Provocations #18 – A Little Less Pressure

Silver linings…

I was doodling one day recently, and came up with this image. I can usually feel the pressure of humanity, sense it’s painful impact on the planet. In these days of “Stay at Home” orders, a forced pause in our normal frenetic routines, there is just a little less pressure on the planet. And it is nice. It reveals itself on the trails, which are full of people experiencing nature and health, parents are out in their yards playing with their children, there is less noise, less pollution, less traffic. It is more pleasant. If only we could institutionalize this and return to a new normal; albeit one without runs on toilet paper and libraries and coffee shops open for business.

Copyright ©️ 2020 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #16 – A Year of Unconditional Compassion

Image from NPR story The Science of Compassion (The Hidden Brain, 20 October 2015).

Yesterday, the first of December, I saw a women and her children standing in a snowbank asking for help. Her sign said that her husband has been detained (presumably by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE). I found myself asking how could we, a nation of immigrants, reduce ourselves to breaking up families that are simply seeking a better life? Yes, I recognize that this is a complex issue, but in real human terms that is the essence of it.

On a Personal Level

As I thought about this family’s circumstances and all that is implied and implicated by it, I realized how often I have failed to show compassion. I thought about the people who work for ICE that must do the detaining. This must trouble their souls. I thought about the people who live in fear of strangers and those who are different. And even the simple and mundane things that frustrate me, such as the guy going 10 miles under the speed limit in the left lane.

I came to the conclusion the that only possible response is universal and unconditional compassion for all. So I am dedicating myself, beginning with that moment yesterday, to try to see and respond to all things through a filter of compassion.

Copyright ©️ 2019 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations # 15 – Food Webs, Old and New

Image: Lake Shinji, Japan Wikimedia Commons

We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

On Saturday, November 2, 2019 NPR’s Program, The Salt, aired this story: Controversial Pesticides Are Suspected Of Starving Fish.

The story describes how the once thriving fisheries on Japan’s beautiful Lake Shinji, began to decline about a decade ago. New research suggests that runoff of the neonicotinoid pesticides (the same ones implicated in the decline of pollinators such as bees), which are used on nearby rice paddies, may be responsible for declining fish populations. The research suggests that the pesticides are killing off the food sources at the bottom of the food chain, such as insects and crustaceans, and the fish that prey on them are starving.

Startling on Two Levels

This is startling to me on at least two levels. The first is that humans keep making the same mistakes over and over (see: Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom), and we cannot claim ignorance.  I recall being taught in elementary school (a very long time ago) about food chains and food webs.  That we have not learned anything in the intervening decades is stupefying and troubling.  It is of course self evident that pesticides applied on farmland will find their way through the landscape, through runoff and other processes, and affect other ecosystems adversely.  

Secondly, it seems to me that more and more environmental reporting is find its way onto food programs (like The Salt).  This is heartening because there is such a strong link between what we grow, how we produce it, and the health of the planet (to say nothing of human health).  There is an old, outdated and non-politically correct statement ‘that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ Perhaps our stomachs are a good way to our to our heads as well.

Flashback to Provocations #14

In Provocations # 14 – Managing Ourselves, I wrote: “What we need to manage is ourselves. We should manage humans and work with Nature.” But I just stumbled across this, much more eloquent statement from Rachel Carson, who put it this way in her June 1962 commencement address at Scripps College in California:

Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

Rachel Carson, June, 1962

Copyright ©️ 2019 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations # 14 – Managing Ourselves

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was at a scientific conference about observing the oceans. My colleagues, learned and well intentioned all, kept talking about sustainability and development and the need to manage nature in one way or another. “We must manage the oceans for…”, insert your favorite noun here; fisheries, marine debris, commerce, etc. Immediately this did not sit well with me and as the conference progressed I became more and more convinced that this was simply wrong.

It soon came to me during one talk about how a fisheries recovered when policies were implemented in order to give the ecosystem a break — a chance to recover (it was a regional example in Europe). That’s the key. Nature does not need to be managed. She has managed quite well on her own for billions of years without human intervention. [I must interject that the word, “billions”, leaves me feeling suddenly nostalgic for Carl Sagan.] In fact when humans try to intervene to improve nature, the result is often the opposite.

What we need to manage is ourselves. We should manage humans and work with Nature.

It is that simple. One might argue that this is semantics. But language matters. If we view Nature as a resource to be exploited, then that is what we will do and eventually it is game over; the planet is finite. If we recognize Nature as having inherent value and rights, and begin to manage ourselves –our population, our consumption, our pollution, how we treat one another and the planet– well, therein lies our hope. Nature is resilient. Give her a chance and she will recover and thrive and support us. If we do not, then she will die and so will we.

