Archive for the 'Reflections' Category

State of the Sustainability Movement 2011 (Part 1)

December 19th, 2010

In the Spring 1990 issue of In Context — which described itself as “A Quarterly Journal of Humane Sustainable Culture” — Robert Gilman described the state of the sustainability movement in his time, and I thought it would be interesting to review this and reflect on where we are today. (See “Sustainability: The State Of The Movement,” in Sustainability (IC#25), Spring 1990, Page 10.)

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Is There A Meaning to Life?

August 15th, 2010

We all know that life has many meanings. We also know that some of the meanings claim to be the meaning, but this is almost entirely implausible, because in many respects they contradict each other, they cancel each other out.

We learn in the Landmark Forum that life has no one overriding meaning, but that we’re not to really make anything of this:

“Life is empty and meaningless, and it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless.”

In other words, life just is. What we make of this (including “nothing”) is entirely up to us. This is, I believe, more or less definitionally true, but it’s not all there is to be said.

Perhaps we need to ask the question differently. Is there a meaning that encompasses all of the other meanings, including their contradictions, and including both meaning and no-meaning?

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Why Nuclear Energy is Still a Really Bad Idea

June 14th, 2009

After all the literature and public policy discussion and decision-making of the past 50+ years, it is hard to believe that there is still an industry – and a lobby – advocating for the expenditure of vast sums of money for the use of “controlled” nuclear reactions anywhere on this planet, let alone in the densely-populated Northeast.

But nuclear advocates have found new hope in the argument that nuclear power is “carbon-free.” New organizations have been formed to promote nuclear as “clean, affordable, and safe.” Continue Reading »

The Upside of a Down Economy

October 12th, 2008

There’s not much good news in the slow-motion global market crash we’ve witnessed over the past couple of weeks, but what is positive is the growing recognition that what matters is not the mostly fictitious Wall Street economy of credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities but the “real” economy and the disastrous consequences of deregulation for the folks on Main Street. The fact is, as NYU economist Nouriel Roubini has pointed out, ordinary people have pretty much run out of money, stopped buying cars and homes, watched their retirement savings get cut in half, and begun to pull whatever they have left out of the stock market. We are witnessing a worldwide panic that will not be halted by Wall Street bailouts or technical manipulations of the money supply; we need fundamental reform of the economic system, and a reinvestment in infrastructure, jobs, and sustainable energy and other technologies.

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What To Do Now

December 10th, 2007

The world today is facing an unprecedented set of crises.

The most recent to burst upon public awareness is that of global warming, and it is indeed a matter of urgency and of critical importance. We have, according to the latest scientific estimates, only seven years in which to level off our greenhouse gas emissions – and then begin to reduce them sharply – if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This alone requires a massive transformation of our infrastructure, our economy, our energy use, our way of life, our society.

But the climate crisis is not occurring in isolation, as if it were an asteroid hurtling toward the earth. It is a consequence of many other factors: resource extraction and fossil fuel use, industrialization and massive population growth, scientific and technological immaturity, and the willful perpetuation of ignorance and superstition. It is not separable from the many other crises that we see occurring on the planet, from the growing disparity between rich and poor, the violence and conflict that afflict many parts of the world, the fear and oppression visited upon our own people as well as upon our so-called adversaries. To solve the climate problem, we will need to address some other difficult issues as well, including the demands of other nations to reach our level of economic development and their willingness to imitate us in the unlimited pollution of our environment.

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Changing Our World, One Community at a Time

December 1st, 2007

It seems a strange thing to say, but we no longer live in “normal” times. By “normal” I do not of course mean “idyllic”; anyone who has any understanding of history knows that humans have been at war with each other, and with a large number of other species, pretty much since we emerged on the earth. But it is only around the middle of the last century that we discovered how to annihilate ourselves, and along with such annihilation destroy much of the rest of life on the planet. Remarkably, given our history, we have so far not chosen to do so; and most of us still regard it as a miracle that we did not blow ourselves up during the era of MAD (“mutual assured destruction”).

Of course, it could still happen. There are still enough nuclear weapons scattered around the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, not to mention China, India, Pakistan, Europe, Israel, North Korea, and perhaps a few other countries to destroy the planet a dozen times over, and it would only take a rather trivial accident (like a plane crash, or a major oil spill, perhaps) to trigger a completely unanticipated and uncontrollable launching of these aging weapons of mass destruction. But at least we understand the threat, and have learned to cope with it, and have put in place some hopefully effective fail-safe mechanisms to prevent it. It requires eternal vigilance, but not by all of us, and as long as no one makes a mistake or goes haywire we can get on with the business of life, having babies, quarreling with our neighbors, making a living.

