Monthly Archives: November 2014

Elder looking back – the Armstrong years

neil-armstrong-moon-flag

News of the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a release mechanism for a lot of pent-up memories. Like me, Neil was born in the decade leading up to the Second World War. The “Silent Generation” was one label applied to people born in that era, and was apparently coined by Time magazine, who described us as ”grave and fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, and expecting disappointment but desiring faith”. Hardly an accurate description of Neil Armstrong. I too would certainly not want to lay claim to any of it, except maybe for the “fatalistic” and “expecting disappointment” bits.

I can recall exactly where I was at 17 minutes and 39 seconds past 1 p.m. PST on Sunday 20 July 1969 when the Eagle touched down on the moon – 25 kilometres south of Hebo, Oregon. I was an impoverished grad student in a clapped-out Ford making my first-ever visit to the Pacific Northwest. National Public Radio was broadcasting the landing live, and I decided on safety first for my long-suffering wife and two small kids, rather than trying to listen to the radio and simultaneously negotiate the tight curves on the forest highway. The kids lost interest and wandered off to watch the chipmunks, and I was left sitting and marvelling at the historic moment and somewhat in awe of American prowess in science and space technology.

Curiosity-Rover-Safely-Lands-on-MarsI still am. Looking at the latest imagery coming from Curiosity on Mars, one has to marvel at the intellectual power that can design and send an unmanned craft 560 million kilometers from earth to Mars and land it safely while retaining full operational capability. And then I wonder why the same intellectual power gets shelved when my American friends turn their attention to other things, like building automobiles, managing their vast wealth, managing their own environment, or winning wars.

During my grad days in the U.S. of A., that country was in the process of losing a war in Vietnam. They subsequently went on to lose one in Iraq, and are now pretty busy losing yet another in Afghanistan. It was a naturalized American – Albert Einstein – who famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I don’t think Einstein was thinking of war in that context, but it’s obvious the Americans aren’t very good at it.

v17_10210227Not that there wasn’t great protest to the Vietnam War in the decade when Neil Armstrong made his historic flight to the moon. University campuses were humming with marches, speeches and placard carriers. Except in Utah where I was – trust me to wind up in the most conservative state of the union. But we did get the benefit of the musical spin-offs from the protest movement. There will never be another Pete Seeger or another Joan Baez.

effluentIn my tiny cubicle in the grad student room I had a poster pinned to the wall “The Effluent Society”. It showed a huge factory spewing out huge quantities of luridly coloured smoke and murky fluids. The title was a take-off on the famous 1958 book by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All the grad students had similar posters on their walls, except for Smith who had a Playboy bunny.

Which reminds me (the effluents that is, not the bunny) that the sixties were when environmental impact assessment first became policy in the U.S. The man who signed the National Environmental Policy Act was, of all people, President Richard Nixon, one of the most conservative of latter day presidents. At the signing ceremony he said “A major goal for the next 10 years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air and the water, and that means moving also on the broader problems of population congestion, transport and the like. Congress has acted very commendably in setting up the Environmental Council by this bill, and we already have an environmental courichard-nixon4ncil within the administration. A great deal more needs to be done There are many areas where you can work, maybe this year or 5 years or 10 years from now. But this is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later. That is the way I feel.” I can only conclude that the definition of conservative has changed radically since then!

HAL-9000We thought we were living in exciting times back in the Armstrong  years. We had no idea. We had never contemplated the possibility of climate change, we had no inkling of the coming internet, laptop computers were at least two decades down the road. When Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released we were awed by the concepts and the story, but credibility? I was carrying my thesis data around in boxes containing hundreds and hundreds of Hollerith cards, and here was Kubrick depicting a master computer which spoke, reasoned and listened (although not too well). Phooey.

And there is precisely the problem we elders have today. Most of what Kubrick showed us back then was to become factual down the road, but we would never have believed it. The best I can do in the prognostication business is to state that technologically, the sky is indeed the limit. We will explore the universe, one way or another. We will employ technology to achieve amazing things in medicine, science, energy and computing. But we will continue to founder within our own societies, our own communities, and with one another. As far as social science is concerned, we’ll just have to take it one day at a time, and deal with it the best we can.

