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Gifts under a tree.

Photo by Kelvin Kay. From the Wikimedia Commons.

Consumerism. Wish you could escape it? Particularly at this time of the year, when hopes of holiday cheer frequently seem to disappear in a frenzy of shopping madness? Well, already over a half a century ago, famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was laying the very foundation for how to do this in his most famous book, The Art of Loving.

How does he do this? Well, in a nutshell, he achieves this by wisely noting, consumerism has come to be used as a substitute for love.

Admittedly this is not the central point of the book. (And I would highly recommend a slow and thoughtful read over this wide-ranging but short and to-the-point work). Nonetheless I believe Fromm has a firm handle on this ill of society, that quite arguably has even a stronger hold on us today. For as he insightfully states, consumerism takes many forms including “sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies…”

What is more, the products that we consume have been standardized. This is because modern capitalism needs men “whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated.” Of course, there are some variations in the products that we consume, like different initials on a handbag or sweater; however, these serve only to create a feeling of difference “when in reality there is very little left.”

These circumstances become even more concerning when combined with the radical division of labour that has led to the routinized nature of work. Placing a greater value on the production of goods over human life, modern capitalism has required the expectation that “men” be willing to “fit into the social machine without friction.” As a result, “[h]uman relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling, or action [emphasis added].”

(To drive home the point as to why this is so alarming, Fromm frighteningly reflects on how “modern man” closely reflects the picture that Huxley describes in “Brave New World.” In this book, physically well looked after, but emotionally bereft characters are bombarded with slogans like “‘When the individual feels, the community reels’” and “‘Everybody is happy nowadays.’”)

What is the alternative to all of this? Well, as Fromm repeatedly states, we can form truly loving relationships where we get to know the center of a person, or in other words achieve “central relatedness”.

By reviewing his exploration of the nature of love, one learns that achieving this will require:

  1. careful attention to the needs of other individuals,
  2. readiness to act to promote their welfare,
  3. respect for their unique individuality, and
  4. an effort to get to know them.

One also must be willing to grow in maturity to see others and oneself as we truly are (something which Fromm refers to as “objectivity”) as well as to have faith that humankind (or “mankind” as he states) including oneself can become better.

No small order of course. But Fromm at least provides us with something worthy to aim for. And in the process, maps out at least some of the course we need to follow to leave consumerism behind us.

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The Earth seen from Apollo 17.

Photo by NASA. From the Wikimedia Commons.

I have been writing in the past several months about various different environmental issues and posing various practical and philosophical solutions. And while that is all fine and dandy as they say, today I had a realization.

What about the big picture?

I mean, great. All these ideas are fine. But what exactly are we supposed to do? And not just a few things. But the whole enchilada, as they say.

After all, we have been working since, quite arguably, the 1970s with the advent of Earth Day to bring about environmental change. And look where it has got us. We now have the BP oil spill, the threat of drilling in the Arctic, an ever increasing problem with global climate change, and more. Our efforts to use reusable mugs, programmable thermostats, and the odd carpool simply have not cut the mustard, so to speak.

In two words, I feel that what we need is extreme cooperation. I mean, seeing people seriously come together in new and innovative ways to solve these problems.

What form would this cooperation take? Well, to draw on planning theory (which I can’t help but do, given my background in urban planning), I think we need to take a long hard look at feminist planning theory. This facet of planning theory advocates the creation of things like

1) common play areas, gardens, and dining halls,
2) communal kitchens, and
3) cooperative garages.

Now my crunchy granola friends (yes, believe it or not, there are some who are even “greener” than me), inform me that this type of arrangement is called an “intentional community” (with other terms, like “cohousing” and “ecovillages” falling under this umbrella.)

When you think about it a little, this sort of thing really makes a lot of sense. By using communal kitchens for instance, food could be cooked more efficiently in larger batches (which is important given that home food preparation, according to Just Food by James E. McWilliams, uses 25% of the total energy required to produce food). Additionally, fewer rooms would need heating since not so many rooms would be in use.

