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I think we’ve all been hypnotized… June 18, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Social Media, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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hypnotized

I think we’ve all been hypnotized…

…why keep polluters subsidized?

(To the tune of $1 trillion a year, no less?!?)

That’s the subject of today’s Twitter storm to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies. The Rio +20 summit begins in two days in Rio de Janiero, and one of the questions that will be addressed is an agreement to end enormous subsidies – estimated at 750 billion to 1 trillion annually – to fossil fuel companies.

Now, 1 trillion dollars is a LOT of money. It’s so enormous that it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around at all, frankly. But here are some stats for comparison which might help you to make some sense of it:

* For $10 billion a year (1% of 1 trillion) we could ensure every child in the world has the chance to go to school.

* For $30 billion (3% of 1 trillion) we could provide clean water to everyone on the planet, saving the lives of the 2.2 million people, most of them children, who die each year from waterbourne disease.

* For $30 billion a year (3% of 1 trillion) we could end world hunger in 10 years, saving the life of one child every six seconds.

* For a mere $3 billion a year (0.3% of 1 trillion!!) we could end malaria deaths worldwide, saving the life of one child every 45 seconds and the lives of 1 million people every year.

Heck, we could achieve ALL of the above, and still have over $900 billion left over.

With 1 trillion a year we could create the world we all dream of. A world where no child goes hungry or without an education or dies from an easily preventable illness. We could subsidize renewable, clean energy that will last us for centuries to come. We could ensure workers worldwide are paid fair wages and work in safe, clean conditions instead of toiling in unsafe factories for pennies per hour. There’s no end of the list of what we could do, really.

So, with that in mind, WHY on earth are we wasting this golden opportunity, paying fossil fuel companies – who make mega-profits in any case and definitely do NOT need handouts – to pollute our earth, raise CO2 emissions and warm our planet?!?

This is, frankly, obscene. It’s the kind of thing you couldn’t believe if you didn’t actually live on our planet. It’s like something you’d read in a Kafka novel or see in a crazy sci-fi dystopian movie. It’s like deliberately slamming our collective head into a brick wall over and over and over (once for every year we go on doing this). It’s such insane, self-destructive behaviour that, really, I think the only reason it continues is that it’s so unbelievable that we can’t really wrap our minds around it. So we don’t think about it, and they’re able to go on pulling the wool over our eyes.

Like I said…I think we’ve all been hypnotized.

No longer. It’s time to think about it and then to stop it. Please join me.

It's time to end fossil fuel subsidies!

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

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The Second Coming of The Lorax (Or, the Day after May 21) May 22, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Childhood, Christianity, Environment, Nature, Saving the World, Through the Looking Glass.
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For a while, when I was about five years old, I would wake up each morning around 5 or 6 am. My room had an east-facing window through which I could see the masses of cloud lit with the flame-bright colors of sunrise. It was so beautiful, I thought, that maybe – just maybe – this would be the day that Jesus returned.

I was raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which strongly emphasized the Second Coming. Any moment could be the magical moment when it would happen – and we had to be sure that we were prepared. Of course, the church insisted that nobody could “know the day or hour”, a caution born out of its predecessor’s disastrous fling with Rapture mania in 1844.

At any rate, I was determined to be ready, and I read my children’s Bible with great fascination – particularly Revelation, with its mysterious beasts, angels and fiery cataclysms. If Jesus did return in my lifetime, I was pretty sure it was going to be during such a brilliant sunrise, when the sky was already so majestically illuminated. And so each morning I watched in breathless anticipation…and mixed disappointment and relief as the sunrise faded.

Similarly, I watched yesterday as the world crossed into 6 pm, May 21, 2011. No earthquakes, no crowds rising into the sky, no cars or trains suddenly colliding due to Raptured drivers. Of course, I really hadn’t expected anything to happen. Much less did I want billions of people to die in a fiery Apocalypse. But once again, somewhere inside me was…just a tiny little sliver of disappointment.

Disappointment? Why?

*******

Last week Kristy (a fellow Tweeter) and I were discussing Revelation and the Second Coming. She wasn’t a member of the May 21 movement (she describes herself simply as a “born-again Christian”). But she was adamantly certain that Jesus would return, probably very soon, and when he did, everything wrong with the world would just…vanish. We’d live with one another in perfect harmony, free from any temptation to treat each other badly. Our devastated planet would be replaced by a pristine paradise, untouched by human greed. And Satan himself – the source of all evil – would be destroyed forever.

She spoke about her hopes for a new earth. “Personally, I look forward to a new one. I don’t want to keep this one with what we’ve done to it. It will only get worse as time goes on….I would love to start all over again.”

But, I argued, isn’t this a sort of a cop-out? Like a little kid going to their math teacher and saying “this assignment is too hard – just give me the answers?” And what about the suffering that we’re causing for countless millions (or billions, as things get worse) due to our misuse of the Earth’s resources?

