Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Snow Prayer

Running with Snowflakes
Dreaming of Big Winter Storms
Me, dog, trails, woods, earth ...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Leopold's Land Ethic: Still Not Listening

Why is it that so many early environmental thinkers get it ... and yet we -- with unarguable evidence in front of us, don't. Reading some of these older writers -- Muir, Abbey, Carson, Berry, Olson -- is always a refreshing look at the wilderness and the society where we live. The patterns, the structures, the mazes they recognize always made perfect, if not chaotic, sense.

Yesterday morning I had the joy of rereading Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic. This timeless essay clearly and poignantly defines and describes why we are so wrong-headed in the manner in which we think about land use and our ecological imprint. Written in 1948, Leopold proved himself to be a forward thinker -- challenging those of his time to think more deeply and critically about the land which they lived and worked. His challenges, more relevant today than when first published, are either conveniently ignored or quickly forgotten. Yet his words must be read, heard, and understood if we are to maintain our world for generations. Unless we begin to better understand how everything is connected, we are in danger of leaving our children with only the messes to clean up. And by then it very likely will be too late.

Over a century ago Muir told us "When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Einstein told us "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Certain Eastern religions practice the harmonious nature of yin and yang. The Ibo of central Nigeria learn early about their competing Chi's -- and the importance of finding balance. And yet here we sit in today's world farther away from Leopold's vision ... and the wisdom of balance ... than we have ever been.

Leopold's theme holds closely to the idea that humans must accept a different, more ethical role in respect to the land we interact with and occupy. He says "In human history, we have learned that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating ... Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves."

Not much hope in these words. The economic and environmental conversations we have today are controlled by those who see it as "man's right" to take profit from the land. Those who argue for balance and constraint, for sustainability, are said to be out of touch -- called environmentalists ...  tree huggers ... loons. Oil companies, industry leaders, radio and television talking heads, and wealthy CEO's argue, without any corroborating evidence, the false narrative that our lands, our waterways, and our air are healthy, and that we can siphon every ounce of profit from the land before we change our ways. And because those voices of sustainability don't have resources to fight their chatter, our ecological safety net falls into the hands of the very companies and political hacks who make money through the exploitation and destruction of both our public and private resources.

Leopold calls out the self-righteous libertarian thinkers of our day. He emphasizes that "a system of conversation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided." These libertarians believe unequivocally that the free market is the only place to find an honest ethical bargain. They argue against government regulations that protect the environment, instead choosing to believe that they can do what they want with what they have, and that only the consumers should dictate the market. Most libertarians see private property as a god-given right, and with this right they can do whatever they want with their own land, regardless of the implications for society. Hogwash. What is most critical is what is left after the profits. If we take a profit but change the geological look and feel of the land then we have unethically taken from the earth.  If we take a profit from the land regardless of the erosion, run-off, air-pollution, and destruction, then we have lost our ability to make ethical choices. It appears we have come to accept that profit is the purpose of our lands ... not our earth's long-term health.

Where are the ethics?  The soil, the water, the forests, the plants, the animals -- as well as us humans -- must all strengthen our lands for future generations. We must maintain soil that can grow safe food and provide potable water. But sadly, most of our discussions about land-use involve only "for profit" possibilities, not the ethical relationship judged by the health of Leopold's biotic land pyramid.

And so as we move though this summer of record heat we must begin to somehow challenge the status quo. We must somehow provide a place for a land ethic ... for a place where sustainable practices will benefit the economic health of our citizenry and the ecological health of our waters and forests. We can have both, but it will take a political will unlike anything we have ever seen, right smack in the middle of a political environment sick with greed and over indulgence. It won't be easy.

In Leopold's final section (The Outlook) he tells us that "It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense."

It is Leopold's (final) outlook that leaves me most distressed. Because in a world that seemingly no longer values any philosophical idea that doesn't worship the alter of the free market, even a perfectly reasonable land ethic, one based upon a long-term ecological - economical balance, one that must have government and business working together, and one that ultimately provides hope for my children and their children, sadly, has virtually no chance of implementation.

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot."  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

All Politics are Personal -- To Our Collective Demise

I have had a hard time getting back here. For lots of reasons. The end of the school year and finals week are always way to busy. Then add on five writing classes, a failed recall election, the oldest daughter's graduation and graduation party, a quick fishing trip with the boys, a physical and some dental work, two basketball tournaments and suddenly the Summer Solstice has passed us by.

