Sunday, December 22, 2019

beyond the holiday glare

I recently read a terrific essay by a friend about a Secret Santa exchange at work. At first she was super Scroogy. In her words, she had resigned from the holiday frenzy years ago, the stress shadowing the anticipated joy.

But then she got caught up in the fun. She discovered details about a long time co-worker she would not have known had she not randomly picked this woman’s name. Stealthy gift-giving became a gratifying challenge. She thrilled at her colleague’s surprise, which inspired more giving. My friend ends her tender story with this image: the two of them, after the reveal, knee to knee, in rapt conversation at the holiday party. Secret Santa connected them in way that may not have otherwise happened, the spirit of the holidays outshining the stress that had eclipsed her joy in previous seasons.

This captures what a Secret Santa exchange feels like: sleuthing, seeking perfect gifts, surprising the recipient, feigning innocence at their surprise. And conversely: finding gifts at unexpected times and in unexpected places. All that generosity wrapped in mystery.

I cradle my thoughtful friend’s experience in one palm. I cradle, in the other, what I know about the things that preoccupy us during the holidays: food, lights, travel, festivities, gifts. Did you know 99% of what is extracted, manufactured, shipped and purchased is trashed after six months of use? That singing flowerpot, the glow in the dark toilet bowl, the bluetooth hairbrush, even the cute sweater—all of it, junked.

I hold these both as I navigate my own holidays: decorate, cook, bake, send cards, buy gifts, wrap gifts, attend parties. Also, if you have kids like me, multiply these expectations by the number of offspring. Also, find meaning in it. 

I struggle to find meaning since the holiday rituals seem overly focused on consumption. Did you know the average American consumes 2X more today than 50 years ago while happiness continues to decline? In fact, Americans' life expectancy is also in decline as a result of several epidemics: guns, drugs, obesity and despair.

Think about that.

The United States is roughly 5% of the world’s population, consumes 30% of its resources and produces 30% of the waste yet Americans are in despair. 

What are we doing? Why do we keep doing it? And why do we start doing it earlier and earlier. Because of what I know about the ecological and human cost of our voracious yet unfulfilling consumption, I too want to resign from the holidays.

I write this during the night, December 21, our shortest day in the northern hemisphere. Holiday lights flicker along my street. It seems like every year more people put up lights; maybe in the words of Susan Cooper, ‘to drive the dark away…burn beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive...’

I wonder at the lights. How we beseech them to dispel darkness of all forms. 

How our longest night is longest day in the southern hemisphere. Indeed, too, how the global North is inexorably linked to the global South, where the production of things that dazzle for barely six months darken other lives with an existential threat. May we understand how our own insatiable hunger for more things to dispel our darkness, spreads darkness. 

As days in the northern hemisphere lengthen, may too our understanding of our connection to those whose days we shorten beyond the earth’s rotation, for our fleeting wants. May we seek to understand their need like my friend learned her coworker’s wants. May we too provide for the wellbeing of the other, the stranger, who does not need to be among us for us to do so. May we consider how our lives, not what we purchase, can be Secret Santa. May we be knee to knee, in rapt communion with the unexpected, the unknown. The other.

During the holidays, I miss the stars. The constellations beyond our garish displays, beyond our garish busyness. Quiet steadfast light mapping darkness toward joy and peace. May we find our light, 'as promise wakens in the sleeping land.'

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

all that glitters

I woke up to environmental stories so contrasting, I want to tear my hair out.
Image result for Firmino Prexede Guajajara and Raimundo Guajajara"One was an article from Parents magazine about glitter. Scientists worldwide want to ban it because it harms marine life. Glitter, like microbeads (which have been banned in the UK), is mistaken for food and eventually impacts ecosystems and the food chain. I found this phrase bothersome:
these particles are now being found in seafood meant for human consumption.
There is no such thing as ‘seafood meant for human consumption.’ There aren’t species named seafood swimming around waiting to be consumed by humans. Nope, they don’t exist, aren’t meant for, our consumption; they’re just living their own lives and we happen to find them tasty. Just as you and I exist for our own reasons and are not meant to be landfood for lions.
But that phrase wasn’t as bothersome as this passage:
not all hope is lost for the glitter obsessed. BBC reports that eco-glitter, made from eucalyptus tree extract and aluminum is the latest groundbreaking alternative to the highly popular microplastic.
Thank goodness for science. Now we have eco-glitter. Double thank goodness koalas are functionally extinct because they won’t need eucalyptus and we can use it for glitter. Indeed, all hope is not lost.
Most bothersome was this:

By avoiding products that maintain microbeads and replacing your classic glitter with its biodegradable counterpart, you can take pride in making a better world for your kids to grow up in.

Classic glitter?