My mind came back to our conversation several times that week. Yes, it’s understandable to want someone to come solve our problems. Clean things up and give our world a fresh start. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things that are wrong with this world, to the point where we feel like just throwing up our hands: “Someone else can deal with this mess – it’s not my doing.” And yet, even if Jesus did return to fix things for us…wouldn’t this be too easy?

Thinking over the environmental aspect in particular, my mind went to one of my favourite children’s books, The Lorax…the tale of a natural paradise, once perfect, now turned to a wasteland by human greed for profit. A young child listens as the “Once-ler” responsible for the devastation tells his story of the Lorax. The long-vanished Lorax who “lifted himself away” into the sky “without leaving a trace”, and would one day in the future – just maybe – “come back”…

…Wait.

*******

“The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance…
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance…
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he heisted himself and took leave of this place,
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.”

The Lorax: a mysterious figure that appears miraculously to warn the greedy Once-ler about the consequences of his thoughtless actions. But his words are disregarded until “the very last Truffula Tree of them all” is chopped down (a symbolic martyrdom of the one who “speaks for the trees”). Finally The Lorax vanishes into the sky leaving behind only a strange, enigmatic prophecy that someday he will return…the Second Coming of the Lorax.*

Robert L. Short, in his book The Parables of Dr. Seuss, argues that reading The Lorax as a book only about environmental issues misses a major part of the point – and I agree. As we listen to the Once-ler’s tale, it becomes apparent that his rampant destruction of the environment is merely an accidental byproduct of his utterly egocentric worldview. In his quest for riches he is eager to manipulate everyone he can into buying the ridiculous (yet, for advertising purposes, highly “spinnable”) Thneeds. Long after his business empire has collapsed, he still exacts a petty and useless toll from a child – “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” – in exchange for the privilege of hearing his story. He utterly disregards the suffering that his actions have caused; he allows himself a cursory moment of “feeling bad” for the starving, child-like Barbaloots, but concludes that “business must grow/regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.” Like those who run so many of the world’s major corporations, the Once-ler is a deeply psychopathic individual who can only see the world and others through the lens of profit.

And, inevitably, his actions lead to an Apocalypse. The water is poisoned, the trees cut down, and the sky darkened with “Smogulous Smoke”. Seemingly abandoned by both the Lorax and his family, the Once-ler goes into denial. Hiding in his Lurkem from the hellish wasteland outside, he endlessly waits for something to change, thinking about the moment when the Lorax left. Might he someday return to fix what went wrong – to make the Truffula Trees regrow, the sky blue, the water clear again? To magically undo the Once-ler’s mistakes, re-creating the paradise that once existed?

“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
“UNLESS.”
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.”

But the prophecy of the Lorax remains hopelessly obscure, no matter how hard the Once-ler tries to decipher its secret code…until a third person enters the picture.

The child listening to the tale.

“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

“SO…
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”

If the Lorax is a Christ figure in this “parable”, and the Once-ler represents the worst in human nature, who is the child? Us. Every one of us alive today who has the potential to change things, to undo the bad that has been done and sow the seeds (Truffula seeds!) of good.

Inspiring, right? Well, yes…when I read it as a child. This time, though, my first impulse was to shout furiously at the Once-ler. “Someone like me?? Why not someone like YOU! I didn’t make this problem. You guys did, now you fix it. It’s all very well and good for you to shout “Catch” and happily toss me and my generation the responsibility. Why should we clean up your mess?”

Indeed, why?

“We didn’t start the fire”, the Billy Joel song insists. We didn’t put the hole in the ozone layer, spark the centuries-old ethnic conflicts that continue today, force young children to work in a sweatshop. Other people did. Why is it our job to fix their mistakes?

Well, on one level it *is* our doing. Merely by living in the society we are born in we find ourselves complicit in its collective actions. We get into the car, or even take public transit, and automatically contribute to climate change. We throw out a plastic bag and add to the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stroll into a clothing store in the mall and buy a  $60 pair of jeans that a young child, halfway around the world, earned a few cents for sewing. We don’t deliberately choose our actions to have these consequences. But often they are an inescapable part of the economic and cultural system we find ourselves in. If we want to eliminate our individual contribution towards an impending planetary Apocalypse, this will have to involve working to change the system as well.

But, on a more pragmatic level…it doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is. Nobody but us is going to fix it.

The Once-ler won’t. He doesn’t have the knowledge, or vision, or optimism. (In many cases, he might not even be alive anymore.)

The Lorax won’t…because unless we learn to solve our problems ourselves, “starting over” would do us no good whatsoever. (Sure, give the Once-ler another “Eden” filled with brand-new Truffula trees – just how long would that last?)

_Nobody_ is going to fix our planet except us…and if we sit waiting for Jesus, or somebody else, to do it, we’ll still be waiting when the world burns, and nobody comes to save us from the very real, literal Hell we’ve created for ourselves.

Jesus is not going to come back and give us a new planet to pollute and consume as we did this one. (Sorry…)

Jesus is not going to come back and magically end all the wars and generations-old conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.

Jesus is not going to come back and stop human beings from exploiting one another for greed and profit.

