Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The power of the buy-out

Earlier today, I sent an email to Sandra Steingraber after learning of her recent Heinz Award for her investigative, scientific, yet creative writing. It came with a $100,000 prize, which she is dedicating to the fight against fracking (drilling beneath our feet, homes, and schools for natural gas).   You can read about her decision to do this:
Below is an excerpt from my message and some other thoughts inspired by information I looked up:

The fight against fracking is going to be a tough one since our country seems to have turned its back towards the environment and even science.   Perhaps all those environmental pollutants are affecting brain cells too. [Sandra has written about the impact of chemical pollutants on our bodies in her books and regular columns in Orion Magazine.]  We truly are addicted to fossil fuels and the false hope that "finding more" will fix our problems.

Have you ever read the poem "The Last One" by W.S. Merwin (available at  The expressions of loss in this piece could easily apply to fracking as well as trees.

I showed the Lorax in one of my classes this week and was struck by the eerie relevance of the messages from the early 1970’s to today. Economy/jobs vs. a healthy environment and good habitat. I saw an ad of local citizens from the northern tier of PA praising Chesapeake Energy for bringing them good fortune, development (cough, cough), and jobs. It could have been the Once-ler.

For an example of what we are up against in this fight, all you have to do is read the information from the webpage of a single company:

"..Chesapeake has 2.4 million acres under lease in the Marcellus and has already paid almost $2 billion in lease bonus and royalties to farmers, families and townships across Pennsylvania ... Chesapeake has 1 million mineral owners in 16 states. To put that in perspective, about one in every 300 Americans has an oil and natural gas lease with Chesapeake.  [I don't even know how many of these companies exist, but there are several.] And they have been very well rewarded. We’ve paid out $9 billion in lease bonuses over the past 5 years, about $5 billion in royalties over the past 4 years, and another $2 billion in taxes over the past 5 years.   And every one of those numbers is going up daily. The lives of millions rest on us getting this issue right and utilizing this American Treasure."

Sigh.  Why do these statements scare me so?

Today, there were thousands of activities through the project Moving Planet all around the world -- all aimed at reducing our dependence on and moving past fossil fuels (see   And in our region?  Nada.  Sigh. But I guess when you are part of the buy-out described above, who is going to protest?  A state that is in the midst of a gold-rush-like frenzy with the fracking craze and that is populated by people who believe the claims about all the jobs and money that will come is certainly not complaining.  Hey, this Commonwealth only contributes 1% of the global carbon dioxide to the global atmosphere.  (Excuse me while I cough some more.)


This week, an article appeared in International Business Times entitled "Alarming Poverty Rate: Is U.S. Becoming a Third World Country?" (see  Now anyone who has traveled to the Global South knows that this is a bit absurd.  BUT, such alarmist titles should make us think long and hard about "business as usual".  Simply put, it is not working.  Perhaps we need to consider something new, something like a green economy, perhaps?

Calls for redefining prosperity in the past have been futile.  How much of an economic and social crash will it take?

Monday, September 12, 2011

When prosperity eludes us

A friend wrote a piece yesterday while reflecting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11:  I think it is beautiful.

Perhaps I am growing cynical.  The result of an eternally frustrated optimist, I guess.  For what it is worth, here is the off-the-cuff reaction I wrote on Stephen's blog (instead of working on my grading and lecture preparation).


In the most general sense, things have not really changed.  Our worst characteristics have perhaps become more fully exemplified (fear, discrimination, a failure to understand difference but a tendency to stereotype, hypocrisy, etc.).  As you state, “our churches were suddenly full”, but sadly, the preaching was too often of retaliation, rather than forgiveness.  I was having great difficulty with all the memorializing over the past week.  For what purpose?  To fuel the anger and hatred? To sharpen the state of fear?  To honor the fallen from that day?  What about all those who have died fighting (sometimes in a country not at all involved in the attacks) or at the hands of our military (perhaps in retaliation)?

One of my favorite stories that appeared over the past week was surprisingly enough from CNN:  The story of the Maasai gift says much about the sense of compassion that remains amongst some cultures.  Have we been as thoughtful in their times of drought, and now, the pipeline explosion?  Or are we still so self-focused that empathy escapes us?

In 2010, Pakistan suffered extreme flooding – the worse in 80 years.  A death toll near 1000, 20 million people affected.  Did we pay much attention?  Not really.  After all, it is an Islamic country and we have sadly lumped all of “those types” together and associated them with 9/11.  After all, bin Laden was found there. (Please know that I am being sarcastic here – just to be clear.)  I still lament the loss of human life and know that even the poor and even the evil, have someone who loves them and is grieving over the loss.

