Friday, May 1, 2009

The Green Brain, Part III: Thoughts as I Prepare to Leave the City

At the same time I was reading Jon Gertner’s article in the New York Times Magazine, I came across a video on the Times’ website. It previewed what the new green economy might look like. It featured freeways, cities, and a construction site, but nothing I would call green: no trees, fields or mountains. It leads me to conclude that when New Yorkers think green, they do not think nature. This is not surprising in one of the world’s great constructed environments. In that world, the ecology, that is to say, the interrelationships that give life, is commerce. By moving from dirty to clean energy, everybody wins and the money, which is as essential to life in New York as air, stays in circulation. The people who are already rich from oil and coal can stay rich. New fortunes can be made on clean energy. The economy is not significantly disturbed. When new money is added to old, gain rather than sacrifice becomes the order of the day.

That a great deal of the so-called “green” thinking that arises in New York City revolves around money and technology should surprise no one: wind power, fuel cells, solar arrays, alternate ways to meet the developed world’s perceived energy requirements.

Is that the energy we need, or do we need another kind of energy, one that has not been noticed yet?

To focus on fuel and finance, the energy humanity takes and burns, is very anthropocentric thinking. It privileges the human species above all others on earth, construing humanity’s Biblical dominion over the earth as management of resources, not love of Creation. But what if there is more to the current economic crisis than the shenanigans of bankers, medical insurance companies and oil executives? What if the economic crisis is Earth’s doing? I know it sounds weird to imagine that the planet might have an opinion of us, but it is the prerogative of a blogger to ponder all kinds of things.

As one who spends most of her life in cities, I am aware that it is hard to hear the voice of the earth over the noise of traffic and through the deep cover of pavement. I am doubly aware of this since I have spent time in Alaska where the earth is positively and wondrously conversational. Both here and there some still believe that a bulging bank account is a sign of divine favor, that control of the earth is God’s will. I know a great many people who have made fortunes. I grew up with them and a number of them gravitate toward my two fields of education and the church. Teaching and priesting attract people with independent incomes. It costs to get the necessary degrees. To serve others feels good and an independent income closes the gap between a rather low salary and what it costs to live, especially in a place like California or New York.

Returning to the assumptions underpinning the Columbia University survey with which I began these musings, most of the rich people I know are not particularly motivated by a fear of loss. They may capitalize on others' fear of loss, but they're rather fearless. They are explorers, and like explorers everywhere, they are risk takers. My friends’ hobbies include mountain climbing, skiing, aviation, triathlons, wilderness travel, all of which invite injury and sometimes death. I’ve lost some of them to spectacular accidents. Success in this world is not about avoiding loss, it is about going for the gold.

The rich do not fear present sacrifice; indeed, they engage in it. They give all their time and energy to work and play. They sacrifice the slow progress toward hard won wisdom in favor of the quicker, glitzier and more shallow manipulation of systems. In their dedication to making it to the top of the mountain, they sacrifice many of the delights and exasperations of the community that gathers at Base Camp. They have sacrificed habitat, clean air, species, the large middle class, the checks and balances that helped keep our society open. Information technology, which is how many of my friends made their fortunes, made possible a virtual culture and a virtual economy that was so well crafted that it came to feel very real.

For me, the outward and visible sign of California’s fall from innovation to manipulation came with the transmogrification of the Santa Clara Valley into Silicon Valley.

The so-called poor have a very different ethic. When people have less, generosity is more important than acquisition. Waste is a crime. Community is the source of life, not a collection of competitors.

The last people to measure present sacrifice against future gain were the Soviets. If you ever read much Soviet Literature and I read a good deal of it in the heyday of the CCCP, the parodies penned by dissidents usually showed people in a miserable present singing odes to a glorious future that all of us knew would never arrive. And yet it did arrive. And it was a surprise.

The real question is why are we so paralyzed by the very real evidence that we are poisoning our planet? The degradation of Earth is not some future cost/benefit event. It is happening now. The birds are disappearing. The mammals are disappearing. There used to be Steller jays in my backyard. Now we have crows. The deer used to be everywhere. The egrets and black crowned night herons no longer nest across the street from school. The spring may not be as silent as Rachel Carson predicted, but it is getting quieter. Do we not hear this over the roar of our internal combustion engines? Have we paved our world so thoroughly that we cannot feel our earth’s pain?

“Choose life,” said Moses to his people as they stood on the brink of the Promised Land. “That you and your children might live.”

Listen to the wind. Listen to your heart. Ask yourself what you really love.

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