By working together more, other efficiencies could be gained. For instance, people could make trips together to places like stores. What is more, we could implement these changes quickly, using existing infrastructure. For instance, a street in a typical suburb could designate one house to be the “hub” where people do things cooperatively.

Now you might think this idea sounds a bit idealistic and unrealistic. After all, people are notorious for not getting along with their neighbours. Which is why so many have taken to cocooning in their homes (with their home movie-theatres and work-out rooms no less). But I say, if getting along is all that’s required to get us out of this environmental quagmire that we’re in, it’s worth a try. Is it not?

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The situation today is like flying one of those pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings that people created before discovering the laws of aerodynamics. At first, when the flight begins, all appears well. The airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away. But the aircraft is slowly falling.

Thus speaks a fictional gorilla in the book, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, after which the book is named. He does not communicate in a conventional manner, however, speaking mysteriously to the author through his eyes.

As he goes on to say, ten thousand years ago, humanity embarked on a similar “civilizational flight.” But our craft wasn’t designed according to any theory at all. Like the imaginary airman, we “were totally unaware that there is a law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilizational flight. “

As for what that law is, Ishmael calls it the law of “limited competition”. This is the law whereby populations are kept in check by limited food supplies. We falsely assume that we’re exempt from this law and that we can continue expanding and growing our population forever.

When did we adopt this attitude? It was with the advent of the “agricultural revolution” by people whom Ishmael calls the “Takers”. These people embarked on the gradual task of destroying all competitors for their food. This included the “competitors twice removed” such as plants crowding out grasses that fed their “game”. To make things worse, we have a materialistic culture that is “[c]onsuming the world.” By contrast, Ishmael refers to the so-called primitive peoples that lived in greater harmony with nature the “Leavers”.

Our misinterpretation of the Biblical creation story supports this attitude, Ishmael says. This is the story whereby Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. From it, the Takers have derived the conclusion that humanity is meant to be agriculturalists and subdue or “rule” the earth.

However, as Ishmael intriguingly argues, the story was actually written by the ancestors of the Hebrews who were originally “Leavers” (i.e. pastoralists). This explains why the “gods” withheld the very knowledge humanity needed to fulfill our supposed “destiny”. It also explains why agriculture is not portrayed as a desirable choice, but rather a curse whereby food must now be wrested from the ground by our “sweat”.

Ishmael is not suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers. Even Leaver cultures, he says, sometimes practiced a degree of farming or animal husbandry. Rather, the point is about becoming stewards of the Earth and letting the other peoples (i.e. “Leavers”) and creatures of this world live.

There are two reasons we should do this, according to Ishmael. Firstly, biodiversity is valuable in how it greatly increases the likelihood of life surviving changing conditions (e.g. an evolving climate). Secondly, other species have the incredible potential of becoming capable of what we have become!

In this light, the importance of the gorilla to humanity becomes apparent. Without the gorilla (and other species), we lack a sense of purpose. And so we find ourselves just going through the motions when doing things like dealing with our waste and stopping pollution. With other species like the gorilla still in existence, we can completely rethink the role for ourselves and our vision for the world.

Thus, the book ends with the following words written on a poster of Ishmael’s:


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Photo by R. K. Singam From the Wikimedia Commons.

It is a belief many of us hold dear. That is with respect to how the future is with our children. If we teach them about the importance of environmental protection, they will make the changes needed to ensure a sustainable future. Yes, we have made and continue to make many environmental blunders. And yes, without a doubt, there are many who do not care about these blunders. Or at least enough to do something about it. But the children will be able to fix all of this.

The Source of Frustration

Oh boy. Allow me to take a deep breath. Why, do you ask? Because I must admit this sort of thinking has been anathema to me for a long time. The environmental problems we are facing must be addressed now. If we wait for our children to become involved, it will likely be too late. Precious species and ecosystems will be permanently lost; people will suffer from often environmentally-linked health issues like cancer and asthma; and the climate may be irrevocably damaged as a result of global climate change.

