Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Speaking From The Fire

Entrepreneurial optimism and a positive attitude have been the seat of success for visionaries in this land of opportunity, so where does the bad news of the planet fit into this be-positive, ever uplifting, inspirational, don't-bum-me-out chatter? My quest brought to mind three inspirational speakers who gave talks to my environmental leadership program.

In the walking the talk category was Peter Drekmeier, who had won a seat on the Palo Alto city council. As he began his presentation (about how to win local campaigns) he took out his own water bottle and put it on the table. It was a glass bottle with a screw top and had once been the packaging for a trendy soft drink. This simple act of reuse impressed me and guaranteed my rapt attention.

Bottled water is so ubiquitous these days, that even a roomful of environmentalists did not blink, when three cartons of bottled water were carted into the room for our hydration needs (thus disabling our fearless leader from using public transport). Okay, I did say something over lunch, gently suggesting to our program leader, that she could ask us to bring our own water, this being an environmental leadership program after all.

One of our participants did diligently collect the empty plastic water bottles for recycling. And now that Coca-Cola has agreed to use recycled plastic (10% or so) in its PET soda bottles, the market for recycled plastic is somewhat stabilized, while the rest of what's collected goes into carpet backing, plastic lumber and polar plus sweaters. Isn't this green progress?

Well, plastic bottles are a growth industry, so much so that we are falling way behind on recycling it all producing five times more by weight than we actually recycle (nifty graph here) plus the energy to make this petroleum product, the emission spewing diesel fuel to deliver water in bottles, then transport the empties to a recycling center, where it has to be crushed and bailed and more fuel to truck it to a plastics recycling plant, of which we have less than 2 dozen in the country.

Not to mention that bottled water is now a product of soft drink companies resulting in the privatization of water; they are stealing it basically from someone's local water source, given the actual price paid for access to it. The water is transported away from those who have need of it, including wildlife, then the plant pollutes the water downstream in the process. And bottled water, as we have heard, is no guarantee of purity. Some companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola are just bottling municipal water. That's right; your own town's tap water may be making these transnational companies even more profitable than their carbonated sugar water ever did. Think of the mark-up.

And if none of the above is reason enough to question bottled water, picture this - a floating plastic garbage phenomena whirling around in our Pacific Northwest ocean where all the carried-by-the-wind, littered, lost, accidentally spilled and illegally dumped plastic trash swirls together where two currents meet. An end product oil slick as it were, as big as Texas (not an exaggeration), full of bottles, bottle caps, car tires and bits of broken plastic that birds mistake for food. Then when it breaks down to the size of a fish egg it's consumed by jellyfish and plankton, the food staple of sea life. So guess who, at the top of the food chain, is not only creating plastic, "disposing" of it, but may be eating it, too. It just never really goes away.

So yes, to carry your own water bottle is to know the true cost of bottled water. You can download a new brochure from the Sierra Club to give to your friends so that they, too, may know the cost of bottled water.

Meanwhile, I had my water bottle sitting on the table too, - the stainless steel Kleen Kanteen that I bought at the Green Festival when it first came out. Guaranteed not to leach toxins over time, as plastic bottles do, it looks cool, this distinctive tall silver cylinder, feels cool to the touch and serves as a badge of identity among environmentalists. It did, however, take lots of energy to make, maybe more than all the energy combined to make those plastic water bottles that I'm not using. (It hadn't occurred to me, yet, to consider the embodied energy of my purchase at the time, so compelling was its coolness factor).

Part statement, part spiritual practice, my water bottle was added to my portfolio of green habits along with the canvas grocery bags and reused plastic produce bags I trained myself to carry to Whole Foods. Bread wrappers or the bags that line cereal boxes have been pressed into service too. I have my own chopsticks for takeout and an insulated cup for hot tea at meetings so I can avoid the dreaded Styrofoam cup. (I'm reminded of the Middle Ages when people carried their goblets on a leather thong tied to their belt and of American pioneer families who had guests bring their own plates and silverware to a dinner party. Now I'm assembling kit bags of all these things so I can grab it on my way out.)