[Originally posted September 12, 2012 by Stan Hirst]

What is an elder?

Who or what is an Elder?  Ask a kid and she’ll say it’s someone older than she is. Ask a botanist and he’ll talk about northern hemisphere shrubs and trees with white flowers and berries. Ask people from an aboriginal culture and they’ll tell of  old people in the community who are the keepers of wisdom and are sought after for their counsel, encouragement and blessing. Ask anyone else and the best you’ll get is a shrug.

Elders are, for the most part, all in the last one-third of their lives. And they don’t look much different from others of their age group. But they’re not just seniors with a fancier title.  Elders and eldering have much less to do with appearance than with attitude. They have realized that how they choose to view the world and what’s happening around them significantly affects their choices, their  actions and their resulting experience of life.

The Eldering Institute ® defines elders as those who have realized that the later years are a prime opportunity for a rich and rewarding life. Rather than waiting for the inevitable loss, decline, lack of purpose and resignation, They describe elders as those who have learned how to change their perspective by focussing on compassion, health, happiness, creative self-expression and service. In place of contributing new knowledge and information, Elders instead choose to share their wisdom. Their insights and perspectives are readily available to help others live life more successfully on their own terms. They connect ideas and solutions. They collaborate with others who are passionate about their common interests, thereby creating possible futures that all would choose to live into. Rather than controlling, manipulating or resisting, Elders can accept the situation and then share the possibilities they see.

The Institute describes Eldering today as requiring the transcending of age in relationships with others and the willingness to listen to what others have to offer. Eldering is about living life as a contribution.   Eldering means living life as a contribution to life. Elders have the time and the opportunity to share the best of themselves, and to have purposeful conversations on issues that really matter. Elders have learned how to listen attentively and non-judgmentally. Elders make the effort to look and listen and to see what is wanted and needed in the world.

Elders realize the importance of learning and personal growth throughout their lives. They are eager to discover what’s going on in the world. They open themselves to new inputs and are inspired by what others see and do. They view each day as an opportunity to expand their life experience.

[First posted by Stan Hirst on May 6,  2010].

Elders in search of a cause

Come by, if you will, any third Thursday of the month to the airy and spacious offices of the David Suzuki Foundation on West 4th in Vancouver. There you will find an august group of people engaged in earnest debate around the conference table. Half are women, half the men are bearded, many are grey, most are retired, some won’t admit to it. The group comprises an eclectic group of engineers, biologists, sociologists, business professionals and numerous other worthy occupations. These are the Suzuki Elders, all volunteers. This is as fine a group as you would wish to meet anywhere. How do I know this? Because I’m one of them.

The David Suzuki Foundation is one of the foremost environmental advocacy organizations in Canada, and indeed the world. With a staff of over forty, it engages with government, business and individuals to provide science-based education, advocacy and policy to effect the social changes demanded by the planet’s perilous condition. The enthusiastic and highly motivated staff devote their days and many of their nights to researching, writing about, debating and promoting the Foundations’ chosen targets: –    keeping Canada on track to do its fair share to avoid climate change; –    trying to convince Canadians to balance their high quality of life with efficient resource use, smart energy choices, energy-efficient transportation, and being mindful of the products, food and water they consume; –    advocating the protection of Canada’s diverse marine, freshwater and terrestrial creatures and ecosystems; and –    trying to get Canadians, especially youth, to understand and appreciate their dependence on a healthy environment.

The Suzuki Elders share the Foundation’s vision but our take on the issues is coloured by age, experiences and our collective, occasionally hazy, memories. Most of us can remember all the way back to the Second World War, indeed some of us were caught up in it as children. Our youth was an age of community, of heavy reliance on face-to-face exchanges. Long-distance communication required hand-written letters, memos hammered out literally on a 50 lb black Remington, or yelling through a rotary telephone. Local news came via a thick wad of newspaper which later doubled to line drawers or as a wrapping for fish and chips. International news arrived via a scratchy radio with vacuum tubes and a big yellow dial encased in a huge pressed oak cabinet.

