Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Redistributing Wealth

Have you ever noticed that those who object most strenuously to the notion of redistribution of wealth are those who benefit from the status quo? Their hostility is espoused mostly from the pedestal of White Privilege, from offices on Wall Street, and it echoes through the halls of private mansions and country clubs. The ultimate source of their anger is, of course, guilt. They know they got where they are because of the toil of others. They are reaping their profits from uneducated consumers who fall for marketing campaigns. Their expenses are for lobbyists in Congress, if they have not paid outright for a Senator or Representative. Ironically, they have engineered a redistribution of wealth to themselves, so the idea of the reverse is repugnant.

We have had a redistribution of wealth for centuries. Slavery. The gender wage gap. Mass incarceration of minorities. Minimum wage. Credit that leads to bankruptcy. Failure to provide affordable healthcare and housing. Food deserts. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Government subsidies to corporations. Industry bailouts. Offshore banking. Tax breaks on investments. You don't think any of this has had an impact on who becomes wealthy? Really?

For our part as laborers and consumers, we yearn for financial freedom, still clinging to the belief that a bright future is all up to us as individuals, still pursuing the white picket fence and two-car garage. Society, we are told, gives you the freedom to do whatever it takes to get wherever you want to go. Yes, there are still some ways to attain wealth from the ground up, if you choose the "right" career, take advantage of existing financial structures for which it helps to be already wealthy....Where is the freedom in that?

If you do not believe we need measures in place to level the financial playing field, then you are either a diehard capitalist who cares not one whit about anybody but themselves, or you have bought into the fictitious idea that if you merely work hard you can still amass great wealth by climbing the ladder of success. Hogwash. We no longer have a Middle Class. We have not had that for quite some time. What we have is a Debt Class masquerading as the Middle Class. It is an illusion based on credit and other forms of borrowing. Our "portfolio" is a job, check cashing establishments, and the lottery. Ok, maybe two jobs or even three.

The ultimate question, of course, is why are we aspiring to personal material wealth in the first place. Who does that benefit except you, your family if you have one, and your heirs if you have children? Do you really want that small a sphere of influence? Dream bigger. Dream beyond money. Cultivate the currency of generosity instead of selfishness.

The solution to our enormous prosperity gap must come from both ends. Yes, to obliterate poverty the very wealthy must give up a substantial portion of their wealth. The remainder of the financial spectrum must cease to pursue the amassing personal material wealth as a goal. The new American Dream needs to be one of inclusion, with goals beyond ourselves such as renewable energy, preservation of biodiversity, acceptance (not mere tolerance) of alternative lifestyles, the abolishment of hate speech, enactment of affordable healthcare and housing, a return to small scale agriculture, and other communal and social endeavors. These are the things we need to commit to, not to our financial planner's idea of personal financial security, as if there is such a thing. Self-reliance is just a fancy synonym for pride, and putting pride as a priority has never ended well.

You want something to aspire to? How about this. How about we aspire to be like people who have lost everything material. People who have been through tornadoes, or hurricanes, or earthquakes, or fires, or even stock market crashes, who come back even stronger after the devastation because they know what really matters is not status or wealth but character and love and all those things you cannot measure in economic terms. Let us be like those who have been wronged, been cheated on, been scammed, been victims of violent crime, who come out of that trauma and still manage to trust other human beings. Let's be like that: all heart, soul, and empathy.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

You, topia

© Chelsea Leigh Stockton (Sherrie Duris is subject)

Who are you at your core? What would you be if you strip away all the material things that adorn you, lifestyle, and make your image? What are you without your occupation? How do we make tangible the intangible qualities that are what make us truly unique? We are all works in progress, aspiring to our own nirvana of self-actualization. Are you there yet?

We are forever caught between the rock of our own individualism and the hard place of societal expectations. Youth mostly lean toward living up to expectations (though they will profess otherwise) while the older we get the more we yearn to break free of the confinements of conventionality. Collectively, though, we tend to want to keep up appearances, and that is a costly lifestyle both financially and in terms of our mental and physical health. It takes a toll to pretend.