So many things wrong here. One, aluminum is not biodegradable. Two, replacing one product from extractive capitalism with another product from extractive capitalism is not a solution. Banning glitter and microbeads entirely would be a solution. Three, replacing one unnecessary thing with another unnecessary thing isn’t something to take pride in. Four, if you are taking pride in glitter, it won’t make the world a better place; it'll just make you feel better. Not the same thing at all. Five, to couple eco-glitter with making a better world, is unethical rubbish.

Do I sound angry?

I am heartbroken; it sometimes comes out as anger. Is it the same with you?

I am heartbroken because the next environmental story I read was about two indigenous chiefs in Brazil, Firmino Prexede Guajajara and Raimundo Guajajara, murdered advocating for indigenous rights against a utilities company. Last month in Brazil, forest guardian, Paulo Paulino Guajajara, was murdered by loggers. Last week, I read about Honduras being an increasingly lethal country for indigenous defenders. But imports from Honduras to America are on the rise. I am heartbroken people worldwide are murdered defending their habitats and cultures from extractive capitalism.

Meanwhile in America, we are peddling a narrative that if we switch out bad glitter, to protect ‘our seafood,' with good glitter, our fairy princess daughters can be a part of the solution without compromising on the fun.

Don’t get me started with the embedded patriarchy in the fairy princess daughters reference—not the point of this essay.

Is Parents magazine indicative of what the majority of Americans believe is proper orientation to the earth, its inhabitants and what doing their part looks like?

If so, it is a fiction borne from the masterful disassociation extractive capitalism affords those in the global north from everywhere and everyone else. It is a fiction to believe eco-friendly glitter is doing one's part while others around the world risk death. To be entitled to fun is also a fiction.

The disassociation, eco-glitter, entitlement to fun: all functions of privilege. Eco-glitter is science in the service of privilege.

We must understand the geopolitical legacy of supremacy that has scaffolded the global north on the backs of the global south. Environmentalists of the global north must dismantle privilege within ourselves and within the environmental movement if we are serious about ensuring a habitable planet for all beings.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

lingua franca

I live between the circles of a non-intersecting Venn diagram. One circle contains environmental knowledge. The other is consumer culture.

Recently, I attended a parent meeting for the Montessori Model United Nations program my youngest is participating in. We discussed selling t-shirts to fundraise and the tri-fold displays kids take to the conference. Thousands of students from all over the world converge onto NYC with these tri-folds. When my oldest attended, we were too busy to savor the displays and after the conference, her tri-fold foam board sat in my basement for three years until I threw it away.

When my middle daughter participated, I spoke in Environmentalese about the tri-folds and t-shirts. Since the MMUN topics include slave labor, deforestation, drought, water pollution and economic inequity, we had an opportunity to make real life connections between how what we global northerners consume is intertwined with the people, issues and countries our students will research. Maybe we should bypass the tri-folds and t-shirts—products of slave labor that contribute to drought, water pollution, deforestation and economic inequity.

This year I was mute, knowing Environmentalese would fall on deaf ears, again. Of course parents are excited to see their students display their knowledge on tri-folds. Of course Clifton’s dad wants to see his artistic son’s design on a t-shirt. Of course we are super proud of the MMUN program and want to promote it through t-shirts.

The two non-intersecting circles of the Venn diagram represent two languages, two cultures, that don’t speak to each other:

Environmentalese— Here’s the environmental footprint of a t-shirt. Do you know a single t-shirt requires 700 gallons of water and crisscrosses the globe to get to you?

Consumerese—Let’s get t-shirts made for every occasion. And season. And event. And in every color. For everyone.

Like all languages, Consumerese is passed on by family and culture. In the world of Consumerese, what we want and need materialize as goods and services, as commodities. Our homes, communication, education, food, beverages, entertainment, recreation, celebrations, life events (weddings, births, deaths) and healthcare are forms of consumption, not the result of our direct personal industry. Common words you hear in Consumerese are ‘cheap’ and ‘convenient,’ because satisfying the immediate desires of the Self is primary.

Since language shapes our ideation and therefore perception and understanding of the world, Consumerese determines our relationship to our planet. For example, take the term, ‘pest control.’ Pest is a vague, elastic word for an irritant. To name other living beings sharing our ecosystem, ‘pests,’ justifies our desire to kill or ‘control’ them.

Do we know about the impact of pesticides on health, water, soil, air? Do we know how pesticides originated? Have there been long term studies on groundwater impacts? Indeed, do we know anything about where what we consume comes from or goes to? Are we aware of who and what is effected along the way? If not, why?

Consumerese, as a language and as a culture, doesn’t delve into these questions unless it can turn the answers into yet more untested, unquestioned commodities. Of course those who speak Environmentalese know and try to share this knowledge but their efforts haven't worked sufficiently enough to eradicate the pesticide industry. 

