Appreciating Dean

Nobody said it was going to be a walk in the park, although it did sort of start out that way. Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach, that is, site of monthly Transition Palm Beaches meetings. Okeeheelee was chosen for Transition meetings by its founders, two home schooling mothers, because it was a centrally located public space, had a nice sheltered Tiki hut and picnic tables, and plenty of playground space for their children. It all worked beautifully unless the weather didn’t cooperate. As luck would have it, my first meeting with the group had to be relocated to a nearby library due to rain and high winds. Maybe it was an omen.

I met the late Dean Sherwin, my friend and colleague in the Transition movement, at one of those outdoor meetings. It was immediately evident that we were both transplants to both South Florida and the USA. Like me, Dean had lived in Asia for periods of time. In fact, he was known to wear a sarong around town occasionally.

Dean and his wife, Susan, had been members of Transition Town Media (PA) before moving to Lake Worth, and the group was excited to have someone with direct experience of Transition join our little band, especially this gentle, kind, well-spoken pair of Quakers.

Our group was (and still is) registered on the main Transition site as ‘mullers,’ a word that would be more familiar to British-born Dean than most Americans, meaning to ‘contemplate’ or ‘ponder.’ It seemed pretty tame for my inner revolutionary, all fired up as I was by Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook, essentially a blueprint for the movement. We believed – and I still do — that Transition was the most positive way to address climate disruption and peak oil. Having done some foot-weary protesting on behalf of climate, I was drawn to a movement that described itself as “more party than protest.”

M, MJ and Dean at Climate March

Marika Stone, Mary Jo Aagerston and Dean Sherwin

Whether intentionally or not, our group gravitated to Open Space technology – a self organizing style of leadership that encourages creativity, learning and the taking of responsibility for one’s interests. Transition encourages groups to begin with the people who show up, what they feel passionate about, and the knowledge and experience they bring to the effort. The home schooling families were already deeply committed to lowering their carbon impact by growing and preserving much of their food, one of them on a fairly large spread of land in a rural area, and the other within city limits. Jean and her family were concerned about keeping their free-range chickens safe from predators, while Holly and hers had to defend their urban farming from their own neighbors. Homesteading of this type takes a lot of focus and effort, and granted, food security is critical in challenging times. No surprise, our meetings revolved around topics like composting, canning and foraging rather than on how to optimize energy savings in home and work spaces, let alone challenge the existing power and transportation grid juggernauts. I, for one, had not anticipated how entrenched conventional utility interests were; how solar would become a battleground in the state; how net metering would be a non-starter; indeed, how much in denial elected officials could be about the facts of a warming climate.  In retrospect, I would have encouraged us to focus on more ways to recruit people to the movement in the first months when we were all so fired up.

Dean was an architect by training, had built a LEED certified ‘green’ house in Media, where he also had his own construction estimating business, and had taught construction estimating. I sensed he had a lot to teach us, different ideas and directions we could explore in time. He brought a quiet strength and leavening sense of humor to the notion of Transition Palm Beaches. I think he quickly saw that even our name was a bit of a stretch for a movement founded on the importance and value of a strong local community. In square miles, Palm Beach County is the largest in the state of Florida. In population, it ranks third. The geography of I-95 could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to real localization.

As it happened, geography has a lot to do with why after about a year, Dean and I were the last ones standing for Transition Palm Beaches. Holly and her family moved to North Florida. Jean and her family returned to their roots in Michigan. Linda, another ardent Transitioneer, decided the Slow movement in Vermont suited her better. So, in true ‘open space’ manner, Dean and I made the executive decision to rebrand Transition Palm Beaches – though without changing the registered name just yet — into Transition Town Lake Worth. As a resident, he knew that Lake Worth had many of the features of successful Transition towns elsewhere, including the one in Media he knew most intimately. Although my home was in another community, it felt like the right place to transplant the Transition seed. Dean and Susan offered Friends Quaker Meeting House for our monthly meetings, and so we began. Again.

Dean and I would have lunch at Too Jays and plan programming. We had some hits, including his presentation on modular solar panels, another on Tiny Houses, another on school gardens, and the wonderful presentation by the Colony 1 folks on January 5, 2015, with the highest attendance at 40 people. We did potlucks. We exchanged seeds and cuttings along with ideas on how to live more simply and joyfully, while reducing our impact on the planet. I know I enjoyed the meetings and the camaraderie. But what we didn’t gain was significant attendance over the period of the year, or, more importantly, traction as a leadership team. However supportive our spouses – and they were — two do not a movement make.

