Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



March 31, 2008

Attention is Power

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 21:20
frank cotham cartoon
Cartoon by Frank Cotham in The New Yorker. Buy his artwork here.

In a recent conversation Jon Husband commented that, in the face of information overload, knowledge is no longer power. Today, attention is power:
  • With the indifference and ignorance of the modern electorate in most countries, the politician who can grab the most media attention (unless it’s really bad attention) is almost sure to win. You need to either be a celebrity, or buy celebrity, to get that attention. Get that attention, and you get power.
  • Big corporations know that the purpose of advertising isn’t to communicate or inform the public about your product, it’s to get your attention. If they can get your attention, they can get your dollars, enough to buy up competitors so they have no opportunity to divert that attention.
  • Extremists of every stripe know that if they can get public attention, they can accomplish much more than by trying to articulate their message coherently or passionately.
  • In the business rat race, you’re much more likely to get ahead if you do one or two things well that really garner attention, rather than a dozen things competently but invisibly. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  • Tall people succeed more than short people, and loud people get more response than soft-spoken people, for no other reason than that they command more attention.

I’ve been writing this blog for five years, and developed an astute and delightful readership, but I don’t really get much attention. So far that hasn’t concerned me — I’m content to inspire readers whose knowledge and energy and capacities are undoubtedly way beyond mine to act on what they learn here and inspire others to act. But they often lament that they can’t get much attention either.

So what are some ethical strategies for getting more attention for knowledge, ideas and insights that are important? How did the anti-smoking gang, and Al Gore, and the Earth Hour gang, manage to get as much attention for their causes as they did?

I’m looking for your ideas on this, since if I had the answers I’d have applied them. How can we get attention? How can we get people to listen? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Make the message simple, compelling, personal and memorable. That makes it easier to hold attention, and to allow people who hear it to get the attention across to others, virally.
  2. Repeat the message often (but not too often). Sometimes people need to hear something a few times before it really registers.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Use a story or photo or graphic example to convey the message instead of lecturing or beating people over the head with your argument and analysis. When people get it from a story, they’ll fill in the blanks to make it their own, and then it’s their learning, their story, not yours, so they’ll memorize it, and retell it.
  4. Be passionate (your enthusiasm is infectious and persuasive), but don’t be hysterical.
  5. Be sincere. If you don’t really care, you can’t expect others to. You can’t fake this.
  6. Don’t try to change people’s minds. Tell them what you believe, and why. Give them information, not argument. If they’re ready for what you have to say, they’ll pay attention. If not, don’t waste your time.

What else? What have you done that has received more attention than anything else you’ve done? What was it that made the difference?

. . . . .

And now that I have your attention: This Friday I’m off to Australia (mostly Victoria) and New Zealand (North Island) for a week of business meetings (knowledge management, sustainability and education), a week of training (Open Space etc.), and a week of vacation (nature photography). I’ll be back before month-end, and I’ll try to post from time to time, but articles will be sporadic.

March 29, 2008

Saturday Links of the Week — March 29, 2008

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 22:13
norbert rosing polar bear and sled dogs
Photo copyright Norbert Rosing. This German photographer’s books of photographs of polar bears are astonishing. This photo is one of a series depicting spontaneous play between a bear, who wandered into a camp in Northern Canada, and a sled dog team tied up there overnights, over the course of a week. Thanks to my brother-in-law Paul Brun for the link.

Why the Institutional Education System is Beyond Fixing: John Taylor Gatto confesses the seven lessons that the education system really teaches: (1) confusion, incoherence and disconnection (by teaching without context), (2) know and stay in your place, (3) don’t care too much, (4) how to be emotionally dependent, (5) how to be intellectually dependent (wait to be told what to do and think), (6) your self-esteem is provisional on what others think of you, (7) you can’t hide, even long enough to think for yourself. The system was designed to produce compliant industrial workers, but now operates on its own momentum. Unschooling is the only way out. Lots more Gatto in these videos. Thanks to Avi Solomon for the links.

Do What Makes You Happy and See Where it Takes You: Drawing on Joseph Campbell’s work, Nick Smith wrote a thoughtful and inspiring article back in 2006 on what might be called Improvisational Living. Stop planning and seeking and start pursuing what you’re passionate about, what your instincts tell you. Recognize your true bliss, not what you’ve been conditioned to believe you want and need. Open yourself to new possibilities and realizations, and let go, instead of doing what you think is good for you. Be true and gentle to yourself, and allow yourself to discover what will really make you happy. “We are only really happy when we are present in the moment.” A must read. Thanks to Rick Wolff for the link.

