Friday, December 30, 2011

The Very Beginning of Vision

Because I’m feeling singularly blessed for simply having the time to reflect and subsequently broadcast, I wanted to post today by way of sending a holiday greeting, and end-of-year summing up and shout out to any and all who have stumbled upon, inspired, or contributed to, my eclectic musings - intentionally or otherwise. Indeed this has been a year, perhaps more than most in recent memory, that deserves musings, reflections and summing up, challenging as that may be. For those of us employed or in general not on the ropes, up against the pipes, or down for the count (block those ubiquitous colloquial American sports and mechanics metaphors!), things have not been as dire as for the other disturbingly large and increasing percentage of humanity who are out of their homes or villages; out of food, water, energy, land; out of options; or out of their minds. And if you’re human, you’re feeling their pain too.

Excellent colleague and sportsman, fisheries biologist, 
and civil engineer Mahmood Azad with Delta black bass
I was quite fortunate to have spent 2011 recalibrating- slowing down, reading, writing, thinking, hunting, fishing and cooking, and spending time with family and friends. The recession/depression and unemployment necessitated some changes, but on balance these felt more like a reorganization of priorities than any kind of real sacrifice. I began the process of divesting myself of much accumulated material detritus (unfortunately it's going to be a long long process). I would never have admitted to myself that I am a consumerist, but it's pretty hard not to be if you have disposable income and live in a Western industrialized country- it's kind of the way the whole house of cards is set up, isn't it? Fixing up my boat consumed a good block of time and was well worth it. Reconnecting with old friends, many in a situation similar to mine, was, and remains, essential. Getting dirty, working up a sweat, and doing a few day's worth of honest physical work helping family and friends with hands-on DIY maintenance projects was a gift and a pleasure. And of course, extended periods of reflection and meditation outdoors in the eternal pursuit, preparation, and consumption of wild fish and game with my many excellent and intrepid fellow sportsmen had the usual salubrious and tonic effect.

Rickshaw driver in "Happy"
One film I saw this year helped my recalibrating- it’s called Happy, directed and produced by Roko Belic, a friend of my friend Ralph Leighton. (They collaborated on Ghengis Blues, the story of a blind blues musician Paul Pena's journey to Tuva to compete in a national throat singing competition.) Happy is a fresh, compassionate, and deeply moving film that examines the lives (and happiness) of a wide range of individuals and families across the globe. Of many stories and profiles in the film, two stood out to me. The first, with which the film begins, is an interview with a rickshaw driver in semi rural India. He makes just enough to keep his family fed and lives in an open air hut partially covered with blue plastic tarp material, but he's...radiantly, genuinely, happy: not craving or really needing much more than the warmth and support of his village and family. Tears were trickling down my face in the first two minutes of this film, as the fundamental, simple powerful truth and the contrasts and similarities of this man's life with my own hit me with a strong and transforming force. The next big choke-up moment (there are many) was a scene with a young Japanese widow singing in a choir comprised of "work widows"- women whose husbands literally worked themselves to death. Her husband, a manager at Toyota, dropped dead on the job, after years of  overwork and obsession with work over family. This is evidently a widespread phenomena in Japan, with its strong work ethic. For me, looking back at a lifetime of entirely typical workaholic behavior, this was a bitter and tragic wakeup call.

Lovely perspicacious daughter Isa with new husband
Nick and noble mutts Cain & Mr. T
Another huge influence in the evolving recalibration of my value system has been my lovely, strong-willed, perspicacious daughter, who has for the last few years renounced, among much else, what she calls the "college industrial complex," and decided to live in a remote corner of the Hawaiian islands in a tiny hut without electricity or running water, become an evangelical Christian, marry an Iraq vet, and generally reject consumerist, imperialist capitalism. She's taken a very logical path, really, that many people her age find themselves drawn to. The crashing of global financial systems and governments, widespread environmental degradation, and the ensuing political and social instability are not indications that the current version of the American Dream, as emulated by Americans and so many other countries, is anything but mostly bankrupt. Despite uncomfortable, unexpected, and classic generational clashes with her over beliefs and values (it's horrifying to find yourself sounding like your own parents), I am grateful to her for having the strength of character to live according to what may on the surface seem like a very different value system than we taught her. But underneath the differences, the similarities are stronger, and fundamental connections to family, and to the planet, are at the heart of our beliefs. So it was with with great joy that I learned that I'm about to be a grandfather: my daughter's due in June. Her decision to replicate seems like a small but vital vote of confidence in our ability to prosper in the future, when sadly, so many young people today despair of bringing children into our world.