Our capitalist economy, maybe any form of economy, dictates that we be a collection of products first and foremost. You must practice self-expression through clothes, cosmetics, commitment to fitness and food choices, and your taste in entertainment and extracurriculars. You set yourself apart by branding, or at least the brands you choose, because status is everything, and you do not ever want to be yesterday's news.

What are we to do then? Walk around naked? Let ourselves go? Give up? That would be unacceptable, and actually defeat the purpose of our existence anyway, but what we need to do is shift the center of our personal and collective universe away from....things.....and to what truly gives us fulfillment. The default setting on our health and happiness meter is probably family and experiences, not material wealth, not a career, not what we are constantly told by the marketplace of diets and clothing designers, drug companies and politicians.

The late Dr. Leo Buscaglia was fond of saying the we are "human doings" because we are so obsessed with proving we are worthy of existence through tangible deeds, contributing to society in a literally visible way, that we have lost track of our true essence, the fact that we matter anyway, independent of our works. Indeed, there are few if any careers that enjoy a completely positive image in our society. Some are too complicated, dismissed as "rocket science" in conversation. Others are too simple and seen as unworthy of respect. Did you tip the wait staff at the restaurant with a generous gratuity? Do you greet the garbage collector or your postal delivery if you happen to see them? Wave at the public transit driver? I didn't think so.

We have to stop equating ourselves and each other with our jobs and our wardrobes and our bank accounts and our vehicles and every other measure of self-worth we have allowed society to calculate for us. We need to transcend "tolerance" and replace it with acceptance, free ourselves of labels and stereotypes. The marketplace is not going to stop categorizing us anytime soon, so best to just give it your middle digit.

Religion, too. Personally, I carry enough guilt to be a Catholic, and complain enough to be Jewish. Maybe that is why I am agnostic. See? There come those caricatures again, those easy-to-use ways of pigeon-holing people. We are so populous as a species, and put such a premium on convenience, that we accept our lazy ways of classifying people as the norm. We are diamonds, people, with multiple facets that will only glint in the light of patience in learning about ourselves and each other over time.

You-topia? You are already there, you just haven't realized it yet. You are still consumed by consumerism, restrained by beliefs that you cannot make a difference, that only your vote matters in your district, your ward, your precinct, and in the marketplace. You believe you are a means to an end for others, not for yourself and your family and friends, let alone other species. Rebel. Lead a personal mutiny against everything unimportant. Do not let the pressures of society lead to pent-up anger and hostility. Relax. Free your mind. When someone asks "what do you do?," tell them who you are instead. Remind them that you are a human being, already worthy, and so are they. Repeat. Daily.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What Would a Truthful Campaign Advertisement Look Like?


Ready to throw a brick at your television yet over the latest wave of commercials in this election cycle? Me, too. They seem transparent enough, which may be why I find them so distasteful and deceiving. What would an honest ad look like, I wonder, and would it not be a refreshing alternative to the current disguising of agendas?

One of the more insidious advertising campaigns here in Colorado revolves around Initiative 97, where a grassroots public effort led to this measure making it onto the ballot. It would greatly restrict the places where oil and natural gas extraction could take place on non-federal lands. Most of the concern centers on potential health effects upon, and disaster risks borne by, those residential neighborhoods in rural and suburban districts. It would require a drilling location "setback" of 2,500 feet, or greater, from vulnerable parks, creeks, and homes. Scientific studies have suggested adverse public health consequences among populations close to drilling sites; and there have been documented explosions and fires associated with the industry that have resulted in worker deaths.