Based on such thinking, surely the solution lies in targeting those who are making the critical decisions affecting our environment today. By that I mean the adults, or, from a child’s (by which I also mean a youth’s) perspective, the “grown ups.” Amongst them are the businesspeople, the politicians, the bureaucrats, the leaders, the volunteers, who carry much of the power to guide us towards making more environmentally-responsible choices.

But does focusing on such individuals really hold the solution? Should we really channel all of our efforts towards them, at the expense of children? Well, a few years later and hopefully somewhat wiser, I have rethought my position.

The Importance of Environmental Education

For one thing, children have tremendous power to affect change by their own actions. An example that comes to mind which is relevant to Ontario is “Reduce the Juice”, a youth-led climate change organization. In Waterloo, they held a number of great events aimed at educating the public and themselves on how to conserve and use renewable energy. Additionally, for Earth Day in Waterloo Region, students from both elementary and high schools have participated in a wide range of activities including garbage pick-up, planting and caring for trees, and conserving energy.

An additional matter is the ability of children to influence their parents. For this reason, David Suzuki regrets not focusing on educating children 20 years ago when he started his foundation. As he said recently on The Hour, “We still don’t have time for them [the children] to grow up. But [for] all of the young people, the two most important people on the planet are your moms and dads.” And they say to their moms, “I’m really worried” and to their dads, “What are you doing for me?”

There is yet another reason why we should educate our children about the environment. That has to do with the resiliency of the earth. Yes, we may foolishly wreak environmental havoc, and yes we need to take steps to stop this, but the earth has shown that it can repair itself (at least to a certain extent) if given sufficient opportunity. Examples are the improvements to the ozone layer and the recovery of species like the Bald Eagle. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, we need to look towards the future to find ways to mend it. And teaching our children to value the environment and how to care for it is an important part of the solution.

Putting these Ideas into Action

That just about summarizes my thoughts on environmental education. Except with regard to how exactly we can achieve this. Fortunately, a wealth of information exists on how to include the environment in a school curriculum. A brief exploration of my public library produced a number of reference books. (Some books I found that seemed particularly useful were True Green Kids by Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin, and As If Earth Matters by Thom Henley and Kenny Peavy.) A search on the Internet with the terms “environmental education for kids” also yields a plethora of information (including Kids for Saving Earth and EcoKids, both of which provide resources for teachers).

Also, with many universities offering degrees in environmental studies and Queen’s even having an Outdoor and Experiential Education program, there should be no shortage of people able to teach children about the environment (although, sadly, environmental studies does not qualify as a ‘teachable’ in teacher’s college, a situation that administrators would be wise to reconsider.)

Of course, from personal experience, I would say that all the teaching in the world about the environment will do little without enabling children to come into contact with nature firsthand. Only then can they develop a true understanding of the importance of protecting our “wild” spaces. This will require protecting our greenspaces (particularly those in urban spaces where children have less access to such areas), funding outdoor education programs like those associated with the Laurel Creek Nature Centre, and providing them with opportunities to join groups like the Waterloo Scout Group (which, by the way, is open to both girls and boys).


So. Environmental education for children. Is it important? Most definitely. Do we have the resources to rise to the challenge? Absolutely. Should we rely solely on children to do all the work for us? Not at all. But that doesn’t mean they should be left out of the equation. As for the time to act, as they say, no time is like the present. So let’s get going!

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Photo by User Minesweeper From the Wikimedia Commons

I’m going to put myself on the line here. Today, I’m going to say something that strikes at the heart of many of the issues I’ve been talking about up until now (i.e. energy/offshore oil drilling, global climate change). What is that ‘something’ you may ask? Well, it is…the car is evil. There, I’ve said it. To repeat with even greater emphasis and for more cathartic effect: The Car Is Evil, THE CAR IS EVIL.

Why do I choose to bring the subject up now, after so many months of blogging? Well, let’s just say I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion recently about cars. The conversation, before I joined in (or you could say, before I decided to ‘rant’), focused mainly on the technical aspects of cars. That is, how we could make them better, such as by making them electrically-powered and so on.

