“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?

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.

One pound of beef … six months of showers: Saving California’s Water

water 2

On January 17th, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown stood in front of TV cameras, reporters and officials and declared what had been all but official for some weeks: California’s drought has reached emergency proportions. The declaration – an official statement that sets up conditions for federal relief – brought a request that Californians voluntarily reduce their water usage by 20%. 

Then came the flurry of suggestions for how you and I can reduce our water use. Turn the water off after we wet our toothbrushes; water our lawns earlier or later in the day to avoid loss by evaporation; stop those drips at the spigot; take shorter showers; flush less often. All quite obvious and quite visible sources of waste … all predictable …  and all a ‘drop in the bucket.’  
One quick look at a few of the numbers makes it clear. An average family of four uses between 70,000 and 130,000  gallons per year in and around its home in these more visible ways. If every member of that one takes shorter showers, reduces lawn sprinkling, shuts the spigots when toothbrushing, and is able to achieve that 20% reduction, that family will have reduced water usage by 14,000 to 26,000 gallons.
That same average family of four consumes 200 pounds of beef per year – 50 pounds per person.  Every pound of beef takes 2500 gallons of water to produce.  That’s a total of 500,000 gallons of water hiding on the family’s kitchen table.  Consider that an average 5-minute shower with a low-flow shower head uses 12.5 gallons of water.   Every pound of beef is equivalent in water usage to 200  5-minute showers.  If every member of that family eats one pound less beef, each has saved the equivalent of more than 6 months of showers!
And that’s just beef!  Every year, the average American consumes 200 pounds of meat in all forms. Add to that dairy products: one gallon of milk requires 2000 gallons of water. You can quickly see where this goes … and what we need to do.  If we want to make a meaningful dent in this water emergency, we need to change our diets.  Eat fewer animal products and more plant-based foods.  Water is conserved at the fork.
Understand, I am not suggesting that adjusting our visible water use habits is a bad idea. Waste is never wise.   But if our governor and leaders were more serious about this emergency and more willing to take on the meat and dairy industries, their message would be very different: “Change what you are eating.”
Even if they won’t, we can!

The State That Cried “Water” … but should be crying “Food”


Recent reports have current drought conditions the driest in the history of keeping track of the California climate. And there is no end is in sight. Farmers feel it. Ski resorts feel it.  The energy companies feel it.   Everyone.  And of course this is not limited to California.  We know that human-created cataclysmic climate change is a worldwide fact of our times

Governor Jerry Brown has recently and rightly implored all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water consumption in the face of California’s current difficulties. The length of our showers, the numbers of days we water our lawns and gardens, how we brush our teeth: everything we do that sends this precious resource down our drains. A start perhaps, but not nearly enough. We need to be looking at what’s at the end of our forks.

At even conservative estimates, the amount of water it takes to raise livestock and produce animal products for food is enormous. These days, it’s no longer even controversial. The UN said it as early as 2006.  WorldWatch just reissued a report they published originally in 2004. The Smithsonian Magazine published a piece about it in 2012.  Even more accessible URLs are clear.

Those numbers? Of course, as long as there are folks yearning for their pound of flesh, there will be debate.  Some say 2500 gallons per pound of beef. (Yes, that’s right, per pound!) Others claim “only” 1000.  The cattle industry likes the number 440.  Chicken takes less, perhaps 500 gallons per pound.

Given that human created cataclysmic climate change is right here, right now; is daily increasing in scope and severity; and is driven in huge part – 51% in fact according to a recent highly credible report – by the human manufacture of animal products, our sinks, showers and gardens are not the only place for us to look.  We must change what we eat!  We must reduce the amount of animals products we consume!

How much?  Our Governor suggests 20%.  That seems like a minimum, a start. In any event, start!

Do your part! Help save our one wild and beautiful planet.


rejecting college ‘acceptance’

Hammer glassIt’s almost that time: second semester. Although some high school seniors who have chosen the college route  are still completing their applications, many will begin hearing from the schools to which they have applied.  It’s an exciting time … filled with anticipation, enthusiasm, anxiety, celebration, resignation, and renewed vigor … all the stuff of a great sporting event.  Some schools say “Yes,” some “No.”  Rejections feel bad, and students take them personally.  Acceptances feel good, and they make the same mistake … they take them personally.  When the whole process has ended later this Spring,  you’ll be able to stand by any open window on any evening and, if you are quiet,  hear the collective sigh of parental relief.  “Whew!!  S/he’s in!”    