As many noted in memorializing him, Dean was a dreamer and doer, a joiner and a bon vivant. I found myself admitting to Susan at the reception, that what I knew of Dean was the tip of the proverbial iceberg – to my loss. He had lived large and in many fascinating places, and he had done worthwhile work his whole life. A lot of people in Lake Worth loved and respected him, from the men of his Mankind Project group who offered the most moving tributes, to people who worked with him on various public projects. In the best sense, Dean knew how to work the system, too. At the time of his death, he was vice chair of the Lake Worth Planning and Zoning Board, a proponent of the Little Free Library movement (and builder of his own cottage-shaped lending unit), and chief writer on The Cottages of Lake Worth Book, a celebration of living large in small spaces. I hadn’t realized this would be his final project when I ordered my copy.

If you’re a Facebook enthusiast, you can still find Transition Palm Beaches there, with close to 200 members, mostly inactive. Dean, Holly, Jean and I are still listed as admins to the page, so clearly it is in need of updating. The description makes it pretty clear what the page is about, and yet we have had a few ask to join thinking of a different kind of transition (here insert a wry emoticon). A Facebook page can devolve into a bulletin board for anything its members feel like making public to this group. I take down the most egregiously self-promoting as soon as I notice them. I’ve shared Susan’s beautiful tribute to Dean here.

A Facebook page can and often does support action but it cannot substitute for it. If I were able to ask Dean’s opinion, I suspect he would agree that it’s time to turn this particular page.

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Two Cheers for COP21

Julia's tour Eifel

Image: Julia Sakellarios

It was the best that could be achieved under the circumstances, and better than nothing.  One could quibble with the timetables, the fact that the carbon reduction targets are voluntary, i.e. depend on the honor system, and that our Congress as currently composed, will never agree to any action that impacts the economy, let alone something with teeth, i.e. a carbon tax.  My mood today on this topic puts me in mind of the great essay by E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy, from which this quote: “… two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.” So let me end my post here and invite you to take a break from the festivities, click on the live link (above), and experience one of the great minds of the 20th Century.  And for some recent commentary from two of the best of the 21st so far (see below).  I’m going to have myself a merry little Christmas and trust you will, too.

Falling Short on Climate in Paris

Good Reasons to Cheer the Paris Climate Deal

COP21- My Annotated List, Part I

While some of my activist colleagues were rallying at the French Consulate in Miami this morning, to deliver an urgent letter to Laurent Fabius, Foreign Affairs Minister and President of COP21, I decided my readers might appreciate some guidance to the information about the conference that has been accumulating.  COP21 began today in Paris, the largest gathering of delegates ever, and will run until December 11.

cop21cmp11_logo_hp_159x216As good place to start as any is Five Things You Need to Know About COP21 from the U.S. Department of State.  In case it isn’t obvious, COP21 means there have already been 21 previous meetings of world leaders to address climate change.  Or, to put it another way, we have had over two decades to try to figure out what to do about climate change, while the target has been moving at an accelerated pace.

If you’re familiar with Britain’s The Guardian (home to environment columnist, George Monbiot), you won’t be surprised that its article, Everything You Need to Know About the Paris Climate Summit and UN Talks is somewhat less upbeat than the State Department’s take.  One thing you need to know is that previous agreements on greenhouse gas emissions are about to run out, which makes agreements at this conference even more urgent. The article also inconveniently brings up the 1997 Kyoto protocols, which were signed by then Vice President Al Gore but never ratified by Congress.

Too many American politicians, including those running for president (yikes!), have tried to mask their failure to confront climate change behind the “not a scientist” statement.  Alas, recommendations from scientists on a ‘carbon budget’ to set a cap on carbon emissions do not appear to have gained any traction at COP21 either.  The New York Times’ Paris Climate Talks Avoid Scientists’ Idea of a Carbon Budget is an excellent overview of the thorniest aspects of the stalled agreements. Look also at the excellent ‘cheat sheet’: Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change.