Jesus is not going to come back and instantly change us all from self-absorbed, anger-prone, judgmental individuals to perfect beings who can live together in peaceful community.

Jesus is not going to come back and fix our problems for us. If He comes back, it will only be after we fix them ourselves – and, in doing so, become the sort of people who are able to live in Heaven for eternity without destroying it…or each other.

*******

In a book by one of my favourite Christian authors, Brian McLaren, the character “Chip” describes how, to him, Christianity had always been mainly about two key questions:

1. If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain that you’d go to be with God in heaven?

2. If Jesus returned today, would you be ready to meet God?

But now, Chip explains, two different questions have become equally central to him:

1. If you were to live for another fifty years, what kind of person would you like to become – and how will you become that kind of person?

2. If Jesus doesn’t return for ten thousand or ten million years, what kind of world do we want to create?

As I think back to those early childhood days of reading Revelation, my favourite part – despite all the excitement of the middle – was, of course, the ending.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

A beautiful image – who wouldn’t long to live in such a place? But wait…

In my childhood church (and nearly every interpretation of Revelation I’ve ever read) we’d always been told that God would create this perfect paradise for us, and all we’d need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy it. But the first line doesn’t read “Then God created a new heaven and a new Earth, while humankind watched passively…”

Perhaps we’re meant to play a part in creating this new Earth? Perhaps we’re even required to? Isn’t it likely that UNLESS we take on some responsibility and at least attempt to change this world for the better, God is not just going to do it for us?

But if we do…then it could truly become a Rapturous place to live. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

*Of course, I’m hardly the first one to notice this similarity, as a quick Google search revealed. See Heinz Fenkel and Robert L. Short‘s writings for more on the subject. (I find Short’s argument the most convincing of the two…but Fenkel’s is interesting as well.)

Autumn Threnody November 20, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Nature, Photography, Poetry.
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“Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving…”

– Gerard Manley Hopkins (Spring and Fall: To a Young Child)

Autumn always makes me want to write poetry.

I think it’s my favorite season of the year; there’s something about that scent of dying leaves, the crisp, clean air (free now from the summer’s suffocating humidity), the pale blue of the sky and the all-too-brief but brilliant sunlight that stirs up strange emotions. All my poetry written in autumn comes out dark, even morbid, with a sense of irrecoverable loss running through it – much like the Hopkins poem I quoted above. Odd for my usual optimistic self…

So here is some (rather Hopkinsesque) autumn poetry by the Platypus, some autumn pictures I’ve taken on walks recently, and some beautiful autumnal Brahms to listen to while you explore (not in that order.) I wrote the poem several years ago while living on the west coast of British Columbia. There autumn marks the end of the dry, clear summer season; the winter rains, rather than snowfall, start in November and last more or less continuously until March or April, hence the reference to “winter’s tears” in the last line…

Autumn Threnody

Who would have thought such beauty lay in death?
Flame-fretted leaves in daylight’s dwindling ray,
Proud, flaunt their festive colors of decay,
That heady scent that permeates each breath.
Flight-weary moths that each night flutter less,
Wind-tattered webs of scattered thistle seeds,
Pale golden grass sun-seared, bone-brittle reeds,
And berries swollen ripe to rottenness.

And it must pass; this twilight season lies
In its slow-seeming perishing. Fast nears
The day the sun is hid, and from the skies,
In keen regret at all the vanished years,
The driving winds must desolate arise
And lash the woodland with a winter’s tears.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Rainbows and Rumi November 1, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Environment, Just for Fun, Nature, Serendipity.
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Three times a week I walk to the private school where I teach, about half an hour away. In fact I tend to walk almost everywhere (living in the downtown core, most services are pretty conveniently located) and, though I’ve thought several times about getting a car, it simply doesn’t seem worth it…either financially, ecologically or from a health perspective. (An hour a day of brisk walking is excellent exercise!) On those rare occasions when it is raining or snowing hard enough that I can’t bear the thought of slogging through the mess, I take public transit.

Given the amount of walking that I do, a friend of mine suggested I should always carry a camera with me, and as I was running out the door last Thursday I actually remembered to grab mine. The walk to the school was unmemorable but on the way home I snapped some beautiful shots. It had been raining and to the west, the nearly-setting sun was gleaming through a rift in the clouds, flooding the scene with golden light and creating a gorgeous rainbow…

About a minute later, a second arch had appeared above the first…pretty faint, but visible. (Note the color reversal on the second arch…red at the bottom, green/blue at the top. Now that’s awesome.) 😀

The same friend had asked me for more pictures of my spoiled rotten but oh-so-adorable golden pussycat known affectionately as Rumikitty, so I obligingly snapped a few when I got home. Here he is looking absolutely kittenish and innocent, a pleading look in his big round waif-like eyes… 🙂

…And here he reveals his true devilish personality. 😉

(As I write this post, my little feline friend is curled up in a ball on the table beside my laptop, napping contentedly as he soaks up the warmth and affection and giving no hint of the bounding, leaping, demonic clawed terror he will become in a few hours. (sigh) Cats…the Jekyll and Hyde of the animal world.)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

…But How Can We Modernize? August 7, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in A New Kind of Question, Environment, Nature, Philosophy, Saving the World.
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(…A follow-up to yesterday’s post, “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.)

