Sunday, May 31, 2015

Scale

Few people agree with me (or want to admit) that capitalism in its present form is the source of most of our economic, environmental, and institutional ills. We want desperately to cling to our belief that the "American Way" is the *right* way, the *best* way, the only way; but we might be wrong. At the very least, we have an escalating problem with the sheer scale of capitalism. It no longer benefits everyone, and that puts at risk something far more sacred than capitalism: democracy.

Let us look at what corporate capitalism has done for us (or to us) lately:

  • Reduced consumer choices
  • The bigger the corporation, the fewer the choices for the consumer. What results from mergers and acquisitions is the illusion of choice. Take television for example. Mergers of various networks insure that we will see the same content distributed over several channels instead of new content on those other channels. Sports are increasingly televised on stations for which the consumer must pay extra as part of a cable or satellite package. This amounts to consumer coercion, whereby formerly free broadcasts are now held in virtual ransom. More disturbingly, news media are being concentrated into fewer and fewer outlets controlled by corporations that filter the news to further their own corporate, political, and economic agendas; or distract us with fear-mongering and celebrity status reports.

  • Suppressed technologies
  • When you have an existing industry firmly entrenched in the status quo of the marketplace, it will exercise all its power to maintain its dominance. Hemp is an example of a raw material that would compete very favorably with cotton, paper, even plastics and some metals. Those existing industries act to suppress the hemp industry through lobbying our government representatives and agencies, and spreading false information to consumers. Hemp is a relative of the marijuana plant, but contains only a fraction of the chemical compound that gives marijuana its pharmaceutical and recreational properties.

    Only recently have alternative, sustainable, and clean energy technologies been allowed to blossom. Even these have come under attack because of the scale of those enterprises. Giant windmills kill birds and bats, but all resources for wind energy are directed to those large-scale models. Bird-friendly, small-scale alternatives are ignored.

  • Fewer consumer, labor, and environmental protections
  • Most major corporations on the Wall Street scale honor only their monetary bottom line and increased revenue for shareholders. The consumer, employee, and environment all take a distant back seat to those goals. To that end, lobbyists argue for erosion or outright repeal of existing laws aimed at affording labor, consumer, and ecological protections. "Studies" are rigged or altered or biased to reflect business interests. Conflicting research is suppressed. Recalls of dangerously defective products are postponed. The Clean Air Act is constantly under fire, as well as the Endangered Species Act and other landmark legislation that is arguably among the best ever enacted by *any* government on a national scale.

  • Corporate Welfare
  • The welfare distributed to individuals and households in poverty is nothing compared to the dollars delivered to corporations and industries annually. We pay lip service to, and worship, the "free market" as the God of the economy which, left unfettered by regulation, will allow businesses to flourish; yet we prop up failing industries with subsidies, tax breaks, and bailouts that seem to always be lavished on CEOs and shareholders without even a trickle down to workers and consumers. We protect ailing industries with import restrictions and tariffs. Left to the "free market," those American industries would wither and die. They do anyway, of course, as manufacturing is transferred overseas to cheaper (read "substandard") labor forces.

  • Perpetual definition of the "American Dream" as the attainment of material wealth
  • It can be argued that the accumulation of wealth is in itself a goal not worth pursuing, and at worst a lifestyle that threatens the well-being of others, and even the planet itself. Consumption and economic growth as we are accustomed to in this century are definitely not sustainable, and take resources away from more vulnerable human populations. One would be hard-pressed to refute the idea that the Earth could benefit from fewer numbers of Homo sapiens, and certainly from less "development" of natural resources.

  • Increased stress and decreased physical health
  • Our physical and mental health are at risk from social, cultural, and economic pressure that are inflicted upon us or that are self-generated. We are valued in the marketplace only for what we can consume, not what we can produce, unless it is more consumers in the form of children. Our labor is consistently undervalued to the point of corporations balking at a raise in the minimum wage; and suppression of collective bargaining to insure workplace safety and fairness. The end goal of industry is production without labor, but the unemployed cannot afford to purchase products.

