I don’t want to alienate people, but the numbers … Earth Day 2014


You don’t even have to find a compassionate place in your heart. Really. You don’t have to look at those gruesome pictures or watch the horrendous but important videos produced by brave folks from PETA, Last Chance for Animals, and other organizations.  You do not even need to get close to cow, pig, goat or any other farm animal rescued from the abuse that is more the rule than the exception, or to realize right away that each is a unique individual – thinking, caring, feeling.  But you do have to pay attention to what you are doing.

I know most people will dismiss it, but this stuff is pretty clear. If you want to think of yourself an environmentalist, if you want in good conscience and with any sense of integrity to say that you “care about the wellbeing of the earth,” or about “saving the planet,” or “reducing your carbon footprint,” or supporting “ecological sanity,” or “living more lightly on the land,” or any one of the many ways we so often hear and talk about sustainability … well then you have to stop eating meat, fish, and dairy products, and stop doing things that require raising and harvesting livestock or fish for food.  It really IS just that simple.

Now remember, this need not be about the suffering, although there surely is plenty. Think about it : between 1 and 3 trillion animals a year world wide.  (Yes, that’s  with a “T.” And yes of course this includes fish.  They are animals, and they clearly have pain receptors… and if you would pay careful attention, preferences.)  No… none of that.  It was Earth Day. We need only focus on our goal of living sustainably. And those numbers are pretty clear, even as they are inexact.

In a 2009 World Watch Institute report, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang published their conclusions that rather than being responsible for 18% (What … only 18%?!) of all of the climate changing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) attributable to human activity – a number larger than all of the transportation sectors combined (13%) and surely enough to make any self respecting environmentalist think hard before diving headlong into his or her next burger – in fact that number was wildly underestimated in the 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The real number, they estimated, was (conservatively) calculated to be closer to 51%.  Translation: Animal agriculture is responsible for over one half of the human generated causes of greenhouse warming climate change. (And that was in 2009. Things have increased every year since. And we haven’t even mentioned the water, the soil, the ….)

As you might expect, their report was vigorously challenged; after all, we are talking about multi-billion dollar industries. Those with a great deal to lose always defend themselves.  We need only to look back two or three decades for the work of the ‘scientists’ who were ‘not yet convinced’ by the then overwhelming evidence of links between tobacco and disease. Goodland and Anhang – two highly respected analysts for the World Bank – responded methodically, carefully, and often. And certainly there is no need to repeat the entire dialogue here. [I would invite anyone interested to start with a careful look at Robert Oppenlander’s 2013 book, Food Choice and Sustainability. ]

Plant-based eating. It really sounds a bit extreme, right.  I guess it is.  But then we just celebrated the 44th Earth Day, and, although there certainly has been progress in some areas, the earth is still woefully behind its race with the human species.  Yeah, I know, that sounds crazy.  We are also, after all, from this earth.  And of course it really isn’t much of a contest between the earth and human beings.  The earth will win. Long after we have ruined any chance for abundant life to continue on the planet; long after we have depleted arable land on which to grow food; long after we have polluted lakes, rivers and streams and drained massive aquifers; long after the glaciers have melted and the air has become so toxically loaded that life as we know it has little chance. Long after all of that, the earth itself will continue on its way.  Long after we have gone.  Perhaps for billions of years more. Oh, but what a saddened and diminished place it will be.

No this is not an effort to dismiss Meatless Mondays, Eating Local, plug-in vehicles, ride sharing, or any number of quite well-intentioned efforts to add drops to the oceans of effort it will take to stop what currently seems the inevitable rise of earth’s temperature by those devastating 2 or 3 degrees Celsius.  But in this case, the numbers speak loudly and clearly. We cannot, overnight, undo the complex web of GHG-producing transportation we have constructed. Indeed there are plenty of wonderful folks working hard on this front.  But we can, overnight, all stop raising, harvesting, producing and eating animals for food.  And that is what is required at the personal, national, and international levels. The results would be immediate, the effects inevitable, the rapid slowing and then (do we dare hope) reversal of the devastating effects of a warming earth – effects the likes of which we have just begun to feel.

Earth Day 2014. Demand an end to raising, harvesting and eating animals for food. Make it that year.

“No degrees Fahrenheit” – a tale for winners, losers … and the rest of us

lighting a match

In memory of Alan Watts.

You’re out are walking in the woods, when snow begins to fall. Lovely at first, you walk on, delighted by that magical feeling that happens when the sky is white and alive with motion, the fresh feeling on your face as each flake lands. The sky fills and the and flakes fall more quickly, and you walk on as the winds pick up. Soon snow hits with more force, each touch, no longer a caress, but just a bit of a bite.  “Hmmm… probably that storm on the way.” You turn to retrace your steps, only to find your footprints have been covered by a blanket of fresh snow.

Wind and snow begin to obscure your vision as the storm grows. Cold begins to bite a bit harder now: first your cheeks, then nose and ears.  You can feel your heart pound as your breath quickens along with your pace. You turn again and then again, in search of a familiar branch, a bend… something to point you home.

How could you have done this? An experienced hiker, you’ve been in these woods so many times. You know so well how quickly nature can turn.  Winds howl as the blizzard rages around you.  The temperature drops. The more quickly you walk, the more hopelessly lost you become, the colder and weaker you grow. You fear … and for good reason.

Then, ahead, as if from nowhere, there appears to be … no, not home, but something… just up ahead.  A cabin. If you can just manage to make your way.

Every step is a battle with the wind and snow. Practically blind, each step brings you a bit closer. Until…. You reach for the door and push.  Out of the cold grip of what might have been the end. Inside.

