Saturday, February 29, 2020

even the phrase 'each other' doesn't make any sense*

My February calendar picture is of two Gentoo penguin chicks. One bird seems to have its wing around the other. That one also looks squattier than the taller, thinner one. Is it self-conscious the way I was around my tall, thin friends as a youngster? The penguins look like they’re pursing their bills like my daughters and their friends pucker when taking selfies. Will they take a bazillion more to get it just right, before posting? Is the light hitting? It’s easy to see the penguins through a human lens, so accustomed are we to anthropomorphizing nonhuman beings. Remember pet rocks or the movie Zootopia

I realize I know nothing about penguins. I suppose they have the same needs: food, water, shelter, community but are we always self-referencing? I stare at the penguins and wonder if I can see penguin in myself. They are alien and have nothing to do with me. What's more, I don't want to connect to them. I have better ways to spend my time than to understand penguinness. My perception has not been trained to do this and my imagination fails. I can't get past my anthropomorphism. 

We are told the road to empathy is to see ourselves in the other. Yet we other the other so we don’t have to be empathic: Indigenous people are savages, black people are subhuman, women are inferior, transgender people are an abomination, and so on; insert prejudice here. This allows us to select who we will treat humanely. Has not every holocaust hinged on spurious distinctions between us and them?

As an Egyptian, I grew up with prejudice against sub-Saharan Africans as well as African Americans. I was admonished to straighten my hair and stay out of the sun so I wouldn't be mistaken for a black person. As I work to address this inherited bias, sometimes I am confronted with my knee jerk racism: 

They are alien and have nothing to do with me. I don't want to connect to them. I have better ways to spend my time than to understand blackness. My perception has not been trained to do this and my imagination fails. I can't get past my prejudice.

I wonder if a truer road to empathy might be to learn the other so that distinctions are honored.

There are 195 countries, each with myriad cultural pockets, over 6000 languages and nearly nine million species on our planet. Nature itself is systems filled with myriad beings synchronized with each other’s distinctions to survive. Dignifying others based on similarity fosters ignorance and foments an increasingly shallower pool of who or what we dignify. It’d be like extolling only blue when the planet is a giant crayon box. This vast and minute variation is a testament to the sacred creativity manifest in our common home.

If my regard of Gentoo penguins stopped at my anthropomorphism, what I projected onto them based on what I perceived as similar, could I know what they specifically need to avoid extinction? Only by becoming familiar with their uniqueness can I properly value and thus advocate for their wellbeing.

Before I turn the page to March, I look up the definition of leap day: Leap days are extra days added to the calendar to help synchronize it with Earth's orbit around the sun and the actual passing of seasons. 

If my regard for sub-Saharan Africans and African Americans remains entrenched within the othering lens of prejudice, how can I value and honor the cultural needs and practices of sub-Saharan Africans and African Americans? 

There are humanitarian crises at borders worldwide, millions in refugee camps as well as caged; and nonhuman beings, like the Gentoo penguins, are increasingly endangered. Empathizing with only who or what we regard as similar jeopardizes who and what we regard as dissimilar.

Leap day 2020 comes at a time when we need to catapult ourselves to a level of empathy that requires awareness of and response to distinct needs. We are in peril. Our collective survival requires us to leap into synchronicity with who and what we regard as other. We need each other. We don't have extra days to count on.


Friday, February 7, 2020

it doesn't add up

Image result for triangle puzzle
A friend sent me this. I didn’t solve the riddle but it inspired a poem and reminded me of why I didn’t like math class. Although it was satisfying to swap out the right numbers for letters to solve for x, it also felt like an illusion. What did it actually solve?

I didn’t like math partially because I was a nihilistic, angsty teen. I wanted things to make sense and it didn’t make sense to be excited about solving problems in the abstract when the real world seemed riddled with problems: injustice, inequity, war, disease, rape, slavery. Catastrophic things happened to innocent people constantly. It just didn’t add up.

I think about this in terms of climate change solutions. Variable A produces B emissions. In order to maintain a habitable planet, variable A emissions need to decrease by X. In theory, this makes sense. For example, if current refrigeration methods emit 100 gigatons of HFCs (worse than CO2) and we need to get to zero, we plug technological changes into the refrigeration equation to get there. But this is an abstraction.

When we focus on manipulating variables to achieve a particular outcome, those variables are regarded as a given; we don’t question their existence within the equation. In the real life application though, we must interrogate variables.

