Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Big Weenie

I just saw a film (What a Way To Go) that touched me more deeply than any film I’ve seen for a while. I saw it with friends, and discussed it afterwards, and I’m glad I did. I would recommend that, as a good way to view it.

This essay is a response to the film and to the discussion that we held afterwards about it. The film had a much darker view of things than I hold, but the passion in which it was presented did bring out quite an emotional response.


This film covered many things, but let’s discuss the big controversy, climate change. The controversy is not so much whether it is happening or not – the evidence is overwhelming, with melting glaciers here, thicker ice there, dramatic weather pattern changes all over the planet.

The controversy is over whether we caused this or not, because of our industrial, high consumption lifestyles, and just how severe it will be. You will find scientists on all sides of the argument, saying whatever they say about it.

I’m not interested in arguing with anybody about which side is right. The discussion that interests me more is the effect that the idea of climate change has created in us at our core – the idea that we have caused, with our seemingly insatiable drive for consumption and materialism, the possibility of one of the biggest cataclysms this planet has ever experienced – in line with the extinction of the dinosaurs and a few other extremely dramatic changes in planetary ecosystems.

This idea is paralyzing for most people. Thus they do not react to it very analytically or logically.


You were brought up from childhood, being told stories – in school, on the TV, from your friends, from your parents and your friend’s parents and most people around, about what life is all about. You were encouraged to believe in God and country, Santa Claus, your schoolteachers and your parents, that hard work and cleverness will give you everything you wanted in life, and that what you want most is a nice family in the suburbs, with two cars and a nice house with a nice lawn and big screen TV and all the other toys that go along with “the good life.” It’s the big weenie in the sky that brings contentment and happiness – it must, because almost everything around you agrees that it must.

But then, you start getting glimpses of the little man behind the curtain, the emperor’s denuded state, the big con. You find out Santa isn’t real, you find out your parents don’t know everything, you find out your teachers don’t know everything, you find out your government isn’t very smart sometimes, then you may find out it is almost never very smart, you may even decide that your God doesn’t know everything. These things are hard on you, to some degree or other, but you buck up, and say “That’s just the way life is” and go back to your job to pay your bills so you can get that new car next year, and the barbeque you wanted, and the vacation in Hawaii, and the garden in the back yard with designer outdoor furniture and a gazebo, and the private school for your kids, and a bigger house, and lots of money in the stock market so you can get off the hamster wheel someday. And then your wife and kids – and you - will be happy.

But somehow it doesn’t quite work out that way. There is a divorce, or one of your kids starts taking drugs, or the bills just start stressing you out, or the car turns out to be a lemon, or you notice this stuff really isn’t making you that happy, or you just start getting….tired.

Then, maybe, you start looking for answers.

Or maybe not, maybe you are still right in the midst of the game of acquiring happiness through consumption and you read an article that says the Iraq war was maybe not really necessary and it’s a big mess now, or you read about animals going extinct en masse, or corruption and manipulation in the stock market, or the real estate bubble bursting (your retirement nest egg!), or you start worrying about the spread of lethal, nasty diseases or…..

More of that man behind the curtain is showing, and it can be pretty stressful. These are just more barriers to achieving that big weenie in the sky, you know? It’s harder than you thought it was going to be. You maybe change your definition of “the big weenie”, modify it a bit, or a lot, maybe you start looking for "environmentally friendly" barbeques, but you still pursue whatever it is via freeways and cities and infrastructure created by corrupt governments and multinational corporations that clearly do not have your personal best interests in mind.

And then, you read somewhere, or see somewhere, or someone tells you – our lifestyle is destroying this planet. The big weenie in the sky is actually an evil green ooze monster that is spreading its sickness into every corner of this planet via our culture’s irresponsible consumption patterns. If you are part of the culture, you are part of the problem.

You find out about child slaves making chocolate, about sweatshops that make your clothing, about children tied to looms for 16 hour days, to make those great Persian rugs you just bought for your House and Gardens living room. You find out about depleted uranium poisoning the children and the water supply and soils of Iraq, for generations to come, so we can continue to drive our SUVs. You read about the positive feedback loop that is created when jungles and forests are cut down to create pastures for future Big Macs (the destruction of jungle ecosystems eventually ends up in desertification of the area and the area will soon not support cattle, jungles or much other life at all). You find out that multinational food corporations may be responsible for creating some of the cocaine that comes into this country, because they undersell local farmers in Columbia by using US government subsidies to reduce their costs, and peasant farmers turn to growing coca to feed their families – something Monsanto can’t do, at least not yet. You find out that whenever you turn on a light, the Hopi are losing their only source of drinking water on their sacred dry mesa, so that coal can be slurried hundreds of miles by the biggest coal company in the US through a pipeline from the desert highlands in Arizona to a power plant in Nevada that feeds Vegas and Southern California with electricity.

