Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar and our relationship with nature

'You don't know what you've got until it's gone' isn't quite right. If it leaves slowly enough, you won't notice it leaving and you'll forget you had it in the first place.

When you see it again, you reconnect with things that you didn't realize were missing it can bring back powerful feelings you didn't know you had.

When this happens, it is usually an individual experience, not easily shared. James Cameron's movie Avatar provides a rare exception. The lush, rainforest moon in the movie feels alive and provides a stark contrast to our climate controlled daily experience. It makes us realize what we're missing.

The Na'vi understand that the wealth of their world is in the intact ecosystems all around them, not in the room temperature superconductor 'unobtainium' that the humans are there to raid.

As you might expect, the native culture is very different than our own. There are moviegoers who are genuinely disappointed that they can't go live on Pandora.

Avatar provides a common point of reference for people who have become disconnected from our natural world. If your food comes from the store, there's a pretty good chance you're disconnected from nature, and can find something desirable about the connection between the Pandoran natives and their world.

Our innate desire for a connection with nature has been termed Biophilia by naturalist E.O. Wilson in his 1984 book of the same name. We evolved in harmony with nature, and we do better when we keep some in our lives.

That's one of the reasons we keep houseplants. Another way we keep in touch with nature is to binge on nature with trips to places like Costa Rica or the Amazon.

Another way to reconnect is simply to regularly spend time outside, in whatever way feels right to you. Whether that's a walk around the block, a weekly hike, skiing in the mountains, or something more extreme.

We have lost our connection with nature. We only realize what we've lost when we see, in glorious 3D, how good it could be. And then we want it back.

By all means see Avatar, but then take those same eyes for nature on a hike afterwards. You'll be surprised by what you see.

P.S. If you still don't want to go outside, the BBC series Planet Earth is a good second choice. You can order it online without leaving the house.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

How Mozzarella can start a movement

What can this Italian cheese teach us about making a difference? It involves another double 'Z' word: pizza.

Getting people together so they can talk to each other, face to face is a great way to build relationships between people. That relationship building is enhanced by eating together.

They may come for the food, they'll stay to hear what you have to say. Even better, they may start talking about it among themselves. It's best if you don't control it. Set the theme and back off. They may have ideas that complement yours, and the idea could snowball.

This won't work as well if you feel like you need to be in charge or already have an outcome in mind. Genuine engagement works best when it's non-hierarchical.

In the same way that kids on a playground will come up with their own games, they will defer to authority when an adult shows up.

Let the kids explore your theme. Don't be the authority figure. Trust the people you're inviting. If they feel like something is already decided it will shut down the creativity and limit the buy-in that you were hoping to get by buying them pizza in the first place.

Let the conversations go on as long as they have to. That goes both ways, if they resolve their issue in five minutes, encourage them to move on to other facets, but if the conversation isn't over, try not to steal that momentum.

The conversations will most likely break into small groups. Arrange for somebody in each group to be responsible to capture what's being talked about. Get them to share their notes with the group.

Social media tools and email broadcasts are good for keeping the momentum, but talking face to face is a far more compelling way to build the bonds of trust between people who may not otherwise know each other.

Pizza is easy, friendly, and can bring together the critical mass of engaged people to create a movement.

If you prefer another cheese or method for inspiring civic engagement, please speak up in the comments.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Career Opportunity: Spaceship crew

Whatever path you took to get here is forever in the past. Your choices and your actions all combine to make you the unique and amazing person you are today.

You had some help though. Take a moment, thank your ancestors. A great biological and ecological heritage has been passed down to you through the ages.

Like your ancestors before you, you are the temporary steward of the only planet in the universe that we know supports life. Remember this, and act accordingly.

Tim Flannery, in his book Now Or Never describes 21st century humanity as the consciousness of the earth. Gaia's brain. Gaia's self-awareness.

Human brains are chemically expensive for us to operate. At 2% of our body weight, it uses 20% of our oxygen and 25% of our glucose. They're worth it though.

Like our brains, and as a fair payment for being the species that is in charge of things around here, we are reasonably entitled to more than our share of the resources. We're steering the ship, and we certainly know how to get the resources.

With that payment of resources comes the responsibility for us to take care of the life support systems on this planet. After all, a brain can't survive without the support of lungs, kidneys or a heart.