A Global Warming Pep Talk: Richard Heinberg at PCI cautions us not to burn ourselves out in the struggle to educate and respond to the threats of global warming. Thanks to PCI’s Richard Bell for the link. Now that the Antarctic ice is collapsing, we need to take heed of this advice.

Saul Griffiths’ Game Plan for Global Warming: Great presentation deck with a bold approach, hard data and compelling graphics. A great companion to George Monbiot’s Heat. Thanks to Avi Solomon for the link.

Obama’s Economic Vision: Although I continue to believe the winner of the 2008 US Elections won’t make a bit of difference to what will happen to our global economy or civilization in the years ahead (just as Al Gore’s vice presidency made no difference), I’ve been reading the speeches, and if intelligence and vision were enough to bring about change, Obama’s economic ideas would take us a long way back from the precipice on which we now sit.

How Was It to Be Dead?: An amazing short story by Richard Ford from 2006 in the New Yorker about a man who’s wife’s ex-husband suddenly reappears after being missing in Vietnam for 30 years. Thanks to Patti Digh (whose new book is now available for pre-order) for the link.

Nominations Open for Worst Corporate Offender: CAI is seeking input on the worst corporatists in the world.

World Cafe Meets Second Life: George Lakoff’s group held a World Cafe (an application of Open Space) in Second Life, featuring my friends Nancy White and Michelle Paradis, on the theme How can we use virtual reality to further progressive values? Nancy’s brilliant graphic summarizing the event is below. Thanks to Siona for the link and Amy Lenzo for the writeup.

nancy white's graphic

Thought for the Week: From Karl Weick’s The Dynamics of Renewal: Renewal Through Writing (thanks to Andrew Campbell for the link):

The story line of renewal seems to be this: As earlier projects begin to unravel and turn sour, there is the perception that activities are becoming less sensible. That perception is the result of fragmentation
produced by a loss of context, ineffective sensemaking, or inattention to the world…The feeling of disorder is reflected in questions (e.g. whatís the story, why are we doing this, whatís wrong)… To reduce this disorder, people need to act in ways that reconstruct context, strengthen sensemaking, and restore attention…[using] tactics such as: Listening, Writing, Goal-setting, and Dialogue.

Whenever my projects stall, I write. I write free associationally to see what relates to what and what those relationships might mean. I write voluminously in the hope that I might generate some variation that will prove to be a more attractive whole, a more sensible starting point, or a more compelling outcropping for a languishing project.

I write allegorically to capture small moments that may embody more vivid summaries of ongoing projects. I write continually to find better words and clearer ways to join them that improve the wisdom, sense, and relevance of projects. I write indiscriminately in order to stumble onto themes that would not normally show up given the limits of my frames of reference. I write respectfully to get hints of the tacit knowledge that might form part of the infrastructure of events. And I write passionately to discover the “voice” that I may bring to anissue, and what the resonance in that issue may be for me.

March 28, 2008

Friday Flashback: Living Outside Ourselves

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 13:31
entrance to Belize rainforest

From February 2004:

Our sensory exploration and learning is interrupted, from a very young age, for abstract lessons of language. We are taught definitions, that what a thing is, is its word — kitten, puppy, Mommy. Bizarre learning that has no resonance in the three million years of instinctive knowledge wired into our DNA. And then, immediately, we are taught, and taught and taught what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, what is ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’. And we are judged on how our behaviour reflects and reinforces that terrible learning — on our conformity. For the rest of our lives we will be taught, and told, what to do, how to do it, and how to behave, learning that is utterly abstract and disconnected from who we are (or were). We will, as we have been taught and told, fill our lives with arduous duties, with fearsome consequences if we ‘fail’ (poverty, being labeled and shunned as a ‘failure’, or the shame and terror of nothaving enough). And finally, we become that abstract other that is our strange learnings and behaviours. We learn to live outside our real selves.

Read the rest.

March 26, 2008

Words

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 22:56
future of transport
Much of my day, and evening, is spent looking at words. It is a constant search for meaning, for the conveyance of an important understanding, feeling, imagining, insight. Something memorable. Something worth retelling, talking about, and thinking about.

When I was younger, I was a collector of words. I sorted and organized them and put them in folders for later recollection. Sometimes I would be astonished at what I found, later, thrown together in one folder: One plus one equals wonder.

