Eye Trouble

This site is on temporary hiatus because I am having problems with my eyes. I will be back as soon as possible.

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Advertising Works: That’s Why Companies Spend So Much Money On It

This year 29 entrants will vie to qualify for the grand prize race for the 10 million dollar Automotive XPrize to be held next year in 2010. There will be two categories: mainstream (four passenger and at least a 200 mile range), and alternative (two passenger and at least a 100 mile range). The winners must “exceed 100 miles per gallon, meet strict emission standards, and finish in the fastest time.”

Entrants must meet several specifications intended to encourage designs that are safe, reliable, and desirable — at competitive prices. This is one attempt to address the coming ‘twin peaks’ of peak oil and global warming by encouraging the development of cars that use less gas and produce fewer harmful emissions. While not a long-term solution, a 100mpg car would help a lot while we await the development of a good mass transit infrastructure.

(Parenthetically, I still think the idea of ‘train ferries’ makes good sense: that is, we take the train  long distances with our little ‘runabouts’ loaded onto carrier cars behind us. Then, when we reach our destination we are comfortable and relaxed. We unload our little cars and can explore the area with great freedom and convenience.)

There are five general types of cars that have been accepted to compete for the Auto Xprize. Eleven of them are hybrids, nine use alternative fuels, such as diesel, compressed natural gas, ethanol, etc. Four are electric cars and one is the compressed air car. And four use regular gas.

Perhaps the most depressing thing about this list is that several of the entries use no new technology at all. In other words, it has been possible to make a 100mpg car for some time. As the Auto Xprize publicity says, the reason we don’t have these highly efficient cars already is that “increases in energy efficiency have been ‘spent’ on increased vehicle power, acceleration, and weight, rather than in increased fuel economy.”

You will hear American auto industry apologists arguing that they only built SUV’s and pickups because “the public demanded them”. Which conveniently ignores the fact that they bombarded us with advertising for big vehicles. Why?  Because their profit margin was much higher on them. That advertising convinced many of us.

We have a wasteful society because it has been (and is) profitiable.

Walk In Beauty

The Transition Towns movement is attracting more people every day. And a big part of its success comes from the feeling of energy and joy that people get when they join in, roll up their sleeves, and get to work. It’s the same sort of exhilaration you feel on a canoe trip down a swift river — a feeling of being in control yet carried along by a great natural force.

It’s the feeling of working with nature, instead of trying to overcome obstacles. In this case, human nature — our natures. The Transition Towns movement has tapped into not one but two powerful streams within human nature. And “going with the flow” is not only exhilarating, it makes it possible to do much more.

First is the simple, but enormously strong power of attention. Whatever you choose to frequently focus the spotlight of your attention on broadens, deepens, widens, and proliferates in clarity and detail. Always. Naturally.

And the second great stream is the process of asking questions. As Michael Patterson says in the Global Ideas Bank, “Ask the question with deliberate genuine intent. You will get an answer. That’s just how your brain works.”

He goes on to suggest that you concentrate on practical questions, which is perfect for transition work. So begin your questions with “What?” or “How?” or “Where?” or “When?” or “Who?”.

Our lives, and ultimately our culture take shape from the kinds of questions we ask. Everything is constantly changing, and we influence the direction and content of those changes with our persistent questions.

So you may wish to join the Transition Towns movement. You may enjoy exploring questions like “How would I like my life to be?” and “What can we do in our community to make that kind of life more possible?”.

There is room for you, no matter what your interests are. Some are asking “How can we grow and distribute fresher, healthier, better-tasting food locally?” Others wonder “How can we have more comfortable homes and still save money and energy, and reduce global warming?” Or perhaps “What do we need to do next to develop a community-wide, non-polluting electrical system that is more reliable and less expensive to maintain?” Or “How can we support our local arts and crafts people and integrate them more into education and our daily lives?” Building local resilience has need for all of us.

Maybe we can model our overall goal on that of the Navajo and ask of each proposal “How will this action help us to walk in beauty?”

An Injury to One Is An Injury to All

A couple of presidential elections ago one of the political websites had an interesting presentation. As a visitor to the site you could take a short quiz about your own political convictions, then the website would pair you with the candidate who best matched your own views. (This was early in the primary, so there were several to choose from.)

“Go ahead,” the site said, “try it. You might be surprised.” I did. And I was. Very.

According to the answers I gave, the candidate whose views most nearly matched mine was Dennis Kucinich, a man I had never given any serious consideration to because he is presented in the media as a kook.

This made me realize what a powerful weapon ridicule is in the hands of manipulators. It also made me wonder what else I may be dismissing out-of-hand because propagandists have used ridicule to discredit it.

So I started exploring with more of an open mind. And I began to make some discoveries. Here is one (and I’ll present it to you as a set of questions).

Would you be interested in joining a group that:

  • Teaches that whoever holds economic power also holds political power;
  • Has as a motto “An injury to one is an injury to all”;
  • Welcomes all races and religions, and includes women and gays as members – and always has;
  • Fights for free speech;
  • Practices grassroots democracy (self-management);
  • Has always opposed militarism and condemns all wars;
  • Is famous for its love of music and songwriting; and
  • Counts among its more famous members Helen Keller, Gary Snyder, Dorothy Day, and Noam Chomsky?

If so (and if you are not an employer) you may be a Wobbly at heart. Yes, that is a description of several key position points of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). You can find out more about them at Wikipedia or at their own site.  And dues are only $9 a month!