“Suppose that you are in a room studying; after a few hours you feel that the atmosphere is a little stuffy and you need to change the air and you open the window. You let the fresh air enter the room, after a while you close the window, that’s all. That’s evolution. You are in a room and you feel that you need a change of air and you take a stone, put that through the window and break the window, of course the fresh air enters, but after that you have to repair the window. That’s revolution. I don’t see myself the need to break a window; I know how to open it!”

– Maurice Ravel

Yesterday a very interesting question came up in the comments to my post “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.” I had argued that the Western lifestyle, far from being the “modern” way of life we seem to assume, is actually profoundly un-modern in that it is founded on principles (limitless growth, infinite resource supply, fossil-fuel technology) that do not reflect the most recent developments in science, economics or technology. In contrast, a “primitive” lifestyle like the Bushmen’s is actually more modern since it is sustainable given the current scientific model of our planet’s ecology.

Danya wrote in response:

…just to take it to the next level – what kinds of practical steps might we take to “modernize,” so to speak, like the Bushmen? The discrepancy that currently exists between their lifestyle and ours is so great that we can’t simply drop everything and immediately begin acting as they do.

I found this an extremely relevant, in fact essential question. If we’re to make any practical use of the new data we do have, how can we remodel our society to bring it into line with our modern ecological and technological findings? I think there are two possible routes (one more desirable than the other) and they both lie in a major paradigm shift: moving from an open-system to a closed-system model.

*******

Most of our current societal systems (the modern corporation, our banking system, our political models, our methods of transport, our engineering and design priorities, etc) were founded based on open-system models. In an open system there is – theoretically at least – an infinite resource supply (water, trees, food, land) to draw upon and infinite capacity for absorbing waste products (i.e. pollution). Logic, of course, tells us that no system is indefinitely open, but until very recently the limitations imposed by our planet itself were not recognized for practical purposes. (European colonialism and expansionism played a large role in this: until less than a century ago it really did appear  – from the viewpoint of aspiring developers and manufacturers – that there were vast amounts of land and resources simply waiting to be “used up”.) In an open-system model, maximizing profit will always be seen as a higher priority than preserving a renewable resource base, since more resources can be readily be obtained from outside the system.

In contrast, the Kalahari is a pretty obviously closed system and the people who live there have developed a lifestyle that recognizes its limitations. In this model, preserving a renewable resource base is automatically prioritized over acquiring money, luxuries, or personal possessions. Money is not intrinsically necessary for survival and once used up is gone; food and water are essential and, unlike money, are renewable if used wisely. To trade the essentials of long-term survival for cash is lunacy; if you deplete your long-term land base or food supply for quick returns now, you and your people will starve the next year.

Therefore each system has a “non-negotiable” principle. In a closed system it is to ensure renewability of resources; in an open system to maximize profit. It’s pretty obvious that our society and global economic system currently adopt the obsolete “open system” model. Preserving our global resource base falls a distant second (at best) behind maximizing profit, which most companies view point-blank as a non-negotiable value. If we are to successfully modernize and move to a “closed-system” model, we need to change our value system as well so that preserving our global environment (and thus ensuring our collective survival), not profit, becomes the non-negotiable priority. Anything else is collective insanity.

I see two main alternatives for how this paradigm shift could be done. Let’s take an analogy: it’s the late 1970’s and you own a factory that manufactures record players. Business is great and your product is in high demand. A few years later, cassette tapes and then CDs come along; suddenly, your product is obsolete. You can either throw up your hands, tear down your whole factory and start from scratch. Or – if you’re innovative – you can try to convert your existing machines and protocols to produce something different, a product that is in demand.

In the same way we could, theoretically, jettison our whole societal structure, our obsolete political and financial and industrial and social systems, and build them up again from scratch on a better (global) model. In other words, we could have a global revolution. Unfortunately this sort of transition would almost certainly be extremely difficult to achieve smoothly; it would likely involve a great deal of societal and violent conflict. In addition we might well end up with something even worse along the way (a global totalitarian regime or nuclear/biological war). So I’m going to propose we use the second method: to retain most of our existing societal “infrastructure”, harness its existing strengths and tweak it to remove or limit the weaknesses that make it and its intended product (uncontrolled expansion, consumption, and waste production) obsolete in today’s world. In Ravel’s words as quoted above, I think we should work towards evolution, rather than revolution.

This is the moment when readers will undoubtedly get cynical. How, they will ask, can we possibly hope to persuade governments and corporations that sustainability is a non-negotiable priority? I agree that it is a substantial task, but it is by no means impossible. As a parallel situation, consider this: our Western society does, in fact, have a number of non-negotiable priorities valued even above profit maximization. Some examples:

Safety. It is illegal for a company to construct unsafe buildings, violate traffic laws, sell food or pharmaceutical products containing dangerous substances, or order employees to operate dangerous equipment or work under hazardous conditions.