I've proudly managed to remember to take my three-tiered stainless steal Thai lunch box when dining out, in case of leftovers. (Said lunchbox, a sentimental memento of a trip to Thailand over 20 years ago, has survived a fall from my motorcycle. You can get a similar one at To-Go Ware). I just discovered dental floss that comes in a cardboard box, not a plastic one and I've used shampoo in a bar for over ten years, though conditioner still comes in a plastic bottle. You can get toothbrushes made from recycled plastic or with replaceable heads. Toothpaste from Tom's of Maine is packaged in the supposedly recyclable metal tube, but it isn't really unless you cut off the plastic at the top and take to metal recycling. Then there's the sea sponge tampon...

Will all this make a difference? I never asked myself this, because for me, green living was my lifestyle, one I didn't press on others except by example. To be vocal about it was to believe that it could make a difference. It was, for me, more a spiritual solace to the ongoing bad news about the planet, an antidote, a way to say I won't be a part of that. Was there really a way to create a difference, a movement?

Author, Malcolm Gladwell, of The Tipping Point, says the key to things catching on is when a group of trendsetters and not necessarily a very big group, just an influential one, decides that something is a must have or a must do.

To create a sustainable business ethic, a triple bottom line of financial, environmental and social sustainability, change is best instigated by concerned people everywhere, so concluded Stanford Professor of strategic management and organizational behavior, William Barnett. With his engaging humor, he had everyone's 'aha' factor triggered, as he explained what he called The Eden Fallacy. It wasn't enough for the market to reward green business practices, he said, because that would just present two opposing criteria that were unrelated - profit and ethics.

Green businesses would thrive by marketing to an elite green niche, but the Wal-Marts of the world would still continue merrily along being hugely successful, perhaps green washing to cash in on the trend and confusing the public about what was really green. Change across the business community will come about when people inside companies introduce ethical concerns, he told us. Even inside Wal-Mart, he promised, there were people who cared; he had talked to them himself.

This was not quite the revolution I was hoping for. That it should come down to this moving of mountains by the moles within struck me as a pretty slow process, but as I thought about the Eden Fallacy, I could see that he was right and this really was the way. It would all come down to individuals working within their sphere of influence.

So how to talk about green issues? I knew from hanging out with entrepreneurs that the business community thrives on optimism, so much so that I had to wonder about the seemingly impenetrable bubble of always uplifting, always inspiring, eternally positive chatter bolstered by an industry of motivational tapes, books and speakers.

"Turn off the news," advised one motivational trainer at an all day retreat for veteran organizers. "The news emphasizes the negative aspects of humanity." Okay it does, but does that mean you don't investigate the real problems either and just focus on those post-it note affirmations on your bathroom mirror? ("Yes, I am worth $150 an hour. I help people bring peace of mind and harmony to their cluttered, chaotic lives". Apologies to my colleagues; I exaggerate a little, but not by much).

Even environmentalists don't want to hear the status updates of the ongoing planet degradation.

"It's too overwhelming," said one of my classmates (the one recycling the plastic bottles), "I just want to focus on what I can do."

"But you had to let in some bad news in order to be motivated to act, didn't you," I asked.

"Yes, that's true," she admitted.

"You have to keep bringing up the bad news," counseled Van Jones, founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and a prison reform activist envisioning "green collar jobs". Charming and compassionate in his delivery, he exuded an underlying message that bad news shouldn't have to ruin your life.

He had an unhurried, grounded sense about him that I would identify as spiritual, speaking as he was from the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto the week of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. For an activist, spiritual grounding helps prevent burnout. Buddhism, for instance, is well suited to bad news.

Van Jones listed the three issues facing us today - Radical social inequality, environmental destruction and permanent war. "There is an opportunity here for tremendous positive breakthrough", he assured us. "We have had two waves of the environmental movement. The first wave was the conservation movement of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir; the second was Rachel Carlson's book "Silent Spring" and the regulation of toxins. The third wave will be one of restorative justice, investing in solutions - biodiesel, wind, zero waste, green construction and conservation. The green economy is being born in restorative economics. Let the green wave lift all boats."