Space was not a problem for us in our pre-elder years, especially those of us who grew up in Canada or some other outpost of the empire. We recall Dad hitting the road in a thundering great V-8 which gulped a gallon of gasoline for every eight miles it managed to cover. That was not a big problem for Dad – the stuff cost just 20¢ a gallon. When the V-8 was finally coaxed to hit the road, we could cover a few hundred miles and hardly see any other cars or people – just distant forests, mostly untouched, and the occasional scattered farm with workable soil for anyone willing to take a plough to it.

Garbage was not a problem, we just dumped it and someone else would eventually come along and haul the stuff away to throw in a landfill somewhere. Garbage looked a little different back then – lots of glass bottles and containers, all kinds of paper wrappings, very little plastic, no Styrofoam, no disposable diapers. Factories and power stations blew out huge volumes of smoke and effluents. They weren’t a problem either, the wind would blow the smoke somewhere else and the local rivers and streams were pretty convenient disposal areas.

That’s all changed of course, and we know it as well as anybody. The planet has advanced on many fronts in the decades that we’ve been aware of it. We can now talk to anybody anywhere on the planet, and even see his or her grinning countenance on our cell-phones. We’ve got pineapples from Costa Rica, tomatoes from California, mangos from Mexico and butter from Ireland. Thirty-one brands of beer line the shelves in the liquor store, some from unpronounceable places like Plzeň, Izmir and Dharuhera. We can talk, read and write on i-Phones, i-Pads and Blackberries. We can Google, Twitter and chuckle on Facebook. We have conferences over the internet. Kids don’t succumb to poliomyelitis they way they did when we were kids. Diphtheria and whooping cough are just names on a chart on the back of the clinic door. Canadians now live to 90, thanks to medical science and health care, our parents’ generation seldom got past 60 or 65.

But it has all come at a huge price. The vast unfilled spaces and volumes of our youth are no more. They’re chocked full of our disposed and industrial wastes. Sprawling cities and megahoused suburbs have filled the landscape on our continent; mile upon mile of shanties and slums occupy the land on the other continents. There is so much disposable plastic and so many used condoms floating around in the oceans that it all forms huge islands in the middle of the Pacific. Oil spills have become so big that they threaten the future of entire coastal systems such as the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of animal and plant species which were around when we started out are no more. Fish such as cod and salmon, which once provided the basis for regional and national economies are in steep decline. The climate is changing and even the short-term scenarios are foreboding. Our national and international leaders waffle and cogitate and bend before the mighty dollar.

We don’t speak of it, but there must at least be an occasional tinge of guilt when we remember that it is our generation that contributed massively to this sorry state of affairs, driven by consumerism, greed and an inability to see the linkages between resources and their environmental underpinnings. We overlooked the simple fact that everything comes at a price, not necessarily financial and often hidden, and that there are limits on the capacities of the biosphere to absorb the wastes we produce in such incredibly huge quantities. On a higher level, it has become abundantly clear that we’ve lost our way, our sense of home and of belonging to the rest of Creation.

It was a realization of this loss that brought the Suzuki Elders together in the first place. The David Suzuki Foundation offered us a home and some friendly words of advice, but told us we would have to make our own way, sort it all out for ourselves. So here we sit talking, preaching and harrumphing, as elders are wont to do. We write the odd declaration to tell the world that things are in a great mess and that we don’t like it. We debate structure and function and constitution, as do all groups sooner or later. But what we haven’t done is actually try and remedy the situation.

Why not? Well, for starters, we’re not sure how to go about it. Our name is actually a bit of a handicap. Elders have been historically defined by two things – advancing age and wisdom. The classic examples are the elders of First Nations communities across the Americas. Elders have been, and still are in most cases, cornerstones for them. Their elders have experience, they have seen, they have endured for hundreds if not thousands of years, commonly in the very same areas that their own elders occupied. In communities with strong oral traditions and little use of printed and archived materials, aboriginal elders have been the repositories of knowledge and experience for their communities and a point of reference for interpreting changes from the norm. Not much of consequence typically happens in an aboriginal community unless it is first run by the elders.

