Nov 222019
 

Resource Curse. It’s the plague wrought upon the planet when a person, company, institution or government finds themselves awash in inconceivable wealth.

In Blowout, Rachel Maddow’s comprehensive, forthright, and beautifully written examination of the oil and gas industries, we learn of the curse rained down upon our species as a result of billions of dollars concentrated in the hands of small numbers of individuals. We have selfishly stolen this wealth from Mother Earth—stored for hundreds of millions of years and limited in quantity—for our insatiable and gluttonous consumption.

This capacious wealth, coming out of the ground in torrents, brings out the ugliest aspects of our humanity. Corruption, tyranny, murder, exploitation, and all other forms of inhumanity, explode from the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Countries with the greatest influx of fossil fuel income, because of rampant corruption, often end up with tremendous poverty, horrendous environmental problems, impoverished educational systems, increased infant mortality, reduced life spans, and poorer quality of life.

It is frightening to understand what humans are capable of in the face of unimaginable wealth. What is most frightening is that I don’t believe this is the result of money finding its way into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals. While there are examples of people with enormous wealth who use it for good, I fear resources of this magnitude could easily corrupt most people if it found its way into their pockets. I fear even I would lose my sense of self in the face of hundreds of millions, or billions, of dollars suddenly at my disposal.

In the end, the wealth that literally erupts from the earth, has given humanity the ability to alter the environment to the detriment of millions of other species; likely even our own. I wonder if ours is an aberrant species, so destructive of the magnificent biosphere to which we were heirs, that God is in tears?

Oct 042019
 

Note: The following will be published in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.

Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.

Feb 202014
 

Note: The following essay first appeared on Tikkun Daily at www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily. I appreciate their work and am thankful for their generous support of mine.

Years ago, my brother-in-law, a retired geophysicist, invited us to join him on a trek across the lava on the island of Hawai’i so we could see red-hot flows making their trek toward the ocean—nature’s way of making the Big Island even bigger.

The hike was several miles without the aid of a trail. Having spent many hours on the flows, my brother-in-law had many words of advice as we prepared, but it was his final admonition, as we came within a few feet of the blazing river of lava, which lodged itself in some deep crevice in my brain. Since even the “cooled” lava had been molten not long before our visit, he warned, “If your feet get warm, move to a different rock.” There’s wise but useless counsel, I thought. Who would stand motionless in life as the soles of their shoes begin to burn?2010-04-10 07.42.11

I wonder if the same is true for humans as a species. To believe we can continue on our current path is folly. Our collective feet are getting warm—as is the global environment. How long can we keep from being scorched by an economic system based on digging up resources we turn into temporary trinkets to use briefly, discard and bury? How will we continue to feed 7 billion people, even as we become 12 billion, as farmland is increasingly turned into strip malls and housing developments? But then, to save corporate mega-farms is to preserve a different kind of ecological disaster. How long will Mother Nature—Pachamama—put up with a species that shows so little regard for the delicate balance required to support all life? At what point might she call a halt to our self-centeredness?

Our current thinking, and what flows from our thoughts, is in profound misalignment with the natural cycles of life. To continue thinking in Newtonian ways about how to “fix” Pachamama will further heat the rocks on which we stand. Our future depends on our willingness to be in, and of, this world—partner with Pachamama—in ways that are far more than adaptations of our current ways of thinking and doing. Our Newtonian infused minds want to plan, organize and manipulate—forge a future we believe is knowable and predictable. What if, we must instead, allow new visions of the world, and humankind’s role in it, to emerge slowly, and in unpredictable ways?

An image returns from my trip to Hawai’i. As I stood amid the endless black landscape, I beheld a tiny green shoot that found its way through the lava. It was there not because it planned, manipulated and organized, but simply by being there to rebuild the tropical paradise.

Humanity has always known how to be in the world; perhaps we have simply forgotten. The biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in studying living systems, learned that health can be restored to an ailing system only by reconnecting it with more of itself. What would it mean for us to reconnect with other parts of the living system known as Gaia? Can we learn to listen more deeply for what is trying to be born? Can we hear what life is asking of us rather than telling life what we expect from it? Is it time we remembered ways of listening that transcend the rational mind; ways that penetrate our hearts as well as our minds? What if returning home means we need to stop, listen and allow the Universe to find us. Do we have that much courage?

The next moments in human history offer a boundless opportunity for learning and wisdom. We are standing upon a welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pachamama the next epoch of her future—not a future separate from humanity, and not a future for humanity separate from her. We are poised to rediscover our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species, and help create a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined.

On a walk up the steep volcanic slopes of Oahu, I struggled to navigate a narrow, craggy, roadside path to avoid trampling a beautiful, carefully cultivated yard on the other side of the road. An elder tending to the lush beauty, called to me; “Please, walk here; it is safer.” If, collectively, we can find that voice of welcoming, generosity, grace and wisdom—and if that should become the dominant song of our species—perhaps, in the end, there is hope.