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What a Way To Go

October 14th, 2007

What a Way to Go is the strongest statement yet of the multiple crises that are facing us as a planet and as a species today. It differs from the other major documentaries we’ve seen recently – Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour, in several important ways – both in scope and in emotional impact. For anyone concerned with the fate of America and the world, this is a must-see film. But you won’t find it in theaters. Buy, beg, borrow, or steal a copy, or see if your local environmental or peace group has a scheduled showing. And then steel yourself for something as disturbing as you have ever seen before.

What this movie is mostly about, not to put too fine a point on it, is the impending ecological suicide of our species; and the only question is whether we will just take some or all of the other living beings on the planet with us. As Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael) states at one point, imagine that we live in a tall brick apartment building, and every day we go down in the elevator and remove 200 bricks from the bottom floor in order, so we say, to build the structure higher. This is what we are doing currently. Scientists estimate that we are destroying two hundred species every day, by destroying their habitats, changing their micro-climates, poisoning their food supplies.

The movie deals with four broad and interrelated topics: the end of oil, climate change, overpopulation, and mass extinction.

Of these, the least plausible for me has always been the argument about “peak oil.” Not that there’s any dispute about the numbers. The discovery of new oil reserves reached its highest level in the 1960s, and has been steadily declining at roughly the same rate that our consumption has been steadily rising, so that we now consume 3 barrels of oil for every new barrel that is discovered. The end is clearly in sight. What makes it questionable, however, is the conclusion that with the rising cost of oil our entire modern civilization, built as it is around the use of fossil fuels, will collapse. This seems to me implausible for several reasons: first, because we will tap other sources as oil becomes more expensive; second, because other forms of fossil fuel (such as coal) remain abundant; and third, because the end of oil does not mean the end of cheap energy.

Moreover, as oil becomes more expensive we will most likely begin to reposition it for “higher” uses (plastics, mostly) where its higher cost is not as much of a deterrent, and merely shift to burning other and cheaper resources – if we do not indeed begin to wean ourselves off our fossil reserves altogether. This seems to me the one area where a “technological fix” remains possible.

But the same cannot be said so easily for climate change, overpopulation, or the demonstrably irreversible process of mass extinction. It is possible that we have already set in motion climatic changes that will create an unstoppable positive feedback loop, leading to a catastrophic failure of the world’s ecosystems no matter what we do. It is probable that we cannot stop or reverse these climatic changes before they begin to impact us severely, by changing weather patterns, sea levels, and species habitats. And it is certain that if we do not change course sufficiently, either through ignorance or greed, we will overshoot and cause a massive global ecosystem collapse – on the scale of what is still an unmentionable threat, an accidental or deliberate nuclear winter. These problems cannot be resolved by any of our current technologies.

The truly overwhelming nature of this is, moreover, borne into us by the way it is presented. The story of how we got here is told through author, director, and editor Tim Bennett’s quintessentially American life story, from growing up in the hardworking and god-fearing mid-West, to trying to fit into a regular job and develop a conventional suburban life, to awakening into this unique moment in history and realizing just how fragile, how endangered, and how oblivious it all is. What is even better, Bennett does not show us an endless series of hurricane-ravaged resort areas, or images of the earth from space – images which have long since ceased to have the emotional impact they once had – but rather a series of scenes from old movies, mostly black and white, that show earlier and often more hopeful periods of American life, along with some strikingly prescient moments of foreboding.

For trailers and other reviews of the movie, visit The movie site also has links and resources, a book list, and some blogs, though nothing that speaks as powerfully as the movie itself. Watch it. Your life and your work will never be the same.

(Crossposted at

Imagining the Sustainable Communities of the Future

September 22nd, 2007

One of the challenges we face is just conceiving of the nature and scale of the change required to make the world a sustainable habitat for human beings. We know that our present reality is literally unsustainable, and is already beginning to show signs of critical deterioration through the effects of our industrial and post-industrial economic activity.

Scientists have reported that a record amount of Arctic sea ice melted this summer (2007). According to the UK Daily Mail, “The ice cap shrank by 386,100 square miles – an area four times as large as the UK – from the previous low in 2005.”

…”It’s the biggest drop from a previous record that we’ve ever had and it’s really quite astounding,” said Walt Meier, from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

See complete story.

Our entire way of living, our society and our economy, are about to undergo a radical change. The question is, how will we adjust to the already unavoidable consequences of climate change? And what steps will we take to prevent further global warming?

Our housing needs to change – and indeed our entire concept of community life may also change as a consequence. Our transportation needs to change. We can no longer keep building roads for fossil-fuel burning vehicles; while we can certainly switch over to electric vehicles, we have to look further at how we are generating that electric power, and whether indeed our whole aging infrastructure of highways and bridges – built originally to allow the military to move swiftly across the country to counter a Communist invasion – is really worth renwing and expanding to create more congestion and sprawl.