    How we value ourselves is just as important as cultural expectation. I, myself, constantly struggle with the idea that my wife is the major breadwinner in our household. This flies in the face of the "standard" I was brought up with. It takes a major effort to remind myself that my ego is not the point of our marriage; and money is not what strong relationships are built on in the first place.

There is reason for hope. All is not lost. In fact, there are surprising trends that indicate a potentially bright future ahead. Community gardens and farmer's markets are springing up almost daily, taking our food production back from corporate agri-business and returning it to local roots (literally). The "tiny house" movement is spreading, and demonstrating that a lifestyle with fewer material possessions means stronger personal relationships and an enhanced sense of community (while going off the grid in many cases). There is increasing demand for better public transit, more walkable neighborhoods where one can work, live, and play without dreadfully long commutes in a vehicle powered with fossil fuels. We still have power, folks, beyond the voting booth, and the internet age allows us to quickly find friends and support for what we believe is important. Thanks to crowdfunding, we can even find money for making those inventions and community projects happen, without dependence on institutions firmly entrenched in the status quo. Go for it!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ode to Logan

Yesterday evening we bid farewell to our best friend, Logan, a Sheltie mix that had blessed Heidi's life for fifteen years, and mine for the last four. We had a professional humanely euthanize him, and it might even have been a bit overdue. It was becoming more painful for us to watch Logan labor through his days, instead of truly enjoying life. He was 16 1/2.

This was my first real pet, in the traditional sense of cats and dogs, and I found it surprising how quickly I fell in love with him. I'm already missing him licking my nose; the soft sound of him shaking to fluff up his fur; the clinking of his tags as he trotted ahead of me on the leash. He rarely barked, but I think I even miss that.

When I first met Heidi, her answering machine greeting began "You have reached Heidi and Logan...." It took me awhile to recall instantly that Logan was the dog and not another suitor. In retrospect, I realize I had quite the competitor in terms of loyalty and unconditional love.

No matter how much my education in the sciences reminds me of the dominance of instinct in other animals, I can't shake the idea that Logan was more than that. Even if he wasn't, his endearing quirks and unique personality were captivating.

I am sure that for many days, even weeks from now, I'll stop myself and think that I need to go walk the dog, feed the dog, check in on him downstairs if I am upstairs. Logan was a rescue obtained from a shelter, and we are unsure what trauma, if any, he sustained before Heidi got him. He certainly got stressed out over the microwave, when he could still hear well. He was always reactive to strangers, though quickly settled down in the presence of our friends.

Logan won't be replaced any time soon. I mean, he won't ever be replaced in our hearts; but we won't be getting another dog in the near future, either. We might move, and wouldn't want to visit that stress on a pet. At the very least, the carpet needs replacing lest it drive another pet nuts from residual odors alone.

I'm not sure whether there is a Heaven, but if there is, I am confident that all other animals go there, too. I would not want any part of the afterlife if that was not the case. We are comforted a little by the idea that Logan is finally free of physical limitations to truly enjoy dog paradise. Rest in peace, sweet buddy.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Geometry

Chessboard clearcuts
With power-tower pawns
Protecting
Electric station queen.
Checkmate,
Progress wins again.

Nazca lines
Make no sense
Only cars know their destinations.
Circle fields
Rolling
Along tangent roads.

Bridges
Bisect rivers,
Span lakes.
Dams
Divide streams,
Diverted water is confused.

Eric R. Eaton, circa 1982.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hanging up the Phone

It dawned on me the other day that I do not like talking on the telephone anymore. The reasons for this are many, from technological "advances" to deteriorating hearing (mine and others), and the exploitation of the telephone for marketing purposes.

Our household land line (yes, we still have one!) receives very few phone calls directed specifically to us from friends, business associates and clients, and family. The overwhelming majority of calls are from charities telling us "We will have a truck in your area on (insert date here) if you have items to donate," political surveys, and, worst of all, pre-recorded messages also of a political or financial nature. Our favorite recurring recording begins "Fellow seniors...." Since I have been on the other end of phone surveys, I often comply with those requests if they are polite and I can understand the person asking the questions.