Now I know that the individuals participating in this conversation had the best of intentions. They were concerned about the problems of global climate change and air pollution that accompany the use of the internal combustion engine. As you likely can guess, I do not disagree with either of these issues. In fact, I am very worried about the effects that a burgeoning demand for the automobile in places like China will have on the world’s climate and air quality.

However, solving the technical issues with the automobile will not be a sufficient antidote. The automobile is at the root of many additional woes that techno fixes to its build alone will not address. Some of you may be aware of what these are. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I will lay them out here.

To begin and of perhaps greatest concern, the automobile eats at the hearts of our communities. How does it do this? Well, by providing, or at least giving the impression of providing, a swift getaway from our neighbourhoods/ workplaces/etc. and by insulating drivers and passengers from those who pass them on the course of their travels. In doing so, the automobile effectively facilitates the creation of ‘islands of nowhere’. I say islands of nowhere, for what else could these places be, if we are so eager to get away from them?

There is a second point, closely related to the first one. Thanks to the automobile that enables long-distance travel, we have seen the proliferation of centralized, mega “Super” centres, schools, community centres, industrial parks, and such. This is concerning because they are, for the most part, not easily accessible except by automobile. I say not easily accessible because in some situations mass transit can be taken, albeit not without a considerable investment of time and effort.

What happens in the process? Well, customers are diverted away from local businesses (which add greatly to the soul of communities), children must travel miles away for their education (rather than take the far more healthy option of walking and cycling), parents (i.e. ‘soccer moms’) are forced to spend hours in the car to transport their children to activities, and workers often must travel great distances to their places of employment (with a resultant loss in productivity, due to fewer hours potentially worked and the toll that traveling places on worker health).

There are other problems as well. Consider the dangers of navigating, often at high speeds, busy streets and roads, with often equally frustrated and impatient drivers. There is also the sense of boredom and isolation that can occur for those that cannot drive the automobile, like children and certain portions of the elderly and the disabled.

Last but not least, many harmful environmental impacts are associated with the logistics of  making automobile travel feasible. This includes 1) the pollution from mining and processing of materials that go into the creation of the car (even if most of the material is reclaimed, there is still some that is typically not); 2) how the roads must be constructed with materials largely gathered from oil and aggregate (i.e. gravel) extraction, both of which being activities fraught with environmental problems; and 3) the detrimental effects to wildlife, as expressways cut through precious natural areas, parking lots cover more greenspace, and hazardous roadways prevent the safe crossing of many creatures.

There. Now, I’ve said my piece. And feel much the better for it. Now I know that I along with many who are like-minded will undoubtedly continue needing to use the automobile on occasion, until the proper infrastructure and support network is built up. However, as we are now in a situation when our addiction to oil and its use by the automobile is coming under increasing fire, the time for a thorough dialogue on these matters has come. Let us hope we make the right choices.

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Dr. Stephen H. Schneider

Copyright Joi Ito. From flickr.

I’m sorry to report that leading climatologist Dr. Stephen H. Schneider has died yesterday. His death, reported by the New York Times, is tragic news for those concerned about global climate change. A long-time advocate on the need for action on climate change, his death is perhaps particularly saddening now, at a time when opposing camps on global climate change (as well as other problems associated with fossil fuel use) appear to be becoming increasingly polarized. (Only earlier this month, Schneider and other climate scientists reported receiving hate mail for their stance on the issue.)

Schneider was the editor of a journal called Climatic Change as well as author and co-author of numerous scientific papers. He was also the writer of several books including Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate. His work attests to his careful observation of the scientific basis for climate change, while at the same time relentless drive to raise the issue in the public sphere.

Schneider is reported to have died of a heart attack. He recently visited the city of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in May, and had been hoping to return in the fall. The torch now falls to other climatologists to continue the struggle that he undertook. Let us wish them the very best in their efforts.

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Copyright Pam Brophy .