These days I am more a browser of words, jaded, looking for more, looking for phrases, sentences, and, rarely, whole paragraphs that really pack a punch, tight, every word counting, saying so much more than the mere definition and aggregation of the constituent words. I am impatient, stingy, hard to please, now.

It is as if, when I was younger, I was foraging in a rich, biodiverse wilderness, full of exciting discoveries, and now I am scrounging in a scrub desert, a vast tundra, a wasteland of broken debris, things that no longer work.

I go through books, now, like an absent-minded man looking everywhere for something he’s lost, only to discover he’s forgotten what he’s looking for. I read hundreds of web pages, indifferently, rarely stopping to read more than headings or boldface quotes. Drowning in oceans of words, almost all brackish, saline, undrinkable.

Just as I find it harder and harder to find music I like enough to save, or artwork I like enough to look at twice, I am finding it harder and harder to find compositions that still have meaning to me. My recent learning is convincing me that much of the writing I once thought important is really not: The words of tragic, forlorn songs that once I found profound and stirring I now find pretentious and maudlin. The words of love songs and poems that once I found romantic and brave, I now see as social propaganda. 

There is not enough extraordinary writing. Not in songs, poems, fiction or non-fiction. This is nothing new. It’s just that with so many words everywhere, now, the finding of that rare well-crafted piece of work, that rare passage, is so much harder. (The word ‘passage’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘step’, so passages, stories, are, literally, pathways that lead us forward, upwards. Voyages. Vehicles that transport.)

We need more passages like this one, from Jacqui Banaszynski’s article in the writer’s compendium Telling True Stories (thanks to Patti Digh for this one):

Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.

Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.

Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with
unwavering devotion to the truth.

Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.

Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if thatís all there is.

Each such rare passage is like a spark in the dark, a cinder that roars suddenly into a blaze that turns night into day, a night light, a faerie protection that keeps away the demons, a candle that, flickering but never dying even in the howling wind, shows us the way forward.

March 25, 2008

Imagine Being a Part

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 21:13
olympic
A significant aspect of my job is increasing business’ and the public’s awareness of the issues and opportunities to become more environmentally sustainable. As I mentioned last week, with businesspeople I try to do this by portraying irresponsible, unsustainable behaviour as risky, and positioning business sustainability as a risk mitigation and resilience strategy.

If I’m honest, though, I have to admit that the amount of change necessary to really make our economy sustainable is almost certainly beyond the capacity of our economic system to achieve. Business needs to be ‘persuaded’ to be responsible and sustainable, not just by taxes and regulations and incentives and strategic arguments about reducing risk, but also by a drastic change in customer buying behaviour.

How do we achieve that change in buying behaviour? After all, we, the customers, are also mostly producers of some goods or services in a business. As customers we respond the same way that we do as businesspeople — we change our behaviour only when we have no other choice, or when something so astonishing occurs that it changes our whole worldview.

When it comes to our worldview on responsibility and sustainability, we are informed by how we perceive ourselves relative to our society and our environment. Our modern, individualistic Western culture teaches us that we are responsible only for and to ourselves and those we love (“we are not our neighbour’s keeper”) and that ‘the environment’ is something apart from us, something that we manage, own, and keep under our control.

This is analogous to our brain’s belief that it — ‘we’ — are something apart from our bodies, and that we are somehow not responsible for ‘them’ or ‘their’ well-being. Such a belief is ludicrous — and we cannot live without or apart from a healthy natural environment any more than our brains can live well if the rest of our bodies are dying, poisoned or exhausted. But human culture and belief systems are mealleable, and we can, with enough propaganda and reinforcement of others, be persuaded to believe almost any absurd idea.

There is evidence that human societies and other creatures not living wildly out of balance with their ecosystems have an utterly different worldview, one that recognizes that they are inherently and absolutely a part of those ecosystems, one that respects the ecosystem and all-life-on-Earth as sacred and inseparable from them.

But now we live in such artificial, overcrowded circumstances that many of us have no concept of a natural environment — we spend so little time in places even remotely natural we cannot even imagine what it means to be a part of a place, to belong to it, to be intimately and utterly connected to everything else in it. Our human constructs are fragile, unsustainable, and disposable — we can no more be a part of them than a brain can be a part of a robot. If we were somehow able to raise and sustain, for awhile, a brain in a robotic, artificial ‘body’, that fragile creature would not be human, and it would be unable to form any attachment to any ‘living’ creature. Likewise, humans raised in fragile artificial environments cannot establish or even really imagine a connection or attachment to all-life-on-Earth, because they are essentially apart from it, separated, detached.