Meteorologists have linked the unusually heavy monsoon flooding in Pakistan to the hottest summer on record and massive fires in Russia in 2010.  Something called an abnormal Rossby wave.  I have no idea what that is, but I am sure that our climate change deniers in Texas (on fire literally and figuratively this year) and in the flooded northeast/mid-Atlantic region would never succumb to the idea that maybe we should pay attention to the climate models.  Or at least the idea that Mother Nature can get pretty cranky sometimes and perhaps we should treat her planet and her people a bit nicer.

So we lick our wounds from the heat waves, and fires, and floods, and hold memorial services “to remember”, but we don’t ask what needs to be altered in our lives, our lifestyles.  We go on.  After all, we are survivors.  Nothing changes.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Water, water everywhere?

I am a water person.  Growing up on the shores of a Great Lake will do that to you.  When I walk along a shoreline, paddle a canoe, or go for a swim, I find it to be soothing, an escape from the stresses of work or life.

Yesterday, I went for the last swim of the season at the local community pool.  It was a cloudy day, not the type that attracts a lot of pool-goers.  Which was just fine with me.  I love when the pool is quiet, free of the screams of delight and the “wake” from people jumping off the side into the lane where I swim laps. 

As I glided through the water, I couldn’t help but think how cool and refreshing and comforting it felt.  Cool water is better for swimming laps.  It feels faster somehow.  But I also began to think about the trouble that water (or lack thereof) has caused this year.  As I was swimming, people in states from North Carolina to New England were still cleaning up from Hurricane Irene’s flooding rains.  And major rains are predicted for the upcoming week possibly followed by the remnants of not just one, but two hurricanes/tropical storms.  In the northeast, water is abundant, too abundant in some places.  In parts of my state, August precipitation levels were at an all-time high for any month, ever!

Meanwhile, areas in the south like Texas have not only had an incredible streak of hot weather, but also a severe drought.  The U.S. Drought Monitor ( labels the south as being a D4 level of drought intensity (“exceptional”).  Funny choice of terms since I typically associate the word "exceptional" with good things, like a job well done.  According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, the ten months from October 2010 through July 2011 were the driest for that 10-month period in Texas since 1895, when the state began keeping rainfall records. During that same time period, Texas has been battling its worse wildfire season in history with over 3.5 million acres burned already and new fires blazing as of yesterday.

Occasionally, there are news reports of the extreme drought in the Horn of Africa, especially all the starving refugees from Somalia.  The water levels at Kenya’s power dams were so low that electric companies had to begin rationing electricity at the end of July leading to blackouts.  What little coverage there has been, the reports make it sound like this is a new problem.  Two years ago, my Maasai friend from Kenya told me about the problems that the already long-running drought was causing for pastoralists, their livestock, and wildlife.

Check out the graphic at this website ( to get a sense of the number of people who don’t have “reasonable access to safe drinking water” (defined as the availability of at least 20 liters per person per day from an improved source within 1 kilometer of the user's dwelling).  How many of us would walk this far for drinking water when we can just carry our little plastic bottles around?  Sigh.  Do you feel at least a little guilty if you water your lawn or wash your car?  I do neither.

Northern Africa has been in the news a lot this year due to the political uprisings.  Just recently, while some celebrated the rebel take-over of the Libyan capital or pondered over the newly-found documents that show ties between Libya and the CIA, many may have missed the fact that people in Tripoli were becoming desperate because Gadhafi loyalists had cut off water supplies to the city.  Cutting off food and water is not a new tactic of warfare, but I can’t imagine what that must be like.  Remember, this is a desert region with a coast along a sea (i.e. saltwater).

Only 1% of the world’s freshwater (~0.007% of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human use. "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Yet in this state (and others), millions of gallons of water are mixed with unsafe chemicals and blasted down into the Earth to release tiny bubbles of methane gas.  Yes, we are willing to sacrifice molecules that are essential to life, H2O, to extract some more fossil fuel.  And who says we aren’t addicted to oil and gas?

Recently, while discussing the protests in Washington D.C. about the tar sands pipeline (a protest really about climate change and the President's broken campaign promises), my students asked if there was any issue that would cause me to engage in civil disobedience.  Without hesitation I replied, "..if they ever were to start piping water from Lake Superior to the southwest."