I do have a cell phone, and, as my wife will tell you, I loathe it. Were it not for the situation of being stranded at airports on a routine basis, I would dispense with a mobile phone altogether. I certainly don't feel the need to be "connected" at all times with the internet, or even friends or family.

I have a flip phone now because I kept accidentally dialing people with a newer phone; and I dropped the newer phone once and after that it would randomly display a useless, pure white screen preventing me from dialing out, reading text messages, etc. Oh, and even my flip phone has buttons on the side that do God-knows-what, that I inadvertently press simply by putting the phone in my pocket. My wife claims to call me, but I don't hear or feel the blame thing ring half the time.

I do call my mother every Sunday night, but I must admit that I don't always look forward to it, if only because I have to repeat everything I say at least once. Hearing loss is a part of aging, obviously, but it really becomes tiresome and frustrating trying to correct my mother's interpretation of the name of the place we spent the weekend, or whatever. But, mom does not have the internet, so I can't e-mail. She doesn't have a cell, so I can't text (and I am about the world's slowest texter anyway).

I am truly surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed, to admit that I would rather communicate by e-mail, or even Facebook messaging, instead of by phone or written correspondence. Don't get me wrong, though, I would still choose a face-to-face conversation over any of the above. I suppose that when fewer and fewer e-mails come from friends and colleagues, and politically-motivated e-mails start dominating my in-box, I may go back to the telephone and letter carrier, or cease to communicate altogether. I'm sure some people would be overjoyed by my silence.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The "History" in "Natural History"

Much is made of the need to conserve wildlife and preserve wildlands for the sake of future generations. I would argue that there is just as strong a need to be good stewards of the planet for the sake of past generations. We talk of “natural history” with an emphasis on “natural.” We practically ignore the “history” involved.

Here in the United States, we have a legion of icons who built the foundation for our modern environmental movement. Do we owe them nothing for their unique visions, legislative action, scientific research, and passionate protests? What about artists like Ansel Adams who brought images of wilderness to the masses who had never seen Yosemite? Aldo Leopold gave us a “land ethic.” Rachel Carson cautioned against the indiscriminate use of DDT. We would not be where we are today were it not for the likes of these heroes and heroines.

We can erect monuments to such people, honor their work in film documentaries and written biographies, but what better way to leave a legacy than to insure their efforts were not in vain? Yes, more wilderness has been preserved, more parks created, and more species discovered, but then there are challenges like the reintroduction of predators into parts of their historic geographical ranges.

The debate over wolf introductions is incredibly volatile, but I have heard no one speak of how doing so would bring history back to life. The national park system, at the very least, should be dedicated to preserving a historical spectrum of habitats and ecosystems. There is Colonial Williamsburg, there are civil war re-enactments, and countless other examples of “living history” in the human context of the term. What about the history of wildness?

Recreating in a museum diorama that which used to be is not enough. Resurrecting the mammoth, or even the Passenger Pigeon, may be a bit too much, as we also need reminders of our extreme human mistakes. Still, I feel impoverished that I have been deprived of even the opportunity to see a Carolina Parakeet, a Great Auk, or a Sea Mink. The California Condor once flew over the Columbia River, according to Lewis and Clark. We should consider restoring its presence there.

Once my own mentors pass away, you better believe I will remain dedicated to making sure their voices carry on, that their fights go on. I owe it to them. Another natural landscape destroyed by needless development, a dam, or pollution? Not on my watch. Allow another species to go extinct due to human greed or neglect? No way. I’ve got your back, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Dian Fossey. Your missions didn’t die with you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Birding While Black

© m.inmagine.com, Cupid Alexander (model)

The other day I found myself inside a Barnes & Noble, and picked up the latest issue of Orion, the quarterly nature magazine. One of the first articles that caught my attention was a one-page piece by J. Drew Lanham entitled “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” At first I thought it might be a comedic or satirical treatment, but it became very clear very quickly it was a rage against the status quo when it comes to “minorities” in a traditionally White recreational and citizen science pursuit.

I hope I am forgiven for laughing quietly to myself over a couple of the rules: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” And “Nocturnal birding is a no-no.” They would be hysterical suggestions were they not a reflection of our tragic and obscene stereotypes of African American culture. And of course we are all too familiar with the horrific outcomes those assumptions can lead to: Shooting teenagers who can’t possibly be up to any good if they are in the “wrong” attire in the “wrong” neighborhood at the wrong time.