Individual and child rights. A company may not use slave labour or child labour (at least not within the country) to increase its profits. It can’t make its employees work for less than the minimum wage or in substandard conditions.

Minority and gender rights. A company may not discriminate against handicapped workers or against women, or use racial slurs in advertising its products.

This is just a small sampling of the rules that corporations must respect in our society. These laws are there precisely because, if allowed to operate unfettered by such limitations, most corporations will discard all other considerations in favour of profit. (This is simply a consequence of the Western capitalist model, based as it is on competition). Obviously none of these values became “non-negotiables”, valued even over profit, automatically or by default. There was a time when none of them were recognized and they each required years or decades of hard-fought, bitter campaigning against entrenched interests within the industries in question, to be made into law. However, they are necessary since the safety and basic rights of citizens must be protected, even over corporate interests.

Environmental sustainability needs to become a non-negotiable issue in the same way: a set of limitations placed upon companies’ freedom in order to protect all the citizens of our society and our world. Right now when a residential or commercial building is constructed, by law it needs to meet certain safety codes which are enforced by inspection. Why not make it mandatory to meet “environmental codes” (sustainable building materials, rooftop solar panelling, efficient water use, etc) as well? Any farming or food production facility is regularly inspected to ensure its products meet health standards; why not require it to meet substainable agricultural standards as well? To speed development of electrical/fuel cell/hybrid vehicles, why not simply levy a per-vehicle carbon offset tax for each “traditional” (gasoline-consuming) vehicle manufacturers produce, while providing tax breaks to companies which produce “clean” vehicles? And to finally end that scourge of sustainability – planned obsolescence – require companies to meet minimal design/compatibility standards and provide repair services for older models rather than simply telling consumers to upgrade.

The industry will fight the changes, no doubt. But after all the wailing and enraged protest and “sky is falling” predictions of imminent economic collapse, a funny thing will happen…the industry will adapt. It always does. This is the greatest strength of our capitalist economic system: that corporations are amazingly innovative and versatile when it comes to ensuring their own survival. (It’s the flip side of the weakness I mentioned earlier.) It’s this versality we need to harness and direct, not towards maximizing our GDP, but preserving our global environment.

Perhaps in this new scenario with sustainability as the non-negotiable value, profit margins will not be as ridiculously high or ensure instant wealth for the lucky few. But there will be profits, and products will still be manufactured and sold, and customers will continue to buy them because, in any model, people still need food, clothing, housing and other essentials. Bringing our runaway, snowballing, expansion-oriented economy under control will not cause it to collapse. Instead it will adapt to the new situation (as complex systems have a way of doing) and will serve our societal needs better than before. We will not need to “throw out” our technological developments; instead we will finally be able to make most efficient use of them.

And once the Western world leads, the rest of the world will follow, as it has followed our “modernization” patterns in the past. Few countries, after all, want to be “left behind” following an outdated system (nor is it to their advantage in global trade for their products to be obsolete or non-exportable to the Western world).This is the blind spot in all our collective wrangling at Kyoto and Copenhagen: if we are to modernize our world to adjust to the model science gives us, somebody must lead the way. At this point in time, it is Western countries that have the necessary technology to do so. And, when you think about it…would we Westerners really be satisfied in being “second-best” at modernization? 😀

Thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* The Botswana government in fact offered many of the Bushmen cash or food handouts if they would cooperate with the enforced resettlements. Their response: “Being given food is not good. You don’t know how long that person is going to keep giving you food. We know this land, we know what to do. We would not know what to do in Kaudwane [the resettlement camp]. In Kaudwane, if you don’t have food, you have to go and beg the government for it. Here, if we are hungry, we all go out and find some food.”

On Being a “Modernized” Society August 6, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Philosophy, Saving the World, Social Media, Through the Looking Glass.
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Earlier today some excellent news was announced: the former UN water advisor has condemned Botswana’s government in its denial of water to the Bushmen, just a week after the UN declared clean water and sanitation a basic human right. This is definitely a step in the right direction for the Bushmen and all people on our planet lacking access to water.

On one of the forums where this news was posted, another user and I got into a rather intense debate about the issue. He argued,

The Bushman, I’m afraid, are fighting a futile battle. Sad, but true. The best they can hope for is for some well-meaning benefactor to archive their language, customs, stories, and history. Botswana (and SADC generally) will not halt their aggressive agendas for a tiny minority with no political representation — modern state formations (to include governments and corporations) just don’t work that way….The only way the “Bushmen” as you call them will survive is to modernize like everyone else in the region. This is a sad reality. Very sad indeed. But it is reality.

In rebuttal I discussed various civil rights movements and argued that the Bushmen’s cause, far from “futile”, merely depends on making their access to water a matter of self-interest for the government. (If, say, an effective international boycott of Botswana diamonds was launched, my guess is the borehole would be opened pretty fast.)

Looking back over the debate in retrospect, though, I realize I entirely glossed over one of the most interesting aspects: his use of the word “modernize.”