There are now not enough natural places left to reconnect most of us, even if there were time and will to do so. The nature visits that we send our children on as part of their schooling don’t reconnect them — they merely reinforce the social illusion that the environment is ‘apart’, separated from us like animals in a zoo are separated from us by cages.

Is it possible for us to imagine being a part, given the three million years of our species’ history as a part, which is profoundly coded in our DNA and just waiting to be remembered? Alas, I don’t think so. We are by nature experiential learners. Without direct experience, ‘being a part’ is only something we can dimly ‘remember’, the way we ‘remember’ when we walk into a rainforest that this is, somehow, our natural home.

If we want to be of help, making the world a better place, we need to do what we do when we want to learn a new and strange language — immerse ourselves in it to the exclusion of our ‘normal’ surroundings. That means immersing ourselves in a natural surrounding with as few trappings of civilization as necessary, living simply in self-sufficient, responsible community with people we love who seek to rediscover and share the primal worldview of being a part of all-life-on-Earth. That doesn’t mean isolation or deprivation or ‘going back’ — Internet information and communications, renewable energy, shelter and appliances sufficient for comfort and food preservation and preparation can actually help us do more with less.

By doing this, rediscovering working models of how to live and make a living sustainably, responsibly and joyfully, we can, in a way, reinvent the world. Not our civilized world — it’s almost certainly too late for that. Rather, the world that the survivors of the collapse of our civilization will inherit, hungry for models that work.

We can’t save the world, but we can help those who will create the next, humbler, simpler human society, one that can learn from our mistakes.

And in the meantime, in that joyous, astonishing reconnection with all-life-on-Earth, we can rediscover who we are, and why we’re here,and all the wondrous things that we’ve forgotten.

March 24, 2008

The Secret Pulse of Time

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 20:44
dali persistence of memory
Image: Dali’s Persistence of Memory

Stefan Klein’s book The Secret Pulse of Time is a fascinating, scientific explanation of how we ‘make sense’ of life’s scarcest commodity. Alas, while it is long on exposition, it is short on resolution. Readers hoping for the ‘how tos’ promised on the book jacket will likely be disappointed. But it may start a conversation that other writers can build on that could actually help us learn to live in Now Time, like most of the other creatures on our planet that are not confounded by large brains.

The first part of the book explains our biological clock, which actually runs on a ‘day’ that varies from 24 hours and 5 minutes (for ‘morning people’) to 24 hours and 30 minutes (for ‘night owls’), and which is ‘reset’ by the first bright sunlight of each day and again at the last sunlight at night. Our indoor lives, and window coverings, can deprive us of these ‘resets’, so night owls (and those prone to depression) are advised to expose themselves early and often to direct, bright sunlight.

Klein then goes on to explain that our sense of never having enough time stems from three factors that originate in our own minds (and they are especially prominent in those with ADD/ADHD, he asserts):

  • an inability to concentrate
  • an overwhelming feeling of stress
  • a lack of motivation

The inability to concentrate, he says, is exacerbated in modern humans by the number of distractions we face. When our attention is caught, three things happen:

  1. a heightened sense of alertness,
  2. a focus on one thing to the exclusion of others, and
  3. a concentration of mental energy on the thing we’re focused on. 

This 3-part instinctive reaction to stimulus is addictive; we like the feeling. The more stimuli that are available, the more we end up distracted from giving sufficient attention on anything to be productive. The process of learning to concentrate therefore requires us to practice giving our attention to one thing, and avoiding distraction. Klein suggests (as I did in this article) breaking large tasks into pieces that can be done in one sitting. He suggests exercises that strengthen memory and focus (crosswords, meditation). And, interestingly, he suggests a simple technique for restless minds: When an idea occurs to you that is off-topic of what you are concentrating on, write it down, quickly, set it aside, and focus back on the matter at hand.

The overwhelming feeling of stress, he says, is often viewed as the result of a perceived ‘shortage of time’, when it is actually the other way around. This stress-caused time ‘shortage’ is often a function of one or more of three things:

  1. a feeling of lack of control over how our time is spent (parents of children who consume a lot of our attention, often unexpectedly, and employees whose employers make unreasonable demands on their time are especially vulnerable to this),
  2. a strong sense of constant responsibility for others (women, care-givers, and people who take the weight of the world on their shoulders or bite off too much, are especially vulnerable to this), and 
  3. our perspective on the tasks we face (if it’s perceived as work it’s stressful; if it’s perceived as fun it’s not).

