Blessed Unrest: Environmental and Social Justice for All … or Bust!

Blessed_unrest In his latest book (and video), environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author Paul Hawken achieves a remarkable balance between breadth and depth in arguing that in order to restore environmental and social balance on this earth, we must strive for both, or we will achieve neither. Noting that "we are nature", and thus however we treat the earth affects its people and however we treat one another affects the earth, Hawken presents a systems approach in which recognizing our interrelatedness, taking advantage of our interconnectedness, and acting with greater consciousness may allow us to save ourselves and our planet from the brink of disaster.

The title of the book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, is based on Hawken’s estimate of somewhere between one to two million organizations worldwide – many of them very small and narrowly focused (hence their relative unremarkability, from the point of view of major media) – that are acting to improve environmental and/or social conditions. Although many of these organizations (some of which are listed at are acting independently, an increasing number are linking together with other organizations – in the non-profit, government and commercial sectors – to achieve greater progress ... think globally, act locally, link laterally.

The Unrest in the title presumably describes the motivations of people in this Movement – what moves them to take risks in challenging commercial rights on behalf of the rights of the planet and its peoples. I was deeply moved by the book – it is searingly provocative on an intellectual and emotional level. I’m not sure how much risk I’m willing to take on in order to join this movement … but I’ll at least write about it (Hawken notes that the key attributes to success in fighting for environmental and social justice are "gumption and persistence", so this is at least within scope for [the name of] this blog), and perhaps writing will help pave the way toward further action, by me and/or others (socio-neuro-linguistic programming?).

I found myself feeling physically ill during some passages, such as when he described a single day in the 15th century during which Spanish conquerors raped and beheaded 3,000 people in front of a [presumably complacent, if not condoning] priest. Other passages moved me to tears of sadness, as when he recounted the desecration of The Mother of the Forest, a 363-foot sequoia cut down and transported to New York to parade in front of audiences in the mid-nineteenth century, or the horrendous mistreatment of children by industrialists in England during the latter part of that century, such as the teenaged girls typically employed as benchgrinders who lost the ability to sleep, to stand, and eventually, to breathe, often dying before reaching adulthood.

Hawken highlights the history of economic fundamentalism – in which commercial rights have consistenly trumped human (and environmental) rights – perhaps most starkly exemplified by the Frame Breaking Act of 1812 in England, whereby people who destroyed machinery could be executed, while corporations running machinery that destroyed people were unaccountable. This primacy of business interests over environmental and social interests extends back through thousands of years of slavery and indentured servitude, and is still very much alive and well today, as exemplified by the “rights” of the World Trade Organization, which imposes sanctions on countries that seek to impose restrictions on commerce due to the environmental and/or human costs incurred in the production of "goods". In fact, I believe that it is the nearly unfettered ability of corporations to externalize such costs – to exclude them from any financial accounting, and thereby excuse themselves from any moral or civic accountability – that has led us to the brink of planetary and humanitarian catastrophe.

If everything and everyone is truly connected – an "Ecology 101" perspective that Hawken argues for repeatedly and convincingly throughout the book – then there are no externalities, and the sooner we (and I use the term with intentional ambiguity) adopt accounting and accountability systems with greater integrity, the better … and if we wait too long, we may give new, planetarily posthumous meaning to the cliché "he who dies with the most toys, wins".

Any kind of fundamentalism is dangerous, and, I believe, ultimately disastrous (I'm reminded of the slogan "all isms lead to schisms"). All fundamentalists are, consciously or unconsciously, promoting totalitarianism, and so all fundamentalist movements represent pathologies of power. The world would be a better place if everyone were a Muslim / Christian / capitalist / communist / etc., and so any means of shifting the balance in the “right” direction – through "expirtation, genocide and colonialism … cultural cleansing for the supposed benefit of the victim" – are justified. James Carse's observation that "all evil is the result of trying to eliminate evil" (e.g., "the only good Indian is a dead Indian") - and, for those more familiar with his insights into finite and infinite games, "evil is not the inclusion of finite games in an infinite game, but the restriction of all play to one or another finite game" - offers an interesting perspective on the fundamentalist perspective.