*******

What is a “modernized” culture? We who live in first world countries certainly like to think of ourselves as “modern”. In fact we take it for granted that we are, and that being modern is a good thing – so good that it’s inevitable, really, that the whole world should “modernize” as well and follow our shining example?

But what does it mean for a culture to be “modern”? If you asked people to pin it down they’d probably (after some hemming and hawing) come up with something like: “A society that makes full use of the most advanced, “cutting-edge” scientific and technological discoveries.” From which we assume, we’re a highly scientific society, and therefore we must be modern…right?

Wrong.

By this definition, there is really no way of life so hopelessly un-modern as our Western lifestyle. We ignore the latest scientific data about climate change, depletion of natural resources, and the carrying capacity of the globe. We reject new energy developments such as solar and hydrogen fuel-cell power in favour of  inefficient and harmful centuries-old fossil fuel technology. We fail to make adequate use of scientific findings regarding urban sprawl and mass public transport in city development, instead trusting the inefficient hundred-year-old automobile to accomplish the task. To run our vastly complex global monetary environment, we trust ourselves blindly to economic practices developed hundreds of years ago using much smaller models with no inherent limits to growth.

Our lifestyle is not modern. It does not reflect the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, data, or worldview. It fails to take into account or make full use of the latest developments in economics, statistics, environmental sciences, and technology. It is not a system that will successfully carry our world through the 21st century without total collapse and ensuing chaos. It is creaky, backward, primitive, unsophisticated, stubbornly regressive, hopelessly obsolete. We, the people of the Western world, are living an outdated lifestyle.

*******

“Well,” you might logically argue, “if we’re not modern, than who is?” Excellent question. What sort of lifestyle would reflect our most up-to-date scientific knowledge about the planet’s limitations? What culture possesses the tools, the necessary know-how, to survive in a world where resources are not unlimited or even plentiful, but scarce? Not us. For all our technology we have not even begun to figure out how to live within the limits laid out by our new scientific worldview. Who has? The Bushmen.

The Bushmen’s lifestyle is compatible with our scientific knowledge. Ours is not. If we continue to lead our current lifestyle without adapting to our new circumstances, we will no longer be a “modern” society. We will not even be a primitive society. We will be gone, and the so-called “primitive” societies that we dismissed as “un-modern” – if we have not “modernized” them out of existence – will continue. Because they are sustainable. They will have the knowledge necessary for survival in a world where resources are no longer unlimited, or even plentiful. Drop an average Westerner in a desert where food and water are scarce, and they will die. Drop one of the San people there, and they will be at home.

That is one alternative – the unpleasant one. The other is that we learn what we can from the truly “modern” societies – those whose lifestyle respects scientific facts about our earth’s limitations – and adapt our own culture as necessary. Before it’s too late and we no longer have the option…to modernize.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

(For more reading on the Bushmen and how their survival techniques may be essential during a global water crisis, check out James G. Workman’s Heart of Dryness.)

Water, water everywhere…(a hopeful postscript) July 29, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Saving the World.
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A follow-up to my July 26 post about the Kalahari Bushmen’s struggle with the Botswana government for water.

Today, July 28, the UN passed a resolution declaring access to clean water and sanitation a fundamental human right. This might seem a no-brainer given that humans can live only a few days without water, but apparently some countries set about to to dispute this rather fiercely and water down the language of the resolution. (To my shame, one of those protesting most loudly and which later abstained from voting was my own. Presumably this was in the hopes of privatizing its water supply a few decades down the road – an idea I find utterly repugnant.)

Eventually it passed, thank goodness (fortunately for humanity’s collective common sense) with 122 nations voting for, none against and 41 abstentions. Canada, the UK, the US and Australia all abstained, as did – surprise, surprise – Botswana.

This resolution is very good news for the Bushmen. Sure, it’s non-binding, but any country that actively works to deny its citizens water is going to look pretty bad in the eyes of the rest of the world, which has now collectively decided (by an overwhelming majority) that water is a universal human right. Other countries will now, presumably, have considerably more diplomatic leverage in condemning Botswana’s actions if it persists in denying the Bushmen water.

All this doesn’t mean, of course, that we can sit back and Botswana will simply re-open the borehole that the Bushmen depend on. But it’s a good start.

(By the way, yesterday I picked up a copy of James Workman’s Heart of Dryness, a first-hand look at the Bushmen’s struggle and their techniques for survival in one of the most arid regions on the planet. It looks quite fascinating, so get ready for a discussion/review and another follow-up post! :D)

– Contrapuntal Platypus

P.S. Oh, and the “sanitation” part of the resolution: generally overlooked but equally important. I read today that more people in India, for example, have cell phones than have personal access to a toilet. What the heck?!?

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink… July 26, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Nature, Saving the World, Social Media, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Need enough water to fill a swimming pool for tourists on the arid Kalahari reserve? Operate a diamond mine? No problem, according to the Botswana government. But the Bushmen of the Kalahari have been denied the right to access drinking water on their own land, in one of the driest regions on earth.