But, I’m Not Using My Physics In My House

One problem with our media-heavy life is that good things come and go unnoticed because 1) they are buried amongst an avalanche of junk, and 2) we are always going on to something new.

But in order to make something our own we have to sit with it a while, chew it over some, set it aside, and then come back to it again with new eyes.

In that spirit, I’d like to revisit an Alan AtKisson interview with Bill Mollison published in In Context magazine in 1991. (There is a lot on this site that is worthwhile, and still relevant — check it out at:  http://www.context.org/

Back then Bill was always being asked  to define permaculture, and always struggling to do so. Part of his genius was that his mind was forever shooting off in a hundred different directions at once. So it was easy for him to see endless possibilities, but hard to catch and hold down one simple formulation that would satisfy inquirers. But by 1991 he was saying quite clearly that permaculture is a design system — a “Design for Living” (which is the title of the interview).

“Why is it,” Bill asked, “that we don’t build human settlements that will feed themselves, and fuel themselves, and catch their own water, when any human settlement could do that easily? When it’s a trivial thing to do?”

We (in Western cultures) need to change the way we see things, change the way we think, change the way we separate our knowledge from the way we live our lives.

Take physics professors, for example: “they may teach sophisticated physics at the university. But they go home to a domestic environment which can only be described as demented in its use of energy. They can’t [even] see that.”

“Once you’ve said to yourself, ‘But I’m not using my physics in my house.’ or ‘I’m not using my ecology in my garden — I’ve never applied what I know to how I live!’” the changes begin to “unroll like a carpet” in front of you.

So — permaculture is a design system and “One of the great rules of design is ‘do something basic right’. Then everything [following] gets much more right by itself. But if you do something basic wrong (a Type I error) you can get nothing else right.”

He also takes time to warn us against excess ‘individualism’. Permaculture, he says, means ‘complete cooperation’ with people and all of nature. “You can’t cooperate by knocking something about or bossing it or forcing it to do things. You won’t get cooperation out of a hierarchical system. You get enforced direction from the top and nothing I know of can run [well] like that.”

Why Should We Live With Problems We Can Solve?

Thanks to the mass media we are all aware of the Nobel Prize, awarded every year in six categories: chemistry, physics, medicine, economics, literature, and peace. 89% go to candidates from the ‘global North’ (North America and Europe) and 95% go to men. The first four categories recognize individual technological innovation and the latter two are heavily skewed by politics.

In the 1970s Jakob von Uexkull approached the Nobel Foundation to suggest two new awards, one for ecology and one for work aiding the poor majority of the world’s population. He offered to contribute financially, but the idea was turned down. So he sold his stamp collection for about $1 million, and in 1980 began the Right Livelihood Awards.  see http://www.rightlivelihood.org

The Right Livelihood Award presentation takes place in December in the Swedish Parliament on the evening before the Nobel Prize ceremony. The RLA has a completely open nomination process and no categories. Rather than searching the world for yet more technological innovation, the RLA jury screens the nominees with the question in mind, “Why should we live with problems we can solve?” The other criterion is that the recipients must be addressing the roots of global problems, not merely symptoms.

As a side note for those not familiar with the term, right livelihood is an ancient concept. It reflects a belief that a person should “follow an occupation consistent with the principles of honest living, treating with respect other people and the natural world. It means taking responsibility for one’s actions and living lightly in the world.”

Many wonderful people and groups have been Right Livelihood Award recipients. Some you may have heard of include Plenty International (USA), Leopold Kohr (Austria), the Self-Employed Women’s Association (India), Wangari Maathai (20 years before she got the Nobel Peace Prize), the Seikatsu Club Consumer’s Cooperative (Japan), Mary and Carrie Dann of the Western Shoshone Nation (USA), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria), the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP of India), Wes Jackson (USA) Amy Goodman (USA 2008 for developing a model of independent journalism), and of course, Bill Mollison (1981 Australia) co-founder of permaculture.

Looming Challenges

People who make money from fomenting and exaggerating political controversy are having a marvelous time with the “stimulus package” President Obama just signed into law. But all the boom and sparkle of the fireworks they generate is, I believe, drawing attention away from issues that need clear analysis and appropriate action.

It should be clear, for example, that if we want public services we must pay taxes. It should also be clear that the tax policies of the last eight years have been disastrous to our economy. It then follows that more of the same will not make the economy better.

I would also like to point out that many companies are downsizing or closing altogether because of a lack of demand for their products. A lack of customers. Not enough people willing (or able) to spend money to buy what they are selling. This cannot be fixed by giving more money and incentives to those companies. The companies were doing well – they had products that had been successful – the problem is that ordinary people became so hard-pressed that they could no longer afford to support those industries.

The simple fact is, without a large population with disposable income to spend, our economy cannot work. Emphasis on the large. When the 10% already own 90% of everything, the 90% can no longer support them.

The rich need to wise up – if they want to live in a functioning capitalistic society, they must tax themselves and their corporations enough to support a large and active middle class of entrepreneurs and consumers. Without them, the system implodes, as the present crisis makes perfectly clear.

That said, it may be too late. I think the present financial crisis will turn out to be different from previous recessions, because the reasons behind it include a very significant difference – the looming challenges of resource depletion and climate change.

Neither of these can be met with our present strategies – including the “stimulus package” – and certainly not with “business as usual”. To the extent that the present package encourages green energy and relocalization it will help, certainly.

But we desperately need to be learning how to live abundant lives within a “steady-state” economy, not stimulating the financial sector to restart economic growth.