Are you…Concerned about eating in a more environmentally sustainable fashion, but not sure how? Wanting to be a culinary adventurer, but feeling that one must search abroad for tasty delights? Wanting to read a funny, interesting read as well? If this is the case, I strongly recommend that you give Margaret Webb’s book, Apples to Oysters, a try.

Working a zigzagged trail from the east to west of Canada, Webb carefully selects eleven food or drink producers to teach us about how to be kind to our palette and/or health, and the earth all at the same time. What is perhaps even more fascinating is how we find out that producing food in an ecologically sound way often makes good business sense too.

Take as a case in point Johnny Flynn’s farmed Colville Bay oysters from Prince Edward Island (farming being a practice preferable to fishing which in the past has seriously threatened oyster populations in this bay). They are so delectable that at one point, Webb’s partner jokingly asks whether she would go straight, if only to get some more of his oysters. With most of his oysters being choice, he is able to command top price for his produce.

But wait. There’s more. Like the wildly popular, recently discovered Ambrosia apple from British Columbia, which just so happens to be organic. Or the “earthy and sensual” soft cheese from Quebec, produced by the milk of cattle that feed on marsh grass. And last but not least, a Niagara winery committed to minimizing pesticide use (a practice called integrated pest management) that is also the maker of a leading Riesling ice wine.

I could go on, but there are the health matters as well. One that may be of particular interest is the mainly grass-fed beef from Alberta, which has a lovely flavour and much less fat than grain-fed beef. Webb also introduces us to the roasted (and sometimes, due to customer demand, organic) flax seed that, as she phrases it, makes you go “ding ding”, as regular as a “church bell.”

While many food producers in this book seem to be struggling to keep up with customer demand, the author is careful not to paint an entirely rosy picture for farmers considering following a similar path. For instance, we learn about a couple with an organic farm in the Yukon who cannot make mortgage payments after a series of crop failures (they plan to start again, but this time on a smaller scale).

Another caveat provided to readers is to not be hasty when deciding what is “environmentally sustainable”. For example, we are told copper – classified as an organic spray used as a fungicide – is “deadly” poisonous and does not break down. Thus, the owners of the winery, I mentioned earlier, prefer not to use it on their grapes.

The author should be commended for providing an honest portrait of the trials and tribulations of  “ecologically-sensitive” food production, for she has a definite reason to be biased towards such efforts. As readers are told, the decline in health and eventual death of her father may have been caused by the pesticides used on the family farm.

All in all, Webb has written a very worthwhile book, providing valuable information for “foodies” and environmentally conscious consumers alike. However, rather than laying things out in black-and-white, she provides ample (excuse the pun) food-for-thought. So…get a copy of this book and enjoy. Who knows? You might be inspired to take a gastronomic trip of your own!

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“there are paths that can be followed, and there is a path that cannot – it is not a path, it is the wilderness”

(Gary Snyder [1990], The Practice of the Wild)

Female grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park, US

Taken by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Oh, where to start. Exploring the writings of deep ecologist Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild was a soulful journey. His words were laced with such deep meaning and resonated with so much tenor that I found myself poring over his book at length.

Why did I react this way? Perhaps it is Snyder’s love of storytelling. Maybe it is the way he skillfully meanders though history. Or possibly it is his enticingly poetic way of writing about matters of great, but often ignored, importance.

A Story for Illustration

For whatever reason why Snyder so captured my attention, his message was definitely not lost. As to how it can perhaps best be conveyed, it may be worth considering a short tale. It is a story he retells of a girl who fell in love with a grizzly bear.

In the story, a girl runs off with a grizzly bear, gradually becoming wilder and wilder, to the point where she even starts growing fur-like hair. While she becomes bear-like, he becomes shamanistic, shifting shapes and chanting songs. Eventually she becomes pregnant and gives birth to their offspring.

The story ends in tragedy, with the girl’s family killing the bear. She in vengeance wipes out almost all of her family. In the end, she entirely transforms into a bear like her belated husband and disappears with her offspring into the woods.