But what has kept me away from the blog is more so my thoughts than my actions. I have had a difficult time getting past the June 5th recall election. As a public employee -- specifically a public school teacher -- I was in full favor of the recall. And when Walker won so handily I knew I needed to accept the fact and move on. I mean "this is what democracy looks like." As depressing as the results were, I had no choice but to guide my emotions to a better place. And yet in getting to this better place it is essential that I do not drift into a world of complacency. And there lies my conundrum.

The political battle that took place in Wisconsin over the past 16 months has worn me out. It has worn out many of us ... On both sides of the political aisle. And yet still, as I accept the Walker win, I must continue to fight for my profession. And my livelihood, and for the betterment of my state.

But I can't help but wonder if there is a better way. Because so much of the battle in front of us involves putting faith in a system that appears more broken by the day.

Everywhere I turn I hear talking heads: On the radio. On the television. On Facebook. On on-line newspapers and especially with the article's corresponding reader comments. What I know, or at least what I feel, is that nobody is listening. Everyone is talking and no one is listening. Or at least we are only listening to other like-minded thinkers. Instead of listening and learning from our neighbors we instead let voices -- hateful voices -- dictate our thinking. And what we are left with is a very false view of each other. And that is just the way the wealthy and powerful like it.

Tip O'Neill famously said "all politics are local." Today, these words should be revised to read: "all politics are personal." In O'Neill's version local citizens sit down and together figure out what works for their locale. In the revised version it is never about ideas but rather about victory and power -- victory and power for those who have access to the government, defeat and humiliation for our democracy. 

Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill share a laugh
Yet O'Neill's words are why I am confused and why since June 5th I have felt a bit helpless. Helpless in trying to figure out how I can accept Walker's win and still fight for what is right. Our state needs to heal, and yet as we begin to move forward out of this mess, we cannot sit back and expect that policies -- or politicians for that matter -- will heal us. But as I dig further into my thoughts, I keep coming back to one specific idea ... that the healing can't be just part of accepting this divide. It is the future not the past that must heal. And this thinking about the future is what has left me wondering: how do we get back to the idea that "all politics are local"?

Since the election my thoughts have stayed central to one single question: "How is it that we have gotten to the point where public school teachers have become the enemy?" I don't ask this with a critical tone, but rather with an honest curiosity. I like my friends in the private sector and I respect what they do; I think they like me; I think they respect me. If my assumptions are true, then what has happened? I always thought, that even with our differences, that we are in this together. Today, I am not so sure.

The public school question is one I am starting to ask outloud ... to my friends, to my colleagues, to my family, and on appropriate occasions even to those who think differently than me. I know this question can be broadened to include all public sector workers, but I want to -- at least initially -- talk to what I know: public schools and public school teachers. I see this question as a starting point for some essential conversations ... and very likely some painful discourse.

Yet I trust my friends and my neighbors. I trust that we can share ideas, and beliefs, and differences. And that we can all leave feeling better about ourselves and our neighbors -- even those who had "Walker" or "Recall Walker" signs in adjoining yards.

I do not believe that politicians or talking heads can take us to a place where trust and respect resonate. We can only get there by getting rid of the noise and start speaking to each other about what matters. I am willing to bet we have a lot more commonalities than we do differences.

I was raised in a place where people got along. It is a placed steeped in conservative values. The neighbors I grew up with were and are good people.  They looked out for each other and they cheered for each other. Wanted good things for their neighbors, for their schools, for their community. They shared common ideas and infrastructures and yet still, many voted differently from each other. But that was okay because eventually they sat and figured things out. And then they had picnics and beers together.

Yet on June 5th many of these same people who I grew up with -- some who I saw as  mentors -- voted for something radically different than what I voted for. And now we sit on completely different sides of the divide.

I struggle to wonder why?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Searching for Clues

I read a good essay yesterday. Written by one of my students, a young man off to U. W. - Madison this fall. Bright kid. Engaging personality. Well- spoken. He represents our school district very well. A young person like him helps me feel hopeful.

So anyway he wrote a "definition essay." This simply means that each student finds a word, or a small phrase, and chases its meaning. One could focus on the history of a word, or the etymology, or the personal connection, or maybe even the manipulation of the word. They have lots of freedom to choose the subject ... and sneakily it teaches (reinforces) an important technique of good writers -- defining the argument/subject of the essay. It is always one of my favorite essays to read and to teach.