You find out many things that become harder and harder to ignore, and that make all those toys you have acquired through the sweat of your brow and sacrifice appear not quite so shiny.

But when you hear that climate change may compromise the vast majority of life on this planet, as we know it, and that the only way to survive the severe weather pattern changes might be to live underground in bunkers, eating algae, for the next dozen generations, then the ennui sets in for real.

This is a worst case scenario. There are many other gradient possibilities as to how climate change might impact the planet. None of them are encouraging, but some are quite a bit more pleasant than others. Nobody wants to hear this. My friends hate me when I talk like this. So why do I do it?

Because if we, as a people, are not capable of confronting the worst case scenario and taking effective action to prevent it, we may be doomed to experience it. Our non-confront of the situation up to this point is what has gotten us in as deep as we are.


It isn’t just climate change though. Even if you don’t believe in it, if you think it is a conspiratorial plot to distract us from our well-stocked pantries and our movie nights, there is enough evidence of other disastrous effects created by us, that it doesn’t really matter if it is real. We still have a problem, and it needs to be fixed.

View the statistics about our destruction of water supplies, forests, agricultural soils. View the statistics on depleted populations of fish in the oceans. Do the math. View the population trends and the consumption trends of China, India, other “developing” countries and do the math. Do the math. Don’t listen to “experts.” Add it up yourself. This is the bank account of your children, and their children, and it is overdrawn and we continue to spend like there is literally no tomorrow. Do the math.

Look, don’t listen. Go to Google Earth and look at the forests, the farmlands and compare to past evidence. Then go and look at your local forests, look at the health of the trees, the plants the animals, and compare to information from times past. Test the soils, the waters, of your local community. Find out how much water and food your community consumes, how many goods, where they come from and what nonrenewable resources have been used to produce them, and how many generations until they run out (your children? your grandchildren? You?). Look for yourself. And do the math. Look at the debt to asset ratio in this country, and ask yourself, who benefits from all this out-of-control consumption? Me? Whose game am I playing here? Is this really my only option?

You haven’t hit bottom yet, though. Because if these things could possibly be true (a thought that cannot even be thought aloud, by many) … if the American Dream – the thing we have bought into and paid homage to like a religion for our whole life - may be the thing that will cause our children and children’s children to have to live in underground bunkers, on a planet of insects and bacteria, if they live at all…

That is just simply unbearable. It is too much responsibility to confront. It is too deep a sin to contemplate. Because, how could you, the little hamster on the wheel of this giant, monolithic machine that is eating the planet, possibly make up the damage to your children – make things right again?

The reaction to these ideas is as different as fingerprints, for each of us. But there are commonalities.

Denial, of course, is the big one.

Several friends have told me, “It doesn’t do any good to have these things shoved in my face. I can’t take effective action under the weight of that in my face. It is too overwhelming.” Well, I certainly understand that! None of us is very effective when looking at a giant tsunami headed our way, if we don’t think we can actually get out of the way. There are certain instinctual phenomena that kick in under those circumstances - like numbness, and pretended death. But when we don’t even look to see whether we can get out of the way or not, this unwillingness to deal with what has been so rudely shoved in one’s face becomes something else.

Then there are those who say, “None of that is true. I read the other day on the 'net that “they” have it all under control!” The problem with that viewpoint is, that’s what they said in Rome, in Hitler’s Germany, in Mexico during the Spanish invasion, in Europe when the Black Death first arrived, etc, etc, etc. History is full of examples of poor results when people put other people in charge so they don’t have to take responsibility.

Many of my activist friends, who have dedicated their lives to righting the wrongs of social injustice and environmental assault, appear to be in deep denial about what might happen to the beloved city they live in when its unsustainable structure finally catches up to it. I know because I’ve asked them. “What do you think it would take to make a place like Los Angeles sustainable?” (meaning that life that exists there now could actually be sustained in the city for generations, or even decades or years from now)

Their answers are vague, incomplete, or incoherent. Though they may have general information, they have almost no specifics on where the food, water, or energy that sustains life in this megatropolis actually comes from or how it might be compromised – they can provide all kinds of statistics about rainforests but can’t tell you where the water from their kitchen tap comes from. They have no clue what resources exist in the case of a disaster like, say, a major earthquake to the area.