Naturally, the industry side is not in favor of further constraints, and of course they resort to fear-mongering to incentivize voters to reject Initiative 97. The recurring television ad features a stern-looking female spokesperson warning that the inevitable result of the passage of 97 will be greatly decreased revenue for public schools, fire and police, as well as lost jobs. Their argument is that the "setbacks" would "set back" the economy. This is the same rhetoric we have always heard, as if we believe the fossil fuel industry cares one whit about your safety, your education, or whether you are employed or not. The overwhelming number of these energy companies are not based in Colorado. Heck, some are not even based in this country, as Canadian corporations make ever-increasing inroads into natural resource extraction here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Most of the "jobs" they profess to be creating are open to applicants from all over, not reserved for Coloradans.

Well, maybe we are not as well educated as we would like to imagine, if anyone seriously believes the claims made in this advertisement. It must be a strategy that works, at least in part, or the advertising agencies would not adopt it, and the industry would not endorse it as their platform. That is perhaps the scariest part of it all: that anyone falls for it.

Ok, so what would a more honest approach be? Permit me a little artistic license if you will, but I think it would go something like this: An actual executive in the industry would present the following narrative.....

"We, as executive officers and shareholders, are addicted to the obscene profits we generate through fracking and other fossil fuel extraction methods. We greatly appreciate the generous federal, state, and local subsidies we receive in addition to those profits. We know we could make even more money were it not for those pesky environmental and public health regulations that we have to abide by. It is therefore necessary for us to make large expenditures on lobbyists and public advertising, even creating faux "green" organizations like Protect Colorado and Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED). Oh, we also have to constantly battle competition from renewable, vastly safer energy sources like solar and wind. That takes money, too. So, you see we need relaxed regulation, not increased regulation, if we are to make up the deficits we perceive in our bottom line. Your health, safety, employment status, and recreational opportunities are not our problem. You want heat, fuel, electricity, and telecommunications at low prices? That we can do for you, if you vote no on Initiative 97. Thank you, from here in the back of my limousine/inside my corner office suite/favorite golf course."

I am not holding my breath that any industry, candidate, or other interest group is going to stop lying and hiding their agenda any time soon, but I would find it more difficult to object to their posturing if it was put forth in an honest manner. Hey, what do they have to lose, right?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Yes, Yes to Nanette!

© The New Yorker

Hannah Gadsby is an Australian-born comedienne. That is all you need to know before watching her Netflix special Nanette, because she explains the rest of her life experiences in that stand-up special. And you better brace yourself. Or not, because maybe not knowing what you are in for is at least half of what makes this performance worthy of its critical acclaim.

The best comedy delivers not just laughter, but provokes thought, emphasis on "provokes," and this is flat-out the most provocative writing I've seen performed on stage in decades. As another critic pointed out, it gets the audience to question themselves, and their role as either instigator or ignorant bystander, in the atrocities perpetrated against people from varying walks of life who we identify as "the other." Done incorrectly and you have the audience storming out of the venue. Done brilliantly, like this, and you have everyone's rapt attention.

If you do not see yourself in every facet of this monologue, then you lack empathy and honesty.

A graph of your comfort level during this seventy minute show would likely look like something off a seismograph, but that would be fitting because this is an earth-shaking episode. Part of the premise that got the attention of critics is that this was Gadsby's swan song, that she would be quitting comedy because....well, I am not going to spoil that for you. Gadsby is apologetic at one point for being so angry, and taking out her frustrations on her audience.

I disagree with Hannah that she is angry. She is assertive and emphatic, and displays a degree of strength that transcends gender, class, or any other category we so conveniently put each other into. If you do not see yourself in every facet of this monologue, then you lack empathy and honesty. This is funny, but at its core it is a plea for self-evaluation, and assessment of your own personal code of conduct.

Does the audience really deserve to be made so uncomfortable, though? The unequivocal answer is a resounding "Yes!" There are many ways to be "woke," and this is one of the tamer routes. It is like the tear-jerker rom-com movie, albeit a great deal more intense in parts. You may leave the show with feelings of shame and guilt. So? What are you going to do with that? This is really what the heart of great entertainment is all about: a jumping off point (not off a bridge for crying out loud) for self-conversation, for deciding how to redeem yourself. How best do you participate in the revolution?