Why does refrigeration top the list of climate mitigation strategies for  EGN (Environmentalists of the Global North)?

Refrigeration became an integral part of the lives of some starting in the early 1900s. For nearly 600,000 years, humans lived without. Further, according to a 2018 IEA report, the 300 million people living in the US consume more energy for cooling than the 4 billion people living in all of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia (excluding China) combined. Meaning, the majority of humans live without refrigeration. Either do the other 8.7 millions species we share the planet with.

Don’t get me wrong. I think ice cream is as necessary as water, sometimes more. Frozen pizza is manna on some days. And of course I turn on my air conditioner when it’s sweltering outside. 

But we are facing extinction. 

We are swiftly losing the ability to feed ourselves because of what we’re doing to soil, water and climate and other species. Worldwide access to potable water is jeopardized. We continue to degrade air quality. Why are we invested in revamping a variable that serves only a fraction of the world's human population and no other beings? 

We even sometimes compromise soil, air and water with our solutions.

HFCs are the industrial chemicals we adopted as a 'solution' to the previously used ozone depleting CFCs and HCFCs. We plugged in unknown entities into the refrigerant equation and claimed we solved for X without thorough testing. Now we're scrambling to clean up the mess HFCs cause.

Given the amount of HFCs refrigeration vomits, the material resources required and the ethical issue of disposal, we should question whether refrigeration is even compatible with a habitable planet. 

Now that I’m a nihilistic angsty old woman, I am still leery of fabricated equations and solutions because in order for equations to work, you must ignore some variables while privileging others. Our modern lives are built on economic equations that favor some who, what and where over other who, what and where, which become externalized costs. This reminds me of how Nazis used the word solution. There was a methodical abstraction in the execution of their solution, too.

Similarly, outside the purview of the refrigeration equation are the environmentally hostile and xenophobic government regimes surfacing worldwide during this ecologically dire time. We simply cannot ignore how they endanger nonnegotiable variables-air, water, and soil- for all as well as actively sacrifice lives. 

Externalized costs mount outside the purview of economic equations. It's why parts of the world suffer habitat and cultural destruction from extractive and manufacturing practices which fuel species extinction and create desperate people vulnerable to slavery and are ultimately rendered homeless. Consider the United States' decades long economic equation in Latin America and why there's a 'crisis' at the southern border of this country. 

I’m reminded of the oft quoted definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So here we are using equational thinking to solve the problems equational thinking ignores. Remember HFCs?

With this legacy, do we have proper regard for where the technological components come from and are manufactured to produce ‘greener’ refrigeration? How will our solutions impact air, water, soil and living beings? 

In the face of imminent extinction, who, what, where does better refrigeration serve? Who, what and where bear the externalized cost of my beloved ice cream? Will some who, what and where be externalized as collateral damage for other who, what and where?

Arguably there’s a worldwide appetite for refrigeration, explaining why it’s foremost on the EGN's agenda. Before refrigeration, people worldwide practiced food preservation and built structures in ways that fit cultural, regional, seasonal rhythms using the materials gifted to them by their particular habitat. I suspect they weren't nearly as wasteful and casual about what they worked to harvest, butcher, dry, pickle and so on, as we privileged few with our full fridges. I suspect too that shelters were built in ways more sensible than our thinly walled structures reliant on HVAC. Would lawns continue to be the most irrigated crop in the US without refrigeration or would we become more realistic, regional and seasonal in our dietary expectations of the planet? 

Of course giving up refrigeration is disorienting. But our building practices and food industries are incompatible with a habitable planet for all beings. Retrofitting refrigeration enables the unsustainable global food system. Refrigeration enables extractive practices complicit in habitat destruction. Refrigeration enables externalized costs. Refrigeration enables a dysfunctional, unjust and destruction relationship with our planet and its inhabitants.

Are we invested in maintaining fundamentally flawed industries or protecting earth's systems? We can't have both. The equation for all species' well being doesn't allow for both.

Instead, who can we be, what can we learn about ourselves, our habitats, cultures, histories, food and structures? Where will our inventive reimagining lead us if we start with the premise that air, water and soil are the ultimate nonnegotiable variables? We are called to transcend the artificial, abstract and destructive limitations of equational thinking to find solutions that benefit every living being. Herein lies extraordinary opportunity to evolve new systems. 

Refrigeration doesn’t add up.