But what can we do to change that lack of control, sense of responsibility or perspective of tedium? Not much, Klein admits. At least we can be aware of it.

The lack of motivation, Klein says, is what can make a simple task take longer (due to procrastination) or seem to take longer (the ‘watched kettle never boils’ perception) than they actual should or do. If we have problems or chores at home, we may spend longer time at work doing what could be done more quickly, to put off the ‘home work’. Modern life, by presenting us with a smorgasbord of things to do, can reduce our motivation to do any one of them.

A consequence of this is what I have called Pollard’s Law: We do what we must (what we’re absolutely motivated to do), then we do what’s easy and/or fun. We feel guilty for not getting to what is ‘merely important’ but that guilt isn’t enough motivation to overcome the propensity to proscrastinate. Result: We ‘never have time’ to do it. One useful suggestion for increasing self-motivation: Visualize the positive consequences of doing, or having done, the unmotivating task.

My favourite quite from the book (as someone who loathes ‘self-help’ books):

Organizational psychologists who have studied so-called time management have established that it is useless, or at least not useful in saving time (three studies are cited).

The final chapter of the book prescribes six steps for improving our ‘sense’ of time, but I found these mostly unhelpful: they are pretty obvious, and easier said than done:

  1. Negotiate with others (employers and others who make demands on our time) to get more control of it, so we can schedule our time more predictably and effectively.
  2. Know how your personal biological clock functions and live in harmony with it (it often changes over your lifetime) so you do work that requires mental energy, memory and/or concentration at the times of day when they are they peak.
  3. Set aside unscheduled blocks of leisure time so your mind has the chance to recharge and unwind and so you can learn to enjoy doing things just for their own sake — this will increase your mental energy and ability to concentrate at other times.
  4. Train yourself to be more attentive, observant and perceptive.
  5. Train yourself to concentrate better (e.g, breaking jobs into small manageable tasks, avoiding and ignoring distractions).
  6. Set priorities and (as I suggested in this article) learn to say ‘no’ to urgent, unimportant tasks — ask yourself if it will really matter in the future if you don’t do this task.

Worthy objectives. Now we need a lot more exercises and practices (that have been shown to work) to actually accomplish them. And some first-person stories of how people who never used to have enough time for anything, now have all the time they need.

March 22, 2008

Saturday Links for the Week — March 22, 2008

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 17:46
Pohangina Pete seedling
Photo of seedling by Pohangina Pete. He has a great explanation of practices to preserve image quality in digital photographs here.

Unbearable Grief for Gaia: Vancouver blogger Sanjay Khanna writes about what I have called Unbearable Grief for Gaia, which now has a name…solastagia. Or perhaps, in Portuguese, saudade. Thanks to David Parkinson for the link.

Sustainable Urban Design: Melbourne’s Kate McMahon is attempting to make her own community sustainable, and is using the following ten sustainable urban design objectives to do so. If we could replace GDP with a measure of our success achieving these objectives, we’d have a measure that mattered:

  1. Zero Carbon
  2. Zero Waste
  3. Sustainable Transport and Urban Form
  4. Local Sustainable Materials
  5. Local Sustainable Food
  6. Sustainable Water
  7. Habitats, Wildlife and Natural Biodiversity
  8. Culture and Heritage
  9. Economy, Equity and Fair Trade
  10. Health and Happiness

Conversation Week: Monday is the start of Conversation Week. Its founders encourage people to get together with others for conversation on things that matter, particularly these top 10 Questions (thanks to Mia for the link):

  1. How can we best prepare our children for the future?
  2. What does sustainability look like and how do we get there?
  3. How do humans need to adapt to survive in the 21st century?
  4. How do we shift from me to we to solve our problems?
  5. How can we “be the change we want to see in the world”?
  6. What kind of economy supports sustainable living?
  7. How do we reinvent politics so people have a real voice?
  8. What kind of leadership does the world need now?
  9. How can we balance personal needs with those of the community and world?
  10. How can we end violence everywhere?
  11. What is the most important question in the world today, to you?

Achieving Consensus: The Fellowship of Intentional Communities provides a great handbook on Formal Consensus decision-making. If we are to reinvent our society as a responsible, sustainable, community-based one, we need more guides like this.

Understanding How the Brain Works, and Doesn’t: Several people pointed me to this remarkable TED video by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who chronicled her own stroke, and recovery, and in the process taught us all a lot about how our brains work, and how, if we listened more to the right side of our brains, the world would be a better place.