He was also a bridge, defying stereotypes with an easy humor. ("The answer to your prayers may well be a white, Republican heterosexual male looking for a charitable cause to donate to," he intoned with a smile). Then he delivered some more bad news -statistics about the incarceration of young people in prison, but the information struck us as illuminating, a missing piece of the puzzle completing a picture about the prison industry. (It's a growth industry that succeeds by failing - creating return customers. We can certainly do better for our youth given the $80,000 spent per head, per year.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Van Jones told us, was a man who "stood in the pain of the country and called the country back to its best self." People won't want to hear bad news, he said, but you have to tell them anyway, stand at the scene of injustice and speak. Speak from the fire, but with your eyes on the stars. This was all the affirmation I needed. This was my kind of motivational speaker.

Also posted at energy bulletin

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Wilderness Within

The buzz about Brokeback Mountain is that mainstream audiences come away recognizing the power of love. I came away with a lingering impression of the power of nature and wonder if there are lessons the gay community might teach environmentalists.

A movie like Brokeback Mountain is no longer a story we allow ourselves to tell in the gay community, but Ang Lee, the director of this seasons critically acclaimed "gay cowboy movie", is an outsider looking in. So is Annie Proulx who wrote the short story upon which it is based. A story that reveals universal truths about denying love and the cost of not being true to yourself. We in the gay community see this theme of internal flagellation as a failure of spirit and seek to break through it, demanding in our films, self-discovery, revelation and celebration. Brokeback Mountain has been called the crossover movie that brings queer cinema to mainstream audiences in order to tell a great love story. If this is so, we owe Ang Lee and Annie Proulx our heartfelt thanks.

What struck me about the movie was that what happens to those men out on the mountain was also about being viscerally connected to unmitigated wilderness. The mountain took them outside of society, free from the violence of homophobia and social mores, but more so to a wild place of attentiveness that allowed them to connect with their feelings and let a forbidden love seep in. Only by returning to the mountain could they continue to tap into this wilderness within.

It is this power of nature that the environmental writer, Wendell Berry, talks about when he counsels us to preserve the wilderness so that it may sustain our deepest selves. In closing ourselves off to nature, we are in danger of not only losing the planet, but ourselves as well. How did we end up getting so cut off from the vitality of the earth that supports us?

Author Richard Louv has set off a flurry of discussion with his book "Last child left in the woods". He attributes childhood obesity, ADD and hyperactivity in children, to what he calls nature-deficit-disorder. Local environmentalists at the Foundation for Global Community, started a program called Hooked on Nature to make sure children got a chance to appreciate nature, because, they reasoned, only by bonding with nature as children, would future generations care enough about the environment to save it. Scary to think that humans could grow up so estranged from the earth that they did not know enough to save it.

What about animals? And the imagination? Children are a natural for animal stories. The Narnia Chronicles might embody the story of Christ, but it still has, as its messenger, a lion. The Wind In The Willows was a classic of my literary English heritage. Harry Potter and his friends have their animal companions and take instruction in the care of Magical Creatures. Animals are still part of our human narrative.

So when our navy dominates the ocean with sonic blasts capable of bursting the eardrums of whales and carbon emissions have warmed the earth to the melting point, reducing the ice fields that polar bears need to survive, the beings of my childhood start to disappear. Such wholesale harming of these large and beautiful animals fills me with outrage that we are so shameless in our capacity to destroy, so disrespectful of such power animals, hardly pausing to realize we would soon destroy ourselves. But what could I do with such feelings? Would despair drive me to nihilism?

The field of ecopsychology came together in the '90s with a conference called "Psychology as if the Whole Earth Mattered." Those attending concluded that our own healing depended on restoring the health of the earth. Our own happiness was linked to the well being of the planet. Yes, I thought reading this recently in the book "Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind", now the field of psychology could grow up. Finally I felt that my dis-ease with the state of the planet could be validated.

Repressing feelings, whether of dismay about planetary degradation or forbidden sexuality, not only takes a lot of energy, but leads to reactionary behavior, actions of blaming, scapegoating, violence against others and self. A story we have already lived in the gay community.
Deep ecologist, Joanna Macy, points out that "it is our refusal to acknowledge and feel despair that keeps it in its place." The ability to feel pain for our world speaks of our ability to be part of it and what we discover as we move through this pain, is that we are all connected, she observes. It is not enough to simply be informed about the effects of toxic pollution and environmental destruction, she counsels "we need to process this information on the psychological and emotional level in order to fully respond on the cognitive level. We already know we are in danger. The essential question is: can we free ourselves to respond?"