A quote from Bertrand Russell, from his aptly named Unpopular Essays, and reminiscent of sentiments expressed in and James Ogilvy’s Living Without a Goal, helps explain why fundamentalism is so popular:

Man is a credulous animal and must believe in something. In the absence of good grounds for belief, he will believe in bad ones.

Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, offers further insights into these fundamental human tendencies as they apply to the religious dimension. Hawken’s recounting of the attacks on Rachel Carlson, author of Silent Spring, a 1962 expose on the harmful effects of the chlorinated pesticides (DDT), highlight a relatively newer, secular dimension for bad grounds for belief, also known as corporate junk science, in which corporate funded "think tanks" sow seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt about any scientific discoveries that may harm their economic bottom line. This tactic of assimilation through dissimulation is promoted implicitly and explicitly by corporations, governments and their partners and co-beneficiaries, the mainstream media, more recently exemplified by reactions – or lack thereof – to threats of climate change and Weapons of Mass Destruction Delusion  … though, as Hawken observes, “any finger-pointing is inevitably directed back to ourselves" (reminiscent of my own recent revelations regarding seeing what I want to see).

Hawken notes that fundamentalism is, fundamentally, about ideology, and any fundamentalism – whether it is capitalism, socialism, capitalism or terrorism – is based on uniformity rather than diversity, and thus more inclined to justify and dictate than to question and liberate. Diversity, along with self-organization and self-regulation, are among the hallmarks of an effective immune system (or what Fritjof Capra, in his book, The Web of Life, calls an immune network), and Hawken suggests that "the widely diverse network of organizations proliferating in the world today may be a better defense against injustice than F-16 fighter jets".

Although much of the focus in the book is on how small organizations are working to improve the lots of the planet and its peoples, Hawken also includes some larger scale initiatives, such as The Nature Conservancy, which has US$4.4B in assets, the Clinton Global Initiative, which recently raised US$7.3B in pledges to combat global warming, injustice, intolerance and poverty, and the Gates Foundation, with US$29B in assets (and an annual budget that is twice that of the World Health Organization), dedicated to the eradication of disease in the developing world.

While I hope these initiatives are successful, I have to note that I think it’s ironic that Bill Clinton, who, despite his purported commitment - in the past and present - to environmental and social causes, was an ardent proponent of some of the foremost tools of promulgating environmental and social injustice, through his support for NAFTA, GATT and welfare reform (and even his former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, who I had previously thought was more populist than corporatist, has recently been defending the gross inequity of the gross pay given to many CEOs).

Toward the end of the book, after cataloging a broad range of environmental and social injustices suffered in the past, present and possible future(s), interspersed with examples of organizations that are making some progress in addressing or even rectifying some of those injustices, Hawken offers an optimistic vision about how this movement might unfold. One passage, in particular, triggered a “goose bump moment” for me, where I experienced a strong visceral reaction to the words on the page:

We cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening … What if there is already in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?

As is often the case (with me), this positive feeling was soon followed by some self-critical reflection (perhaps because I was reading the book on an international flight during which, according to Atmosfair,  I was personally responsible for the emissions of approximately 3270 kg of C02 into the atmosphere): we I may be experiencing a spiritual awakening, but what are we am I doing about it?

This emotional and intellectual trajectory was then reinforced by another moving passage, in which Hawken quotes one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver:

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.

So what am I going to do? How much gumption do I really have? Is the work I do really serving to promote environmental and social justice? Is it having impact on a scale that is commensurate with my abilities? [By definition, I suppose, it’s having impact on a scale that is commensurate with my willingness.] Can I really help to empower people to achieve greater environmental and social justice in my role(s) at Nokia? I’m not sure about the “blessed” dimension, but Hawken’s book has clearly created some unrest in me.

While I have written about environmental and social issues in the past, I believe I can do more to take part in this movement … and I am taking small steps in that direction. Although not directly related to the main focus of my research, I will be participating in a session at Pop!Tech 2007 in which I will be joined by Katrin Verclas and Nathan Eagle in giving presentations and leading discussions about broad visions and specific examples of how mobile technologies are serving to empower people throughout the developing world to develop solutions to the local environmental, social and political challenges they face. It’s a small step (for me, especially when compared to the steps taken by my cohorts in the session), but it does lie along a trajectory that seems to increasingly beckon me, including my recent awakening to the enormous challenges in Africa, and my recent exposure to the ways that communities and technologies can be used to address those challenges.

I can’t say that a clear path has emerged for how I can (or will) do more yet, but as long as I keep taking even small steps in the right direction, I believe I am contributing in positive ways to this movement.

Seeing What I Want To See: Whale Watching ... and WMD

Watching for Whales

Near the start our recent family vacation along the Oregon coast, we walked up Cannon Beach into the downtown area. During our northerlywalk, we passed several groups of people on the beach who appeared to be deeply engrossed in something to the southwest. I have trained myself, over the years, to ignore spectacles, as to not add what may be undesired attention to a person or activity (e.g., when someone is being tended to by emergency medical responders) ... and to keep traffic flowing in the vicinity (this latter aspect was strongly reinforced during the time I lived in - and drove around - the Chicago area, suffering through numerous instances of "gaper's delay"). So, in this case, we proceeded a few hundred yards up the beach without looking back in the direction of the riveted gazes.

Finally, however, we passed someone with a telephoto lens, who was taking photos of object of their intereest. I stopped to ask, figuring this person could see better than most, and he pointed and said "there are whales out there".

Whales?! I love whales!

So, I stood there for the next 10 minutes or so, watching the whales, too. It looked like there were two whales, who were occasionally surfacing, then going back down (the story I made up about this was that they were fishing). On our way back down the beach, I kept watching the whales, shooting photographs with my N95, and cursing my lack of a camera with telephoto lens (you can hardly see the whales in the center of the photo above - though if you click through, you can view larger versions ... that also don't show the whales well). At one point, a mother and two daughters were standing just south of Haystack Rock, gazing out onto the water, and I pointed out the whales, and they became excited and started watching and taking photos as well.

Back at our hotel, I went out on the deck, to continue watching the whales. It occured to me that they were spending an unbelievably long time in one place (I figure it had been well over an hour at that point). Peering more closely, aided by a pair of binoculars, I started noticing that there were rocks lying just below the surf in a variety of places along the coast that, when certain wave patterns arose, sent water splashing in ways that looked remarkably like the splash patterns I'd observed with the "whales". Watching the "whales" themselves for a long while, I concluded that they were simply rocks.

My embarrassment was compounded by my having passed on the meme of whale watching to the unsuspecting family (of course, I, too, was the recipient of the meme, so I was simply a transmitter rather than the originator, but it was still embarrassing, nonetheless). I realized that I had been primed by reading some travel brochure that whales can occasionally be spotted along the coast, and that I really, really wanted to see a whale, so it's hardly surprising that, based on observing a few people and receiving a single suggestion, I did see a whale - in fact, two of them!

I share this story here and now for a few reasons. One is that my earlier post on don't take anything personally highlighted my ongoing struggle with projections of various kinds (my own, and the projections I perceive in [project onto?] others). I judge this "whale watching" episode to be a case of projecting what I wanted to see onto what I was actually seeing. I believe it's a bit different from - and perhaps a bit safer to write about than - earlier cases, as the object(s) of my projection were inanimate (despite my projection of animism). However, I do suspect that my love for and fascination with whales probably says something about me. I guess my point in revisiting this somewhat sensitive issue is that what I saw was very much influenced by who I am, what I love and what I want (reminding me of being reminded of - through a comment (which I enjoyed, BTW ... but upon which I will not comment further) on - an earlier and related post on data, feelings, judgments and wants).

The second reason I want to share this story is that it suggests to me that I am not so different, in some ways, from George W. Bush - a projection about which I feel even more embarrassment than my projection of whales. Although I like to think of myself as someone who sees the good in all people, and who believes that we are all kindred spirits at a deep level, there are people with whom I am reluctant to observe (or admit) similarities. As I wrote in an earlier post, One World: Disasters and Responses, inspired by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:

I ask, "How can I BE the peace I want to see in the world, today?" Not, how can I CREATE the peace- but how can I BE it- because it becomes clearer and clearer to me that violence and war are not just "out there" but also inside me.

She goes on to suggest that we can either try to identify and empathize with others, or seek to differentiate others from ourselves; essentially choosing to view others as "us" or "them". She [Oriah] gives examples about substituting "some of us" for "them" or "they" as we think about what others have done (and I would extend this to what others are going through). In her audiobook "Your Heart's Prayer", she further extends this from "some of us" to "sometimes I".

I find it very challenging to see and acknowledge similarities between me and our current president, who I judge to have done more harm - politically, environmentally, economically and socially - to the people and country he leads, and to humanity and the world at large, than any other president in our history. But, if I am willing to let go of that resistance, I see a number of similarities: valuing loyalty (in self and others), being outgoing and friendly, being strongly influenced by the opinions of close and trusted friends, and being willing to take on a role that may be beyond current skills and capabilities. There are a number of differences I see, as well, such as a concern for the environment and a commitment to openness, integrity, compassion and vulnerability. [Invoking Oriah's practice of inserting "sometimes I", I will note that sometimes I do not practice these diferentiating values consistently, and sometimes our president espouses, and occasionally acts upon, such values.]

Anyhow, the reason I wanted to delve into this topic today was that I read an article in Salon asserting that "Bush knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction". In the article, Sidney Blumenthal writes:

On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail.

The article goes on to offer a number of disturbing details about how our administration analyzes and shares information. I am outraged by these actions, as I am by many of the administrations actions, or at least those that are revealed (I shudder to think what kinds of activities may be going on behind the scenes). This outrage is further stoked by the recent Special Comment by my hero, Keith Olberman, Bush and Iraq, invoking revelations about Bush in Robert Draper's book Dead Certain:

Now, I don't want to cast any projections onto Keith Olbermann (he is, after all, my hero), but I will recast my original projection - seeing what I want to see - onto George Bush ... which is reflected in the conclusion of the Salon article, in a quote from a former CIA officer:

"The fact is there was nothing there, no threat. But Bush wanted to hear what he wanted to hear."

The day after my "whale watching" episode, I passed the mother and two daughters to whom I'd pointed out the "whales" the previous day. I couldn't (or didn't) bring myself to stop them to share with them my new understanding of what we really saw out in the water. It was partly due to embarrassment, and partly due to not wanting to spoil their enjoyment of what they thought they saw (though they, too, may have come to the same realization as I did) - let them content themselves with the story I once believed ... which is a more enjoyable story to reflect upon (and share with others) - seeing whales rather than [just] rocks.

I don't know what Bush believed in 2002 about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and I don't know what he believes now about WMD - or, indeed, anything else. In spite of our similarities about seeing or hearing what we want to see or hear, I like to believe that my misconceptions, and the actions I take based on them, have not had nearly as devastating an impact as those of Bush. And I, at least, am willing to publicly admit my misconceptions ... if somewhat after the fact (and still too late to affect the mother and two daughters, I suppose). I don't judge that Bush reflects much about his beliefs and actions, and don't expect him to in the future, and so I am extremely grateful for public commentators like Keith Olbermann, Sidney Blumenthall and Robert Draper for their willingness to help the rest of us gain greater clarity ... just as on a smaller scale, but no less personally important way, I am grateful for the commenters on my blog to help me gain greater clarity.

Dances with Coyotes

Our yard appears to have been adopted by a coyote, who is spending more of his or her time taking meals by our compost heap.  On the one hand, I enjoy the prospect of being so close to this animal, and I'm sure I'm being influenced, in part, by memories of the movie Dances with Wolves (one of my all-time favorites).  On the other hand, I'm concerned that our dog JoJo -- who ferociously barks whenever she senses the coyote in our yard, and did so this morning when there was only about 20 feet separating them -- may be no match for her wilder cousin.

Coyote1 Coyote2 Coyote3