Create Your Own Social Network: I’m intrigued by the simplicity of Ning, a tool that lets you create your own social network, as a means of finding people with the same passions that you have.

Meditation Music an Oxymoron?: Many practitioners of meditation discourage listening to music while meditating, believing it is a distraction that keeps you from focusing. I have found that, in the absence of both natural sounds and music, I just can’t do it. When I’m outside, in a natural setting, I’m fine. But indoors, it is as if my ears are missing something to ground me. Complete silence, recommended to focus on your breathing, just seems unnatural to me — I can’t focus on anything. I’ve found three types ofmusic work best for me:

  • Sounds of nature: Especially rainforest sounds
  • Classical music: Choral music or adagios. Jonathan Elias’ Prayer Cycle is amazing.
  • Music designed for meditation: My favourite is Singh Kaur’s 43-minute This Universe. It, and music like it can be heard on Artists4Mercy.

March 21, 2008

Friday Flashback: …and where will we hide when it comes from inside?

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 13:49
I‘m sure just about every reader of this blog has either experienced first hand, or known and loved someone who has experienced, that feeling of powerlessness and anxiety that comes when the Noonday Demon exerts an influence over everything you/they do. You can tell yourself that what you’re feeling is irrational, you can list and analyze what you’re stressed about and appreciate that there’s no point in getting dragged down, but it happens nonetheless. The Demon poisons you from inside.

Two years ago when I was last going through a period of great anxiety, I wrote the poem below. I’m feeling much the same way now, so I thought I would reprise it as this week’s Friday Flashback. I offer it not in a search for sympathy, but as an explanation to those I love for why I seem suddenly testy, apprehensive and disengaged, and as an expression of understanding for others who knowthese feelings all too well. See you on the other side.

coachlight

three am:
i’m haunted by a vague sense of dread

so i get up and stare out the back window:
the wind is gusting
and it’s the coldest night of the year –
i wonder how the juncos and chickadees are faring
feathers fluffed up against the blowing snow

i put on my snowsuit and trudge out
around the bird feeders and down the hill towards the forest

in the middle of our ‘toboggan hill’ i stop, plunk down in the snow
and just gaze out into the darkness, listening

other than the wind i hear only
the rustling of the trees
and the low-pitched hoots of an owl, talking to herself
or perhaps warning me not to disturb her nightly prowl

worrythese days i worry about everything:
i drew the self-portrait at right to show the worry lines
around my eyes that i can’t see but which i feel –
they are a part of me always

i worry about keeping things together:
there is such a thin veil between civility and rage,
between hanging in and giving up,
between composure and madness

we don’t dare show who we really are

i worry about not knowing what i’m meant to do
now, or ever,
and not doing enough to find out, as if
by waiting, my intended purpose
will announce itself to me, with trumpet fanfare
and i’ll be escorted along the well-marked path
from wherever i am now, to that magic place
where those i’m meant to work with, and to love
will greet me, cheering, asking “where were you?”
and “what took you so long, we’ve been waiting

hah! yet still i wait here, paralyzed
and not knowing why:
nowhere to go

“the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting”,
eliot said — the fool, the coward

i worry about all the creatures in the world
who live miserable, captive lives, without hope:
their suffering haunts me night and day
far more than that of those who know they are mistreated,
who know the world is unfair

it is for those unknowing, all of them, and us, who can’t imagine
a better life that i cry
when i hear art garfunkel sing “bright eyes
for the dying rabbit in watership down

i worry for the generation after next:
they will learn to live
with monstrous debts that aren’t their own,
the careless legacy of those who came before

but mostly i worry about letting people down:
we are driven, after all, more by what others expect of us
than by our own compass
and somehow all we do, or try to do
is never good enough

the snow’s picked up
and now i’m shivering, so i rise
and climb back to the house, to make some tea
and sit by the fire, and wonder:
how did we lose our way? –
at seventeen, i knew, we knew, what we had to do
and how to go about it,

so what terrible knowledge intervened
to send us so off course?

why can we no longer hear
the quiet, certain voices that inform
the march of the penguins,
telling our wretched species
how to find the way home?

thanks to fellow Slogger meg at blogcabin for the inspiration
and to jt for the title; photo from my flickr collection

March 19, 2008

Does (or Should) Business Have Social and Environmental Responsibility?

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 17:36
Leunig cartoon
Cartoon by Michael Leunig (thanks to Mia for the link)
A week ago I wrote an article linking business risk, business sustainability and business resilience, arguing that the best way to get companies to pay attention to their social and environmental actions is to frame the challenge as a business risk and business sustainability issue, rather than something business should do just out of a sense of responsibility.