But this model does not work for us. Age in modern western culture does not carry the built-in respect that it does for aboriginals. For us the word ‘elder’ has become synonymous with ‘senior’, with all the inevitable connotations of diminished capacity, demands for care, and the cause of lop-sided burdens on the budget. For many elders themselves the term has become pejorative, to the extent that some educational institutions even eschew the term ‘elder’ in their programming and seek kitschy alternatives such as the synthetic construct ‘third age’.

The wisdom thing doesn’t fit very well either. You can know a lot but unless you can impart it to someone who needs it, it doesn’t count for much. When younger people need information they typically don’t go seeking out elders for the answers, they turn to their laptops or mobile phone and simply Google the question. The internet has opened up massive libraries and databases to everyone on every conceivable subject, all free of personal bias and many free of charge. Why seek out some older dude for information when you can get it all with graphics, abstracts and annotated references? What the web cannot provide of course is the wisdom to use the data and information smartly. But then, considering the state of the planet at present, we elders cannot lay claim to much expertise in that regard either.

For some the term Elder conjures up a vision of stern-faced oldies, deeply steeped in religious chapter and verse, handing down decisions to the more youthful generation below. Not a good model for us either. We’re not any better equipped than the rest of the populace to formulate solemn decrees to deal with the complexities of the planetary biosphere. Nobody is standing at the church door waiting for our advice.

So what to do then? Well, we may be ageing but we can still count. There are fifteen of us around the table here, fewer when the weather is nice outside. But there are some 300,000 elder-age people in Vancouver. There are more than a million elders, however you care to define the term, in British Columbia and nearly 5 million in Canada. Heaven only knows how many are wandering around elsewhere in North America and the rest of the beleaguered planet. We may get no respect, as the saying goes, but we still have a vote. And our numbers are increasing all the time. Our potential to make real changes to the way we treat our Earth is truly enormous, if we can but get ourselves motivated, organized and all pointing in the same direction.

Where are the rest of us? Taking a leaf out of our younger colleagues’ book, we Google all the relevant terms – elders, environment, planet, conservation, biosphere. And we find nothing – not one other organization of elders concerned with the issues that brought us together here. We can only speculate on why the rest are so unconcerned . Are they just too comfortable, too busy fighting life’s daily grind, too ignorant of the issues? But whatever the cause of the apathy, the potential is great. And so are the challenges. It’s time to get moving. Go Elders!

[First posted by Stan Hirst on June 11, 2010].

The Suzuki Elder Perspective

The world is a very complex place for the Elders. Some of us are from the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945, and described as grave, fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, and expecting disappointment but desiring faith. The rest of us are Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and supposedly associated with a “redefinition of traditional values”. We are told that we were the first generation to think of ourselves as special and to genuinely expect the world to improve with time.

Most of us think those descriptions are just journalistic claptrap, typical of the mass labelling so prevalent in our modern times. When we look at each other we see as much diversity as homogeneity. Why not? We come from a wide variety of cultures, geographic locations, home backgrounds, faiths and life experiences. If anything, we are an ageing cross-section of the modern diversity that is Canada.

But we must have some commonalities, else how did we all gather together under the umbrella we call the Suzuki Elders?

For starters, we all share a deep concern for our planet, the Pale Blue Dot. As Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan wrote “The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand“. With that sort of definition we ought to expect, but clearly don’t get, a high level of reverence for the Earth from its inhabitants. We Elders want to make that view more widely known.

For seconds, we all have offspring. The average Elder has 2.5 children and 4.7 grandchildren, and we naturally care deeply about the future of all of them. But we gaze into their future and find it bleakly occupied by multiple gathering storms of climate change, burgeoning world populations, widespread food and water shortages, and never-ending social and political discord. Our efforts to change all this seem pitifully small, but we have a common urge to make the attempt.

And thirdly, in the David Suzuki Foundation we have found a supportive environment in which to come together to pursue our common altruistic objectives. The Foundation’s mission, which it pursues with almost Elder-like zeal, is to protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future, and its singular vision is that within a generation, Canadians will go about their lives based on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.

