ourselves above it. Culture has been plunked down on top of nature, completely out of context. Nature gets squeezed to the outskirts of culture, for the most part. Out of sight and out of mind for a lot of people.

The fact is however that we are embedded in nature. We are shaped by the land around us. Our every move is embedded in the matrix of earth and atmosphere. As we move we set off eddies of air currents, our heat rises, we are exchanging gases with the atmosphere. The plants around us share with us their breath and we share with them our own. When we eat their fruits, we transmute their plant flesh into our own flesh. We feed on our soils as well, indirectly for the most part, but nevertheless. The smells, the sounds, the landscapes of nature are internalized, laid down as neural passages in our heads, becoming literally part of us.

A return to balance here on earth will require us to recognize and re-embrace our place within the larger ecosystem. But first we must merely remember. So much has already been forgotten.

In future posts, I will explore the subject of place and rootedness in depth. My next installment will cover the process of "naturalization" from a unique slant.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Book Recommendations: Immigration and Population Issues

I've added a list of book recommendations in the sidebar. The only one I need to qualify is How Many Americans?: Population, Immigration, and the Environment, by Leon F. Bouvier and Lindsey Grant.

I'm not sure how many times I picked this book up and set it back down before committing to reading it. The title alone made me feel defensive. If it was going to be bashing immigrants, I had no stomach for it. Simply put, I don't recognize borders. They are imaginary, divisive things. We are one species and I don't believe that any individual has more of a right to occupy a particular place on this planet than anyone else. So if this book was going to be saying, "Keep out all those d*** foreigners", it wasn't going to be worth my time.

Well, I'm glad I gave this book a chance, because it ended up being very thought-provoking and fairly persuasive in its argument. And it served as a good reminder to me not just to read things I know I already agree with, but to lend an ear (or eyeball) to opposing viewpoints as well.

I've been keenly interested in population issues and believe overpopulation to be the No. 1 critical issue we face. All of our other problems are stemming from too many people on too small a planet. Until I read this book, though, I had never considered that the U.S. might be suffering from overpopulation. What's a measly 304 million people in this vast land compared to the populations of India and China? It hardly seems significant.

Yet, the authors' projections for population growth here in the U.S. were alarming. They could be way off-base--projections are notorious for that. But the book was first published in 1994 and here fourteen years later it turns out their projections so far were actually conservative. (I wish I had the book handy right now so I could share the figures, which we could then compare with these: Population Clock. Darn it! I'll edit in the figures as soon as I can.) [Okay, here they are: the authors estimated that we would reach 300 million people in 2012. We actually hit that mark in October of 2006, which means the curve is much steeper than even the authors had predicted.]

The book got me thinking about immigration in new ways. I'm not sure what I believe, but at least this book challenged me to think in new ways. Here are some things I wrote in my journal right after I finished the book (don't hold me to any of my crackpot ideas, please):

Regarding borders...

If there were no borders of course people in marginal lands would move in droves to more productive places, which would then in time become over-exploited until people moved on to the next best place and so on. There would still be suffering but (if I can claim such a thing) more equitable suffering.

Regarding immigration...

What I had never really thought through until now is this: in these extremely dire times, closed borders (which is not at all what the authors were proposing--they were proposing serious limits, but not outright restrictions) might be our only hope. Not just for the U.S. but for the planet. If we stop immigration and lower fertility, ultimately decreasing our population, we will be able to preserve groundwater, forests and other vital environmental resources, prevent more species from going extinct, and perhaps a still (relatively) green America might offset some of the massive environmental degradation elsewhere. A green America, in a world out of ecological balance, could potentially be the thing that staves off total environmental collapse worldwide. Who knows? After all, Americans consume something like 20-40 times more resources than people in third world countries, so each person you add to the population here in the U.S. has a huge negative global impact.