A business colleague has since sent me a paper and a video of a presentation to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales by Rob Gray of St. Andrew’s University. Gray argues that what currently passes as ‘sustainability reporting’ is, at best, meaningless rhetoric and, at worst, dangerous greenwashing (dangerous because it gives us a false sense of security that we’re effectively dealing with the problems). There is no correlation between ‘sustainability reporting’ and more socially and environmentally responsible business practices, he shows, and those practices, at any rate, are not even beginning to address the problems our planet and civilization now face.

In essence, Gray is saying:

  • Business sustainability and the sustainability of our planet and civilization are, ultimately, connected (if there’s no planet there’s no business), but in the shorter term they are not necessarily correlated and may in fact be inversely correlated (what’s in the best interest of the short-term bottom line of the company may harm society and the planet). By extension, appealing to business to focus on business sustainability may actually make the situation worse.
  • We all, including business, have a responsibility to take the drastic steps needed now to try to ensure the sustainability of our planet and civilization. For business to say that this is government’s job, and that they will cooperate with regulations but otherwise be passive in addressing this threat, is an abrogation of that responsibility.

On the first issue, I’m not sure I agree. It may be in the best interests of an oil company, for example, to spend money on greenwashing PR and advertising while its competitors spend money investing in clean technologies. But getting the business to focus on business sustainability can’t make this any worse — the worst corporate criminals are already doing that and will continue to do so. In my experience few people read (or believe) sustainability reports anyway.

There is a concern that governments (usually well-paid by corporatists) may be complicit with greenwashers by encouraging wishy-washy sustainability reporting instead of passing regulations to make business more sustainable. After all, the public has been hoodwinked into believing that ‘free’ trade agreements benefit the majority rather than a corporatist elite (and these agreements are a race to the bottom when it comes to labour and environmental regulation, since it effectively makes such regulation illegal in signatory states). So why not hoodwink us again by selling us on ‘sustainability reports’ instead of ‘sustainability actions’, so the government can essentially do nothing, and allow socially and environmentally irresponsible corporations to do nothing?

I’m not sure there’s anything than can be done to stop or mitigate this from happening anyway — there’s too much of a reward for doing so. Those who want to advance the cause of sustainability need to decide whether to spend their time fighting for honest accounting and reporting, or fighting for real action and regulation. It’s not really a hard choice.

On the second issue, I do agree with Gray. Our whole civilization is unsustainable. We need to drastically lower birth rates to bring human population down to sustainable levels. That can only be done culturally, not politically, and as I’ve said before I don’t think it will happen — it’s just not in our nature.

We also need regulation that makes it prohibitively expensive to pollute and waste, or to consume a disproportionate amount. But more than that we need enforcement of such regulation. Today’s globalized economy encourages polluters, wasters, and conspicuous consumers to exploit countries that either lack regulation or lack enforcement. And even in countries with both, successfully cheating on taxes and other regulations, in today’s cynical anti-government world, is something people actually brag about.

More than that, our entire economy is built on growth in consumption, which translates into greater growth in profits. Without profit growth, the equity markets would (some say will) crash, and our economy will crash with it. If we were to recognize this real white elephant in the room, we’d have to acknowledge that we need both corporations and individuals to reduce their footprint, in many cases drastically, as an absolute precondition to sustainability of our planet and civilization. We need to consume much less, which means we need to produce much less. We need to re-internalize all the externalized costs that, for many corporations, are the difference between today’s extraordinary profits and insolvency. We need to eliminate pollution and waste entirely, not just to start to slow global warming but because no amount of pollution and waste is sustainable. No amount of resource extraction beyond what the planet, over millions of years, slowly replenishes, is sustainable. ‘Sustainable growth’ is an oxymoron.

There are a few companies, like Interface Carpets (full disclosure: I own a few shares in this company), that have come to this realization, and they are beginning to begin to do what would be necessary to become truly sustainable. But they are a tiny part of a massively complicated economy which must somehow all start moving, very quickly and consistently, in that direction. When we have no idea how to do so. When we are rewarded (in fact corporations are chartered) to do the exact opposite.

Therein lies the quandary. To transform our economy would take an unprecedented, herculean, collaborative, and punishing effort by all of us, moving quickly, starting now. The alternative is to throw up our hands and say we’re all fucked anyway, so we might as well enjoy what we have while we have it. There is a terrible temptation to do just that, to embrace the greenwashing and the tepid, inadequate tiny steps towards being a little less grossly irresponsible, a little less unsustainable. To try to convince ourselves that we’re doing our best, and slowly improving. At least until some disaster comes along to force us to do more.

