Posts Tagged 'social justice'

High Energy Prices: Good

I’m sipping my coffee at 6 a.m. at Stumptown in Southeast Portland (joy). The Oregonian’s front page shows an ocean of the 72,000 faces that turned out to see Barack Obama yesterday (yes, I voted for him, too) and the lower right corner story is: “Who loves high energy prices? The environment.”

The gist is basic economics: when price goes up, demand goes down. And we have got to demand (use) less energy, because it costs the earth heavily. I’ve seen oil fields and coal mines described as war zones, and that makes sense, because we’re violently wresting fossil fuels from the earth that have been millions of years in the making (hence the term fossil). Moreover, burning them causes global warming, because the atmosphere cannot quickly absorb millions of years worth of carbon dioxide and methane. High prices help us slow all this down. In fact, slowing down is crucial all around.

The big problem with high energy prices is that they can make the poor suffer, which of itself is immoral and unethical. If you can’t afford to get to work or heat your house, then you deserve a price break or assistance. (But you also should carpool!) We need a more progressive tax system altogether, and those who have enough need to just voluntarily share more with those who don’t have enough. My household gives about 5% of our net income to philanthropy, but I think we can and should increase that.

If the earth loves high energy prices, let’s get it straight that we are part of the earth, too. Would we put a rock-bottom price on our own lives? No; our civilization is built on valuing human life. Because our fate rises and falls with the earth’s fate, we have to put a high price on energy and use it as the incredibly costly stuff that it actually is.

The Peak Of Happiness

I recently asked a good friend how happy he was on a scale of 0 to 10. He only had to think for a few seconds. “A five,” he said. “You?”

“I’m at 9 or 10,” I replied. Interestingly, he makes about twice as much money as I do, and even likes his job (as do I). The social sciences have studied happiness quite thoroughly, so what have they learned about what makes us happy? Plenty, but the single viewing- lens I’ll choose for today is the year in which people in the U.S. reported their highest level of happiness, which was 1957.
In 1957 people did less T.V.-watching, more reading and more bridge-playing with friends and neighbors than now. They ate more meals together at home and did less dining out. They voted more. They walked and used public transit more, owned fewer cars per household, and did less driving. They bought fewer clothes. In fact, Americans were less affluent and did much less purchasing of most items in general during the time in history in which they reported the most happiness.

Would I want to be living in 1957? Absolutely not. Back then our culture was stiflingly homogeneous and repressive of women and minorites. I don’t believe in idolizing ‘good old days’ that really never were, but instead, in learning all we can from our history. In its favor (if you care about social justice in addition to happiness) 1957 America had a strikingly smaller gap between rich and poor than it does now. Of course in all times and places, if your survival needs are not met, you have no chance of happiness. Incomes were much more moderate than now during the peak of happiness in the U.S.

All the above makes it unsurprising that I report twice as much happiness as my friend who earns twice what I earn. (Note: he is single and I would like to set him up with a cool single woman. Any ideas?)

John Edwards: More Grit Than Gloss

I’m sad that John Edwards has exited the presidential race. Why? I saw his as the most honest and courageous voice on the national stage, between his populist stand against poverty, naming corporate greed for what it is, and . . . imagine this . . . promoting that Americans should be willing to sacrifice as we address global warming.

I heard Mr. Edwards use those words when I was ten feet away from him at a Portland Business Alliance dinner in 2007 at the Oregon Convention Center. I have heard many speakers and been around many politicians. Yet I was deeply impressed. He was more gritty than glossy, almost in contrast to his good looks.

Mr. Edwards has called Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama with the news of his exit, specifically asking them to commit to addressing poverty more in their campaigns. I find it ironic that the populist candidate who stood most firmly for the common man ended up sacrificing his popularity in the process.

What almost nobody is talking about is the fact that poor people will suffer the most as global warming advances, and already are in the low-lying coastal areas of the world.

I Have A Dream — 2008 Update

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream: that America could rise above the selfish institution of segregation. The dream seemed hopelessly idealistic. Too many people in power benefited from segregation, and were willing to violently defend it.