For years the Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana have been fighting for the simple right to live on their own land. In 2006 they won a major court battle: they were allowed to return after repeated government attempts to force them into resettlement camps were ruled illegal and unconstitutional. A victory…or so it seemed until last Wednesday.

On July 21, the Bushmen were told by the High Court of Botswana that, though they can live on their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, they cannot drink the water found beneath them. They may not use the already existing borehole or drill a new one. Even friends outside the reserve are barred from bringing them water. In one of the most arid regions on earth, its ancestral inhabitants have been told that they have no right to this most basic and precious necessity of life.

It isn’t as though there’s just not enough to go around. Oh no, Wilderness Safaris’ luxury tourist hotel on the reserve has been granted water – a whole swimming pool of it for wealthy tourists to bask in on their getaways. A lucrative diamond mine (Gem Diamonds), also located on the Bushmen’s land, has given the go-ahead for operations…on one condition: it can’t give any water to the Bushmen (in case some of its workers should be tempted by, say, basic human compassion or something equally dreadful.)

Ah, but wait, there’s one act of apparent altruism the Botswana government has undertaken: in recent years it has in fact drilled several new boreholes in the Kalahari Reserve to provide water for the benefit of…wildlife. (In other words, to benefit the tourists that come to the reserve for safaris, and hence, Botswana’s tourist industry.)

The irony and unbelievable injustice is such that this story could easily be mistaken for satire. But it’s not. Nor is it just “discrimination.” This is out and out attempted genocide, as one of my Twitter friends put it. Years of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and forced relocation, confiscation of their livestock, deliberately preventing those who have returned from hunting or gathering food, and now the denial of water to an entire people can amount to nothing else.

The Bushmen aren’t asking for much. In their own words, this is their only plea: “I want to go home.”

When the evictions happened in 2002…we suffered because they just dumped us in New Xade and left us there. We were given tents and then from there, we started building out own huts. There was nothing there for us. We didn’t know what to do. We just spent our days cooking and building huts, waiting for our food. We missed the land. We missed how Metsiamanong looked and how we knew about the land. There was nothing good about New Xade.

We were very happy about the [2006] court ruling and were very pleased to come home. Here, we know where to find food and berries, we know the land and we know what to do. I will stay here forever. It is very difficult to live here without water. If the borehole at Mothomelo is opened, everything will be fine.

We are really starving without water. We want to ask the world to campaign for the re-opening of the borehole and to bring our goats back. It will make us sick to go back to Kaudwane [resettlement camp]. We don’t want to be beggars. We have our own rich ancestral lands. We want to stay here, we can get everything we need here. The area [Kaudwane] doesn’t belong to us. We have no powers over that area. Being given food is not good. In Kaudwane, if you don’t have food, you have to go and beg the government for it. Here, if we are hungry, we all go out and find some food.

This is a people that simply wants to live with dignity and pride in their rich cultural heritage. They don’t want government assistance or handouts: food or education or living expenses or cash. They’re not demanding a share in the luxurious safari tourist hotel or the diamond mine (which to my mind would be perfectly reasonable, given that it’s on their land). They’re not even asking the government to provide them with water, which one would think would be a given. This, one of the oldest cultures on our earth, only wants something very simple: the right to drill for water on their own lands and to hunt and gather food as they have done for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, without being harassed and terrorized. Nothing more.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has issued a video message in support of the Bushmen.

Please lend your voice as well to share their story and protest their inhumane treatment:

1) The best way you can help is simply by spreading awareness. Please share this blog post and Survival International’s article on your Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, blog or any other social media networks.

2) Write to the Botswana government (their e-mail is currently bouncing, unfortunately, but Survival has an online letter form you can use to easily print out a letter);

3) Write to your MP or MEP (UK) or Senators and members of Congress (US) or Member of Parliament (Canada). Inform them of the Bushmen’s ongoing struggle and, specifically, the June 21 court ruling. Ask them to apply pressure to the Botswana government to reverse this unjust and inhumane policy.

4) Write to your local Botswana high commission or embassy.

5) Visit the Bushmen’s own website and read their stories. You can also e-mail them or write to them with a message of support.

If you have any other ideas for campaigns of support (online or elsewhere) please post in the Comments section!

Thank you for reading.

The Contrapuntal Platypus

Pantyhose, Planned Obsolescence and a Pampered Puss July 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, How Many Earths? (Adventures in Ecological Living), Nature, Saving the World.
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yawning catHow Many Earths? (Part 3)

This tale began with a job interview yesterday, for a position as choir accompanist and pianist for a local church. Not knowing anything about the church in question or how conservative its directors were, I reluctantly decided that, yes, a skirt and pantyhose were probably the safest bet. Reluctantly I dug into the recesses of my sock drawer for the little-used and dreaded nylons, searching for any pair that (1) fit comfortably and (2) didn’t have a run yet. (For any men reading this post, this is a far greater challenge than it sounds.)