Here, Jared Diamond, one of my favorite "big-picture" people, talks about population and consumption. He states that individuals in first-world countries consume 32 times more resources and produce 32 times more waste than individuals in third-world countries, and that it is consumption that matters far more than sheer population numbers. The problem, he says, is not merely how many people are crowding the planet, but how many times how much. Six, seven, or eight billion people, if they've all acquired the American lifestyle, would create quite a different world than the one we have now (or quite possibly no world at all).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fear-Based Living

When you explore voluntary simplicity in earnest it seems inevitable that, somewhere along the way, you will confront the big existential issues: who am I, why am I here, where am I going?

Simplicity creates emptiness, something that so many people fear. The frantic quality of modern life seems to be an attempt to run away from the big and meaningful issues, to never confront the cause of our fears and insecurities, to never be still long enough to do so. Emptiness is frightening. Stillness and silence are intimidating.

Simplicity opens up space--physical space, mental space, spiritual space. What is going to fill that? The beautiful thing is that something always does fill it. Not knick-knacks, not staff meetings, not baseball practice, or workouts, or appointments with the chiropractor, or lunch dates or trips to the mall. Something else. Spirit, you might call it. States of bliss. Serenity. Radical fearlessness. Radical freedom. And a safe context in which to confront the big questions.

At first though, what might want to fill the empty space is dread. That's okay. That means the bigger questions are starting to surface. That's why we're here, to confront those bigger questions. How will you ever live up to your fullest potential if you never confront the big questions? Manic, fear-based living is not conducive to you becoming fully who you are meant to be in this life. But it takes some courage to cultivate emptiness. You must be willing to pass the edge of the frontier and step into the unknown. You have to confront the demons waiting there.

Voluntary simplicity isn't the only way to create emptiness, of course. There are many different forms of what I call "emptiness practice": silence, solitude, fasting, meditation, celibacy, yoga, even the down-time when you're recovering from a prolonged illness. All of these things can get you to the same place, to the same lessons, to the same revelations. Telling, isn't it, that most of these practices come out of our spiritual traditions? Even voluntary simplicity itself, which now has such a secular flavor, originated in the "vows of poverty" and similar practices found in the early histories of our great religious traditions. Think of the Buddhist monks with their begging bowls, and Christ with his injunction to the wealthy young man, "Go, sell what thou hast."

Emptiness must come first. Fearlessness follows. Radical freedom follows that.

Fearlessly embracing your radical freedom means you can do anything. You can be a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa. You can change the world. You will be acting from your highest potential and from that place anything is possible.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Economic Woes--Could This Be The Best Thing Ever?

A worsening economy, rising gas prices, the mortgage fiasco, the weakening dollar. It all sounds so ominous and frightening. I'm being seriously impacted by it and I'm sure you are too. But as ever-the-optimist I see the silver lining here as well.

We are being forced to change our ways. We are being forced to adopt better ways. The price of gas has us thinking about energy conservation and shopping locally and living within our means. The housing crisis may help people more wisely evaluate their living situations and their true needs before jumping into supersized mortgages. The weakening dollar may help us to rein in our focus, away from the global economy to local economies, to re-building community, to creating bartering networks and to re-embracing our specific place in the ecosystem.

But beyond all of these personal things, the economic crisis could help reform what is a broken, dysfunctional free-market system. We may personally be suffering now, but the corporate world is really going to be reeling. This situation is our way in. We may complain about how corporations are desecrating the earth, damaging human health and exploiting billions of people, but most of us feel powerless to do anything about it. Corporations wield absurd power.

The economic disaster looming before us is our chance to challenge the corporations. We can say no to cheap crap from overseas and buy locally, and it will get easier and easier to do because cheap crap from overseas is soon going to be expensive cheap crap. At some point it's not going to make sense for corporations to outsource to the cheapest country because the fuel costs involved in shipping will wipe out any savings. The same applies to industrial agriculture. People will increasingly support local farmer's markets, sign up for CSA shares, and plant their own gardens. They will no longer be willing to bear the costs involved in industrial farming, especially not the transportation costs. Why pay extra for bland Mexican-grown tomatoes, when backyard tomatoes or farmer's market tomatoes are juicier, healthier, cheaper, and don't taste like cardboard.

Imagine recreating healthy local food systems, vibrant local economies, and sustainable practices all around. Change is possible, and before us right now lies a huge opportunity.