Here environmentalists have been struggling to garner interest in dire environmental issues, but have become mired in a dialogue of half measures that pits the appetite of civilization against the preservation of the wilderness. The suggestions made hardly seem to surmount the problem, while the message continues to be "saving the earth does not mean sacrificing our lifestyle, just tweak the technology a bit".

In the early 80's the gay community entered a life threatening perfect storm called AIDS. At the time the community congregated in large numbers at the bars and the baths. Those who knew of the ramifications of the disease pressured the bath owners and bar owners to do everything in their power to spread the word, to warn men about the danger of certain sexual practices, even to close down the baths to stop promiscuous, unsafe sex. Discreet posters appeared in back rooms warning of the spread of AIDS through unprotected sex. Condoms were recommended. When criticized for doing so little, the bath owners explained that were they to really come down hard with the news of the spread of AIDS through unsafe sex, the men would take it as an act of oppression on their hard won liberation and rebel against any measure of protection. And since the baths were the centers of communication in the community, to close them would be to stop the flow of information that would save lives.

This is the point at which I see the environmental movement standing today. While the leaders are listening to scientists tell of the dire consequences of global warming, they discuss among themselves how much they can really tell people, how much can they really pressure people into drastically changing their lifestyles, before the public stops listening to them and calls them alarmists. The scientists advise education on the monumental consequences of global warming and the drastic measures needed to stop its impact. Environmentalists, meanwhile, talk of solutions, preferring not to discuss consequences and offer the equivalent of condoms, encouraging solar panels and hybrids, but only if you can afford them, meanwhile try pumping up your tires to save on gas.

In the AIDS crisis, the science won out when men were dying in such numbers that the community went into a tailspin of despair and funerals became the places where survivors congregated. The baths were closed and gay men were forced to take a hard look at the lifestyle they had been espousing under the guise of liberation. Fortunately for a community used to pulling together, it took only a short time for a new movement to be born that was part grief counseling, health counseling, community building, education on every level and support for the dying.

Science and the consequences of global warming will very likely win out in the environmental crisis, before environmentalists build up enough of a movement to prevent much of the damage. Businesses might well take up the call and even the military. As we learned from the report that came out of the Pentagon, the military fully recognizes what measures may need to be taken given the consequences of global warming. And we might not like these measures, as we are left to the fate of Katrina victims, told to evacuate, but without the means to do so, while taxpayers' money is used to finance the war for remaining resources.

But if we recognize, now, that our psychological health is directly tied to the health of the environment, then saving the planet becomes a different sort of task than just a pragmatic preserving of resources so that we might have enough for later. To begin with, we would really see the damage being done from the intimate focus of a lover.

Such wholehearted embracing of the facts would be so distressful that we would experience a disconnect that would force us to change to survive. Force a shift of consciousness; force us to evolve a different way of living. Sustainable consumption would be foremost in our minds, just as safe sex was for the gay community. We would begin to rebuild every aspect of our lives around safeguarding the planet and its occupants, evolve healing relationships in our business practices and commerce instead of exploitative one night stands, build stable long-term relationships with fair trade policies, surround ourselves with life affirming agriculture and architecture, build a global community that affirms our existence as part of nature.

We would have to stop pretending that we are separate from nature through our clever technology and realize we are beings of the earth, rather than dominators of the earth. And in our individual decisions to come out on the side of the planet and shift into saving our part of it, we would be participating in our own healing and redemption, improving our own state of mind, finding joy even.

Indoors in the dark of cineplex theatres, our unconscious desires surface as we look to movies to both catalog nature and remind us of the great natural beauty of the earth and its creatures. How magical is the stunning New Zealand landscape featured in Lord of the Rings, how adorable the creatures in The March of the Penguins, how heroic the birds of Winged Migration. (Moralists commend the penguins for embodying family values in raising their young, yet say nothing of the thinning ice that will soon fail to support their ritual reproduction.)

Brokeback Mountain takes place in Wyoming (but was shot in Canada). Its vistas of a valley devoid of human structure made me ache for such wildness. I overlay another love story on the beauty of that landscape. A longing for the land itself, the lost love of a landscape we reject at our own perile.

Earthworm. Get yours at