Though I took two pairs of intact nylons with me, regrettably neither pair survived the experience (the humidity was a complicating, and very aggravating, factor). While fortunately for my interview I was able to rescue one with a well-placed dab of nail polish, the other was quite clearly doomed. I stuffed it into the bottom of my bag, hoping I could find some use for it later.

It was earlier this afternoon that I pulled them out again and stared at the run. I hate planned obsolescence. The whole idea of intentionally designing something to be flimsy and breakable (and spending time and money to engineer this into the design!) to me is an utterly perverse one. It embodies everything I hate about our buy-more, don’t-fix-it, toss-it-when-it-bores-you-and-get-a-new-one societal mindset. There’s been a meme floating around for decades that pantyhose manufacturers know how to make pantyhose that won’t run, they just won’t for fear of cutting into their sales. Whether that’s actually the case I don’t know, but I must say I don’t have much trouble believing it.

For years before I’d dumped worn-out pantyhose straight into the garbage can in resigned disgust. But given my new goal of trying to live as ecologically as possible I didn’t want these ending up in a landfill. There had to be something constructive I could do with them…

Enter one spoiled cat.

Rumi had been looking rather bored ever since his laser toy burned out two weeks ago (speaking of planned obsolescence! No way to replace the battery, of course) and when I hopefully waved around his fluffy pink lure, his little feline face more often than not took on an expression of ennui. “Been there, done that, can’t you find anything new for me to chase?” I could hear him saying.

I grabbed my scissors and got to work with the pantyhose.

Half an hour later I had created three toys:

– a little round pantyhose ball stuffed with catnip:

– a slightly larger toy (two pantyhose-stuffed lumps separated by a knot):

– and a long lure, made just by tying consecutive knots in the leg of pantyhose and stuffing the end with, you guessed it, more pantyhose, then tying the whole thing to a string.

…He LOVED them. I have never seen Rumi go after any toy with such enthusiasm, except for the laser. When I handed him the first two toys his eyes lit up and (especially the second one) he did not stop batting around and pouncing on until I came along with the knotted lure. Then he really went wild.

There was something about the pantyhose fabric that really appealed to him. He could sink his teeth into it as much as he wanted and it would invariably pop back into shape the moment he dropped it. (I still can’t figure out how my pantyhose developed runs in five minutes and yet withstood half an hour of determined kitty attacks, but whatever…) I still have half the pair left so I’m going to try stuffing the next toy with pennies to make a rattling noise, and then one with tissue paper. But I’ll wait on those until the next time he gives me one of those bored yawns. 😀

Take that, planned obsolescence.

(Oh, and the job interview went quite well, by the way.) 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Of Fans and Air Conditioners (How Many Earths?: A Postscript) July 8, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, How Many Earths? (Adventures in Ecological Living), Nature, Saving the World.
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For much of the past week my area, together with large regions of the continent, has been hit by a scorching heat wave. For the first day or two it wasn’t so bad, but last night my apartment didn’t cool off at all, and my little bedside fan wasn’t doing the trick. I wasn’t affected so much as my poor Rumi, who went dashing around from one end of the apartment to the other panting and looking for some cool air. (I finally swabbed him down with a cool, wet cloth and that seemed to work.) Needless to say it’s been difficult to practice, or write another blog entry, or do much of anything…

So this morning I went looking for something that would, at least, help the situation until the promised cool front moved in this weekend.

*******

The problem is, I didn’t want to jump on the air conditioning bandwagon. I have a fundamental antipathy to air conditioning. There’s something wrong with the idea of it: we already condition our lawns, our water, the food we produce, our bodies…anything that we see as dissatisfactory in its natural state. Is nothing to be left alone? What kind of society needs to collectively condition even the air it breathes?

Not to mention that, the more we go around running our air conditioners, the more pollution and carbon dioxide we’ll generate – heating up our Earth and reducing our air quality even more and making it necessary for us to run our air conditioners more often. It’s a vicious cycle, and a dangerous one. Air conditioning, with our current level of technology, is fundamentally unsustainable and and only worsens the problem in the long term.

Also, I grew up without air conditioning – none of my friends had it either. Our region wasn’t especially humid, but reached searing temperatures in summer, sometimes 40 C or higher. It was hot, but we lived with it. It was just part of summer, like intense cold was part of winter; no point in complaining about either. There was a time when nobody had air conditioning and we seemed to do just fine as a society. Have we collectively gotten way more whimpy, or are we just so used to continual comfort we can’t bear to give it up?

*******

So, with these thoughts in mind, I resolutely headed out in search of a fan. After checking three or four places, I found the model I was looking for in a discount store, which had dozens of fans while all the rest of the city seemed to be out (kudos to Giant Tiger!) Interestingly, though some stores still had air conditioners in stock (indeed, on sale!), the fans were sold out pretty universally. I suspect this has more to do with the far cheaper cost of buying and running them than a wave of ecological consciousness spreading throughout our city, but it’s a hopeful sign in any case…

(Speaking of which, the local Shoppers Drug Mart started charging for plastic bags this week. Another excellent step in the right direction!)