However what moved me about his essay wasn't so much the words he wrote himself, but instead the words he quoted from his father's friend -- an engineer, born and raised in Tokyo.

He chose "death" as his word, hoping that his investigation would help him come to terms with his grandmother's death. She was a victim of Alzheimer's. The final years of her life were obviously difficult for all -- especially for a young person experiencing the death of someone (or at least someone close) for the first time. Besides speaking to the death of his grandmother, he also wondered how he could feel so ambivalent about losing his grandmother -- especially when during those last few years she was "only a shell of herself." It was obvious, he was searching for clues.

And then he added the story of his father's friend. When asked about death, Peter revealed his eastern (im)mortality in a story:

 "When a tree first takes in the earth, it fears neither wind nor other force because its roots intertwine with the trees closest to it. As it grows, its children intertwine their roots with it, and then its childrens' children do the same, holding the grandfather tree in place amongst its family. For that reason, the tree cannot be uprooted; it cannot be torn from its family. Then when death finally comes for the tree, it slowly fades away, leaving space for new trees to grow, but its roots remain, protecting and anchoring the rest of its family."

A wonderful metaphor. Not only for those left alive, but also for those who have already left. I feel comfort in those words. I know it doesn't quite fit into the Christian way of seeing death and immortality. But for me there is something very permanent -- very secure, and something very lasting about a big old tree. Especially when it is surrounded by a forest full of healthy trees. It leaves me hopeful.

When asked how many family members and friends he has lost, Peter said, "I have never lost a family or a friend. Not a single one. My grandfather and grandmother have passed away, my best friend in school recently died from a severe sickness, and I have seen many people pass into the void, but I have not lost a single one of them."

Again, comforting words -- wise words. Especially as I get a bit older. Especially as I get ready to send my oldest child off to Austria next year. And especially as I watch my seven-year old run around the cul-de-sac. The metaphors resonate and leave me hopeful. And I also believe that through my student's act of writing, he found some solace ... and maybe a wee bit of understanding.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Fraud and the Common Man

On the way home from work tonight, listening to NPR, I caught a fascinating story about the nature of fraud. Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things follows the story of Toby Groves, a seemingly good and ethical businessman who made a promise to his father at age 20 that he would never get into trouble and shame his family's name. Then only a couple decades later he committed a "massive bank fraud involving millions of dollars that drove several companies out of business and resulted in a loss of about 100 jobs."

Yet that alone is not at all fascinating, in fact most of us, at first glance would agree that he got what was coming to him. However as the story takes shape it becomes quite compelling and frightening, mainly because from all indications, Toby Groves spent most of his life trying to live the ethical life. And then, because of a series of bad ethical choices, he found himself and his company so far in debt that he believed he had to create what is called an "air loan" -- a full fledged loan given on a house that doesn't exist. No one bought it. No one sold it. It was never even built. What makes this story so disturbing is that Toby Groves could not pull this off by himself. He needed the help of others.

And that is exactly what he got.

A friend at a title company created a false document. An appraisal on a house that never existed appeared in the files. And someone within his bank approved the loan and transferred the money for a nonexistent home. Groves said that as he talked with these people and asked for their help he admitted to them that he knew he had screwed up. He says he never pressured them and told each of them that if they didn't want to help him that he would understand and they would never hear another word from him. He explained to his colleagues that he would be able to get himself out of financial trouble and save his company -- and he only needed just a little help from his friends. And without hesitation all of them delivered. No questions of the process. No questions of the legality. No questions of the morality or ethics. Each of them willingly participated in Groves's fraud!

What makes the story so interesting is that the reasons people commit fraud might not be what we would normally think. I certainly assumed that people commit fraud because of the desire to get rich -- or at least the desire to get themselves into a better place financially. However the story tells us that  psychologists and economists suggest that it is often not financial incentives that lead someone astray, but rather a more altruistic reason -- because "human beings like each other." Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, discussed emissions testers to make his point. He reports that 20 to 50% of car emissions that should have failed actually passed. Financial reasons right? Not at all, instead it appears that most cars that falsely passed did so because the emissions testers felt empathy for the car owner. Pierce says that BMW or Audi owners usually failed when their emissions were above the accepted levels, but that Toyota or Honda owners tended to pass in the same situations. His conclusion is that the emission testers felt a common bond with the humble car owners and therefore passed them along simply because they liked them and felt for them.