Shanghai Bund skyline landmark ,Ecological energy renewable solar panel plant

Shanghai Bund skyline landmark, Ecological energy renewable solar panel plant

I love Andrew Revkin’s DotEarth blog for its crisp, clear take on the subject, and this piece, As World Leaders Kick Off Paris Talks, Prescriptions Abound From a Carbon Tax to a New Nuclear Push is particularly insightful, albeit deeply frustrating.  We have no shortage of answers, but as has been noted many times elsewhere, relatively little public pressure or political will to act.  A tax on carbon, a idea argued for repeatedly by New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, and others, seems in the current political climate a complete non-starter.

OK, saving the best for last: Transition founder and champion, Rob Hopkins’ Why COP21 Matters, and Why I’m Going.  Let me quote a passage and urge you to read the rest:

…in many ways, the world is already changing, and it’s happening at pace, it’s fast and it’s deep…If you believe things aren’t changing, you’re looking in the wrong place.  More and more forms of renewable energy, such as onshore wind, are now the cheapest form of electricity in many places…COP21 is acting as the catalyst for many organisations, businesses and governments to refocus on climate change, move finance into climate change, put pressure on governments to create a stable environment within which to build a low carbon economy.  All manner of shifts and realignments are going on behind the scenes.  And the politics are changing to accommodate this new worldview…

I believe with Rob Hopkins that things can flip quickly when enough people are prepared for better alternatives to the status quo. Something is happening when BP and Shell start to worry about ‘stranded assets,’ when Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are on the same page, and when a young Canadian premier announces to the opening session in Paris, “Canada is back, my friends, … and here to help.”

The Martian

It’s 4: pm on July 20, 1969 on a quiet street in the yet-to-be Yuppie-ized suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. My infant daughter is propped up in her kid carrier plus cushions on the backyard swing while her 4-year old brother keeps cool in an inflated pool. We’re building a porch ourselves off the back of the colonial house we purchased the previous year (for $28,000). While I hold a 2′ x 4′ steady, my husband hammers it into place. In case the date doesn’t immediately resonate with you (confession: I had to Wiki it for precision), it is the day three American astronauts landed on the moon. We have a small black and white TV with a long extension cord sitting on a plank-saw horse stand, and we are, like millions of other people, waiting for the words soon to be uttered by Commander Neil A. Armstrong: The Eagle has landed. Cheering broke out from houses all around us. Reading the log of Apollo 11 now still gives me goosebumps. That Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. was a Montclair boy and would next year be marching in our July 4th parade, only adds spice to the momentous occasion.

After a week that brought personal horror and loss to many people, and unleashed a firestorm of paranoid, xenophobic trash-talking that recalls the worse of the McCarthy era here, The Martian, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and a sterling supporting cast, was a balm for the soul. And not only because it recalls a time when for a few days, large numbers of people put aside their national identities and petty concerns and celebrated ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap …”

Apollo 11 bootprintIn case you’ve yet to see the film, I’m not going to spoil it for you with too many details about ‘the making of…’ which you could better read afterward. You’ll turn up a lot via a Google search, but one of my favorite citations is about the central role played by the Jet Propulsion Lab in getting the details accurate. Suffice to say that: “The Martian” is steeped in decades of real-life Mars exploration that JPL has led for NASA.  If they handed out film awards for length of time on camera, Matt Damon would win hands down (though Sandra Bullock in Gravity, another plausible space adventure, comes close). But as space castaway/astronaut, Mark Watney, Damon earns his actor stripes in perhaps his best performance to date. See interview with director, Ridley Scott, for a fascinating glimpse into how the film was made.

My takeaways on The Martian (and why you must see it), in no particular order:

  • It makes a strong case for science education
  • It reinserts NASA and JPL into the public consciousness at a time when funding is falling
  • We see the important role of international cooperation (U.S. and China)  — the Russians get left out of this one
  • We are reminded of our common humanity, the risks we will take to save the life of another
  • It helps put into perspective the current political climate and reminds us we are better than media suggests we are.

It bears repeating that we owe a great deal to the space program (by-pass surgery and digital photography, the tip of the iceberg), and this Thanksgiving week seems like a good time to acknowledge that.  If The Martian gets you newly excited about and appreciative of science as a worthy human enterprise, and awakens your support for the space program in particular, mission accomplished!