Hannah Gadsby's writing and delivery are passionate and compassionate, despite her belief that she is just angry. You still want to give her a hug and say "Thank you!" when all is said and done. She manages to maintain the vulnerability we all have, that makes us caring human beings when we acknowledge it. Some will say that Gadsby gets her audience cheering for their own execution, but if you have been listening, you see a bit of your parents, or best friend, the people in your life who will not always tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

I hope Hannah Gadsby won't quit. We desperately need her voice, day in and day out. Heck, we need more people like her. Watch Nanette, it is must-see TV or streaming or whatever you call it.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Kinds of (Landscaping) Codes We Really Need

©, Naples, Florida

I have reached wit's end with code enforcement in cities, towns, and other municipalities. Do not even get me started on homeowner's associations (HOAs). The emphasis is clearly cosmetic and does more harm to our environment than even simple neglect of yards and gardens in this age of climate change. We need a total overhaul of the statutes.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, I would be claiming that local governments were in cahoots with landscapers to create standard urban and suburban landscapes that feed the landscaping industry, as well as pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer manufacturers. Why do we continue to insist on models of landscaping that are no longer sustainable, if they ever were to begin with? The only thing "sustainable" about lawns and exotic shrubs, trees, and flowers is the heavy upkeep they require simply to stay alive. That usually necessitates contracting with lawn care services and other businesses that feed our addiction to showy gardens and pristine lawns.

Let's face it, lawns alone have become a status symbol, especially in the western U.S. A large, uniform expanse of grass says that you have the large sum of money needed to cover the water bill, and pay for a landscaper. What that speaks to me is an attitude of "I don't give a damn about water scarcity, native vegetation, or the future of the planet." You would rather spend money creating what amounts to an advertisement of your wealth. Wow. How responsible of you.

Meanwhile, municipal code enforcement tends to center on "weeds," many of which are actually native wildflowers that sustain pollinators and other desirable wildlife. If your grass gets too high it is subject to fines until you are in compliance. Tall grass and herbs are ironically considered a haven for mosquitoes and other disease vectors, as well as being "unsightly." This, in my opinion, is an overblown argument, if not even fallacious. You have undesirable rodents, for example, in urban areas lacking any vegetation. Feral pets are more likely to carry diseases than most wild animals, save for skunks, the odd raccoon and, sometimes, bats.

Were I writing the codes, they would be almost the polar opposite of what is in place now. I would limit the size of lawns to a percentage of your total outdoor landscape. I would enforce strict outdoor water use limitations, regardless of the current weather conditions because most regions are becoming more arid, with no end in sight for that trend. I would mandate that a percentage of landscape plants be native, drought-tolerant, and wildlife-friendly. I might require a permit for the use of any chemical treatment outdoors. This may be an area where contractors could really benefit because leaving chemical applications as do-it-yourself (DIY) has accident-waiting-to-happen written all over it. Failure to follow label instructions for applying pesticides and herbicides is a leading cause of household poisonings, let alone environmental hazards.

I would raise fines for feeding wildlife other than birds, and require anyone in bear habitat take down their feeders every night. I would raise fines for neglect of swimming pools and other water features, even including bird baths, as stagnant water is a breeding environment for mosquitoes and other biting flies. I would reduce outdoor lighting to prevent the interruption of normal behavior by nocturnal animals. Using wildlife-proof waste disposal containers would discourage raccoons, opossum, and other mammals from doing damage and maybe even frequenting urban areas at all. Ok, that is probably wishful thinking.

No entity raises my ire more than HOAs. They are entirely consumed with keeping up appearances, and have complete disregard for the mental health of residences and the environmental health of their communities. Raising property values is their bottom line, even if it means tearing out everything green except lawns, as our own townhouse property management agency is in the process of doing. HOAs put forth arguments for "improved security" as justification for removal of shrubbery and increased outdoor lighting. Baloney. You want increased security? Hold informal events so everyone can get to know their neighbors. Enforce codes of personal conduct instead of landscaping rules.

