Monday, May 28, 2007

Berkeley's Brainy Bums

A homeless guy came up to me on Telegraph Street and said, "You look distinguished."

"Thanks," I said. "So do you."

"Yeah," he sighed. "But I fell asleep in the middle of it."

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I saw Paul Hawken last night. He led a revival meeting for those of us who believe in social justice and environmental sanity. He gave us a gently rousing sermon about the multitudes of the righteous across the globe who share our belief. He gave us hope that we, the meek and righteous, shall inherit the earth from the evil powers of oil, endless consumption, and Wall Street concentrations of wealth. He confirmed for us that our love for each other and for the planet is the way, the truth, and the life. He inspired us to keep the faith in our good works. We are legion; together, we shall overcome.

My mocking tone, here, fails to protect me from the truth of this insight: The many movements worldwide to save the planet and its people from the apocalypse amount to a religious movement. It springs from the same human spirit that inspires all the great religions: our purpose and salvation in a world going to hell is love, faith, hope, and community. We have new stories for our age, stories based in science and reason rather than myth and mysticism; we have replaced faith in an all-knowing god with our faith in the collective human knowledge and wisdom of science and reason. But our emotional and spiritual experience is, perhaps, much the same as with a religion.

In other words, we respond emotionally and spiritually to these stories in a variety of what could be called religious ways. We have the old-testament style fire and brimstone prophets of global and globalized doom, who inspire righteous indignation against the oil-loving infidels. We have the prophets of piety, who counsel that individual adherence to a set of environmental and social commandments (mostly amounting to ascetic practices of organic, solar-powered, and free trade consumption) will counter the momentum of oil-fueled globalized misery. And we have prophets of hope like Hawken and Bill McKibben, whose gospels spread the word of goodness in the world and its people.

Perhaps we shouldn't be scared of this characterization of the movements of social justice and environmentalism as religious in nature. We can give up archaic superstition in favor of reason, the Law of the Father in favor of reasoned debates, and concentrations of power in hierarchical institutions of established religion in favor of the diverse and decentralized practices of millions of people. But why should we give up the emotional and spiritual stuff of religion--the faith, the hope, the fear, the indignation, and, above all, the love? Humans do not live by reason alone. Indeed, faith, hope, fear, indignation, and love are far more powerful than reason, certainly historically, certainly personally, and certainly politically. Why abandon such power? Why cede it to those who believe in superstition, the laws of a long dead god, and blind obedience to centralized authority?

The name of Hawken's book is Blessed Unrest. Hallelujah! Amen.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Future Fridays: The End of Endless Growth?

I have to recommend Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. I am surprised by how much I like it. It's perhaps not much different than a lot of environmental books, and it didn't tell me anything, beyond specific examples, that I haven't been thinking about since the 70s. But McKibben is fun for me because he rekindles my sense of the future as a project--not idealism or optimism or even hope, just local, green stuff to do because 1) local and green is the right way to go and 2) because, who knows, it might work. In other words, the book manages to take the alternative piety out of environmentalism--neither the fire and brimstone alarms of global warning prophets nor the sanctimonious saintliness of tree-hugging messiahs. Rather, the book lays out the basic framework of what's wrong and the pragmatic everyday things people around the world are doing to better their lives and communities.

McKibben lays out quite readably and sanely the familiar basic problem:
  1. Passing the peak of oil supplies means the end of the industrial economy as we've know it for two hundred years.
  2. The global warming caused by the oil economy is coming and will change things, no one knows how much.
  3. The globalization of the oil economy leads to vast inequities and an overworked and highly stressed population in this country, even more enormous social and ecological problems for countries developing on the U.S. model exported through the IMF and the World Bank, and points without question at the unsustainability of fossil fuel industrialization.
McKibben lightens the load of these interconnected disasters by looking beyond classical Adam Smith economics that emphasizes growth we cannot sustain, the kind of growth measured by the GNP and stock market prices, which must always go up, up, up or the economy is in trouble. In view of the "deep economy," however, we shouldn't even want to continue growth, because growth doesn't make us happy. Our relentless exhaustion of natural resources and human energies to produce ever more stuff for us to consume and throw away is not only ecological madness, not only social madness on a global scale, but also psychological madness. Frenetically producing and consuming stuff makes us less happy, so we should stop. Instead, we should focus on what would make us happy, what we don't have enough of, and what we are squandering fast: community.

McKibben's most prominent, most pressing, and most promising example is agriculture. Currently, we are ruining the planet with a "poisonous brew" of petroleum fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and heavy gas-powered machinery that produce monocultural crops to travel thousands of miles in the global economy. Industrial agriculture: 1) depends entirely on a dwindling supply of oil; 2) wreaks havoc on ecosystems, human health, and global temperatures; and continues to dislocate farmers from the land, disenfranchising them, and sending them to urban slums and shanty towns in search of work. To counter this historically brief two-hundred year trend, McKibben points to dozens of innovative, technically advanced, and above all local agricultural practices that people everywhere are turning to.
  • In the U.S, for example, where the process of industrializing agricultural is most complete, local farmers markets are nonetheless growing fast, making possible a livelihood from the land for increasing numbers of local farmers. It also strengthens community, as folks become more aware of each other and the sources of the food we eat. Who doesn't like the farmers market? It's way more fun than the generic grocery store. The food is better and healthier. And local agriculture is better for the community and better for the planet.
  • In other, developing countries, McKibben points to dozens of indigenous, local practices that tend toward the small, local, and sustainable. Often as innovative and technically marvelous as they are low-investment, practices like "biogas" heating or raising chickens in cages above fish ponds (so that the chicken shit fertilizes the water grass that the fish eat) may not even show up in the GNP, but they provide food and livelihoods for local folks. And the local folks are healthier and happier, working within their communities and in charge of their futures.
The best part is that McKibben never preaches. Even his description of his year of eating locally mentions his and his family's malaise over the endlessly boring meals, and he celebrates when the year is over the fact that he can drink a Guinness. He's just a guy redefining the good life in a way all of us, saints and sinners, can aspire to live.

Wall Street over Main Street

Proof that current public policies favor the rich over the rest of us: An article in the Boston Globe reports, "Last spring, 20 of the 36 valedictorians from Boston's public high schools were confronted with the stark reality that, after all their hard work, they did not have the money to go to college. This year, the number stands to rise." The authors go on to note the disturbing trend in which financial aid is increasingly based on merit rather than need, thus sending more and more money to private school types who need it least.

Since 1993, the number of wealthy students (top quarter of incomes) receiving aid at private colleges has grown at more than five times the rate of the number of needy students (bottom quarter of income).
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