For this reason, the natives of North America do not eat grizzly. But now, we are told, that the Europeans have come, “The bears are being killed, [and] the humans are everywhere…”

The Moral

The moral of this story? The line between the “wild” and “humans” is a thin one. To explain further, I will paraphrase Snyder’s thoughts somewhat by saying that nature brings forth form.

Consequently, he says, “Huckleberries and salmon call for bears, the clouds of plankton of the North Pacific call for salmon, and salmon call for seals and thus orcas.” As for what brings our lineage into form, “It is surely the ‘mountains and rivers without end’-the whole of this earth on which we find ourselves more or less competently at home.”

What I take away from his thoughts on “form” is that we are just one of the many expressions of life on this planet. While we are unique, we must recognize and respect the environment that called us into being, just as it brought the many other species into existence.

However, as indicated by today’s destruction of the grizzly and other bears, we are in danger of destroying the very earth that gave rise to us. For illustration, Snyder comments on how deforestation is causing life-destroying flooding, extinction of millions of species, and global warming.

Regaining a Balance

If we are ravaging the earth so much, a logical question would be what is the alternative? According to Snyder, a balance needs to be restored between humankind and nature. We need, he says, “a civilization that wildness can endure.”

The benefits of such action are both practical and profound. For by doing this, we could 1) save the precious creatures that inhabit this earth with us, an important endeavor given that “[h]undreds of millions of years might elapse before the equivalent of a whale or an elephant is seen again, if ever”, and 2) perhaps surprisingly for many, enrich our societies in countless ways. The occurrence of the latter is possible because creating a civilization/wildness balance  requires reestablishing a sense of place. And, as Snyder intriguingly claims, culture, language, and a sense of the sacred all emerge from having a grounding in one’s locale.

Wishing to make absolutely clear the point of how we can achieve such a balance, he writes, “It is not enough just to ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.”

A healthy dose of humility to our predecessors is provided along with this advice. For he later goes on to say, if we are to reconnect, we have much to learn from the ‘primitives’ that came before us. Their knowledge enabled them to use their natural surroundings as a “rich supply of fibers, poisons, medicines, intoxicants, detoxicants, containers, waterproofing, food, dyes, glues, incense, amusement, companionship, inspiration.”

Looking Beyond the Physical Realm

Reestablishing a sense of place has more than simply practical purposes, however. It can help us recapture our sense of the sacred. And so when reiterating the words of Geoffrey Blainey, Snyder recalls, “The land itself was their chapel and their shrines were hills and creeks and their religious relics were animals, plants, and birds. Thus the migrations of aboriginals, though spurred by economic need, were always pilgrimages.”

For this reason, Snyder says, “Human beings themselves are at risk  – not just on some survival-of-civilization level, but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls.”

One cannot help but wish, when reading Synder, that we will one day reconnect with the land just like our ancestors. On this matter, Snyder appears to be eternally hopeful, but warns: “For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.” In other words, he asserts, “we must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendants will be here for millennia to come.”

Can We Succeed?

Do we have it in us to do what Snyder calls for? I believe so, and think he would agree. Given that for him, the natural world is only temporarily in hiding. “Nature is ultimately in no way endangered…The wild is indestructible,” he claims. But before it is too late for us humans, we must look within ourselves, and go off the beaten path both figuratively and literally, to find the wildness within ourselves.

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It may seem like overkill, but I can’t help but comment some more on the BP oil spill. I suppose what really got me going was an article I read this past week in The Globe and Mail (surprise, surprise). The article in question was entitled, “Damage from spill turning Gulf into ‘biological black hole” (Tuesday, June 8), with an interview of Joe MacInnis, a Canadian undersea explorer.

When asked how long the spill will be a key environmental issue, he is reported to have stated for the next five years.

Now possibly I am missing something in the translation. It is possible that what he is referring to is how long the issue will remain a key issue to the media. If that is what he is saying, then fine. I will agree as much as the next person that the media is fickle. It only takes one relatively small accident or scandal to turn attention away from a devastating environmental or social disaster.

