Sunday, April 22, 2018
Convenience and Repentance
In one of his narrative ballads, Bob Dylan has the following line: "Most people don't do what they believe in; they just do what's most convenient--and then they repent."
Earth Day has become, in recent years, something like our annual day of repentance for all the conveniences we take for granted the other 364 days of the year: conveniences like cars, plastics, computers, televisions, and easy year-around access to fresh and prepared foods from all over the world. We know that all of these conveniences have their environmental costs, but it is easier not to think about them--so we set aside Earth Day to be reminded of these costs, and briefly repent--before going back to business as usual.
There is a problem with repentance, however. "Repent" rhymes with "Resent." And indeed, most of us resent being made to feel guilty for the conveniences we take for granted every day.
President Jimmy Carter found this out to his cost, when he righteously called on Americans to repent their short-term greed and self-indulgent wastefulness and assume greater responsibility for future generations. The direct result was a wave of public resentment that resulted the landslide election of Ronald Reagan--the joyous Apostle of Greed.
I need not recount the lamentable history that followed: the insidious attacks on environmental regulations, the poisoning of the airwaves by Fox News and the rise of corporate-sponsored vulgarians like Rush Limbaugh, sneering at "environmental wackos," and the gradual corporate takeover of our government, culminating in Donald Trump and his cabal of billionaires and climate-deniers taking a wrecking ball to any and all regulations in the public interest that interfere with corporate profits.
So no--I don't think calling on people to repent, and to amend their profligate ways, will do much to save us. As we have seen, laying a guilt trip on people can backfire.
For me, the best alternative to environmental gloom and despair is inspiration. So I would like to share three of my own sources of inspiration.
My first, life-changing inspiration was James Lovelock's Gaia theory, which fundamentally changed our view of our planet from that of a passive orb that just happened to have the right conditions for life--liquid water, oxygenated air, and so forth--into that of a complex adaptive system in which life itself creates and sustains the atmospheric and geophysical conditions that in turn sustain life--and in which humanity is a part of, and not apart from, nature.
The centerpiece of Lovelock's Gaia model is photosynthesis--that is, plant life. Plants, as we know, are primary producers, which draw on direct solar energy to power a chemical reaction that transforms water and CO2 into complex carbohydrates, which act like batteries to store solar energy for use in growing more plant tissue. So using that "fire," that solar energy, plants transform the other three classical elements--water, earth, and air--into new life, and simultaneously purify the water, oxygenate the air, and turn minerals into topsoil, thus enabling our planet to support all other life--including ourselves. Without plants, there would be little to no free oxygen, no topsoil, and no fresh water on the Earth.
So Gaia is no longer just a myth, but also a model, a metaphor, and a movement for our time. If someone asks me, "What are you?" my short answer is "A Gaian. And so are you. And so is everything else that breathes air, drinks water, and eats food." We are all Gaians, whether or not we are conscious of this fact. It is the only identity label I know that excludes no one at all.
My second inspiration was the Permaculture movement, initiated by Australian biologist and visionary Bill Mollison, who explicitly cited Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis as his own inspiration. Permaculture is Gaian praxis--that is, it is regenerative design methodology that models human support systems--from backyard gardens to whole communities--on the organization and behavior of natural ecosystems. Three essential characteristics of sound permaculture design are that it is autonomous, energy neutral, and scalable. By "autonomous" I mean that once it has been established, a permaculture design is self-sustaining and self-regenerating. By "energy neutral" I mean that--again, once established, it can run entirely on solar and other renewable forms of energy. And by "scalable," I mean that the Permaculture design principles can be applied at any scale whatsoever--from our own work spaces and back yards all the way to communities, bioregions, nations, and our whole planet. Permaculture has now become a worldwide movement, and certified practitioners can be found in nearly every nation on Earth.
And my third inspiration is a young 16-year old kid from Holland named Boyan Slat, who, while scuba diving in Greece in 2010, was appalled to see more plastic than fish. But rather than despairing, he researched the huge problem of plastic debris throughout the oceans and came up with a simple, remarkable solution--two floating booms at a wide angle, converging on a central solar-powered collection device in the shape of a manta ray. As it drifts with the ocean currents, the two booms naturally concentrate the plastic debris toward the central collecting unit where the plastic can be recycled or repurposed. Autonomous - Energy Neutral - Scalable. And now, in his early twenties, Boyan Slat is the CEO of a nonprofit corporation called "The Ocean Cleanup" that has hired a full team of engineers who have already developed a working small-scale prototype of his design and are about to go into production in the Pacific.
With examples like Lovelock, Mollison, Boyan Slat, and many others to inspire us, let us all vow, each in our own domain of influence, to become part of the solution; to choose a Gaian Future, rather than No Future.