Copyright ©️ 2019 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #11 – On the Wisdom of Self Storage

Lately I have been thinking about “stuff.”   That is to say, how much stuff we have, which really boils down to how much we consume and waste. This is putting it kindly because most of it is, to be honest, worthless and needless crap.  And it comes with massive environmental and societal costs in the form of extraction, production, distribution, and disposal (everything in our culture is ultimately dumped into the environment), with cascading impacts on resources, ecological diversity, pollution, and so on.  There’s lots of debate about these issues, which in social discourse always ends up being about jobs versus the environment; ignoring the hidden truth that the corporate elite walk away with the vast majority of the benefits and the rest of us, and the environment, pay all of the costs: the profits are privatized and the risks are socialized.

Rather than heading down this well trodden theme, I’d like to ask you: have you thought about the personal costs of your love affair with stuff? 

The personal costs of stuff are substantial and begin with having to pay for it, and for many this also means going into debt.  Why are you enslaved “to the man?”  Because of stuff!  But there is also an emotional toll that stuff takes on us.  Think about this for a moment… we actually have to manage the stuff.  Daily.  By the hour, by the minute even. That miracle fitness gadget sitting in the corner of the basement?  Well, we now need that space for the latest, must-have widget. So we move the miracle to the garage.  And when the garage fills, then we turn to the ultimate modern contrivance, self storage.  It’s a kind of deferred disposal; a bizarre form of landfill (landfills are themselves a bizarre concept if you think about it).

How do I know this?  Well, it’s common sense really. But one only needs to stroll through any suburban neighborhood with one’s eyes open.  The first tell tale sign is that the cars not in the garage.   Confirmation comes when you finally pass an open garage and you see that there is so much junk in there that there’s barely room for a human to walk about, let alone to park a car in it.  Frankly I’d be too embarrassed to open my garage door if that were me.  But I digress.

Another telltale sign?  Again, just move through the world with your eyes open and look.  You will notice that we are gobbling up open land to build evermore Self Storage Units.  I’ve been noticing over the past few years that more and more are going up, and less and less of the local open space remains.  Putting this working hypothesis to the test, I did a little digging.  The evidence (data found here) is presented in the figure above, which shows self storage construction in billions of US dollars by year through October 2018, adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars by the consumer price index.  This figure confirms my suspicion that there is pronounced increase in the rate of growth of construction of self storage facilities, beginning about four or five years ago.

I’ll let “The Minimalists” help you with your stuff problem.  Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus are great: they’re wise, witty, helpful, and most importantly, non-judgmental.  But for me the take home is that this is yet another example of the lack of wisdom of humanity (Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom?).  We do not think through the consequences of our daily decisions and actions.  To wit, we’re willing to spend $100 a month, or more, to store the stuff we will never use again.  Seriously, who’s going to drive to some remote storage facility to dig out the miracle fitness thingy that they never used in the first place, and haul it home to use it?

So I admit that the title of this blog entry was a bit misleading; a bit of the old bait and switch.  I should really have called this ‘On the Lack of Wisdom of Self Storage.”

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider, All Rights Reserved

Provocations #10 – Perceptions

“From the viewpoint of your eyes your own head seems to be an invisible blank, neither dark nor light, standing immediately behind the nearest thing you can see. But in fact the whole field of ‘out there in front’ is a sensation in the lower back if your head, where the optical centers of the brain are located. What you see out there is, immediately, how the inside of your head ‘looks’ or ‘feels’.”

Alan Watts

This is a remarkable thought.  I have long maintained (one of my aphorisms) that there is no reality, there are only our perceptions of it.

Imagine a pleasant summer day.  It’s mid-day and there is not a cloud in the sky in any direction.  You look straight up and what do you see?  Blue!  Perhaps we might even call it sky blue.  And the reasonable among us would all agree about this (one must always allow for the contrarians!).

But our experience of blue is likely very different.  For starters, we do not actually “see” blue light.  Scientifically speaking, blue light is visible electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 450–495 nanometers.  However, our eyes take in the image of ‘blue sky’, inverting and bending it as they do so, and transforms it into electrical signals sent through the optic nerve to the brain for processing and interpretation.  The Scientific American has a nice cartoon graphic of the process here.

And there’s the rub!  The brain is interpreting electrochemical signals, not the actual scene itself.  Following Alan Watts’ teachings about Buddhism, as well as  practical experience and modern science, this is reality.  That’s part of the point.

But the interesting bit to me is that the brain functions by establishing vast and complex neural networks based on electrochemical signals.  The neural pathways I establish for the blue sky scene I’m seeing, and all previous and successive blue skies, are linked to other sensations and experiences.  Certainly these neural patterns of entwined memories, experiences, and sensations are entirely and utterly unique for each individual.  So our perception of blue sky is also, by definition, unique.  What we see is inextricably linked to how we see it.  The observer and the observed are inseparable.

