Friday, August 28, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Doug Peacock, and me

The first reader to contribute an endorsement (a.k.a. "blurb") for my forthcoming novel, Consequence, was Scoop Nisker. Scoop was a radio news anchor on the Bay Area radio stations KSAN and KFOG as I was growing up, and often reported on the politiscape of Bay Area activism. The tag line with which he closed his reports became the title of his first book: If You Don't Like The News, Go Out and Make Some of Your Own. As an activist coming up in the 70s and 80s, that tag line became a kind of mantra to me.

Among other qualities ("exciting," "a great read"), Scoop found that Consequence was "reminiscent of The Monkey Wrench Gang," Edward Abbey's classic novel. Here's an excerpt from that book's description on Goodreads:
The story centers on Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find his beloved canyons and rivers threatened by industrial development. On a rafting trip down the Colorado River, Hayduke joins forces with feminist saboteur Bonnie Abbzug, wilderness guide Seldom Seen Smith, and billboard torcher Doc Sarvis, M.D., and together they wander off to wage war on the big yellow machines, on dam builders and road builders and strip miners. [...] Moving from one improbable situation to the next, packing more adventure into the space of a few weeks than most real people do in a lifetime, the motley gang puts fear into the hearts of their enemies, laughing all the while.
I'll leave it to readers to decide how closely my novel echoes Abbey's. I will say, though, that Consequence isn't a comic novel, and its characters -- even the characters who monkeywrench -- are scaled much more closely to the sort of people you might know in real life than to George Washington Hayduke III, Abbey's grandiose, wildman protagonist. On the other hand, Scoop is on the mark: there's a prominent parallel-plot in Consequence that involves the kinds of things for which Hayduke is an iconic emblem: sabotaging diesel-burning forestry equipment, and ... how to say without revealing too much ... let's call them more ambitious acts of ecotage.

As it happens, Abbey's George Washington Hayduke III is based on a real-life person. And that real-life person is something of a wildman himself. His name is Doug Peacock, he's a writer and wilderness activist himself, and -- here's the twist -- he was a friend of my family during my teenage years.

Doug was a longtime friend of a fellow Ph.D. candidate in my dad's program at Stanford University in the early & mid-1970s, the late Jim Benson. Through Jim, Dad befriended Doug and contributed modestly to a film project Doug was working on then. Doug and Jim came by our house sometimes when Doug was in town, though mostly he was hanging out with grizzly bears in much wilder country than Palo Alto. This was maybe a year or two after The Monkey Wrench Gang was published.

In my family, Doug was famous for two things.

First, he had a rock-solid commitment to visiting grizzly country without carrying firearms to protect himself. It's their wilderness, not ours, he would insist, and he's still saying so (see Doug's Daily Beast post of this past Saturday, Do Killer Grizzlies Deserve Death?). Dad loved to repeat one of Doug's stories about getting treed by a grizzly, and being pretty far from certain whether he would live through the encounter. He nonetheless continued to visit the wilderness unarmed.

The second thing Doug was famous for in my family was spilling a glass of red wine on our best Danish modern couch (okay, it wasn't much, we got it secondhand, but it was the finest thing we had to sit on in our living room). What made that incident memorable was this: Doug (who was not the type to worry about social graces) got pretty flustered about making a mess of my mom's couch, but as he apologized profusely he also taught us an unexpected lesson: that pouring salt on the spill would leach the wine stain right out of her furniture. Mom was skeptical at first, but she let Doug talk her into dumping most of a container of Morton's finest over the spill. And it worked! Not a household hint you'd necessarily expect to learn from a wildman, but there you have it.

I was surprised at first to see Scoop Nisker compare Consequence to Edward Abbey's iconic environmentalist classic, but I have to admit there's a traceable line of influence. Go figure. Life hands you the strangest coincidences...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
It's a book! CONSEQUENCE coming in October ...
Allusion in fiction
Mental floss

Thanks to Erwin and Peggy Bauer for releasing their photo of a grizzly bear into the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Pope Francis' environmental encyclical in four core themes

There's plenty that has already been written and excerpted from Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si': On Care for our Common Home, in the ten weeks since it was published by the Vatican on 24 May. But I took my time reading through the full text (in English translation), and am only now ready to shine my own small light on this deep and comprehensive text by the spiritual leader of some 1.25 billion people. I'm not a Catholic or Christian myself, and disagree strongly with some of the Church's teachings, but Pope Francis got to the heart of several existential problems facing humankind, touching on fundamental themes that he argued and illustrated in ways that speak to audiences well beyond the bounds of Christendom.