What if Dr. King were alive today? I am convinced his dream would embrace sustainability, i.e. living in a way that ensures future generations can also live. Everything he stood for supports such a vision. Yet this ‘2008 dream’ seems hopelessly idealistic. Americans — 4% of the world’s population — are too busily consuming 25% of the earth’s resources, while global warming marches forward, essentially unaddressed by our government.

Dr. King’s original dream turned out to be surprisingly realistic. As we all know, segregation ended. Less well known is the cost of realizing Dr. King’s dream, which was sacrifices all around. King’s followers had to sacrifice their safety as they used his disciplined tactics of nonviolence even as they were attacked. Those who benefited from segregation had to sacrifice the privileges they enjoyed at the expense of others, and ought never have had in the first place.

The reality of dreams: no sacrifices, no dream fulfillment.

Willingness to sacrifice is a holy fire, and Dr. King carried that fire. While I don’t know exactly what our nation’s sacrifices for sustainability will look like, I know in my heart that we are capable of tapping into the holy fire that consumes our selfishness in service to the greater good.

Dr. King said he had a dream that one day America’s children could be judged not by the color of their skins but by the content of their characters. I say the updated 2008 dream is that people, and also companies, can be judged — and motivated — not by their wealth but by the well-being they create for future generations.

That the idea of sacrificing any of our material wealth for such a dream currently feels so foreign and unattractive to us is an indication of how far we have to go. But look at the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream of integration to see the joy and justice that sacrifice can yield.


Seeking A Diamond-Cut Life

I’m back after a break! Pulitzer prize winner Jared Diamond points out in the New York Times today that we in the U.S. are consuming 32 times more than the citizens of developing countries, and that that has to change because the earth’s resources are running out.

A little more surprisingly, he also says something I have been maintaining for years: our quality of life is not directly tied to our consumption. In other words, as research by Juliet Schor and others has shown, more stuff doesn’t make us happier. Much of the time, it’s just waste that doesn’t add value — although it hurts the planet.

All of us want to be happy. And probably we’d like to ‘do the right things’ in the process if we can. So, if you and I are average U.S. citizens, what’s the best route to consuming less? If happiness can be symbolized by a diamond that gets cut from surrounding rock, which things cut from our lives can best craft the diamond?

Here are my Top Five high-impact suggestions.

  1. Put ourselves on air-travel diets. Flying represents enormous fossil-fuel consumption. Buying carbon offsets for it, while not as good, at least brings us closer to paying the real cost of flying.
  2. Downsize our living space and make better use of what we’ve got. This doesn’t just apply to moving; we can shut off little-used rooms in winter and conserve heating fuel.
  3. Get a smaller vehicle or get rid of one vehicle altogether. Naturally this is only a viable option when public transit or carshare programs are available.
  4. Get a housemate (not necessarily a lover). Single-person households are a new fad in human history, and very resource-consumptive. This is also the best way for many single people to start saving for retirement.
  5. Put ourselves on car-mileage diets. Before grabbing the keys, think: How much is this trip really adding to our well-being?

I plan to write again on the diamond-cut life later this week. FYI, the best website I know of with good practical advice on consuming less is Wa$ted!.

Simplicity and its Implications

In the late 80’s I led a workshop on simple living at a conference on peace and social justice. This was at a Quaker church in my hometown of Whittier, California and two of my workshop attendees were an older couple with kind and careworn faces. As we all spoke of our experiences it became clear to me that this couple had been living lives of simplicity and conviction about three times longer than my own years on the planet. The woman said something that has stayed with me ever since: 

“I know full well that if everyone lived the way I do – never setting foot in a department store, for example – the entire economy would grind to a halt.” 

I believe with all my heart that we in the U.S. need to consume considerably less to live sustainably on this planet. I’m aware that I’m also talking about people’s jobs being at stake. Equally true is that millions of jobs have been permanently destroyed in recent decades precisely by the engines of economic growth, particularly downsizing and mergers. What we need is jobs —  no, make that work – that is sustainable and resilient in the face of the climate changes that are already well underway.