Left to right: Frank Lloyd Wright's future city, complete with personal spaceships; the fabulous Jetsons; fabulous Dubai
Lately it seems that I can't stop apprehending common threads and connections between global events- both calamities and solutions, although the solutions are far more difficult to talk about because they seem to be largely in the future and are thus in need of being envisioned, planned for, and acted upon: but that’s precisely what my blog is about. It’s far too simplistic to say that all global social, political, and economic disruption and imbalance is caused by unequal distribution of resources, but that’s a really good place to start. And starting entails not an endless reciting of calamities and impending collapse, real and terrifying though they may be, but vision. Sometimes I think that what we have is a vision deficit- we are not envisioning what the future really needs to look or feel like. We did a lot more of that back in the first half of the 20th Century. I believe in the amazing power of visions- look what happened: Frank Lloyd Wright inspired the Jetsons, which gave us...Dubai. Were we wrong to have such a nutty view of the future? Maybe what we need is a vision that isn't quite so...well...visual. Allow me to explain with a long detour, thanks for your patience.

Wegework III, by James Turrell
Occasionally in the practice of duck hunting I find myself in some remote pond on the edge of a semi-wild tract of reclaimed Central Valley grassland. These areas are not always as well maintained as they might be, and it's not unusual to get lost even in familiar surroundings, especially when faced with pitch dark, dense freezing fog, and crude outdated maps, all of which were in play for me the other day on one particular adventure. After an excruciating two mile bike ride, I located my assigned pond and waded out into the water to get to the blind, typically a pair of concrete barrels sunk into a mud island in the center of the shallow pond. The path to such blinds is usually marked by small reflective stakes to aid in navigation, but these were sadly missing. I had been to this particular blind before and had a dim recollection of its specific location. I also had my iPhone with GPS that showed my precise location, well, fairly precisely...but as I waded farther into the pond I could not get my bearings at all. Things seem much farther away in the dark, and I could just make out shapes on the water that suggested small mud islands, but these faded into mirages upon closer examination. I was reminded of a piece by one of my favorite artists, James Turrell, who works with light in a way no one I know of has before or since. This piece, installed at MOCA in Los Angeles in the 1990s, consisted of a dark room with the barest suggestion of shapes off in the distance- the included image here may or may not be the piece, as I don't remember its title, but I distinctly remember the raw sensation of a tickling at the back of my eyeballs, my brain struggling to pick up a meaningful signal and separate it from the ephemeral hallucinatory tricks my eyes, devoid of verifiable data, were playing on me. It was fascinating. In the duck pond, memory, GPS, and common sense all failed me: I retreated to the edge of the pond until first light, then stumbled upon the blind, which was almost impossible to miss one the fog lifted.

This feeling of getting a dim, tiny spark of the beginning of a vision returned for me the other night, at a debate hosted by Earth Island Institute, where Richard Heinberg, author of the new book The End of Growth; and Earth Island’s Tom Athanasiou, author of Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor went head to head over the topic "Peak Oil or Climate Emergency?" During the audience discussion, I asked Richard and Tom where we could look to find any kind of historical precedent or vision for the "end of growth" scenarios they both promulgate as a key solutions to some of our most pressing global problems (at the moment I can't envision the world embracing the idea of no growth as a positive thing, but I am reading their books). I didn't get a very clear answer on that (I'm still searching), beyond the suggestion to read their books and others, but something Richard said caught my attention- he suggested that what we needed to do was to focus on things like getting clean drinking water to the almost 900 million people on earth who lack it and working towards food sovereignity and land rights, in short- a functional kind of vision based on specific goals around a balance of resources with population, rather than a utopian Jetsonian wonderland with green stuff slathered all over gleaming phallic highrises, sprinkled with decorative wind turbines. It's not necessarily about less population or more resources, but about the balance between the two; not about peak oil or climate change, but about solutions that address both and more; not about green building or cleantech alone, but about reinventing government and governance on a global scale; not as much about "sustainability" as resiliency. Environmental and resource issues are all necessarily political and vice versa.Governments like Brazil's that promote equality are on the right track. Nothing new here- it might smell like the evil Socialism, but let's see how Brazil progresses in the next few decades- so far many indicators look promising for them. Eradicating hunger and disease, reforesting African deserts or denuded rainforests, delivering free clean water to a billion people- projects like these seem wildly, extravagantly impossible when most of us would be content to just get back to having jobs, houses and unlimited growth, but really they're not. People are making progress on many fronts all over the planet. There is no real downside of shooting for big goals like these, because they focus on the most important capital in Natural Capitalism: human capital.

So in a way, this is my big takeaway for 2011: the tiny spark of an old vision, seen in a totally new way, arrived at almost by accident after a long period of wandering around in circles lost a freezing dark fog, running out of options, searching for a meaningful signal. The path is beginning to emerge. Thanks to all of you! Peace.

1 comment:

  1. Amen! Reflecting is something most of us don't do nearly enough of. Thanks for sharing these honest and inspiring thoughts, and a very happy new year/new world to you!