However, I don’t think that that is what is actually intended here. I think what is being suggested is that the impacts will last only as long as five years. Now I’m no marine biologist, but I feel pretty confident in assuming the effects of the spill are going to last a lot longer than that.

As a Canadian, I need only look to the collapse of cod stocks off the coast of Newfoundland to realize that ecosystems can take a whole lot longer than that to rejuvenate (In 1992, bans were placed on the Newfoundland and Labrador cod fishery, but so far Atlantic cod populations have shown virtually no signs of recovery).

Looking to an example in the United States, one need only consider the effects of the Exxon oil spill. This is well documented by a report, “Legacy Of An Oil Spill – 20 Years After The Exxon Valdez” by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. The report asserts that the effects are still being felt on the Alaska ecosystem for species like otters and sea birds.

It has taken scientists twenty years and counting to assess the effects of the Exxon oil spill. Why would anyone make the claim that the effects of the BP oil spill will be felt only for five more years?

Then there is the stance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take into consideration. In their listing of questions and answers about the oil spill, they state, “EPA is currently collecting and analyzing water and sediment samples to help states and other federal agencies understand the immediate and long-term impacts of oil contamination along the Gulf coast…” There. Finally. Something that makes sense.

One last point can be made to drive a final nail into the coffin, so to speak, in MacInnis’ claim. We are only now starting to get an understanding of how much oil will be leaked. This is because yesterday, the U.S. government revised their estimates about the extent of the spill. According to their findings, the leak is at least triple what was originally predicted (last week it was double, which has lead some to speculate when they will release the real numbers).

Now, all of this wouldn’t matter if the BP oil spill wasn’t such a travesty. I say this both with respect to its environmental and economic implications.

On the one hand, it almost goes without saying that the spill is having and will continue to have impacts up and down the Gulf’s food chain. This includes effects on creatures ranging from crab, to sea birds, to whales and dolphins. On the other hand, there is the devastation of the fishing industries in the Gulf in places like Mississippi (which has already had its fair share of tragedy with Katrina) and the ripple effects it will have through all the dependent businesses.

So please. The BP oil spill is enough of a tragedy. Let’s start by being honest with people about the impacts it will actually have. Armed with such information, we should be able to respond more appropriately.

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Creatures who have traveled with us through the ages are now apparently doomed, as their habitat – and the old, old habitat of humans – falls before the slow-motion explosion of expanding world economics. If the lad or lass is among us who knows where the secret heart of this Growth-Monster is hidden, let them please tell us where to shoot the arrow that will slow it down

(Gary Snyder [1990], The Practice of the Wild)

Looking around our world, it is difficult not to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong. Thousands of species are either threatened or have become extinct. Millions of people are starving or undernourished. Wars and civil unrest continue, or are in the process of breaking out. Closer to home, we are losing beautiful and valuable greenspace of agricultural fields and natural areas as cities and towns continuously expand.

What exactly is going on? What is driving this incessant “Growth Monster”, to use the words of Gary Snyder, that causes us to continue to expand and destroy at the expense of other creatures and ourselves? Most importantly, perhaps, how can we change things for the better?

These are not small questions. As a student on, as they say, the path of life, I will not claim to have all the answers. However, I would like to relate to you some of what I have learned on these matters. For assistance, I will draw upon the writings of Eckhart Tolle (2005) in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

May “I” Introduce the “Ego”?

For Tolle, the source of all our problems springs from the misperception of the word “I” (and the related words, “me”, “my”, “mine”, and “myself”). What is this misperception called? Tolle asserts that this misperception of self is the “ego”. The ego causes us to identify who we are with:

  1. what we have (e.g. house, car, clothes, furniture), and
  2. who we are and are not (e.g. gender, nationality, race, religion, class, profession, body-image).

Thus, Tolle refers to the maintenance of the ego as the activities of identification (or labeling) and separation.