The question is, are we going to need to build entire communities that are little islands of cool, green, health – and eject their heat and waste into an even more degraded and overheated global environment? What are the alternative visions of the future that genuinely take into account the realities of our stratified, belligerent, and economically self-aggrandizing societies?

Green Blog

September 7th, 2007

Right now I’m working on what seems like a half-dozen “sustainability” initiatives – and finding an overwhelming amount of new information and initiatives that relate to these in some way. At times, this level of activity is almost overwhelming – there is already way more happening all over the world than any single human being can keep track of – and yet when you venture outside into any ordinary American neighborhood, you can’t yet see much of difference being made.

So although I’m already running a half-dozen web sites to support these initiatives (not to mention 30 or 40 others, for clients, political groups, my neighborhood – and for many of my other innovative ideas, some of which are necessarily “on the shelf”), it seems to me that there is still room for a way of keeping a record of some of the more interesting and useful ideas, sites, and opportunities I am finding along the way.

Here are some of the things I’m already working on:

Here are some interesting discoveries along the way:

Shaklee has reinvented itself as a completely green company. It is still using all the old MLM techniques, and signing up distributors to promote it both as a product company and as a business opportunity, but the pitch has some unique angles, and the company seems to be serious about being “the first certified climate neutral company in the world” (in 2002).

I don’t know if it’s kosher to link to the video that is at the heart of its current promo campaign, but I’m going to do so anyway – until someone tells me not to – and if you’re interested in getting connected to the operation I’ll refer you to someone else, until and unless we decide to use and promote these products ourselves. We’ve had such bad experiences with MLM lately, however, that even this pitch may not be enough to get us to buy into another one – even though we like the products, we find they’re costly and the business opportunity is, if not entirely illusory, so onerous and time-consuming as to be uneconomic…. (- enter code 15725282 in the left or center boxes)

It’s the message in the video – past the segment from Oprah – that, much more than the marketing hype, is what’s interesting.

Dark Days in America

August 31st, 2007

This period will clearly be seen as one of the darkest in American history – if indeed there’s a future in which America’s history continues to matter.

Let’s consider why this is so, and what could lead to things getting better or worse – or both – in the post-Bush era.

George W. Bush was never cut out to be president. He was an ex-alcoholic, born again, C student – who just happened to be born into a family of wheeler-dealers and politicians with some highly dubious foreign connections. The fact that he got as close as he did during the 2000 election is a testament to how poor a campaign the Democrats and Al Gore ran, which was very poor indeed. He was then anointed by a Supreme Court the majority of whose members were from the Reagan and Bush Sr. eras, in a decision which the minority derided at the time as one of the worst the Supreme Court has ever made.

Still, no one knew much about “W” at the time, except that he liked to take a lot of vacations, and was busy rewarding his cronies with plum spots in the government. It seemed that he intended to keep a hands-off approach to all issues equally, except where it came to splitting fundamentalist doctrinal hairs, as in the matter of stem-cell research.

But the shocking and tragic events of 9/11 forced him into action, and predominantly into taking the wrong actions, and mainly for the wrong reasons. As the days wore on, after 9/11, it became clear that these would have bad consequences; it just wasn’t clear how bad. He vowed to go after “the people who attacked us,” and told the country to go back to the mall. He sent the army into Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban – which had previously been armed and supported by the U.S. during the Soviet occupation – but failed to get Bin Laden. This failure emboldened disgruntled Muslim men everywhere to join this “movement” and plan and carry out acts of spectacular violence aimed at disrupting the global hegemony of the West.

While Americans were out shopping, Bush, Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld plotted to invade Iraq – which had nothing to do with 9/11 but did not view it as a tragedy compared to what ten years of bombing and blockading by the U.S. had done to their country. Some estimates have suggested that an additional 500,000 Iraqi children died during that decade, from malnutrition and lack of adequate health care. The real reasons for invading Iraq are still a matter of conjecture, given that Saddam posed no real threat to the America or West, and that Cheney had earlier warned that going into Baghdad would lead the U.S. into a quagmire. But evidently the stakes were high enough to risk even that, and the equally great likelihood of creating more “terrorists” by reacting in exactly the way they intended.

At home, the Bush regime promoted fear, secrecy, and systematic disinformation – some of which they openly described as “creating our own reality” – and whipped the country into a state of hysteria, a pale shadow of the universal dread that accompanied the Cold War, but nonetheless powerful enough to allow them to abrogate the Constitution, hold people in indefinite detention, and torture people.

More to come…

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