Across the country, young adults will begin readying themselves for many of the real challenges ahead: laundry, meal plan vs. cooking, bank accounts, bursars, registrars, majors ….   And then, next year, another group, and the year after, another, and then the next, and the next, and ….  For so many of our sons and daughters who can afford it, it has become part of what it means to grow up.   

 Acceptance into college is the sort of acceptance we want for our children.  There is another sort, a more dangerous one … the acceptance of authority, of expertise, of the professor, the teacher, the class, the pundit, the book, the truth.  Were the university the only place we find that danger, it would not be as worrisome.  But things are not that simple.   The invitation merely to accept comes from many places, and it  begins far earlier than college.   One of the central goals at a good school is to have our young people recognize the many and ongoing efforts to have them accept that which screams for the opposite.

 Education is one of the most conservative of society’s institutions.  It is supposed to be that way.   It is our job to help prepare the next generation to take its place in a world we helped create for them.  Things need to continue, to progress, we need to build on the past and sustain that which has sustained us and those who have come before.  Perhaps with the exception of the family, educational institutions are most responsible for preserving  business as usual.

 Invitations to accept are everywhere.  In education they are especially obvious in those tests our students take.    We all know them:  SAT’s, ACT’s, ERB’s  and the like.  Even though we ought to know better, every few years we reform, redraft and recreate them, rather than let them go the way of 8-track tapes.  And despite their periodic facelift, they remain carefully designed  to convince us  all – and especially our young people – that we know very little … far less than those far smarter people who make up the tests.

The questions are familiar and predictable.  They reinforce the popular beliefs that (1) what matters most are facts, no matter how trivial, and  (2)  if one does well on tests of this sort, s/he is smart and can go on to be a great success … perhaps even to the White House (although clearly good test scores  are NOT required to become President.  Sometimes you do not even need to get the most votes.)  You will recognize the questions right away – questions like:

Which came first, the  Homestead Act or the Stamp Act?

Did WWI come before or after The Spanish American War?

Who was the President during the Mexican War?

Let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that asking questions is wrong, or even that facts are unimportant.  In fact, just the opposite.  But so much of the time questions that indicate a good education demand that we focus on the unimportant. It need not be that way.  There is no shortage of important questions for test makers, teachers, and classes to ask.  Several years back, I heard Howard Zinn remind us that instead of wanting to know whether a student remembers a name, they might instead ask, “What was the cause of the Mexican War?”  Now that’s interesting.

The Mexican War  – 1846-1848.  A relatively insignificant war, rarely more than mentioned in so many text books.   After it was over, the United States had taken nearly 50% of  Mexican territory.  Many in the Western United States are living in that territory right now.  Many of our schools, our homes, our deportation centers. Like so many wars, it was started by an incident.  As best we can put together the real story, it seems that there was a small piece of disputed land on the Mexican and US border.    And as so often happens when a bunch of heavily armed young men are brought together and whipped into a patriotic frenzy,  one thing led to the next, shots were fired, and  people on both sides were injured.   The next day the papers read “We cannot allow American blood to be spilled on American soil.  OUR  NATION IS AT WAR.”   What the history books, teachers, newspapers, magazines and tests rarely tell us is that the President Polk was implementing plans that had already been formulated to take all that territory  from Mexico.  Because we wanted it!  Because it was in the interest of America!  An incident was created to give the President an excuse to do what smart people – people who accepted what college had offered — deemed necessary.

So what?  What’s the big deal?  Is it a big deal? Maybe not … but then again, maybe!!  Were test writers to ask questions like this one, then perhaps more teachers might teach about it.  And if they did, then perhaps more young people might be driven to ask about the causes of wars in general … which might lead them to insights about the ways in which young people (usually young, poor and working class people) are either forced or manipulated into fighting wars created by older wealthier people who stand to benefit from those wars.  Whether it is the Mexican War, WWI, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan… OR MAYBE even the next war.

 I am a fan of college … and certainly of college acceptance.  But not college acceptance!  Or any other acceptance that would have our young people – that would have any of us – dress up, line up, nod dutifully, cheer blindly, and wave whatever is supposed to be waved, when it is supposed to be waved.

People will, schools will, professors and other professionals will try all sorts of things to get our children – to get all of us – to accept  the unacceptable, to embrace as inevitable that which should never be embraced, to keep us calm in the face of the outrageous … until it is time to whip us into a frenzy so we will do what you are supposed to do.

AND if they succeed  … well then … one day our kids (or perhaps we) might grow up to be …well … completely acceptable !

christmas koyaanisqatsi … remaining naive in the new year

Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 6.06.42 AM

It’s upside down, isn’t it? It’s backwards.  Not the Buckminster Fuller Quote. The world is Koyaanisqatsi, right?! It can’t just be me.