Being the brains doesn't make us king around here. Instead we're the custodial staff and the maintenance crew. We have to anticipate and fix the problems. We are paid in clean air, fresh water, and in nourishing food.

This is one of those careers we just slipped into. We made this job for ourselves, in the same way that we traded the relative freedom of a hunting and gathering lifestyle (also known as the Garden of Eden) for the security, prosperity, and hard labour of agriculture about ten thousand years ago.

And now Spaceship Earth has us as the crew. We're all in this together.

The past is over. We can't change what we've done.

In the present, you're reading an article by someone who's both terrified and hopeful for our collective future. You're developing a sense of the scale of the problem we face.

In the future though, someone's going to ask you what you did during the crisis. Make sure you can feel good about your answer.

As a reward for reading this far through the column, you've just been promoted. It's going to take everyone working together on this, and you will be called upon to lead others.

Your instructions are as follows: Listen carefully to your heart. You already know what you need to do. Recruit help. That will make it easier on you and magnify your impact. If you find your heart is speaking too softly, visit for ideas.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Crisis of Culture

We have become a culture of entitled consumers, lubricated by hydrocarbons and easy credit, and pacified by two generations of roughly exponential growth into thinking this is how things should be.

We couldn't be more wrong. The age we're living in is the least typical of any in history. We're blowing through our planetary endowment of hydrocarbons and changing society and the face of the earth faster than ever before. That's just how we roll.

Relax. It's not your fault. The culture is built that way, and it places powerful expectations on you. Cultural norms restrict our imaginations and our possibilities in ways that we can't comprehend. But this is the same culture that is enticing us off a cliff with shiny things we don't really need.

Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, Alberta, Canada.

There are some culturally sacred cows here that need to be scrutinized. Maybe scrutinized is charitable. With apologies to all that we've grown up believing, here goes:

Population: By 2150, world human population is expected to be back down around 2 Billion. That's more in line with global carrying capacity. We can ignore the problem and crash hard, or we can find a way there that minimizes the strife. There may not be any happy solutions here.

Interest on money: Also known as usury. If people are allowed to charge interest on debt, they end up owning everything. It's impossible for everyone to pay it all back. Google "Money as Debt" for videos.

Exponential growth: Anyone who thinks the economy can grow exponentially forever on a finite planet is either an idiot or an economist.

Single Family House: Suburbs are wasteful and unfixable. We should live more like urban Europe, in 4-6 storey mixed use apartments. Happier people, smaller footprint. Land use rules here make building those developments practically impossible.

Democracy sucks: At least the way we do it in Alberta. The PC Government got 87% of the seats with the support of only 23% of the eligible voters. That doesn't seem very representative. Other systems are better.

Consumerism: We've quit being Citizens with rights and responsibilities. Why? Corporations encourage consumerism. It's profitable. It turns us into docile revenue streams.

To fix these problems, we need to revise and rebuild the social infrastructure. The major problems we face will be solved not by things, not by people acting alone, but by people coming together to build a world that works.

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Friday, January 1, 2010

A future with a future

With the tools we have now, we can build a sustainable world.

With the equipment we can build, we could create a future with a future. A future where the cycles within interwoven cycles that make up the circle of life will generate far more than we require to sustain ourselves. A future where the incentives to destroy pale compared to the incentives to preserve, create, and enhance.

The technology exists, today, to create a future in which we endure.

Yet with the culture we have today we will not endure. We won't get around to building the future we need. We have lost the social infrastructure that would make it possible. To endure, we need to get it back.

We are a product of all that has gone before us. The future will be what's left after we've taken some for ourselves. We want it all. And we know how to get it.

Cultures that endure don't eat their seed. Cultures that endure are stewards of the lands, waters, airs, and energies that sustain them. They strike a balance between the present and the future. They prepare for the next cycle.

For cultures that endure, time passes in cycles. Days. Tides. Seasons. Years. Generations. Yet somewhere in the frenzy of the stock ticker and reality TV we lose track of what has real value.

A culture built on exponential growth cannot endure. We know enough about math to prove that.

A culture built on easy credit is doomed to foreclosure.

A culture that endures as will look unflinching into the eyes of survival, recognize its role in the interwoven cycles, and play its part in the dance of the ages.

The social infrastructure exists. It's rusty, but it's fixable. We can choose to rebuild the social infrastructure that enables us to live in harmony with all that sustains us.

Next week: Crisis of Culture

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