When I worked as an environmental educator in an after school program, I taught Environmentalese: how our everyday lives intersect with ecosystems and people worldwide: how built infrastructures impact natural ones. We examined energy systems, food systems, vehicular infrastructure, air quality, trash and recycling infrastructure and more. Understanding what undergirds our modern lives should be basic knowledge, basic environmental literacy, for everyone. But everyone I know outside the environmental movement, seems content with Consumerese. Most of us, like the parents mentioned, speak Consumerese.

Don’t get me wrong.

We’ve always consumed from earth for our necessities and desires. But we’ve crossed to sheer exploitation to serve fantasies which have become normalized. From year round fresh fruit and flowers in the Midwest to massaging recliners to wristwatches that turn on ovens, Consumerese is the lingua franca. This language and its culture is driving  us and other species to extinction as well as driving climate change.

Unfortunately the speakers of Environmentalese and Consumerese do not intersect meaningfully or understand each other. What we see instead is the equivalent of Environmentalese sprinkled into Consumerese as in, “here’s five things you can do to save the planet.” Or Consumerese sprinkled with Environmentalese as in, buy metal straws.

But according to scientists the world over, we are on the edge of ecological collapse. Despite the efforts of those in the Environmentalese circle, the Consumerese circle continues to grow, untouched by environmental efforts. The circles aren't converging.

If we have any chance of saving ourselves we must create a new language to bridge the chasm between Environmentalese and Consumerese. It must be a language rooted in earth literacy. A language in which we are fluent in our understanding of ourselves as earthlings part of a global community with other earthlings. Earthlings, subject to the limitations and rules governing the natural ecosystems on which we are utterly dependent. Our earth-based language must be facile enough to widen our understanding of ourselves, others and the inexorable ways we are interdependent on our earth.

How do we create a new language, thereby shape a new earth-based cultural paradigm? 

Think about it. In America alone, there are 40 million families.

That means:
* 55 millions students
*  being educated in 133,000 schools
* employing  6.2 million people in the educational sector


We renovate the educational system.

The spine of K-12 curriculum becomes earth-based. All subject area curriculum and extra-curricular activities emanate from that spine. School personnel--from maintenance to cafeteria workers to board members to coaches to school nurses and security guards--are also educated so they can connect their vocational habits and choices to how those draw from and impact our ecological wordwide web.

We no longer marginalize study of how we interact with the natural world by containing it in an after school club, a one-off field trip to test water quality or dump it on the science teachers to squeeze into a six week unit. So in a sense we no longer marginalize the natural world. That is the Consumerese mindset; let’s consume some green experiences for a unit.

From working in the environmental field, I saw firsthand that siloed lessons didn’t take root. For example, how useful is it to teach a group of twenty kids the ills of Styrofoam while Styrofoam is ubiquitous in schools? But imagine if the 55 million students and six million educational employees understand Styrofoam as the costly toxic that it is rather than as merely a cheap commodity via Consumerese. We would get schools back on durable trays. One person or twenty personally foregoing Styrofoam doesn't stop the production of Styrofoam--what ultimately needs to happen. But 55 million students schooled in Styrofoam can take down that industry and generate a more sensible one.

Imagine those students as adults working in the restaurant, hotel and hospital industries; anywhere we now see Styrofoam. They would be empowered to not only push manufactures to create more environmentally sensible products but they themselves will be more environmentally sensible manufacturers. This is because they would have been immersed in an earth-based language and curriculum that gave them tools, community and support to imagine and manifest a different reality.

So instead of telling people what they should or should not do as those who speak Environmentalese do, we teach the why. We follow the strands of why to include the myriad injustices embedded in extractive capitalism. We examine externalized costs and who, what, where pays them. We look at the geopolitics that enable destructive systems. We look at stories, struggles, conflicts, history and art of people worldwide impacted by Consumerese. This way, every discipline speaks into the creation of a new earth-based language.

For a new earth-based paradigm requires the aperture of all subject matters. We need everything in our educational toolbox to respond to our ecological collapse and craft new systems. That isn’t the job of science, one tool, alone. Science can’t determine if its progeny is worthwhile, ethical, sustainable, detrimental, or just. Science after all, gave us Styrofoam, massaging recliners and pest control.

But history, art, music, economics, government, physical education, language arts, psychology, philosophy, religion must together shape the new earth-based language we desperately need to create holistic, integrated paradigms that take into account the needs and rights of all living beings.

Learning a language is transformative. We don’t know how various subject areas will evolve as they reorient themselves to be earth-based. We don’t know how we as a culture will evolve from Consumerese to earth-based. We don't know yet what industries will fall and rise as a result of deep, full spectrum inquiry. 

What I do know is Environmentalese and Consumerese are communicating insufficiently for the dramatic task at hand. Just this morning, I read yet another article about individual actions to stop climate change with the same tired solutions-drive less, eat less meat-that are statistically ineffectual.