So the scary part to this story is that maybe behaving ethically isn't as easy as it appears. Maybe human nature is able to justify bad behavior when an individual believes what he/she is doing is for the betterment of others ... or for his/her company ... or for his/her country. And if that is the case, then how is that we get people to understand when they are behaving unethically.

Because if we can believe the general conclusions of this story -- and because most of us like our fellow humans -- that given the right situation, many of us will do things to help out our friends and neighbors, even if the actions might not be "right." I mean why else would a bunch of middle class workers help Toby Groves commit massive fraud, especially when it appears they themselves did not receive huge financial rewards.

And if the assumptions from this story are accurate ... then are not all of us capable of committing fraud?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy Birthday Mr. Muir!

Where are you John Muir? We need you now more than ever!

" Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and; tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love."  

-- John Muir ... Mountain Thoughts

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Watts, Vonnegut and Humanity

Recently I watched A Conversation With Myself by Alan Watts, a fascinating informal talk exploring the failure of our technology. My profound interest into his ideas is born from my own classroom and from my own thoughtful ramblings. Over the past several years I have had many conversations with students about the ramifications of our technological advances.

These discussions tend to be fun, lively, random, and are almost always poignant and enlightening. Our conversation usually ignites from the students reading of The Euphio Question by Kurt Vonnegut – a story focused around a machine that produces “happiness by the kilowatt.” At the push of a button, anyone within range of the radio waves feels unfettered joy and happiness. While destruction, starvation, and infidelity engulf the experiment they are living, the players in the story feel only great happiness and contentment. At first glance the story may appear to be only a commentary about mind control; however, it is not a great stretch to suggest that Vonnegut is instead satirizing the dangers of a society that now finds its presumed joys in the gadgets it acquires.

Although Vonnegut’s story is one of great playfulness and Watts's is one of profound seriousness, it is not a stretch to see the common thread between each narrative. According to Watts:

"Everything we are doing to try and improve the world was a success in the short run, made amazing initial improvements, but in the long run we seem to be destroying the planet by our very efforts to control it and improve it."

When we think of technological advances such as the gasoline powered automobile engine no one will argue that this has not been advantageous to us – we can travel farther and quicker to see our family and friends, we can exchange commerce across the interstate highway, we can heat our homes by simply turning up the thermostat. And yet as our planet warms and our ozone continues to break apart and more and more wars originate from our thirst to power our industrial society, is it also not a stretch to suggest that at some point we must think differently. Instead of more research and development in solar and wind power, we instead continue the narrative that “fracking and digging” can solve our energy problems. Our oil addiction is an example of Watts’s ideas that what improves our temporary existence is really a false promise – a promise that we not only continue to believe but also one that we promote.

Yet as Watts’s argument focuses more on the physical challenges of our earth, it is not without reason that Vonnegut’s story is a reflection of how our social world is threatened by the technological advances of instant communication. Young people walk our hallways and streets plugged into their iPods. Adults go to restaurants, athletic events, and even their vacations plugged into their “smart phones” – apparently afraid to walk away, for even a few minutes, from the world that is outside of the only thing we can truly control, the moment we are living. It appears we are moving closer to the world Vonnegut critiqued, one in which our happiness is found not in our relationships – both with our friends and with our natural world – but instead with the gadgets we are afraid to go without, especially in places that were historically important social gatherings. So isn’t it fair then to ask if we are better off because we carry worlds of information at the hands of a search engine? Do we really need to keep up on the 24-hour news cycle? Are we really more informed, and more importantly, correctly informed, because we are the first to report news to our friends?

I certainly know and understand that returning to a world in which we travel by horse and buggy, or communicate by telegraph is unrealistic and nonsensical. Yet still, the presumed question that both Watts and Vonnegut present – yet neither answer – is one worth considering. Within the successes and advances in our technology have we lost the very parts of ourselves that make us human?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Human Soul Finds a Sweet Spot!

One of my favorite videos I have come across this past year comes courtesy of the video blog, The Perennial Plate. Mesmerized by the depth of the words and the rattling of the boat against the surf, I dream of being as relevant and yet as simple as Seaweed Man.