Technology from space program

Apollo 11 overview

Apollo 11 log

 

Looking Back

Having reached the age when repeating oneself is a frequent hazard, I’ve been reading through this blog in an attempt 1. to keep myself and my readers as up-to-date as possible on Tips, Tools and Ideas for a More Resilient Future, and 2. to avoid embarrassing myself.  Last November, I posted about a proposal from attorney, Mitchell Chester, on how to adapt to sea level rise in South Florida, Raising Fields: What History Can Teach Us.  The last time I caught sight of Mr. Chester was at the climate march in Miami, October 14, and it wasn’t the time for a conversation. So this morning I went to his site dedicated to the topic and found that is had been closed and replaced with MySeaLevelRise.org.  The new site is more comprehensive than the agricultural focus of the earlier.  It brings up topics worth your attention, especially if you own property in South Florida now, are considering moving or investing in property here, or do business in any of these sectors: construction, tourism or agriculture to choose three biggies mentioned in State of Florida Facts.  Of course, no sector is independent of the other so let’s just say that if you are in any way betting your future prosperity on the State of Florida, you need to take the optimistic language of the state government documents and local business journals with a huge grain of salt. You owe it to yourself lend Mitchell Chester your ear:

Sea level rise is happening, it is now, and it will affect the monetary and personal financial interests of all Americans, directly or indirectly.
— MySeaLevelRise.org

His new site assumes that you don’t need convincing of the scientific facts of sea level rise (SLR) and are ready to prepare and protect yourself, your family, home, and business against the likelihood of severe financial shocks ahead. Far from gloom and doom, you’ll find a calm, reasoned and even optimistic approach to the challenges that make us Floridians, as coastal dwellers on a porous limestone landmass, exceptionally at risk from a rising ocean.  It introduces financial adaptation tools like a SLR Relocation Account to ease the financial burden of relocation should it come to that.  It argues for a more vigorous involvement from the insurance industry than has been evident so far. Industry and government partnership, Chester believes, could make necessity the mother of invention as adaptation and mitigation strategies across the spectrum of financial products become new economic opportunity.  Check out the Tools Menu for more.

SLR 2030If you are confused as some of our politicians seem to be about the difference between natural variations in weather cycles and climate change, the section Shoreline Adaptation Land Trusts: A Concept for Rising Sea Level (SALT) by John Englander, author of High Tide on Main Street (recommended) will be helpful.  In addition to proposing a new political/legal strategy for threatened coastal regions, it distinguishes between frequent occurrences of coastal flooding and beach erosion which many communities already experience, and the irreversible effects on coast areas caused by melting glaciers “which will inexorably work to reshape all the continents.” Here’s how the summary to Englander’s position paper concludes: Strategic Adaptation Land Trusts could be a useful tool and catalyst for this unprecedented transition upwards and inland. We can rise with the tide –– if we anticipate it in time.

A year ago, Mitchell Chester wanted to save Florida’s agriculture with a proven method for raising fields (“For [Florida’s] agriculture, it’s either up or out.”) With MySeaLevelRise.org, he reminds us that we are all stakeholders in what happens here in the decades just ahead.  He invites us to brainstorm on how we can face the risks as well as seize the opportunities a new geography for this state demands of all its citizens, and possibly model it for the rest of the world.

Black Friday

Once upon a time, store closings for Thanksgiving wouldn’t have been remarked upon. It is not only a Federal and Stock Exchange holiday, but a sacred, Norman Rockwell moment in American life and we need more, not less, of them. This year, it has become a thing that some stores are closed, like Costco, Staples, and TJ Maxx. In fact, a far larger number are not, starting their Black Friday sales a day earlier. (You know who you are.) I empathize with the staff who have no choice but work on this holiday, and with those who count on these sales to do their holiday gift buying. But I won’t be in those checkout lines on principle and for my mental health. I suspect I’m not alone in a desire to skip the whole fracas that has become the holiday season, and this year I’m getting off to a good start thanks to an unexpected gift: a serendipitous catch on the internet.