Taking a slight diversion into the realm of modern physics for a moment, this notion manifests itself in many ways.  For example the “observer effect” is a theory that states that simply observing a phenomenon, actually (necessarily) changes the phenomenon being observed.  Another example is Werner Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle.” In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle states that the more precisely one characteristic is known, say the position of a particle, the less precisely another quantity can be known, such as the momentum of the particle.

By extension, the same can be said of our perceptions and experiences of literally everything.  We cannot extricate ourselves and our sense of self, from nature and the world, any more than you can separate front from back or up from down.  We are of it.  Experience is it.  And we all are marvelously and wondrously unique in this.  And more importantly, we are all connected by this.

I think that Jose Ortega y Gasset put it best:

“I am myself and what is around me, and if I do not save it, it shall not save me.”

 

Provocations #9 – Liberal Thoughts

Image:  The seven liberal arts – Illustration from the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, 12th century.  Source: Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yes this is a provocative title, as I expect that many will immediately leap to the political connotations of the word “liberal”.  Liberal and conservative; left and right; right and wrong; etcetera.  Personally, I think that those words no longer have much meaning in modern political America.  These labels seem to be more about polls and elections, power and control, and less about what is best for the people and the planet on which we and all living things depend.

No, when I titled this Provocation I was reflecting upon my son’s recent graduation, and the context I had in mind is liberal education — as in the liberal arts. 

From the time I was young, through graduate school, I studied science.  And for me science is about seeking the truth.  As for ‘truth seeking’ I must confess that I think that many scientists do not seem to recognize this simple fact; though they would deny this lack of recognition on their part most strenuously if you put it to them in this way.  From my vantage point, it would seem that many scientists either miss, or ignore, or see only a part of the truth when they come across it.   An outcome of this (via the law of unintended consequences and other pathways), is that science and technology are at the root of our problems and challenges today.  That being said, it is likely that we will need science and technology, and more importantly new and ethical ways of using and applying them, to transition to a better state of affairs.  

How we use and apply science and technology takes us back to liberal education…  In a time when we seem to be engaging in “geek worship” and elevating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education over the humanities, we actually need need the liberally educated more than ever. 

It is only when we recognize that our greatest and most important problems are sociological and environmental, that we can begin to make better decisions, set better policy, and take appropriate and helpful actions.  In an outcome-driven, bottom line-obsessed culture, this shift in thinking will not come from the sciences.  We can only achieve this new way of thinking and decision making by recognizing the shared humanity in our plight.  And this recognition must extend beyond human beings to include all things, both animate and inanimate.  Only then will we actually create the conditions for a hopeful future for all.

So this is the truth that I have found. We have the cart before the horse.  Science and technology are now driving society and this is backwards.  Ultimately and fundamentally, the solutions to our problems are not technical.  They are driven by sociological and environmental imperatives.  Thus we must lead from the humanities and let them guide and direct the scientific agenda and set our policies.  Therein lies our salvation.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Fiddling With Nature

About the Image:   The clean, white snow melts more slowly than dirty (darker) dust-covered snow because it reflects more radiation from the sun rather than absorbing it.  This Image was excerpted from NPR, and was courtesy of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies.

Happy Earth Day!

A day for celebration and reflection on our impact on the planet.

Eventorum:

Through humanity’s alteration of the landscape in the Southwest, we’re disrupting Nature and fiddling with the water supply of 40 million people:  “The Rocky Mountains Have A Dust Problem“.

Eventorum explained.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Trending Words

You can tell what’s on people’s minds (and is trending in the news), by the words people are looking up:  Merriam-Webster’s Latest Trends (Word lookups driven by news events, celebrities, sports, and more).

Here’s the top 5 list (screen grab) from 14 April 2018:

2018_04_14 MW Trending top 5 words-only

Eventorum explained.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #6 – Too Busy to Think

About the Image (above):  Interior, Grand Central Station, New York, New York (January 21, 2007) by Carol Highsmith.  Image from the Library of Congress

I had another topic in mind for Provocations #6, but I’m going to take a different tack instead.  Frankly, I’ve been too busy to give much thought to the original subject, which called to mind a passage from the writer, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968).  Merton was an American Trappist monk; a theologian, a mystic, a student of comparative religion, a poet, and a social activist.  In his book (I love this title), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton writes:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

His words are obviously directed towards activists for positive social or environmental change.  But they apply more broadly.

TMertonStudy

Thomas Merton

Give Yourself a Break

This is a personal cost of our hectic, even frantic lifestyles.  Others include detrimental affects on our health and on our relationships.

There are larger more insidious costs as well.  Our busyness, overwork, and the stress induced by them, prevent us from questioning the status quo; from holding our leaders accountable; from making healthy choices for the planet and for us; from reflecting on the impacts of our lifestyle choices; from working on positive change.

So give yourself a break.  Take some time for friends and loved ones.  Spend some time out in nature, she’s the greatest muse we have.  Give your brain a little space to function.  And we might find ourselves well on the way to making the world a little better and happier place.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved