Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Signing off... for now

Dear friends,
This is the final instalment of the Cracks in the Pavement writings, almost a year to the day the first words hit the page. Thanks to the efforts of my good friend Justin Dunscombe, whose talents in the realms of both computers and beer making are considerable, there is now cracksinthepavement.net, a site hosting all of the book's writings in PDF format. You can also purchase additional hard copies of the book at www.lulu.com if you are an old fashioned reader like myself.

I will end these writings with a bit of a rambling meditation involving the very topic that gave the book its title: roads.

I was in Washington DC for a few days last week, a stopover en route to England where I am enrolled in a course on sustainability at Schumacher College (where I am also in the midst of applying to graduate school). On Thursday, I spent a good part of the morning at the wonderful National Museum of the American Indian. I was moved to tears by the relatively peaceful, egalitarian, and reverent way of life that predominated in the western hemisphere in pre-Columbian times. Granted, there were the Incan, Mayan, and Aztec empires, each with their own flavors of heirarchy and aggression, but this orientation seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. The accounts of early European explorers and conquistadors clearly paint a picture of strikingly generous, peaceful, and seemingly happy peoples. The subsequent and ongoing devastation of the native peoples of the Americas brought forth by the sword, by the microbe, and by the disruption and diminution of culture is one of humanity's great unhealed wounds.

From the Museum of the American Indian, I made my way to an exhibit of Xian terra cotta warriors at the National Geographic Museum. The dozen or so warriors, on loan from the Chinese Government, are part of a veritable underground army of an estimated 7000 near life-size clay figures that were constructed to guard the elaborate tomb of the first Qin Emperor around the 3rd Century BC. Tens of thousands of laborers and artisans worked on the tomb and its guardians over a period of thirty years.

Like the pyramids at Giza or the Great Wall of China, the Xian warriors are a staggeringly impressive feat. My reaction to these flawlessly preserved, millenia-old artifacts, however, was mixed with grief and unease. Here were monuments to the power, cruelty, and imbalance of empire. The Qin Emperor was the first to conquer and 'unify' what is roughly modern China, and the wealth and manpower that he funneled into his terra cotta army and his nearly four hundred palaces was siphoned from newly conquered lands. While the emperors excesses and draconian measures have long been condemned, he has also been lauded for instituting the legal and governmental structures upon which subsequent empires were based. He is also credited for developing a widespread network of efficient roads.

What troubles me about this bifurcated assessment of history - that the Qin Emperor was a tyrannical ruler but an able and admirable builder of an enduring infrastructure - is that it misses the point that the infrastructure enabled and spread the empire's violence and injustices. The roads and laws of the first emperor were, first and foremost, put in place to facilitate control over other people and hasten the consolidation of resources and power. An immediate and enduring consequence of the Qin roads was the loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as the sovereignty and self-determination, of countless smaller and more peaceful groups of people - groups not unlike the American Indian cultures I had just been so deeply moved by.

The story of the Qin Emperor makes the tragic nature of empire particularly clear. In the end, both oppressor and oppressed are ravaged. Terrified of being assassinated, the emperor's vast wealth and power could not stave off a crippling paranoia. He slept each night in a different palace, and he distrusted and often executed his closest attendants and advisors. Who, then, benefits from the violence, the domination, the wars, the paranoia? If empire fails even to fulfill emperors, what is the point?

Of course I am oversimplifying a bit here. Without the vast concentrations of wealth and power made possible by an imperial orientation, the world would be without the printing press, modern science, Michaelangelo, world travel, and Handel's Messiah. Yet, I think it is important to keep in mind the enormous tradeoffs and sacrifices in terms of human rights and dignity, as well as cultural and biological diversity, that enabled these fruits of civilization.

The roads of the modern era are freetrade agreements and structural adjustment mandates, comunication technologies and corporate held media. They have enabled many worthwhile connections and innovations, and yet the most significant cumulative effect has been an unprecedented flow of wealth and power to multinational corporations that carry little accountability and few responsibilities to anyone other than shareholders. The power of multinationals and the international institutions that abet them is not news to the developing world where hardly a pause took place between political colonialism and corporate colonialism. Now the developed world is discovered just how markedly power has shifted, as local, state, and national governments of even the wealthiest nations are spiraling into debt and inpotence while corporate profits soar and the remaining firewalls against corporate influence in government crumble.

What nearly all of us want in life - peace, strong community, time with our families, meaningful and enjoyable work - are elusive in this new world order, even though on paper humanity posesses more wealth and more 'stuff' than at any time in history. The mindset of empire - accumulate. defend. repeat. - is nothing new here. What is new is the degree to which it has metastasized and gained popular acceptance. Aware of the dangers and power imbalance inherent in an economy based on imperial structure and ever-inreasing consumption, Gandhi wrote:

'God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [England] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.'

There are alternatives to stripping the world bare and brutalizing one another in the process, and it is possible to move away from an economy that is essentially imperial in nature. It is possible to shake our reliance on fossil fuels and to breathe life into local, vibrant, resilient, ecologically sustainable, and socially just economies. It is a possibility that is not without its demands - our energy, vision, passion, and courage, to name but a few. It need not be seen as a path of sacrifice, renunciation, and deprivation, for the rewards are immediate and nested within the effort itself.

The writings of the past year have all stemmed in one way or another from a dawning realization that we are living during an extraordinary era, one in which humankind has the potential to either plunge headlong into despair and degradation in competition over dwindling resources or to move decisively in the direction of a worldview and behavior that acknowledges and celebrates that we are 'merely' members of an awe-inspiring ecology, not lonely, alienated, and bumbling masters of the planet. As Wendell Berry writes, we are 'now required to confront consciously and capably, really for the first time in human history, a question that is almost overwhelming in its magnitude and urgency but also utterly fascinating, fully worthy of a lifetime's effort and study: can we change the ways we live and work so as to establish a preserving harmony between the made and the given worlds?'

Thank you all for your support over the past year and for joining me in my questions and musings. I am beyond fortunate to enjoy the diverse community that I have been blessed to inhabit. Take care and be well. Signing off for now -


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Looking ahead to energy descent

Dear friends,
From December 6 - 19, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Control will convene in Copenhagen to discuss the a followup to the Kyoto Protocol when that agreement expires in 2012. I may not be bound for Denmark, but I am nonetheless getting in to the spirit of the season with this post of climate ponderings.

I have been plunging into some of the popular literature on climate change over the past year, including Lester Brown's Plan B 3.0, Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and Elizabeth Kolbert's Fieldnotes From a Catastrophe. These three authors come from different backgrounds, professions, and they offer different prescriptions, but their central message is identical: climate change is here, and in order for it to be merely deeply inconvenient, as opposed to devastating, we need to act. Fast.

As if our historical moment weren't interesting enough, along comes the impending arrival of peak oil extraction. Less well known than climate change but destined perhaps to be equally influential in the coming decades, peak oil refers to the point in time when global extraction reaches its apex and subsequently begins to decline. Peak oil effectively means the end of the era of "cheap oil" and, by extension, the era of cheap food, cheap shipping, and so on and so forth. Estimates of when the world will reach peak oil range from 2030 to 2010 or sooner. Some groups suggest that the price spike that saw oil costs jump to nearly $150 per barrel in July 2008 is an indication that we have already arrived at the early phase of peak oil. What is generally agreed upon, even among oil companies, is that peak oil is real and will manifest very soon.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Movement in the UK, stresses that it is essential that we come to understand and address climate change and peak oil as a single, integrated challenge and opportunity. Without taking in to account the implications of climate change, peak oil is likely to drive (and is already driving) a frenzy to turn to significantly more environmentally harmful "unconventional" sources of fossil fuels, such as oil sands and oil shale. Of course, development of unconventional fossil fuels will not prevent peak oil, merely postpone it, at the cost of greatly accelerating conditions that lead to climate change and environmental degradation. Alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power, are important and promising, but collectively they are not likely to make up for the energy shortfall that will occur with peak oil and rising energy demands. With the planet heating up, water tables falling, sea levels rising, and energy prices climbing steadily upward, our century has the potential for much unpleasantness.

I have hope that this grim picture can be largely avoided, or at least mitigated, if we can break out of business as usual thinking and behavior. Instead of waiting to be forced by ecological limits to decrease our energy consumption (and the likely conflicts over resources that will entail), we can proactively embrace what has been called "planned energy descent". This need not be seen as a sacrifice -- in fact, energy descent can help lead us to an ultimately positive restructuring of our collective priorities. Hopkins writes “the future with less oil could be preferable to the present – but only if sufficient creativity and imagination are applied early enough in the design of this transition”.

Whether through (continued) ecological collapse or through our own capacity as a species to wake up just in the nick of time, we will sooner or later come face to face with the shortcomings of business as usual thinking, namely that pursuing and glorifying unlimited growth on a planet with finite resources is simply not possible and not desirable. We will also be increasingly familiar with the fact that "environmental issues" do not exist in isolation -- they are intimately linked to all manner of social, health, justice, and security issues.

An unprecedented number of individuals, organizations, businesses, and movements are living proof that it is indeed possible to transcend business as usual thinking and embrace a life that minimizes the importance of consumption and puts a premium on consuming within limits, on relationships within community and with the natural world, be it in an urban, rural, or suburban context. Environmentalist, author, and entrepreneur Paul Hawken estimates there are at least two million organizations sharing common goals and principles currently working for social and environmental change, what he calls the largest single movement in the history of the world.

Undoubtedly policy proceedings in Copenhagen, Washington D.C., and elsewhere are extremely important for our common future. I am increasingly convinced, however, that equally if not more important is grassroots education and activity on a vast scale. This collective challenge/opportunity is far too big, far too important, and far too ripe with possibility to be left to experts of various stripes. Efforts like the Transition Movement are enlivening communities throughout the UK, the US, Japan, and beyond and awakening people to the idea that mitigating environmental and social problems can be profoundly connective, joyful, and rewarding. It is not a question of top down or bottom up, technological solutions or social solutions. It is all of these efforts at once, ideally informing and reinforcing one another. We are living in an "all hands on deck" moment in history.

Here are a few short videos and links you may be interested in

Rob Hopkins explaining transition towns (6 minutes): video
The End of Suburbia - documentary on Peak Oil (52 minutes): video
Awakening the Dreamer trailer (7 minutes): video
350.org - campaign to mitigate climate change: website

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Burma photos

Dear all,
I watched the sun come up over the harbor here in Monterey this morning. An indescribably lovely sight. There may be more pleasant locales in the world, but that would be a very short list, indeed.

Here is a collection of photos from my recent trip to Burma. I am forging ahead with my first draft of writing about the experience, finding it difficult to distill such a rich experience into a reasonable number of pages.

I hope this post finds you all happy and healthy and well!


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fond farewell to a remarkable woman

It is dusk and I find myself situated at a small table outdoors at the Cafe Anniversaire, the fancy Tokyo haunt I wrote about lovingly in Homage to the Coffee Shop: Part II. The atmosphere is lively, the air thick with conversation of well-heeled shoppers. Hair mussed, eyes bagged, worn rucksack tucked between my legs, I am direct from Narita airport and anomalous here on several accounts. Yet I could not resist the gravitational force of outstanding coffee. Burma is decidedly a tea country, and I have been anticipating this reunion with vice for some days now.

The past days in Burma were rich and profound. I will be processing and writing about the experience in the weeks to come. Today, however, my thoughts are directed towards the small town of Chenoa, Illinois. My grandmother Mary Ellen Morse, my father's mother and my last surviving grandparent, passed away in Chenoa on August 29 of heart failure at the ripe age of 93. Her body had long since started to throw in the towel, but her mind stayed sharp and her heart plugged along doggedly and persistently until the end. It was as if she ceded ground to arthritis and other ailments to concentrate her energy on heart and mind, the locusts of her essential qualitities -- intelligence, strength of will, and large heartedness.

Grandma spent her childhood on the family farm outside of Danvers, Illinois. She was among the eldest of the many Schertz children, and she carried throughout her life the sense of seriousness and responsibility that comes with the charge of helping raise one's younger siblings. After meeting my grandfather Howard Morse, a farmer and high school teacher, the couple moved to nearby Odell and settled at the Morse family farm where they raised pigs and milk cows, grew corn and soybeans, and tended a large garden.

My father was born the year Nazi Germany blitzed into Poland. Papa, my grandfather, wanted to enlist in the army, but he was rejected on account of being underweight (there is a serious Jack Spratt gene in the Morse family DNA). Committed to being part of the Allied effort in one way or another, the whole family left the farm for the duration of the war, heading west to the shipyards of California.

The family returned to Odell after the war, but not before my father had been infected by the allure of California. A dozen years later, he enrolled as an enginnering major at Stanford University and called Calironia home for the rest of his life. Grandma and Papa continued to work the farm together, the pigs and cattled falling by the wayside as the USDA encouraged farmers to plant 'fencerow to fencerow'. Grandma managed the books so ably that she and Papa helped put my sisters and me through college. Both Grandma and Papa embodied Depression era thrift to the bone, although through much arm twisting my parents convinced Grandma to join them for trips to England, Canada, and New Zealand while she was in her 80s. She was in no small part lured by the English style formal gardens in each of these locales. Grandma loved flowers almost as much as she loved bridge, which is a very strong statement.

When Papa died in 1982, Dad lobbied Grandma to move to the Bay Area to be closer to our family. She was not about to leave her home in Odell, but a compromise was struck and she spent winters with us in California. Arthritis eventually made these trips impossible, and by her mid-80s Grandma had moved to an assisted living home. My visits over the past decade have consisted primarily, almost exclusively, of card marathons (and I do mean marathons). We would play our first round at 9am or so, and by 5pm I would say that I had to get going for the evening. 'You're leaving already?' she would ask in disbelief. And then, 'Well, be sure you get here early in the morning.'

Grandma was not a chatterbox (Papa was the garrulous one), save on certain topics (cooking, weather, the Cubs) or with certain people (her younger sister Alice, with whom my grandmother could chat in perpetuity). After the first hour or so of gin rummy, our conversation would slow and then cease almost entirely. We were both OK with this. We simply enjoyed one another's company. On occasion, someplace I had been would intrigue her and she would slip question after question between rounds of rummy. Plum Village Monastery in France, for example, fascinated her. What are the monks like? What do they eat? Do you have to shave your head when you go there? Do they grow their own food? In large part to give Grandma a fuller picture of my experiences at the monastery, I wrote Recollections of Plum Village.

My last visit was in July, a three-day stint that saw some truly epic games of rummy. My sister Holly was there with my brother-in-law Jason and their kids Ryan and Kayla. The latter two sat in on a few rounds of hearts with their great-grandmother, and when it came time to leave we all kissed her on the cheek and said our goodbyes. Just over a month later, Grandma had three other visiters -- her nephew Mike, her niece Valerie, and Valerie's golden retriever Sophie. Val said Sophie and Grandma 'shared a moment', looking deeply into one another's eyes. Shortly thereafter, a lovely soul passed quietly and peacefully out of this world.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Out of the frying pan... What next for Burma?

I begin this post some eight hours deep into a flight from San Francisco to Osaka. The map function on the seatback display informs me that we are several hundred miles east of the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. North lies the sea of Okhotsk and the eastern fringes of Russia, a corner of this fair planet I will likely only visit during games of Risk.

Japan is the jumping off point for a two week trip to Burma and Thailand led by my good friend Dwight Clark. I met Dwight on a bright Fall morning in 1998. I was nervously awaiting an interview for the Payson Treat Fellowship, a cross-cultural exchange program run by the small non-profit Volunteers in Asia. A kindly gentleman offered me a cup of tea while I waited and struck up conversation. He carried himself with such graceful humility that I was surprised to learn later that not only was he VIA's president, he had been so since he founded the organization in 1963. The tea and conversation soothed my nerves and, very contrary to my expectations, a few days later I was selected to the fellowship.

Five years later, I came to work for VIA as a program director. All the while, Dwight and I have made a point of getting together for tea or dinner to catch up on life, revel in the horse race of American politics, and share thoughts and information on world affairs, particularly those pertaining to Asia. Dwight and VIA have been just about everywhere in Asia over the past 46 years -- Indonesia, China, Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Phillipines, etc. Since his retirement in 2003, Dwight has not slowed down a bit. His focus these days, and the focus of many of our dinner chats, is increasingly the troubled nation of some 50 million souls now officially known as Myanmar.

Burma has been receiving some press of late over the ruling military junta's decision to continue detaining Nobel laureat Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest through next year's elections. The charges, which stemmed from a bizarre incident in which an American man swam unbidden to Suu Kyi's heavily-guarded home, are consistent with the junta's efforts to marginalize Suu Kyi and pro-democracy leadership regardless of the flimsiness of the rationale.

Burma's military regime has existed in one form or another since 1962, a remarkably tenacious ruling clique. One of my primary interests in Burma is the question of what will happen within the country once the regime, now known by the Orwellian moniker State Peace and Development Council, finally passes by the wayside. Once a fairly prosperous nation, Burma is now among the poorest in South East Asia. Embargos, sanctions, and a general unwillingness to be associated with a government as roundly condemned as Myanmar's has meant that the country has seen little of the rapid economic growth of its neighboring 'Asian Tigers'. (An exception to this standoffishness is China, which has had fewer qualms with its resource-rich neighbor's tendencies towards political repression and human rights violations). When sunnier political days come and Burma strikes a more open posture, the country will be one of the low men on the economic totem pole in the region. Multinationals will be tempted to shift their factories and sweatshops to Burma. The IMF and the World Bank will vigorously champion structural adjustment as the non-negotiable right of passage into the global marketplace. In agriculture, there will be tremendous pressure to move even further in the direction of unsustainable, cash-crop monocultures. In short, Burma will find itself hitched to the globalization express both for better and for worse.

The alluring question for me is to what extent Burma can emerge from its long political isolation without immediately becoming the latest sweatshop to the world. To what extent can the country maintain extant pracitices, structures, attitudes, sensibilities, and knowledge that promote environmental and cultural health? I don't intend to romanticize 'traditional' Burmese society as it exists under the junta or downplay the acute suffering that repression engenders. Yet to the extent that there still exist ways of life in Burma and across the globe that are less energy and resource intensive, I believe the knowledge embedded in those ways of life offer invaluable lessons for our species as we enter an era in which one of our most urgent needs is to relearn how to live more lightly on the planet.

Friday, July 31, 2009

On the Road

Dear friends,

Beatrice and I rolled into Monterey on Wednesday, nineteen days and several thousand miles distant from Chattanooga. Questionable directions resulted in a slight detour through North Carolina, Virgina, the Northeast, Illinois, Wyoming, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, I had the distinct pleasure of touching base with several friends and family members (and was tantalizing close to others. Next trip!). Many friends from the UC Santa Cruz farming program are now plying their trade throughout the country, so I tried to get a sense of where and how these folks are pursuing their passion for sustainable food systems. Sincere thanks to all for their hospitality and wonderful company!

After unpacking, I immediately repacked for a 12-day workshop with the environmentalist and educator Joanna Macy which I will be joining tomorrow. Shortly thereafter, I will be joining my good friend and founder of Volunteers in Asia Dwight Clark for an educational tour of Myanmar (Burma) he is leading through his non-profit Learning Across Borders. After the dust is settled, I will surely be writing about these experiences. Until then, please enjoy a little piece on a short visit I made to Walden Pond as well as this collection of photos from Chattanooga and the road.

All the best!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Savoring to the last

Dear all,
My calendar informs me that just six days remain before Beatrice the Buick and I set a meandering course back to California. Less than one week! How did this happen? I strongly suspect time theft. I am following leads as to the whereabouts of the month of missing month of June.

Unsolved mysteries aside, the impending departure has inspired a modus operandi for the coming week: savor the day!

I started savoring in earnest Wednesday evening. Carrots were anathema at market. Not one customer would so much look upon a carrot. This was unfortunate. Williams Island Farm is lousy with carrots, phalanx upon phalanx of carrots. A vast underground army of root vegetables. Consequently, Noah and I found ourselves at 7pm parked riverside cutting the green tops off of several million carrots to prepare them for storage. The day had been piping hot and protracted. Noah, always pregnant with ideas, birthed an exceptional one. Let's buy a beer. Ten minutes later, we are again topping carrots. But now we are topping carrots with a 22 oz bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale. This is a beer of such complete and forceful delight that it insists upon being savored. Resisters soon cry uncle!

And then I was savoring everything. I was savoring the breeze curling up from the river, fat handfuls of blueberries from the Keeners' farm, and I was savoring Noah's fine company and conversation.

Carrots topped and ale imbibed, I still had more savoring in me. I went to Lupi's. These Lupi's folks are pizza wizards. Their pies are not so much made as they are conjured out of magical substances. What's more, this is very much a Community establishment. At closing, I cornered the manager TJ and subjected him to my effusive praise and appreciation. I fear I may have waxed sentimental about pizza and Community.

Feeling so satiated, so light of step, I walked one block east to the Hair of the Dog pub. Now I was making the rounds. This was the late night writing spot of choice where you would be scribbling intently at the bar and, without a beat skipped, suddenly discover yourself discussing the dietary restrictions of Seventh Day Adventists with the bartender whose father was a pastor and the guy next to you whose father was also a pastor and wasn't it odd that they won't eat spicy mustard?

By now it was late and the moon was a floodlight when I paddled across the river. Crossing the river is always savored, always. I have done it a hundred times and more. The day that canoeing across the Tennessee River fails to thrill me is the day I lose all sense of wonderment and gratitude.

So much to savor, so little time. On Thursday I savored Shakespeare's Twelfth Night over at the Ripple Theater. The play was performed by six MFA candidates from Regent University, each playing multiple roles. It was a wonderful, intimate performance. I chatted with the troupe afterward--pitching the idea that they consider "Shakespeare on the Island" one of these days.

On Friday I savored a resplendent harvest morning and the lovely diversity of people that are drawn out to the island to volunteer their time. Hoeing a patch of winter squash, I bantered with Clark (old time musician), Yuri (social worker), and Mary (photo and video documentary artist). These folks come and share their company and labor, sometimes taking a few vegetables home with them in return, but mainly to build a connection to their food source. It is a joy to see this connection take root. Our friend Yong has been volunteering once a week for the past month or so. A month ago, he had never seen a carrot growing. Now he has harvested many thousands of them and has become something of an authority on that activity.

Friday evening, when the heat had finally subsided, we headed back out to the field to plant sweet potatoes. Summer evenings on the island are exceedingly pleasant. The fireflies hover in the trees, the setting sun illuminates the clouds above Signal and Elder mountains, and the crickets begin their chorus.

There is much to savor in Chattanooga these days. There is energy and enthusiasm building around local food, around the arts, around greater community orientation. I have been fortunate to have landed amongst a collection of individuals who are all engaged, all pushing things forward in exciting and positive directions. This has been a charmed season of my life, a largely harmonious balance between physical work, intellectual and creative exploration, and community involvement. I return home with notepads of writings and re-writings that require still further re-writings, a camera full of photographs, and a deep sense of connection to this place and its people.

Take care, be well, and savor away!

PS - Here are some new photos from the island.