Again this is Environmentalese sprinkled into Consumerese without context, without a depth of understanding or push for the systems change necessary to actually move the needle on ecological collapse. It is akin to me feeling good about myself when I say Gracias to a Spanish speaker. That doesn’t make me fluent in Spanish. Personal environmentally piety within earth destroying systems is tokenism.

We are dangerously beyond that.

We have put our lives and the lives of our children at stake with our Consumerese and environmental illiteracy. As we can see from erratic, dramatic weather events, species extinction, drought, flooding, fires, our earth is speaking quite clearly. It is our ethical imperative to create an earth-based language to respond. We need the paradigm shift that comes when one is fluent in another language. 

Think about it.

School is the one place where thousands of people gather consistently en masse during their formative years for nearly two decades. Imagine students K-12 absorbing an earth-based ethos in every subject matter and grow up to be the farmers, doctors, investors, bankers, builders, cafeteria workers, educators, artists, athletes, beauticians, homemakers, lawyers, city employees, politicians, voters of the future. We must empower a generation to use their imagination, empathy, ingenuity to transform ideation and therefore orientation toward our only habitat. 

An earth-based language must become our lingua franca. Otherwise the chasm between Environmentalese and Consumerese will consume more earthlings.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

the only thing that ever has

Today I lived in the kind of world I want.

The new neighbors asked me to help transform some of their yard into native plants. I felt intimidated so asked other neighbors and friends to help. Two friends who couldn’t participate, donated plants and offered tools including a wheelbarrow. Another friend stopped by in the midst of his busy day to encourage us. A neighbor who didn’t know the new neighbors but is an extraordinary gardener, showed up with tools, plants and a cheery disposition. Another friend brought tools and expertise regarding plant placement in relation to sunlight and drainage.

At first the task seemed insurmountable. Eradicate grass, move rocks, pull up invasives then figure out where to put all the donated plants. But little by little, through the course of the morning, through the bagels and muffins, through the joking, digging, dividing, planning, a garden began to take shape.

Rocks became a meandering border sprinkled with lambs ears. Joe Pye and Big Bluestem sentry the back, tall phlox flank the side fence, flowering quince claimed a spot in the opposite corner. Mint, rosemary and oregano bask in a sunny patch closest to the kitchen door. Spirea settled by the garage. Milkweed seeds found crevices throughout. Cardboard covers the patches cleared for next time.

Then, an open air lunch on the deck with champagne and Chinese. Getting acquainted now over Kung Pao instead of poke weed, we admired our work; astonished by what we created in just a few hours. A handful of people through shared tools, shared beauty, shared knowledge, shared hospitality, we transformed a part of the world.

Why this poor picture that doesn't capture the details? Because it is imperfect, reflects us. Captures a work in progress, reflects community. 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead

Thursday, October 3, 2019

I can't even with this.

This checklist is played out, environmentalists. WTF. How can the people who scream science all the damn time peddle this shit? Are you not down with math or logic? 

First, the title: Climate Change Mitigation Checklist. You know what I use a checklist for? Groceries. Camping supplies. To help ready my daughter for a sleepover. But let me get this right. We live in a time of unprecedented drought, violent AF unnatural weather events, some countries under threat of being submerged, the populace of other countries walking thousands of miles away from native lands rendered inhabitable because of climate change, increasing numbers of environmental defenders killed (four per week in 2017), and you have a checklist. Yes, please hang your laundry to dry. Check.

Are we defining mitigate in the same way? Because this simply doesn't add up.

Here’s what’s offensive about this list:  

One, who can afford to buy carbon offsets, switch to a 100% carbon free electric company, replace appliances, buy an EV, buy seasonal and local food, live close to work, get solar, get rid of lawn? Who has time to hang laundry, pester politicians regularly, use a scythe, snowshoe to work?

It takes privilege to fulfill this checklist-time, money, resource, access. Further, it is a vapid, insensitive list when you consider that those most vulnerable and have been suffering for decades from climate change don’t have a fraction of the things on the damn list in the first place to change. People in the global south are literally fighting for their lives while global northerners fight for their way of life. 

Two, remember when women were given tips to avoid rape? Walk with your keys between your knuckles, take a self defense class, drive with a cut out of a man in the car, don’t leave your drink unattended, wear modest clothing, don’t jog at night, get a dog (or a recording of one) if you live alone, carry mace, avoid certain places at night, etc. We can see how well that works for women. 

This is environmental patriarchy. Global companies, banks and governments Epstein and Cosby the planet and its inhabitants but you suggest I attend a protest. Tell me again how that mitigates systemic exploitation? Just as those 'protective' measures do not stop women from being victimized by predators, reusing my grocery bag won't mitigate climate change. 

I am not interested in actions that maintain environmental privilege and patriarchy.