It feels unreal. You scan the inside of the cabin.  Food and water, and lots of it. Blankets on the bed. Firewood stacked high next to the hearth.  Your panic subsides, as you give yourself permission to begin to feel your exhaustion.

Nature rages on outside, but for now … safe. You breath more easily as you stack wood in the fireplace.

When you move the lit match toward the kindling, you hear it.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot light that fire.  We seem to have run out of degrees Fahrenheit.”

Okay, what!? Run out of degrees? This story just ‘jumped the shark,’ as they say. Quality of the prose aside, it just got nutty.  You can’t run out of degrees Fahrenheit (no, neither Celsius nor Kelvin).  After all, degrees are not ‘real’ in the same way water, food wood, or matches are real. You cannot hold or touch them … or place them in a fireplace.  The ‘degree’ is not heat; it is a symbol for heat, a way to measure and speak about heat. Only in the wackiest of worlds – only in the wackiest of minds – could someone mistake a degree for heat itself.

I used to teach an introductory economics class, sometimes to very young children, sometimes to older students and adults. These days , if it is taught at all, it would likely go by the name “comparative economics,” a look at the various ways people have tried to organize themselves to create material wellbeing for their societies.  I say again, “if it is taught at all.”

One of the things that always surprised me was how difficult it was to have older students see what elementary students could see right away; that money was not actually the thing anyone wants. People want the things that money stands for and allows them to have.  Just as degrees are a symbol for heat, money was not, in fact, value, but a symbol for it.  As it turns out, it was’t just my older students.  Quite a few adults have that same difficulty; some of them are economists.

“Okay, but that’s silly,” they say in just that dismissive voice you can imagine, if you have ever sat through college economics courses.

Well, you can’t eat it.  It does not last long enough when you burn it to generate any significant heat. You can’t grow food on it, or build a house with it.  I suppose you can prop up the end of the couch with it, if the leg falls off. But it’s not really the stuff you want.  You want what it can get you. The new house, the sumptuous meal, the trip to Hawaii, the new couch, the car… those things.  Money is a symbol that entitles you to do those things… IF.

If you are in the right country. If you are speaking to people who want it. If whomever buys into the agreement that these pieces of paper, coins, ‘credits’ count. Which is why it is so difficult for so many of the very youngest people to understand poverty and how older people respond to it… or, more accurately, don’t.

The other day Forbes’ annual list of billionaires came out. True to form, media outlets the world over reported the results as if they were the box scores of the latest ball game. ‘Bill Gates, back on top again, squeaking past Carlos Slim Helu by a mere two billion.’ (Yes, it is at least ironic that Slim’s name sounds like he is a ball player.)

The magnitude of it all can be staggering. In fact it oughta be.  For instance, one family – the Waltons – are said to be worth more than the poorest 40% of the American population.  The wealthiest 100 families own more than the lowest 60% of Americans.  At the upper ends, these numbers transport people from a conversation about wealth to one of desire.   “Can I afford … _____” gives way to  “What do I want?” And at the lower end? The words “poverty” and “poor” do nothing to reveal the crushing, skin cracking, urine soaked existence that millions endure.

And why?  Why must they endure it? Well, obviously because there isn’t enough ‘money.’  There is enough food.  There is enough shelter.  There are enough beds and clean sheets.  “But you see, there just isn’t enough money.”

When you’re very young, the foolishness of this situation (and the response) is obvious.  The poor in America do not need money, they need the things that money stands for: food, clothing, shelter from the cold and wet, clean water, toilets.  All of that is there.  There in abundance.  All there, and available in quantities such that supplying it to those in need would not cause one iota of lack for the Waltons, any of the other 100 families, anyone on Forbes’ list, or any of the so called 1%.

So tell me… why can’t they have it?

California’s water … worth a thousand words


Between 70 and 80% of the water used in California (some figures go as high as 85%) is attributed to agriculture.  Of that, the majority is used to raise animals for food, a highly inefficient use of our water.

… and you tell us take shorter showers? Flush less often? Hmmmm…

Drought from Space

Meaningful work … one shovelful at a time

Digging a hole

These days I do a lot of digging. Sometimes in the garden. Sometimes to fix the septic system. Sometimes as a first step in building.  

One of the things about digging… I find quite a few surprises. They feel important.   Hard clay gives way to softer soil then rock. It takes quite a bit of focused attention to chip my way through it. One small piece at a time. Sledge hammer, digging bar, pick. The going is slow, and I just know it’s going to carry on like that until I get where I need to.  But then, soft soil. I didn’t expect that.

No, I suppose it isn’t something to which many aspire. But there’s something in it that feels like it makes good sense. Like it’s teaching me something about this new life. You see, retiring wasn’t actually about stopping.  More like moving on to the next thing. A third act. Something meaningful.

Poet, David Whyte reminds me

‘Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.’

That’s the thing about digging.  I can’t repair the drain pipe before I dig six feet down.  It happens one shovelful at a time. No matter how much I want to build the deck, unless I dig holes for those footings, I just can’t. I will plant that new vine, but not until I dig my hole deep enough.  Start close in, start with the first step, not the second or the third.

“Retiring” was certainly not intended  to mean “retirement.”  More like seeing if there is a next adventure. A next chapter. Meaningful work.

After spending so much time at the center of a community, it’s hard to see close in.  It’s hard not to mistake another’s question for my own. And that’s it.  That’s the thing about digging. You have to start close in. The first thing, not the second or the third.  The step you don’t want to take.