It is hard to think about the idea that the very core, the very premise on which this culture operates and survives – that growth is endless (even though resources are not) and consumption is always desirable (at any cost to ourselves or future generations) – is rotten. Some of the baby boomers are facing this just as they are most tired, most ready to lay down their plowshare, break into their retirement nest egg, and rest. This is harsh. “We didn’t even know it was going on! We were lied to! Why should we suffer like this? We don’t know how to live any other way! Who will show us? How can we change now? We are so caught up on the hamster wheel, we don’t even have time to read up on solar energy! We had to get a second job to pay our rising house payment! IT ISN’T FAIR!!!!!!!!”

Well, no, it isn’t fair, and it doesn’t really matter whose fault it is. What matters is that we, as a group, together, can take responsibility for it and handle it. It is not too late. And it is not too big a problem for us to solve, if we face it together. The good thing about responsibility is that when you truly assume that viewpoint, it makes you a lot more causative about what happens to you. Look at it this way. You can pretend your husband is not having an affair in spite of the evidence, or you could confront your corner of responsibility for allowing the marriage to deteriorate, and do something effective to improve it, thereby maybe saving it. Or you could confront where he is really at (prefers to have affairs and doesn’t want to save the marriage), take responsibility for not seeing that earlier when you married the schmuck, and find a better man for yourself.

Well, we have been married to someone who is never going to give us what we really need. We have been married to someone who has lied and cheated and stolen and gambled and gotten drunk from the fruits of our labor, who has beaten us into submission with billboards and hypnotic TV screens, and who isn’t ever going to change.

Unless we do. Because we are him, and he is us. We are both husband and wife, victim and perpetrator. Without our power of belief and our credit cards, the house of mirrors becomes a house of cards, and collapses. “But that is part of the problem! I don’t want to deal with the mess of a collapsing culture!” Well, it is going to collapse anyway, under the top heavy weight of its own lies, with or without your participation and assistance, because it is not operating in a sustainable fashion.

But the good news is this: if you consciously participate and assist in the direction of how things go, you are much more likely to be in a position, not only to survive better, not only to possibly affect the rate and method of collapse, not only to help retain some of the best aspects of this culture for future generations, but perhaps most importantly, to look your children in the eye and say, honestly, “I did something effective about it.”


Think of the conditions on this planet like a big aikido match. Use your opponent’s motion to your advantage. The opponent is this big gnarly problem that nobody wants to deal with because it’s inconvenient. But what if this “problem” could actually become a solution, and we could end up better off than we are now? With less stress, a higher quality of life, better health, and more happiness? Let me tell you, without a doubt, that is a very real possibility. The disasters facing us now may be the biggest historical opportunity we’ve ever had to move into a golden age.

This is why I can talk about this stuff and it doesn’t turn me into a puddle on the floor.

I have utter and complete faith that we can and will solve this in a way that will make life better for all of us. I see our wonderful potential, in the people I meet daily from every walk of life, who are facing this, who want to make things right. The people, who face this potentially terrible future with panache, with wit, with creative verve, with insouciance, with thoughtfulness, with care, with love for one another, with quiet and persistent determination to make things better, no matter what. I see people’s necessity level coming up and the best and brightest aspects of them coming out. I see creative ideas and solutions being proposed that are just so much better than anything we have in the current culture. Whatever you may think of Al Gore and his Incovenient Truth, it created a sea change, a wake up call, and got many of us to ask, "Is there a better way to do this?"

What is so exciting about this opportunity disguised as a crisis is that the best solutions to environmental problems also substantially increase the quality of life for all of us. There is no “us or them.” If we save the planet, we help ourselves. We end up with more resources, more abundance, more prosperity, not less. It is a vicious lie that saving the environment means sacrificing anything good about our lives.

The best solutions result in more stable economics systems, more just distribution of wealth, healthier food, water and air, cleaner cities, more opportunity and higher quality of life for inner cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas alike. These solutions are so exciting that some people’s lives are changed just by hearing about them. The prospect of great disaster can raise necessity level and bring about great ideas. Communities all over the US are pulling together to say, “Enough. We are going to do it our way, and it is going to make everybody happier.” I see business leaders, environmentalists, social activists, religious leaders and government heads all coming together to work out solutions, together. The links and reading lists will lead you down the path of some of these solutions.

The ranks of the conscious and the willing increase daily, exponentially. When we buy local and organic, use our own bags instead of plastic, when we as stakeholders demand accountability from corporations and governments, when we share and salvage resources instead of wasting them, when we take the time to educate our loved ones and acquaintances, we all plant seeds that make it easier for others to do the same.