So here’s what we’re planning for Black Friday: the Ground Floor Farm’s Really Really Free Market, 2-8 pm, November 27, 100 SE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., in Stuart, Fl.  This is a ‘pop-up marketplace of diverse goods and services where absolutely everything is free. No money, no barter. Just come and take what you want, and ideally give something too!’ To make giving possible, on Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, they’ll be accepting donations of goods. On the day of the event, you can show up with your own sign (table and chair) and offer a free service, e.g. haircut, massage, yoga class, musical serenade, financial planning – you get the idea. I don’t need any more stuff, but I could probably fill a bag or two of items for donation.  And who could say no to a free massage or serenade?  http://www.groundfloorfarm.com/freemarket

Ground Floor Farm is the brainchild of three young farmers, Jacki, Micah and Mike, whose vision is to be part of a ‘hometown renaissance’ by modeling and educating others about small space urban farming, and becoming a hub of cultural and social events. In addition to a regular booth at the Sunday Stuart Farmers Market, they offer classes in homesteading arts like medicinal herbs, and the making of cheese, bread, sauerkraut and candles, plus a free yoga class every Sunday. There is also a young adult program and a three-day camp for grades 2-8 this December.

free veggiesThe Really Really Free Market is a local example of the gift economy I’ve touched on in previous posts, and I’m really really excited to experience it and possibly borrow the idea. Other current examples include the little free libraries of Lake Worth organized by local residents (it’s a national movement), and accessory and/or clothing swaps for frugal fun and charitable fund-raising turning up in women’s circles. Seed and/or cuttings swaps, tool libraries, time banks, and guerrilla gardening are familiar to the Transition Town culture, and a reliable source of community resilience. For free and excellent online learning, see Coursera for adult learners and Khan Academy for school children. Recently, I participated in the Mindfulness Summit, an Australian-based project providing 31 days of interviews and instruction with renowned meditation teachers, each segment available for 24 hours for free (the package for future viewing was $79). Even large-scale projects like our national parks system, the lending libraries, community-supported projects like Wikipedia, in fact, the internet itself, all fall into the category of gift: something freely given.  This is my idea of a free market.

Gifts have an old and complex history linked with matriarchal societies, beginning with the fact that mothers bestow the gift of life on their children, with no expectation of return (though the occasional phone call wouldn’t hurt). Gifts are based on the philosophy of abundance and generosity as opposed to exchange which is tied to scarcity and susceptible to hoarding and greed. The gift economy predated capitalism, so it is especially fascinating to see it re-emerge in mainstream culture today.  Charles Eisensteins’ Sacred Economics, a history of money (recommended reading) offers four useful principles for a successful gift economy that you may find helpful in the often fraught experience of giving and receiving on a smaller scale.

  1. Over time, giving and receiving must be in balance.
  2. The source of a gift is to be acknowledged.
  3. Gifts circulate rather than accumulate.
  4. Gifts flow towards the greatest need.

All make sense to me, especially #4.  I’m re-gifting these to my readers, paying (and playing) them forward, you could say. ‘Tis the season to be mindful about how and why and for whom we buy holiday gifts, and whether there is something more precious we can give.

More on this topic:

Reconomy: http://www.reconomy.org/economic-enablers/alternative-means-of-exchange/the-gift-economy-and-community-exchanges/

The Moneyless Manifesto: http://www.moneylessmanifesto.org/book/the-moneyless-menu/the-gift-economy/

Business As Usual — Not

When I used to rail against corporations ruling the world, my entrepreneur friend, the late Jim Kirsner, used to argue that the business community had to be part of the solution to the problem of climate change. I’m sure he’s right in the ‘we need everyone’ sense, but where I live, business as usual looks like complete folly.  After a punishing few years, real estate is said to be recovering in South Florida. On the high end new construction, this appears to be true. En route to my yoga classes, I cross a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway where mansions arise on one side facing a dazzling new high-end community called Azure on the other. Phase I of its $900K-2.8M condos with marina and optional boat slips is almost sold out; building has commenced on Phase II. Aging, wealthy Boomers are still thinking of Florida as an ideal ‘luxury lifestyle’ destination, and climate change deniers in state government couldn’t be happier. It’s mini-Miami, and prefab-tiny-houseonly marginally less at risk for sea level rise.

But shift is happening, and though Elon Musk and the Tesla are have achieved rock star status, it is far more likely that if/when a tipping point toward sanity is reached, it may well be because, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, a small group of thoughtful, committed business people become vocal critics of the status quo and, more importantly, transform themselves.

One recent example: Robert Politzer, CEO of Greenstreet Inc., a New York City-based construction firm whose mission is to “prove the business advantage of triple bottom line: profit, people, planet,” writes about how frequent, intense rain is already affecting his business practices and increasing his costs. Who should pay, Politzer asks: his clients, the government, or those responsible for emissions accelerating climate change? He argues, as does New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, frequently, for a price on carbon. Carbon fees “potentially in the hundreds of billions of dollars” — could conceivably generate economic stimulus and “a major push toward a more sustainable sector and … economy.” Link to the original article here.  It’s hard to imagine entrenched power ceding any of it, given the current political climate. But there are those who are banking on it.

