Archive for November, 2007

Best Antidote to Terrorism: Emotional Fitness

What if my town or yours sustained a terrorist attack early tomorrow morning? Would you and I freak out in surprise and fall apart? Or would we be emotionally fit enough to behave in constructive, responsible ways?

 As an advocate of sustainability, I believe in fitness of all kinds. For instance, I work at being physically fit and financially fit. My master’s degree, though, is in counseling psychology, and I see emotional fitness as the crucial fiber at the core of our lives.

 Emotional fitness – NOT the endless pursuit of feeling good — needs more of our attention. On all sides of the political fence we are overly focused on military responses to terrorism. But the strongest military in the world cannot make us emotionally fit i.e., able to deal well with adversity. That’s our own job.

 It’s knowable and predictable that bad things will happen, both natural disasters like earthquakes and manmade disasters like terrorism.  Realistically, we should expect that the 9-11 attacks will be repeated in some way – and our lives and economy will be disrupted, maybe severely.

 On the concrete level, do we have savings in the bank? Emergency food, water and first-aid supplies? Emotionally, are we fit enough to deal and cope constructively when a bad thing happens, rather than fall apart or freak out with surprise – when there’s really no excuse for being surprised?

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Thanksgiving, Patriotism and Right-Sized Eating

For Thanksgiving I’ll suggest (and practice myself) a novel idea: to not eat a great deal. Just a normal-sized meal, with more sociability than usual.

“Unpatriotic!” I can imagine you criticizing me. “Killjoy!” “The economy would nosedive!” “Anti-consumption equals Anti-Christ!” (OK, pardon my drama.)

In truth, I’m very patriotic. I love our forebears. In fact I suggest we be more like them — by not being overweight and not wasting so many resources in the process. For example, it takes 441 gallons of water to produce a single pound of meat, versus seven gallons for a pound of wheat. If we’re wondering how Atlanta will resolve its drought problem, maybe reduced consumption of meat should go onto the table.

And the average food item Americans eat travels more than 1,500 fossil-fueled miles to reach us. My household subscribes to a local farm for weekly doorstep deliveries. Lowered dependence on foreign oil: very patriotic.

As for our GDP: to the degree that our national economy depends on overeating (and overconsumption in general) it is ill and needs to recover. A group of Americans resolving to eat moderately this Thanksgiving can be a step toward that recovery. Write in and take Alison Wiley’s Thanksgiving Moderation Pledge.

I’ll close with a little self-disclosure. When I eat normal-sized meals I retain my normal personality afterward: alert, friendly, affectionate. (At least my husband thinks so.) When I eat to excess I become slow and stupid, almost as if drugged. How about you?

I’m not a nutritionist, but from what I gather, human stomachs can’t digest enormous amounts of food dumped into them. It piles up and putrefies, making us gassy and grumpy. How patriotic is that? And how sexy?

The Inconvenient Truth of the 168-hour Week

“I do care about global warming, but I’m too busy to (fill in the blank)”. I hear this cry often in one form or another. The blank can be many things: buying local produce, changing light bulbs to compact fluorescents, using public transit, using a clothesline instead of the dryer.

Feeling too busy to do things we know in our guts are the right things to do is like a modern epidemic. I sometimes fall into the too-busy trap, too. It can be a form of excited misery. . . . also of self-importance. But my freshman English professor in 1979 gave me a tool I still steadily use to unhinge the trap.

“You have 168 hours in your week,” Mr. Wenzl said. “Write down how you spend them. Add it all up: sleeping, eating, classwork your job if you have one, socializing, exercising, everything. Then tell me you don’t have time to study.”

My classmates and I were appropriately humbled.

I use an Excel spreadsheet these days (it saves time). Bingo — the 168-hour reality check. With all the many things I do, including periodically relaxing and doing nothing, I am clearly still able to take the bus, buy local, deal with the clothesline and do other things to minimize my carbon footprint. So I do.

I would extend a friendly challenge to everyone in the U.S. to add up how they use their 168 hours. And then write in and tell me it isn’t possible for you to take action on global warming. I bet taking action makes you happier, too.

Greed and Good In the Face of Climate Change

Today I need to transfer $1,000 from Thor’s and my checking account into a savings account for taxes. Oh the joy. I’m doing a contracted project for Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center here in Oregon (joyful work, no joke) and of course as a contractor I’m responsible for my own taxes. Hence the need to save for them.

There is a greedy one inside of me that could resent taxes if I go down that mental trail. I don’t go down it because I know taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society featuring common-good things like roads and schools. Still, I think there is a greedy one inside each of us. I’d say human greed is a major player in our culture’s health care crisis, unsustainable use of resources, and so on.

But there’s much more to our nation than greed. For instance: seventy-five percent of people in the U.S. give to charity. Most of them aren’t even in a bracket to use those contributions as tax deductions. And low to middle income people give proportionately more of their income than more affluent people. Too, millions volunteer their time in any given year to ease suffering. I’d say humans are both greedy AND altruistic.

So what? So this: we’re at a pivotal point in global history where the consequences of undisciplined consumption and greed — that would be climate change — are forcing us to make a jump in our evolution away from greed. The common good now is a bigger animal than roads and schools; it is slowing climate change by using less fossil fuels. Altruistic in some cases, economically beneficial in other cases.