If we put the best of ourselves to the task, we are unbeatable! This we have proven, over and over throughout history. And this is the type of task that can bring out the best in us, a challenge that can test us to our full capacity, perhaps. Maybe we can redefine the Big Weenie in the Sky to something like “creating a future for our children’s children that is much, much better than anything we have imagined thus far, and enriching our own lives in the process.” You know, I think that’s what we were trying to do all along, we just didn’t have all the information about what that actually meant.

We can look at the darkness, or look at the light, and the positive changes I’m seeing make this one of the most exciting times to be alive in history. Thousands of groups have formed just in the past year to come up with win/win solutions that increase prosperity and quality of life for all strata of society, while saving the environment and preserving resources for future generations.

It isn’t going to be a walk in the park. There are formidable barriers. But our spiritual nature is geared to overcome barriers and challenges. Where we have fallen down in the past is when we have chosen goals that aren’t truly pro-survival. This game appears to have all the winning elements.

Is this a game you could get behind?

Let’s do it for our children, and for ourselves.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Where does your electricity come from, or Hopi, the water people

Few of us ask, or ever really find out, where our electricity comes from when we switch on that light switch or run that hair dryer. I attended a Hopi gathering a while back that enlightened me on a few things on that subject.

For instance, I didn't know that coal companies, use water to wash coal hundreds of miles through pipelines to their destination. I guess it's cheaper than trucking the stuff. Not sure about that, or why they would do things that way. They might not be sure either, 'cept it's always been done that way.

The Hopi are the water people. But Hopiland, on the high mesa of Arizona, is dry. There is a certain breed of heirloom Hopi blue corn that only a few of the elders still use (per one Hopi elder I spoke with) that doesn't need much water and can grow in that ecosystem. But most of their food supply needs water which doesn't come from rain in that part of the world. They have springs to feed the people and the wildlife in the area. They have sacred springs, that have been honored and cared for, for many years.

These springs are drying up.

There are four aquifers underneath the mesa. Three of them consist of non-drinkable water that is also difficult to access. The other aquifer is drinkable - pure, decent water that can easily be accessed, and it feeds many of the springs. It is huge. Per the coal company that made a deal with the Hopi to use that aquifer for their coal mining, it is as big as an ocean - "it is so big that what the coal company will use, would be like using a cup of water from a huge lake!"

But what the coal company said about that wasn't quite true. What Peabody Coal does with the Hopi's only drinking water, their only irrigation water, the water that feeds their sacred springs and the entire ecosystem of the area, is wash coal from their coal mine in Arizona to the power plant in Laughlin, Nevada, that feeds Las Vegas and Southern California with electricity. Can you imagine how much water it takes to slurry coal hundreds of miles through a pipeline? Yeah. A lot.

Con Edison uses Peabody Coal and Hopi water to feed their grid. I don't know if DWP uses Peabody coal to feed their grid, but it is likely. My last bill informed me that in 2006, DWP got 29% of its electrical power from coal. This year, it is projected 49%.

Because Peabody Coal has become a major source of revenue for the Hopi, and because they have a lease, things are not so simple as just kicking them out. It is the age old story of outside forces coming into indigenous areas (even the paltry lands that we have left them, the worst lands in the country, the reservations), and exploiting them. Yes, the Hopi are benefiting financially, but not nearly as much as the coal company. And their lifeblood, water, their future generations' ability to survive, is being compromised in the process.

A number of the Hopi are working towards creating alternative economics for their area and bringing back old ways of using water that will preserve it for future generations.

What can you do about this?

Demand real accountability from corporations. Demand that they start paying for the true costs of doing business, including all the destruction they cause to environments, to communities, to future generations. Educate business people in your area about the concept of sustainability. We like the definition that Pachamama uses ( "The ability of this generation to provide for its needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to do so."

Write or call your electric company. Find out what they are doing to go green and lodge your protest on using coal slurry, or other environmentally unsound ways to create electricity.

Or you can become energy self-sufficient. Stop using monolithic "it has nothing to do with me" grid electricity that encourages, by its very structure, this type of irresponsibiliy to solve "demand."

But most importantly, continue to ask questions, like "where does my electricity come from, really?" and find the real answers. Educate yourself on alternatives to the destructive ways we maintain our lifestyle and conveniences in this country. Educate your neighbor on where their electricity is coming from. Get your schools to teach your children to ask those kinds of questions and come up with better answers than we have, and teach them these things yourselves (because depending on the schools to ensure our kids have the knowledge they need is just another "it has nothing to do with me"). Maybe if we do that, the Hopi's children, and ours, will have water to drink.