Scratch the surface and you’ll learn a lot about that triple bottom line and the idea of “tackling climate change through market-based solutions” from think tanks like The Rocky Mountain Institute, founded in 1982 “to create a clean, prosperous and secure low-carbon future” to the more recently formed B Team, a group of star power entrepreneurs (think Ariana Huffington) and civil servants, on the principle that “business needs a Plan B.” In December 2014, RMI formed a strategic alliance with Carbon War Room, an initiative of Sir Richard Branson, so that they could go ‘further, faster together.’

The B Team (Branson is also co-founder) has been busy, too. In July, it released Seizing the Global Opportunity: 2015 New Climate Economy Report which includes 10 points, e.g. invest at least US$1 trillion a year in clean energy, and implementing effective carbon pricing, and insists that “we don’t have to choose between economic growth and taking action on climate change.”

If you click on the links above and spend even a few minutes scrolling around these beautifully designed websites, you might think with all these smart entrepreneurial people involved, mission accomplished. A win-win. You might even be tempted to jump on their bandwagon. Just last week, I could have attended the Aruba Sustainable Week for $550 plus airfare and hotel. Paris in December sounds appealing.

Well, I don’t mean to rain on this parade (or maybe I do). It’s just that I am suspicious of the have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too ideology that is enriching the already well-heeled. The notion that growth could be a problem, even the problem, isn’t a popular view in our culture.  I won’t wait for Throwback Thursday to retrieve my copy of Small is Beautiful for alternate solutions that are neither ‘further’ nor ‘faster.’

An economy founded on the growth paradigm and the pursuit of wealth is not sustainable, by definition.
~E.F. Schumacher

Simplify, simplify …

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.  ~  Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever felt, as I have, a strangely wonderful sense of liberation when you pack for a trip?  Limiting yourself to only what will fit into a suitcase or backpack really makes you think about what you really need to carry with you while you’re away from your familiar environment.  For me, it usually turns out to be surprisingly little!  And that always makes me surprisingly happy.

Seventeen years ago, I enrolled in a month-long yoga teacher training (YTT, as we call it) at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.  The main building at Kripalu used to be a Jesuit monastery so the rooms are cell-like (though windowed) and the bathroom is down the hall.  Unless I wanted to spring for a big increase in my tuition to upgrade to a single room (I didn’t), I would be sharing this space with another student and all our stuff.  For.  Four.  Weeks.  Yes, I was assured, there was laundry on premises and a large sliding drawer under each bed, but room for hangers, fugetaboutit.  We would have, my roommate and I, two drawers each of a very small four-drawer chest.

Since March is cold in the Berkshires and I knew I would want to get outdoors, I wondered where I would find space for the jackets, sweaters, warm socks, hats, gloves, and a pair of boots I planned on bringing.  Yikes!  True, we would be spending most of our time in class (in fact, we didn’t get a day off or visitors for two weeks) so I knew I would need to bundle up and get outside to avoid cabin fever.

Summer camp with the ample footlocker for little more than shorts and t-shirts and bathing suits was nothing like this.  So, there I was, age 57, fronting the fact, in my best Thoreauvian guise, that I had too much stuff. I had only to spread it all out on the bed to realize that half of it wasn’t going anywhere but back in the closet or chest.  I got a quick, necessary lesson in the art of layering for warmth. Fortunately, yoga clothing doesn’t crush — I wear it outside of class even now for this reason — and is eminently packable and quickly washed and dried.  And as meditation master instructor, Jack Kornfield points out, after the ecstasy, the laundry.

DSC01587When I remember how much better I was able to focus on my yoga training when I didn’t have a lot of choices about what to wear (and no hairdryer or makeup), not to mention all the time I saved for more worthy activities, it takes my breath away.  Even as a couple who enjoys our comforts, we’re hardly shopaholics.  Our kids know better than to give us stuff without a lot of careful thought, so when they do, it is almost always an in-the-moment treat like a terrific assortment of special teas.  Birthday or holiday gifts tend to be certificates for a massage or to an interesting restaurant. When you realize how full of redundant things your life is, a fun exercise is how much stuff you can pack into donation bags for the Vietnam Veterans of America who come right to your door to pick them up.  Even so, in moments of mindfulness, we know we’re living a far from simple life.  We travel; we have a huge library of books; we’ve failed the 100-mile food challenge.  We like our AC, our Internet access, our smartphones.