But then, how to move forward from here?

We come at environmental issues from different places of knowledge and experience. We have a deep concern and many years of experience as lay people and activists, but few of us are formal experts in environmental issues. What we say, write and present needs to be scientifically sound, evidence-based and well researched. Working with and through the David Suzuki Foundation provides enormous and unique opportunities but also entails the obligation to respect the Foundation’s requirements to comply with charitable status guidelines for non-partisan advocacy. How can we best utilize our diverse strengths? The answer is that we need a common attitude which reflects our shared understanding of the relative importance of things and imparts a sense of proportion. In short we need a sense of perspective about what we’re striving to accomplish.

Hours, days, weeks of reflection, discussion, scribbling and charting have resulted in just such a formulation which we happily term The Suzuki Elder Perspective and which we present below.

The cornerstone of the perspective is the David Suzuki Foundation’s own Declaration of Interdependence which expresses its values as an organization. The Declaration was written for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and portions of it were woven into the work of others around the world to form the Earth Charter. Since its inception the Declaration has inspired people around the world to live lighter on the Earth. In addition, the perspective highlights the original purpose of the Suzuki Elders, and specifically addresses the important Aboriginal Peoples Policy of the David Suzuki Foundation.SE perspective

[First posted by the Suzuki Elders on Sept 30, 2013.]

Earth Personified

This poem was inspired by a serious problem – climate change.

Humans are wired to create this problem, but not for solving it. We express concern about climate change, yet find it difficult to motivate effective action which would bring us relief from that anxiety.

We are wired to react by reflex to protect our children from harm, but we treat the climate danger intellectually, not emotionally.  We instinctively know the connection between climate change and ourselves, yet we don’t feel it. Our reaction to the Ebola virus is visceral and the threat visual enough for us to generate a response, but climate change simply leaves us numb.

A useful response seems to demand a kind of love which is hard to come by.

 

What if the Earth had big, brown eyes—
Would we love her then?
What if the Earth were three feet tall,
         a warm furry ball
         a nightingale call—
Would we love her then?
What if the Earth smelled all milky and musk?
What if her shape were an elephant’s tusk?
What if she rhymed with birth, mirth and nourish?
What if you saw her, and found raw courage?
Would we love her then?

 

Fire, Air, Earth and Water
Sister, Lover, Mother, Daughter
Help us heal our home with laughter
Sing her praises to the rafter!

 

[First posted by Karl Perrin on August 17, 2014]

Putting a Price Tag on Nature

by Stan Hirst

Our Elder-in-chief, David Suzuki, is well-known Pricey bluebirdfor his strong views on modern economics. His statements through the popular media that conventional economics is a form of brain damage have ruffled many a feather and elicited vitriolic retorts from the financial media. David’s main objection to the “dismal science” is that, when faced with the necessity of having to address the loss of natural ecosystem services (such as the hydrologic cycle, the activities of soil microorganisms or the fertilization of flowering plants by insects) economists invariably take a short cut and lump all these diverse and very heterogeneous functions and components into just one variable – externalities.

Externalities, in economic lingo, are factors whose benefits and costs are not reflected in the market price of goods and services. David’s concern is that relegation to that category virtually guarantees that little further notice will be taken of nature’s diverse benefits in project and policy evaluations and decisions. Most externalities are components or processes that do not have a market value in the typical sense – they aren’t traded and paid for in the market place. Nobody pays a swarm of bees to pollinate a fruit orchard, nor does anybody hand over a cheque to a few billion soil microorganisms to turn old vegetables and lawn clippings into useful compost.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean those processes are then excluded from all further reckoning. For example, apiarists are paid in fruit-growing regions to transport their hives of bees to orchards to carry out seasonal pollination; the owner of the land holding the dumped organic matter can tend the resulting compost and place it in bags to sell at profit at garden shops. The processes may be external to the economic balance sheet, but the products need not be.