So far, the generations that will follow us, as our planet and our civilization careen over a cliff, are none the wiser. They’ve bought the propaganda we tell them, and tell ourselves. So far.

What will we do, though, when they learn what we’ve done? And what, as we desperately and ludicrously tried to convince ourselves that we were onthe road to sustainability, we failed to do?

March 18, 2008

The Proust Questionnaire

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 21:38
polar bearEach month Vanity Fair asks a celebrity the answer to a series of questions that Marcel Proust initially answered, twice, seven years apart, to measure how he had changed in the interim. After seeing several bloggers do so, I thought I would have a go at answering the questions, now, and will do so again, situation permitting, in 2015. Feel free to post your answers and/or trackback here.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Realizing my intentions.

2. What is your greatest fear?
That human folly will soon end our civilization, and that it will be a ghastly demise. Or to be endlessly suffering or demented or helpless and not be able to end my life, or to be asked to look after someone else in that same situation.

3. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
None. I don’t believe in individual heroes.

4. Which living person do you most admire?
My father.

5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Anger, impatience, immaturity, lack of perseverance. I should be made to wear earphones.

6. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Cruelty, unfairness, dishonesty, arrogance, backstabbing (and other indirect and cowardly attacks on people) and taking pleasure from others’Äô misery.

7. What is your greatest extravagance?
My footprint: Still owning stuff, and using stuff that isn’t fully reusable.

8. What is your favourite journey?
A walk in a wild place with no destination or schedule.

9. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Fidelity, especially in the face of mistreatment.

10. On what occasion do you lie?
On very rare occasions when the truth will hurt someone deeply, and there is no chance of that truth coming out in some other way.

11. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My face. For some reason it doesn’t convey who I am, which is problematic.

12. Which living person do you most despise?
Every person in the world with great wealth or power. The fact that they choose to keep either, and haven’t given it away, is absolutely deplorable.

13. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
All superlatives. I’m extremely bad at this.

14. What is your greatest regret?
The pain I’ve caused to others.

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Gaia: All-life-on-Earth.

16. Which talent would you most like to have?
Better conversation skills — listening, eliciting, paying attention. And living in the moment, in Now Time.

17. What is your current state of mind?
Troubled. Not sure why. Also happy, serene. For some reason this is not a contradiction.

18. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I wouldn’t presume to change them or their situation. It’s not my business.

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My writing. Some of it, anyway. And the helpful ideas and advice I’ve given to a few people.

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
“When I die, make sure I’m gone, don’t leave ‘em nothing to work on.” Nothing.

21. If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
Don’t want to come back. Would have liked to have been born in 2200. Or to have been born a bird, free. Too late for that now. Or too early.

22. What is your most treasured possession?
My writing, my memories, and my health.

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The Noonday Demon. If you’ve never been there you can’t know. I’ve had kidney stones, and they don’t begin to compare.

24. Where would you like to live?
In a natural, sustainable intentional community with people and creatures I love.

25. What is your favorite occupation?
Doing this. The joy and curse of being a generalist.

26. What is your most marked characteristic?
The ability to imagine possibilities that others can’t.

27. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Deep capacity for love, passion, sense of purpose, trustworthiness, emotional strength, sensitivity/openness/perceptiveness, good instincts, self-sufficiency, honesty, intelligence/critical thinking ability, curiosity, imagination, creativity, responsibility, expressiveness, flexibility, and tolerance. I don’t ask much. We are born with all these things.

28. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Same as #27.

29. What do you most value in your friends?
Things we’ve collaborated on.

30. Who are your favorite writers?
Frederick Barthelme (fiction). TS Eliot (poetry). This bunch (non-fiction).

31. Who is your favorite hero/heroine of fiction?
The middle-aged guy in Frederick Barthelme’e novel Natural Selection. The salmon in Neil Young’s song Will to Live.

32. Who are your heroines/heroes in real life?
Same answer as #3.

33. What are your favorite names?
Male: Spence; Female: Mireille. Just like the sound of them.

34. What is it that you most dislike?
Violence.

35. How would you like to die?
Quickly and painlessly, in a way that causes the least grief possible to others and leaves my organs usable by others.

36. What is your motto?
We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun — there is no time left for what is merely important. And: Things are the way they are for a reason — if you want to change them, first understand what that reason is. And a few more.

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