From a planetary perspective. I believe simplicity is a vastly unrated strategy for dealing with the materialism that we Americans have adopted as a lifestyle and are so busily exporting elsewhere.  Or even worse, creating working condition we would never endure domestically, in distant factories that churn out so-called ‘cheap’ clothes and the stuff that clutters our homes.  The mantra, “recycle, repair and reuse,” is merely the choice we’re left with when we couldn’t resist buying whatever it was in the first place.  And the three R’s are no match for the wanting that comes naturally to us as humans, but is sharpened to a fever pitch by, well, the endless pitch.  This isn’t news to you, but here’s an example: a moment ago, I wanted to find the name of a book I have stored on my Kindle app in my phone.  So I click on it, and up pops this message:

Stay Connected.  By enabling notifications, we’ll occasionally send relevant book recommendations, tips, and other updates to help you get more out of reading.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I am on a 30-day trial because I need (or want?) to refresh the music playlists for my yoga classes.  When I’ve accomplished that, we’ll part company.  No wonder The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo soared to best-seller heights, despite the truly terrible writing (or translation, perhaps).  In the middle of a Joseph Goldstein talk on You Tube, he asks the audience how many could resist pouring through a catalog because, surely, there must be something here I want. Embarrassed laughter.

Wanting (aka craving) is one of the instinctive responses our ancestors needed because their survival depended on getting enough of what was often difficult to get, or in short supply.  In times of crisis, humans often resort to these behaviors, witness the fights breaking out in the refugee encampments or when potable water is delivered to a rural area in the developing world.  Advertising appeals to that primitive part of our brain by creating desire or manufactured need. Voluntary simplicity suggests that we don’t have to be slaves to wanting, that we can override these behaviors, and learn — as the great UU Minister, Forrest Church, put it, “to want what we have.”  As our planet struggles to absorb the end result of our rampant materialism, this sounds like very sound and timely advice.

Walking for Our Grandchildren, II

Miami Climate MarchIt has been two years since my spouse and I participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren in Washington DC. This Wednesday, we are joining the People’s Climate March in Miami. If you live there and are paying attention, it won’t be news that rising seas combined with geology are already playing havoc with the city’s drainage system, regardless of storm activity. How Miami would come through a major hurricane no one seems willing to address, at least, not officially. It would hurt the booming economy, is the political mantra of the denial crowd.

Grandparents tend to have more at stake in the future than other people, so I find it strange that these marches are not bringing hundreds if not thousands of us into the streets in nonviolent demonstrations. The 2013 Washington Grandparent march drew about 300 people, a small number given the credentials of the speaker, longtime activist and author, Bill McKibben.  A handful of marchers were arrested. It made the news. OK, that action and others like it may have succeeded in killing the KXL Pipeline, but that is clearly more symbolic than a real shift in direction. The reality is, trains carrying oil roll through suburban towns like mine every single day. Organizers of the Miami march project between 500-8,000 people, a far cry from the 40,000 that assembled in New York last fall even at the high point.  Not close to the 250,000 Germans who protested the TPP this week.

Meanwhile, despite clear danger and plenty of implementable plans in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Action Plan that could at least put some brakes on the inevitable, coastal cities are bristling with construction cranes. Realtors are talking recovery. New celebrity restaurants and name boutiques are opening in areas vulnerable to flooding. And Dr. Oz recently dropped a reported $18 million on a Palm Beach mansion. Go figure.

All of this sharpens my concern for our five grandchildren, especially the two 17-year-old grandsons in their final year of high school, looking ahead to college next year. Graduates are finding work in the shadow economy or grabbing jobs well below their qualifications now. It’s hard to see how this will improve in 4-5 years. The larger question that troubles my sleep is, what kind of education can prepare our grandchildren for a world completely unlike the one they grew up on, sans cheap energy?  If the COP21 Summit in Paris this November falls short of its carbon reduction targets as it appears it will, their generation could be facing climate events of an unprecedented scale and velocity; resource wars; and massive population displacements. Our military is certainly preparing for these outcomes* even as our politicians continue to fiddle, tweak data, or flat out deny the evidence.