Dr. Lanham, who is a professor at Clemson University, goes on to express rightful indignation over the reluctance of the birding community at large to embrace diversity, and how the “they all look alike” bias of Caucasians toward Blacks spills over into a hobby that likes to consider itself more refined and sophisticated than average street folk. The Focus on Diversity pre-conference at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival is a landmark start, and Lanham has been actively involved in the event for its three years of existence.

We also need diversity in leadership positions. This also applies to the female gender. A recent blog post by Brooke McDonald, entitled “The Field Glass Ceiling,” revealed a mostly unspoken uneasiness felt by many women in the birding community. I am being polite, actually. Unspoken disgust is more like it. The dismissive attitude of some male birders is appalling. There are many accomplished female birders and ornithologists who could be outstanding ambassadors for the birdwatching community.

I must admit that, for the longest time, I myself stereotyped birders as mostly overly-affluent snobs who looked down their noses at anybody else recreating in the great outdoors. My attitude has been adjusted in the last decade or so, and not forcibly so. Kenn Kaufman gently nudged me to look beyond “bugs” again; and Jeffrey Gordon brings a welcoming persona to his role as president of the American Birding Association. The “new” generation of birders has a sense of humor, a sense of responsibility to bird conservation, and increasingly reaches out to young people. They even look at insects every once in awhile!

Back to Birding While Black. I do think that there is genuine concern over the lack of minorities in one of the most popular of all outdoor activities; and that sympathy extends beyond mere "tolerance" and politeness. The challenge lies in how we communicate better, and not sound patronizing or stereotypical. That applies to all parties involved. We need to get out of our comfort zones to accomplish real integration, but the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Note: A Google image search for "African American bird watching" turned up few results. The above image came from a "African American binoculars" search.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Crowdfunding


Image © Under30ceo.com

Crowdfunding online, through such avenues as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, has become all the rage these days. I was recently confronted by a situation that caused me to reflect on what I think of this new enterprise when a friend, who has relocated to Chile, broke her hand and needed surgery she could not afford.

I have to preface any further comments by noting the fact that my friend earns her living with her hands. She makes jewelry, and very good, unique jewelry at that. It was not an option to go without surgery and risk being handicapped for the remainder of her life. Obviously, even if she had health insurance, it likely would not have been honored in a foreign country.

So, I truly admire her creativity in appealing to her friends, actual and virtual, through Facebook. She set a goal, provided secure avenues for donations, and gave regular progress reports. I felt somewhat guilty for not sending funds myself, but I am without a regular income and nobody and no causes have received my financial blessing in quite some time.

At least I knew this was not a scam, which, unfortunately, cannot be said of everyone. It pays to do your homework on projects and people who you do not know personally. Witness the dubious validity of the ”Poverty Thoughts” essay.

What else figured into my decision not to give? I had not really thought about my philosophy toward crowdfunding until this circumstance presented itself, but I realized that I think crowd-sourcing should be about something beyond yourself. Funds raised should go to a greater good, a service or product or other creation that benefits more people than the individual seeking money for it.

I know plenty of people with outstanding ideas for which they lack financial backing to execute. Crowdfunding would be a great approach. Authors and musicians who have trouble getting contracts with publishers or recording studios can finally produce material and get exposure through crowdfunding. Indeed, that strategy also builds an audience for one’s work because they are aware of the process, even if they do not donate outright.

Is crowdfunding the future of artistic and creative enterprise? Perhaps it is. Anything that can legally allow for a person to become their own boss, or otherwise liberate themselves from the corporate-driven business world, I am all in favor of. A marketplace that is driven truly by small businesses, not by those of the Wall Street variety, is going to be more responsive, vastly more accountable, and hopefully a kinder, gentler economy.

Back to my friend in Chile. Her surgical procedure was successful and her physician is delighted with the progress of her healing. Someday, I hope to be in a position where I can make a tangible contribution to such friends in need, not sending only love and “good vibes.”