When I first started giving talks using the lens of “old story – new story,” I would illustrate my points with examples. Old story is factory farms, mountaintop removal coal mining, clear-cutting forests, Peak Oil, suburban sprawl. New story is organic farming, renewable energy, selective logging, urban agriculture, Net-Zero building, intentional community. I tried to tease out the stories behind them, the contrasting worldviews at the core of these choices. I would say that the world we live in is created by stories of who we are and why we are here.
Several years ago after one of these lectures, a student asked a question that I think about often. Students have a knack for this. At my first teaching job in 1988, a freshman architecture student asked me if the Greeks thought of themselves as “modern.” It was a humbling and exciting moment in which I hoped any knowledge I might be able to impart would not interfere with his ability to ask such juicy questions. This time, the student wanted to know when all this begin, this shift to the modern worldview, the Story of Separation that produces the world we live in today. He asked, When did we start thinking this way? Continue reading
The horrific event on November 13 in Paris has a familiar tone to it, an energetic signature much like a terrible earthquake and tsunami or a hurricane with devastating flooding. Prediction and prevention are just as imprecise and impotent as in the face of a huge “natural” disaster. The victims are struck with random cruelty. We feel helpless in the aftermath.
True, the attacks in Paris were planned and carried out by people, acting out of a story they fervently believe. As such, we may tell ourselves that acts of terror or riots of unrest are preventable—if only we have better intelligence, stronger police response, more proactive targeted drone strikes—in short, we push back. Better. Harder. First. Continue reading
I’m not in the same league of erudition and wisdom as Aldous Huxley, nor as full in experience (not yet, anyway). I don’t have his masterful wit, nor have I taken mescaline, about which he wrote beautifully in 1954’s The Doors of Perception. In an odd way, his final novel, 1962’s Island, is the book I was trying to write for three years. And would have written, had I not found wise teachers of Story craft and other guides and critics who came along at just the right time to ask questions like, “Do you want other people to read this?”
For all its density, I did love Island as an intellectual exercise. I learned a great deal about Eastern philosophy, especially appreciating the mash-up concocted by Huxley with the best of modern Western scientific inquiry and intellectual rigor. In his fictional island of Pala, over 100 years, the residents have built their culture out of the best of all worlds, picking and choosing from Buddhism, Tantric philosophy, Enlightenment skepticism, and scientific method to name a few of the influences that go into the Pala stew. Continue reading
I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation. Continue reading
In politics and advertising, there’s an old saying: Whoever controls the story, wins. Campaign advisors speak of “framing” a story, of “getting ahead of” stories, “firing the first shot” against their opponent. This appropriation of Story to sell things—whether face cream or a financial bailout or a candidate—is a debasement of the magic and power of storytelling. One favored tactic is to reduce individuals to cartoonish generalizations, as some Presidential candidates are currently doing with immigration.
Michael Moore’s 2009 film about the financial crisis uses just the opposite technique, weaving a story from honest conversations with real people. “Capitalism: a Love Story,” is told in his signature quirky, gloves-off style. In the opening sequence, he intercuts an old classroom film about the Roman Empire with contemporary images of poverty, homelessness, backbreaking labor, and entertainments used to divert the people’s attention from the true state of things. It’s a brilliant commentary not only on how far we have fallen, but on where we might be headed if we don’t take an honest look at the stories we live by. Continue reading
Last week, I watched the first fifteen minutes of the Republican presidential “debate.” That’s all I could stand, those ten men up there delivering their carefully rehearsed sound bites. And the rich white guy with the comb-over playing to the cheering, jeering crowd with his outrageous pronouncements. The next morning, I attended a business breakfast in a place called Martin’s Valley Mansion. As I drove through the fully paved, suburban streetscape to a strip shopping center, I didn’t see a valley or a mansion.
In the vast windowless ballroom (walls faux-painted in Second Empire French drapery and fluted columns), about two hundred women drank coffee and networked. This yearly celebration of women in business sponsored by the local business newspaper is always well attended. This year’s panelists were leaders in the tech industry, giving intelligent advice about how to get ahead and thrive in a world dominated by men. They spoke frankly in answer to such questions as, How do we make this issue of more women in tech into more than a “women’s issue”? No one remarked on the irony of that question in a gathering of over 200 women and about 10 of their male colleagues. Continue reading
“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.” ~ Anne Lamott, from Grace, Eventually
Grace is a word you don’t hear much in secular discourse. Last week, President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was both about grace and full of grace itself. It awakened a memory of a conversation about grace with my father when I was in High School. He was one of those traditional dads who worked and did dad things, so I didn’t have a lot of interactions with him. This conversation about grace was a rarity. Turns out, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, either. I think he spoke of God’s presence or friendship, and we both enjoyed wondering about it together. That in itself was a moment of grace, a precious heart connection to each other and to something bigger than us.
Human affairs are full of flaws, opposition and contradictions. There never seems to be that one right solution that we can all agree on. And so we wrangle. In interactions with friends about the President’s recent successes, they were quick to point out his many failures and betrayals. It’s true he compromised on health care reform, and I can’t say I understand the appeal the Trans Pacific Partnership, which seems to me like a nightmare for workers and the environment. And let’s not forget, these friends say, about the drone strikes and the “Surge.” I get it, I do. And yet, there’s something we are missing when we argue like this. It’s too easy to find these imperfections. Continue reading
As a resident for the last 25 years of Baltimore, Maryland, I have spent many days on the Bay, usually in a sailboat. I, like many Marylanders, am acutely aware of the state of the Chesapeake Bay and her many tributaries. My son has been studying water quality in his 7th grade geography class, which included a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s study center on Smith Island—a truly special place, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. Tom Horton’s wonderful book about his time living on Smith, An Island Out of Time, is aptly titled.
The recent Report Card issued in late 2014 by CBF gives the state of the Bay a D+, the same grade as in 2012. Hard-won improvements in water quality were offset by losses in other areas, the impression of no progress defying the efforts of thousands of people and the expense of millions of dollars. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, its watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas, two shipping ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. As the Report Card says: Continue reading
I see a Baltimore who mines her gold
from the shadows behind abandoned houses.
I see a city of parks
with tree roots reaching deep beneath surfaces
tapping hidden sources
and joining the disconnected
with living bonds
visible even to eyes grown weary of witnessing.
I see neighborhoods of parades
of dancing and singing
lighting sacred fires
standing arm in arm in solidarity
kneeling down on cracked pavement to pray
to ask blessings and invoke peace
to appeal to the wisdom of the ancestors
the vision of the young. Continue reading
Yesterday, I mentioned David Korten’s work on new economic systems, which he calls “living economies.” This strikes me as a beautiful interim step away from our unquestioned disconnection from nature and elevation of reason over intuition, towards a more humble, conscious, and connected relationship with the living earth. We’re talking here about “biomimicry,” which I first discovered from Janine Benyus, a science writer who published a book by the same name in 1997.
Biomimicry has three basic principles. 1) Nature as model. Study, learn, and imitate how nature works, rather than how objects in nature look. 2) Nature as measure. Use an ecological standard to judge the rightness of our innovations. Nature has a 3.8 billion year head start on us and has learned what works, what is appropriate and what lasts. 3) Nature as mentor. Approach nature not from a perspective of what we can extract, but of what we can learn. Continue reading