We need to collectively begin calling for changes to codes that begin to address what could be called environmental impoverishment. We deserve better, more diverse landscapes in our communities, but that cannot happen without some major alterations in governmental mindsets.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Anger and Apathy

© Pinterest

A few days ago I posted this statement to my Facebook page: "I am angry because I fear the only other option is apathy." I was curious as to the responses, and I was not disappointed. The comments reflect a wide spectrum of viewpoints and coping strategies in our troubling times.

I find that my mind often perceives things as black or white, as limited to only a couple of points on the spectrum. I have been known to become impatient with people who do not express outrage at what I see as an injustice or other wrongdoing, usually inflicted by a government agency or policy, or a private corporation or religious institution. A lack of response in the face of egregious acts I see as either agreement with the action, or apathy.

Why don't you care?! How can you not be as angry as I am? Do not get me started with "life isn't fair." Our only responsibility while we are on this planet is to do our best to make life more equitable. We have instead allowed ourselves to be channeled into a way of thinking that elevates the attainment of vast personal material wealth as the highest degree of success....but I digress.

The responses to my statement were more concerned with personal psyche than with whatever triggers anger. "Anger is only good if you use it for organization towards a goal," wrote the person who replied first. "I go with rage, because horrific sadness sucks," said another. "True...stay with anger," wrote another in agreement.

The next response was perhaps the most revealing, and puzzled me: "Have you tried empathy? I helps me when i get where you are at." That somehow made me even more frustrated, and I answered "My empathy often incites my anger. I have an intense sense of justice and fairness, and of course the world is anything but." Farther down in the comments was a similar answer: "I know how you feel, Eric. And my only statement is this: Empathy expands you while anger only shrinks you. Small words, I know."

No, those are profound words which got me thinking, after I wrote " But I AM empathetic! That is where a lot of my anger comes from: injustices to people I empathize with." What next entered my mind, but which I did not communicate outright, was something to the effect of "do you expect me to have empathy for irresponsibly affluent people, for racists, for bigots, for those who put profits above environmental health? Am I to empathize with people who deny others the right to affordable housing, healthcare, food, and opportunity?" I cannot imagine that is what you mean, but if so then I need to reconsider some of my social media friends.

I am not sure why more people do not see the link between empathy and outrage. You cannot witness injustice after injustice and not be driven to madness....unless you benefit from the status quo. "I too am angry," wrote another friend. They continued "It doesn't help. Neither does the immense sadness I feel. Between the two I am stuck. We have politicians who deny climate change, and politicians who acknowledge it, but refuse to do anything on their watch. I am 74, and will live to see the devastation and great extinctions. They are already happening. I think I am doing what I can. It is not enough." I would argue that sometimes it is enough to simply express solidarity with other empathetic people.

Another sentiment: "Rage, grief, when it's too much, sometimes a numbing sets in. When it hurts too much to care... Everyone has their own way of dealing. Some become apathetic and some don't recognize how much they've changed until an event occurs in their life to wake them up again. Some never wake up. Some never feel alive again. Some fight all of it within and some are lucky enough to have a life that sustains their spirit. Many are not so lucky." Well said, friend.

"I believe ACTION is a third option," mentioned another person, and my response was that I am very much an "idea man." I am horrible at taking action on those ideas. I often don't know where to start. That is why I write. Another person chimed in "Writing is action. And, if compelling, it propels other people to take action. We cannot sit by paralyzed by depression, disappointment, inertia, whatever! The stakes are much, much, much too high...."

I was reminded by another that it might help channel my anger if I read more: "It occurs to me that I ought to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. We’re all talking in affirmative messages that are pertinent for 'normal' times, and they’re still true but don’t feel proportionate to the current set of catastrophes. I want to see how a man got himself through a time when the world was completely falling apart.