Oh, the Foolishness of Our Ways

Of course, to a certain degree we need things. We also need to develop a sense of self-identification to help us make sense of the world and thereby mature from childhood to adulthood.

However, Tolle points out the foolishness of continuing such thinking: Objects can be lost (e.g. either through misplacement, thievery, or disrepair) and labels can cease to be appropriate (e.g. through disappearance of one’s beauty or appearance, job, family, friends, and so on). Not to be overly morbid, but there is also the final loss of everything, that comes with death.

More concernedly, Tolle states that this equation of having with being leads to the linking that “…the more I have, the more I am.” This causes an “obsession with things, which in turn creates our consumer society and economic structures where the only measure of progress is always more.”

When considered at a macro scale, this type of thinking leads to the imbalance of resources that has arisen on the planet, so that many do not have their basic needs of food, water, shelter and clothing met.

As for the danger of using labels in determining who we are, Tolle brings this issue up when discussing gender roles. According to him, the problem with this situation is that it “…forces you into a role, into conditioned patterns of behavior that affect all aspects of your life…” From an environmental perspective, I would add that taking on roles can be problematic in that they inhibit us from solving the environmental predicaments that we face (e.g. by learning how to fix things to reduce waste, cooking to reduce the need for energy-intensive and overly packaged processed foods etc.).

Further problems arise when individuals identify with a group such as a nation, political party, or corporation. This is because, as Tolle points out, “A collective ego is usually more unconscious than the individuals that make up that ego.” This situation results in behaviour that would be considered “psychopathic” in an individual. Examples that Tolle provides, either directly or indirectly, are 1) nations stockpiling atom bombs, and 2) corporations make profit their only aim without regard for their impacts (e.g. on nature, people, and even their own employees).

Finding a Way Out

Fortunately, Tolle does not content himself with simply pointing out the problems with the ego. He provides guidance on how to free oneself from it, asserting that it is important to recognize that your life has an inner and outer purpose.

What is your inner purpose? It is to “awaken” by recognizing that thinking (including emotion, which can drive thinking) are separate from consciousness. To better explain what he means, Tolle states, “Instead of being lost in your thinking, when you are awake…recognize yourself as the awareness behind it.” By tapping into the vast expanse of consciousness, you can cease to partake in that “monstrous act of reductionism” whereby “the infinite depth of who you are” is confused with “whatever the ‘I’ has identified with.”

As for your outer purpose, these are the details that fall into place once you recognize your inner purpose. In certain individuals, these changes are sudden and abrupt (e.g. job alteration, change of partner), while others will continue to do exactly whatever they were doing. For this latter group of individuals, Tolle states that “only the how changes, not the what.”

Tolle points out that for people in the early stages of awakening, “What drives the world no longer drives them. Seeing the madness of our civilization so clearly, they may feel somewhat alienated from the culture around them.” This can lead to a period of insecurity and uncertainty, but as the ego and its incessant desires for more ceases to run your life, so does the need for external security. In the process, you begin to embrace uncertainty, allowing for “infinite possibilities” to open up in your life.

Some Final Thoughts

The willingness to embrace uncertainty, I would say, is extremely important, particularly now. I do not think I am making too far-fetched an assertion to claim we will only succeed to address our current environmental (and for that matter social) problems if we cease from doing “more of the same.” Rather, we will need to embrace new ideas and modes of doing things in areas ranging from, but not restricted to, business to government to education.

We do not have much time, however. Tolle claims by failing as a species to as yet “awaken”, we have done insane things like the building of machine guns, poison gas, and bombs, including, as already mentioned, the atom bomb. Tolle refers to this as “intelligent stupidity”, which is something that he claims is threatening our very survival as a species.

Tolle does offer hope though. “The closer we get to the end of our present evolutionary stage, the more dysfunctional the ego becomes, in the same way that a caterpillar becomes dysfunctional just before it transforms into a butterfly.”

Whether we succeed in making this transformation remains to be seen. However, to reiterate what Tolle reminds us, the changes that are required lie closer than one may think. For, he says, without “change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference.”

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