From where I am sitting, it’s especially obvious during the holidays.  Peace on earth.  Good will toward all.  New beginnings.  Resolutions. Gifts and garlands fill homes with good cheer. Friends surprise us with visits and kind words. It feels as if something better is right up ahead … just around the corner. Dickens described the holidays as “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of other people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Yes, I know, of course it’s too commercial.  Yes, it is an over-shopping fiasco. (We all saw store decorations go up just after Halloween!) And I know it’s not everyone’s holiday. How about if we call it solstice-celebration?  The point is, whatever we call it, this holiday time of year still feel magical, as if there is a new and better world just up ahead, and it is filled with possibility. No matter where you are, you can imagine snow falling.  As if the the whole solstice-celebrating-world is encouraging us to see a truth that is otherwise obscured: so very much of our world is shaped by human choices, by the choices we make.  We can choose peace. We can choose good will.  We can choose to live another way, where we ‘open our shut-up hearts” and ‘think of others as fellow passengers to the grave’ rather than ‘other.’

I want to be clear: I am not a Pollyanna. This is not some glib assertion about simply choosing other work.  I know there’s a big machine out there, and it can and will try to grind us up if we so much as point in a different direction.  But we do – human beings individually and collectively do – have choices.  The fundamental assumptions within which we live are not the only ones out  there.  They were created by people: people who could, who might… sometimes easily, sometimes with great effort … create others.

And then, perhaps even more quickly than they arrived, the holidays are gone. Within just a week or two, we return to the conventional ‘audio and video feed.’  Back come the grey men in grey suits with grey brains as Helen Caldicott used to call them. Back is the world as it ISN’T. Back upside down.  

I am not just talking about going back to work. You might have a job you love, or perhaps not. It’s not that we need to set the alarm again, that our schedules are driven by the need for the wheels to keep the machine moving. It’s that suddenly what we have all been told about choice just goes away.  As quickly as it appeared, it just vanishes!

“But wait. It was obvious: we can choose other possibilities!”

You know … like ‘Peace on Earth’ or ‘Good Will Toward Others.’

No. Gone! The idea that perhaps We do not need to go to war to end the conflict in Syria, is met with the hardboiled thinking of the hardboiled analysts who know otherwise. “No more drone attacks?  So naive. You don’t really understand what we are dealing with.”

“What do you mean health care is an inappropriate arena for insurance profits? No insurance profits involved in health care? Health care for everyone? It’s really quite preposterous.”

Perhaps we would be used to it.  Perhaps it would be easy to swallow. But the holidays. It’s all so fresh! For those couple of weeks every year, we see our world as it actually is: A mess to be sure, but pregnant with the possibility that we might do otherwise, we CAN do otherwise. And then… gone. An abrupt about-face. It’s koyaanisqatsi.  Out of balance. Maya, the world that ISN’T.

Why do some people have more than they will ever use, can ever use, while others go homeless and hungry? “Well you see… there will always be those who must go without. Without enough food, without a place to live? It’s the way the world has always been. You have to be ‘realistic.’ You are so delightfully naive.”

Why, if we know that factory farming and an animal heavy diet is responsible for as much as 50% of greenhouse warming (Yes, check it out: Goodland and Anhang, 2006) won’t we mandate a change in farming techniques? Why won’t we report that our widespread assumptions about food and diet are not only inaccurate, but destroying our future.  I mean Miley Cyrus?  Really?

If we know our continuing reliance on fossil fuels is killing the planet at a pace far faster than we imagined, why don’t we change?  Wait… there are sustainable alternatives? Why don’t we require them?

We know corporations are not people.  Why do we pretend otherwise?

How about this?  You are hunting for a worthwhile New Year’s resolution.  This year, let’s all remain NAIVE. When one or another economist tells us we cannot feed people who are hungry, even though we have the food, let’s remain naive and insist on the obvious: we can.  When a group of unelected experts tells us that because corporations are people, we need to allow them to upend democracy by behaving as if they are, let’s not play pretend: we know they are not. When they tell us we must take up arms, just this one more time to prevent … well  to prevent war, to put an end to violence(??), to assure access to oil, to ______ …  let’s not. No, we cannot shift our resources away from a meat-based diet… Yes… we can.  We cannot be sure that the earth is warming… Yes we can.  We cannot to anything to ….  Chances are we can!

So perhaps we can agree to make 2014 a year for reality.  Let’s all make a bid for reality.  Let’s make ourselves as naive as we can be.  Happy New Year.