What do you do in the face of injustice and misguided priorities by those in power and those who do not know better because of ignorance? Are you shopping differently in the marketplace? Writing and calling your public representatives? Practicing civil disobedience? Please share your ways of coping, and changing the world. Thank you.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Deep Desire to Live Somewhen Else


Many people are not happy with the place where they live. Maybe the neighborhood is bad. Maybe the climate does not agree with them. Maybe they are just restless. I have concluded that I would rather live in a different time. I have no desire to return to my childhood. This is not about a re-do on a personal level. We make the best of the cards we are dealt. This is about something bigger. This is about a longing for what was never allowed me because it was gone before I was born.

There is increasing evidence, if only anecdotal, of an "insect armageddon," which suggests the abundance and diversity of insects and related organisms are plummeting. We have already lost many once-populous species to the greed and ignorance of previous human generations. A planet devoid of even insects raises a specter that I am unwilling to contemplate, and a life I would not be able to endure, psychologically if not physically.

That is the thing about history. You will eventually learn about what you will never have the opportunity to experience.

You better believe I am angered that I have been deprived by my forefathers of the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeon, the antics of Carolina Parakeets, and the jaw-dropping icon that was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I can only see Bison on preserves and ranches, and on the ranches one suspects it is actually the hybrid "beefalo" that one is seeing. Meanwhile, I have a hard time looking at a salmon or trout without seeing a fish hatchery. There are still California Condors, but so few that each bird is fitted with huge, numbered tags, radio telemetry devices, and who knows what else. The bird's "recovery" is not a success story. Maybe it will be once they are no longer wearing the accessories of science, and are truly free to fly.

We have not just tamed the wild, we have diluted it beyond recognition in the name of risk assessment and public safety and public grazing, to name but a few agents of wilderness simplification. The national forests are national tree farms, and it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of the Interior where it ought to be.

Back to the past, the long ago that I long for. It would be wonderful to know the truth of the landscape that surrounds me today, to see what a riparian corridor looks like without Russian Olive everywhere. What is a foothills meadow without mullein? What is your eastern deciduous forest without an understory of Japanese Honeysuckle? Do I wish we could resurrect mastodons and mammoths? No. I draw the line at being a potential meal for a saber-toothed cat or a Dire Wolf. Furthermore, those were the days when our ancient ancestors were just surviving, without understanding of the ramifications of their actions.

Naturally, I would still want to bring my binoculars, digital camera, first aid kit, and waterproof jacket on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Perhaps I am guilty of romanticizing the age of the old growth hardwood bottomland forests with their gargantuan oaks and hickories before we started logging and draining the good kind of swamp. Old photographs and artwork paint pictures that are hard not to idealize when you are passionate about the natural heritage of this country. That is the thing about history. You will eventually learn about what you will never have the opportunity to experience.

Ah, but what would I give up in exchange for that bygone era? I do believe I would sacrifice the internet, television, maybe even electricity, especially because I would never know those innovations were on the horizon. Naturally, I would still want to bring my binoculars, digital camera, first aid kit, and waterproof jacket on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Sure, I would likely have a shorter lifespan, but at least I would enjoy that life more fully. Today, instead of California Condors gracing the skies, I am subjected almost daily to extremely loud military aircraft overhead. I would gladly trade noise and neon and traffic and the illusion of choice in the marketplace for something a lot simpler, with fewer losses of species.


We can reverse some of this, turn back the clock if you will. The grand experiment of reintroducing the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park proves decisively that Mother Nature has a memory, and that when you bring back a piece of the puzzle, the whole thing fits together tighter and smoother. We need a historical spectrum of nature, from the initial stages of succession to the "finished" product, because we know there is no such thing as a permanent climax ecosystem. Even natural communities are ephemeral, but until now there have been multiple, continuous habitats that feed each other. They are now so isolated that there is no transfer of species and so invasives take command. We need to link the wild spaces with corridors to facilitate healing of the landscape.

It remains to be seen if I can continue to be as resilient as that landscape, how many times I can come back healthy, vibrant, committed to making the world a better place, acting on my vision of wholeness in every sense of the word. For now I am misplaced, a pioneer naturalist and writer in a domain that I had no conscious hand in architecting.