And the willingness to lower our national carbon footprint has to come from us, the citizenry, because governmental regulations in the end will reflect only our level of willingness, and no more. I know many disagree on that, so I welcome your comments.

Breeding Solutions, Not Enemies

Like many who are passionate about sustainability (or passionate about anything) I have sometimes been guilty of “us versus them” thinking. This is the mindset that eventually makes enemies of those whose views and practices differ from mine.

For instance, people who don’t recycle and compost, still use energy-guzzling incandescent light bulbs, and drive vehicles with more than four cylinders. Especially when they could have taken the bus. In other words, most of the U.S. population at least some of the time.

How misguided is it for me to pose my fellow citizens as enemies, even silently in my own mind? I’m sure many of ‘them’ excel in areas where I’m deficient. Moreover, I haven’t always lived up to my own ideals. And I’m not about to make an enemy of myself.

A basic spiritual tenet is that separateness is an illusion, that in the deep structure of life, all beings are both unified and interdependent. That sounds beautiful, but is a hard one to live out day by day.

What I can do with it is to catch myself when I go into ‘us against them’ thinking, and remember this world needs solutions, not enemies. And I’m asking you as a reader of my blog to help hold me accountable. If you see me backsliding, call me on it.

I want my blog to evolve into a vibrant and dynamic yet peaceful body of thought on solutions for sustainability.

Better Than Bigger: Getting to Enough

U.S. culture is finally getting that global warming is both a fact and serious trouble. Good, great, excellent.

The problem now is that most people think somebody else had better do something about it — in effect so that business can continue as usual.

I embrace the opposite of that attitude: that all of us can do something about it, and that ‘business as usual’ is at the core of the problem. Today I’ll bypass the wonk-speak about lowering our carbon footprint and drill down to something much more basic to global warming: the guiding myth in our national psyche that bigger is inherently better, and makes us more powerful.

Bigger houses and bigger cars — both a major U.S. trend in the past twenty years — are a big part of what’s driving global warming, due to their fossil-fuel-neediness. Every square foot of housing being heated, cooled and lit adds to our atmosphere’s burden, and so does every added increment of vehicle size. I suggest that bigger is the opposite of better or more powerful: it is needier.

The idea that bigger is better surely comes from the ancient, primitive part of our brains that motivated our ancestors to kill animals big and meaty enough to assure our survival. We’re animals too; I get it.

But we humans have flourished and we have to evolve differently now, as in leaping to a new level of thinking and motivation. The business-as-usual belief of bigger-is-better is taking us over the cliff of climate change.

I suggest that one of the most effective things we can do in any given day to combat global warming is to assure ourselves and those around us that we have enough right now. That we don’t need a bigger house, bigger or faster car or more current widget as much as we need a stable climate. That all those things are themselves needy of toxic fossil fuels, both in their production and use, and can even turn us into needier people as we grasp at them.

That, rather, what we already have is plenty, and enough. If that sounds like heresy, so at one time did the notion that the earth revolves around the sun.

Walmart’s Green Face: Are We Happy Now?

One time in my life, years ago, I went inside a WalMart store and purchased one item. It was a full-length mirror for $10. I felt grateful I could afford it because I was a self-employed artist at the time (read: poor).

I never went back to WalMart because I learned about the high cost of their low prices. For instance, many who receive relief food from the Oregon Food Bank have full-time jobs. At WalMart. Such stories are well-told in many places, and my thoughts today are actually about a more positive face of WalMart: their progress in sustainability.

(Think of sustainability as doing things in a way that can continue indefinitely across time without resources collapsing or other bad things happening.)

I’ve learned WalMart is using their famed control over their suppliers to require more sustainable practices of them. Here in Portland, my home, that is translating into huge warehouses being built to LEED certification (that’s Leadership in Energy & Ecological Design), including extensive solar panels.

That means these warehouses that will ship products to WalMart will use much less fossil fuels than normal warehouses — and fossil fuels, are course, are what’s driving global warming. Also, WalMart has done huge promotions of compact fluorescent light bulbs, shaping that market significantly in a much-needed way. It appears they’re putting some legs on the public commitment they made to sustainability about two years ago.

So would I personally recommend now shopping at WalMart? Well, the reason I won’t is the same reason I never darken the door of Costco: great volumes of goods at dirt-cheap prices encourage overconsumption. And overconsumption is, in my eyes, the root of our cultural problems and environmental problems — both sets of problems, intertwined in their causes and effects.

The research I’ve seen lately indicates that the happiest people are not the ones who consume the most, but the ones who are rich in loving relationships, community and service/volunteer work. If happiness is what we all want, more stuff at low prices is not getting us there.

I’m glad WalMart is becoming greener, but it doesn’t change their basic premise of unfettered consumption. Thor and I are continuing to shop elsewhere. I left my little art company behind, and have a ‘normal’ job now that I love. We can afford normal prices.

By the way, I gave away the full-length mirror I bought there to a friend. She has more stuff than friends, come to think of it, and is not the happiest person I know.