It turns out that Bill McKibben too is only now weighing in on Laudato Si', in his piece The Pope and The Planet in the current, 13 Aug issue of the New York Review of Books [article is behind a pay wall]. As McKibben describes the encyclical:
Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet--an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary.
I agree.

After reading it through I see the text (which I will no doubt re-read) emphasizing four core themes, though they don't encompass all of what Pope Francis has to say in Laudato Si':
  1. Humankind is a peer among living beings in the material world
  2. Shared responsibility is the ethos required to sustain our common home
  3. We can't rely merely on markets and engineering to resolve the present crises
  4. Synthesis -- not reductive analysis -- is the path to true understanding
To condense down the many of Pope Francis' 246 paragraphs I highlighted as I read Laudato Si' to produce something even vaguely blog-post size, I had no choice but to leave out richly-thought and clearly-articulated stretches of Pope Francis' prose. The 17 trimmed paragraphs below add up to a bit more than four percent of the full encyclical; I encourage everyone I'm capable of encouraging to read the entire document. It's 82 pages in PDF format. A full consideration of the breadth and complexity of the Pope's thinking is well worth the investment of time and attention.

In the excerpts below, the cited numerals [in square brackets] refer to the numbered paragraphs of Pope Francis' encyclical. I have omitted endnote references published in the original.

Humankind is a peer among living beings in the material world

The current pope took his name to align his papacy with St. Francis of Assisi, and is the first pope to have taken the name Francis. Early in his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis clearly draws the link between his theme and the beloved patron saint of animals and the environment:
Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. [...] His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. [...] If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. [11]
Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment. Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. [...] [42]
This is a key perspective, for Pope Francis and for all humanity: we are an integral part of Earth, and the purpose of its diverse beings, aspects, and materials is not to 'serve' humankind in any subsidiary way. We are co-equal, interdependent inhabitants -- not rulers or masters. Much follows from adoption of this considered, honest humility.

Shared responsibility is the ethos required to sustain our common home
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. [...] Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. [13]
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications [...]. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. [...] There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. [...] Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded. [25]
[...] A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. [...] The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa [...]. [51]
It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. [...] [54]
The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes “a seedbed for collective selfishness”. When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears. [...] Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction. [204]
Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban. Some, for example, show concern for a public place (a building, a fountain, an abandoned monument, a landscape, a square), and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges. [...] [232]
Environmental catastrophe will not be averted unless we each and all pull the weight we are capable of and responsible for pulling.

We can't rely merely on markets and engineering to resolve the present crises

That is to say, real solutions will necessarily be disruptive to how people in developed nations live.
[...] Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation. [...] We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. [...] [34]
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. [...] The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. [...] This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity. [93]
The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. [...] Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. [106]
[...] The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. [...] Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. [...] Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. [109]
[...] Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor. [190]

Synthesis -- not reductive analysis -- is the path to true understanding

This fundamental concept is not unrelated to the first theme I called out (Humankind is a peer among living beings in the material world). Pope Francis nailed it, particularly in his section titled The Globalization of the Technocratic Paradigm:
It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build. [107]
Although no conclusive proof exists that GM cereals may be harmful to human beings, and in some regions their use has brought about economic growth which has helped to resolve problems, there remain a number of significant difficulties which should not be underestimated. In many places, following the introduction of these crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to “the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production”. [...] The expansion of these crops has the effect of destroying the complex network of ecosystems, diminishing the diversity of production and affecting regional economies, now and in the future. [...] [134]
[...] It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. [...] Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. [...] It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality. [138]
[...] By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behaviour. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market. [204]
* * *

To conclude with McKibben, again from The Pope and The Planet:
[...] at least since the Buddha, a line of spiritual leaders has offered a reasonably coherent and remarkably similar critique of who we are and how we live. The greatest of those critics was perhaps Jesus, but the line continues through Francis’s great namesake, and through Thoreau, and Gandhi, and many others. Mostly, of course, we’ve paid them devoted lip service and gone on living largely as before.
But lip service isn't going to work this time around, devoted or not. Rejecting leaders and pundits (McKibben names Thatcher, Reagan, and David Brooks) who "summon the worst in us and assume that will eventually solve our problems," McKibben rightly observes that:
Pope Francis, in a moment of great crisis, speaks instead to who we could be individually and more importantly as a species. As the data suggest, this may be the only option we have left.

Related posts from One Finger Typing:
Oil trains, coal trains: extractive economics vs. people and place
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
The fossil fuel industry and the free sump that is our atmosphere: Zing!
Weather? Climate? Change?

Thanks to AgĂȘncia Brasil, via Wikimedia, for the image of Pope Francis at Vargihna, Brazil.