I’m told this march will be more like a festival, with music and dancing, plus colorful banners and puppets. We will walk about a mile between the Miami government center and the Torch of Friendship where there will be another rally. It’s made up of a coalition of the like-minded, from the League of Women Voters to the Sierra Club. We’re also voters who will choose our presidential candidate through the lens of climate change. Thomas Friedman’s recent Op-Ed: Stuff Happens to the Environment, Like Climate Change doesn’t mince words “… if you vote for a climate skeptic for president, you’d better talk to your kids first, because you will have to answer to them later.” We answering to them now, before they ask. With our hearts, and our feet.

* “Climate change will affect the DoD’s ability to defend the nation and poses immediate risks to U.S. national security.” 

Wanderlust and Other Addictions

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”  ~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this, the prototype of the automobile was still 10 years away and the four-lane highway and modern jet travel unimaginable, even for the author of Treasure Island.  About as unthinkable as travel by donkey is for us today.  Stevenson’s quote is commonly paired with images of highways and jets because it encourages us to do more of something that we cannot do without.  We, of all the living creatures capable of independent movement, have the itchiest of feet.  While it is true that everything is in motion, that many species migrate, by wing, fin, and hoof in response to seasonal change, only homo sapiens is afflicted with incurable restlessness. Life as we know it was shaped by an age of exploration and discovery.  It is who we are. Early epic masterpieces like Gilgamesh and the Odyssey were essentially travel writing, tales of adventures far from home. Why did they go? Unlike the quaint roving of an English gentleman in love with the experience itself, the epics suggest their protagonists were called to more serious, exclusively manly pursuits: war (often as paid combatants), trade, and diplomacy.  Even Buddha, the icon of peaceful abiding, had to leave his home in order to seek enlightenment.

What we have today is wanderlust on steroids, an addiction to speed — jets, fast cars, motorcycles, even bullet trains — as overpowering as any other habit.  As long as we feel compelled to get somewhere fast, as business people or tourists, and are willing to pay any price, we are stuck in fast forward.  Summer travel is barely over when the lucrative holiday travel season kicks in.  Because we have been willing to uproot ourselves for jobs or ‘a better life’ elsewhere, flying or driving across state lines or even across the continent, is inevitable for most Americans, me included. To be with the ones we love in another place, we willingly tolerate crowded highways, long, boring waits at airports, and sometimes fatigue that abates about the time we’re ready to turn around and go home. And that’s when everything goes without a hitch. Who hasn’t spent an unintended extra night en route, in an airport hotel, or even camped out on the departure lounge floor?

Here’s another lifestyle choice that keeps us in motion: the idea that everyone, not just the wealthy, deserves a getaway.  According to the National Realtor Association, the vacation and second home market just enjoyed its best year in recent history.  Flush from a decade or so when our homes were appreciating above historical trends (AKA the ‘bubble’), my 65+ cohort is packed with people on the go: two-residence Snowbirds (been there, done that), cruise junkies, serial house-sitters, and life-long RVers.  Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona Speedway may soon become anachronisms, yet it is evident that, with few exceptions, most of us will keep right on driving and flying until we burn through the last drop of gasoline and/or jet fuel.  (See, The Seat is Going Anyway)

ZachBrown-PhotoThat’s why I’m encouraged by a growing counterculture move on the part of the Millennials to dump cars and suburbs in favor of Walkable cities where they can walk or bike to work, take public transportation to an arts or music venue, stroll to food shops and other essential services, and skateboard to hang out with friends. Perhaps instead of lamenting their inability to achieve the standard of living of their parents and grandparents, we could be studying them for clues on how to live more creatively — not to mention in better health and degree of fitness — in a future of resource constraints. “The markets where Millennials are most highly concentrated reflect their desire to live in more socially conscious, creative environments. Austin, Texas has the highest concentration of this group—almost 1.2 times the national average—and fits the Millennial ideal, combining urban convenience with an exciting art and music scene.” (Nielsen report)

We may not be able to cure our restlessness, but perhaps we can cut it down to size.  Possibly, these new denizens of small, vibrant cities are the pioneers in a new age of travel by rail, sail, pedal and/or foot.  Bye-bye McMansions and three-car garages, farewell overstuffed cruise ships.  Hello staycations, homesteading in urban plots, mixed-use neighborhoods, and booming farmers markets where local is cool.

Why Millennials Are Ditching Cars …
ZachBrown photo