There doesn’t appear to be anything inherently anti-environment in the science of economics (it is a science by the way – it was first defined in 1803 by Jean-Baptiste Say as “the study of production, distribution and consumption of wealth”). The doyens of modern economic theory like Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson treat natural resources like any other, and their textbooks, used by millions, apply all the normal economic principles to environmental components like forests, polluted air and fisheries. However, the natural resources they use as examples, like fish and forest products, are typical market commodities, i.e. they are traded back and forth in commercial markets, and prices can be readily set by the buyers and sellers.

Some big names in modern economic theory actually stand out as being very cognisant of environmental issues. The late Kenneth Boulding is credited with energizing the field of environmental economics in the 1960s with his essay ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’. He described the open economy of the past with its seemingly unlimited resources as “reckless, exploitative and characteristic of open societies (like cowboys!)” and contrasted it with the closed economy of the impending future where “Earth will become a single spaceship without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system”.

Perhaps the economist who has invoked environmental concerns to shake the economic foundations more than anyone else is Herman Daly. At one time the senior environmental economist at the World Bank, he made news in 1994 when he resigned to protest the Bank’s unwieldy bureaucracy and antiquated policies. Daly identified a problem for economics much bigger than the issue of externalities – the spectre of unlimited growth. He worked extensively in northeastern Brazil, a region beset by a burgeoning human population and a seriously depleted natural resource base. He also read the books of his contemporaries, the environmentalists Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich, and it was obvious to Daly that, like a human population, when the economy grows, it does so at the expense of the ecosystems that sustain it. For him, the realistic way of viewing the economy then was as a subset of the overall ecosystem, which implied that the economy must have some optimal scale relative to the larger system which should not be exceeded if serious consequences were to be avoided.

Another of Daly’s contemporaries, Robert Costanza, moved the focus to the interface between ecological and economic systems. This then led to the need to estimate the market value of natural goods and services which are not traded in the marketplace – things like natural habitats and processes such as reduction of airborne pollutants. A plethora of methods to estimate the economic value of natural capital and processes has evolved over the years – things like mathematical modelling, calculating how much the market would pay to avoid losing a particular natural resource, etc. In 1997 Costanza and his colleagues caused a stir with their published estimate of the value of the entire biosphere (between 16 and 64 trillion dollars; the international GNP at that time totalled about 18 trillion dollars). A recent David Suzuki Foundation study of the economic values of water supply, air filtration, flood and erosion control, wildlife habitat and agricultural pollinators, carbon storage and other benefits provided by natural and managed ecosystems in the 5.6-million-hectare Peace River watershed in British Columbia gave a conservative estimate of $7.9 to $8.6 billion per year.

Estimating the economic value of natural capital and ecological processes seems a logical step in the quest for long-term global sustainability, but it may have serious pitfalls. The British journalist George Monbiot contends that pricing natural capital results in gobbledygook because the values of such disparate resources are really non-commensurable. Not only are apples being compared to oranges, apples are being compared to every other conceivable money-making commodity. Monbiot’s even bigger objection to putting a price on nature is that, rather then protecting the natural world from the depredations of the economy, the approach harnesses the natural world to the very economic growth that has been destroying it all along! The processes that in the past have been so damaging – commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction – can hardly be expected to now protect the living planet.

Personally, I don’t see the issue as having anything to do with the science of economics at all. In my experience it has more to do with the single-minded attitudes and actions of [some] proponents of development, [some] market-oriented economists who support those developments for the sake of personal monetary gain, and [some] politicians who seek the seemingly easy way to electorate approval. The same phenomenon can be seen in the medical field (new expensive pharmaceuticals touted by professionals) and in the food sciences (genetically modified crops as the way to bigger profits).

The natural environment has enormous economic and health benefits for the world and its inhabitants, but individuals and corporations are driven to make a profit. No profit derives from leaving anything undisturbed, because a developer or corporation must “add value” in order to sell. This incentive is what is so destructive. Destruction of natural ecosystems converts to dollars, so the true value of nature is ignored. Overcoming this perverse incentive is the true economic challenge of the 21st century.

[First posted August 12, 2014]