Saturday, May 29, 2010

Snapping Turtles and Gopher Snakes

We need to learn how to be good neighbors.  I believe the easiest way to become partners with life is to get outside, to be in nature and let her teach us.  

(…), we need to feel the power of a storm against our faces, the fury of the wind, the cycles of destruction and creation that are always occurring.  We need to experience sunlight shining off the swamp grasses, to sit with the sunset, to rest under a tree, to go out in the dark and look up at the stars.  If we can do these things, we will fall in love with life again.  We will become serious about sustaining life rather than destroying it.   

If we spent more time outside, letting life teach us, I know we would change our relationship to the earth.  We would remember what it feels like to be part of life, rather than trying to play god with it.  

From: “What is the relationship I want with the earth?”, by Margaret J. Wheatley, in TURNING TO ONE ANOTHER.

I came across two teachers today, a gopher snake and a snapping turtle.  I happened upon them while out for a bike ride this morning.  I decided to take the path least traveled and headed off on a side trail that leads out of the park I normally bike in.  I opted to follow an unpaved cross-country ski trail that meandered through some prairie area and all of a sudden came across the four to five foot long snake, slowly winding its way across my path.  

I stopped my peddling and jumped off my bike to watch the shimmering behemoth for a moment.  As soon as the snake sensed me, it picked up its pace and disappeared into the taller grasses along side the path.  Catching a glimpse of Minnesota’s largest snake was my reward for deciding to get off the pavement.  

Being in somewhat of a hurry to get home, I wound my way back to the paved trail and followed it to the road, which took me to the paved trail that follows Sand Creek.  The Creek valley eventually leads back to my neighborhood where the Creek was long ago confined to ditches that were put in to drain the peat-filled wetlands that used to be my neighborhood.  Peddling along the tree lined path through the valley, I came across a woman, walking her small white dog, who had stopped to observe a large snapping turtle.  

The turtle was likely a female who had come out of the creek to find a place to lay her eggs.  The turtle had pulled its head and legs into its over one foot diameter shell to avoid the woman and her curious dog.  The woman was encouraging her dog to look at the turtle, and obviously wasn’t aware of how the turtle got its name, as she and the dog jumped back when the turtle lunged out at the little dogs nose with its snapping jaws.  Fortunately, for the dog, the turtle missed, and pulled back into its shell, and the woman and her little white dog walked on with the woman reminding her dog to “watch out, he might bite you!”         

What I learned from these encounters, is that nature can be a source of awe and amazement when we get out and spend time in it, and respect it.  When we disrespect it, it has a way of snapping out at us to remind us that it is not simply there for our amusement.  My hope is that our recent encounters with the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana will remind us that our current lifestyles of consuming oil with little regard for what the impact is on the earth cannot continue.  We have been snapped at, but have we learned anything; or will we simply move on to drill more oil wells to feed our glut for petroleum, continuing to play god in the ocean depths.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Good Society

In his essay “Religious Leaders As Seekers And Servants” Robert Greenleaf spells out that “A ‘good’ society is seen as one in which there is widespread faith as trust that encourages and sustains ordinary good people to become constructive influences in the world as it is:  violent, striving, unjust, as well as beautiful, caring, and supportive."  We encourage our children to become the servants of this society when “we encourage good health, protect the environment, and care for the needy, the aged, and the disabled”.

As I see it the key to this is the protecting the environment, for without a healthy environment, all the other tasks become pointless and it is our disregard for the environment that is what allows us to transfer this disregard to the needy, the aged, and the disabled.  In other words, care for the earth needs to be primary for without the earth, we have nothing.  The secondary needs for caring for our fellow human beings will naturally fall into place once we relearn caring for the earth.

So how do we relearn caring for the earth?  The first step is to get outside and spend some time in nature.  To be effective at leading others to care for the earth, leaders need to nurture their own ability to find compassion for the ecosystem that sustains us and our neighbors.  Go outside, plant a garden, take a walk, listen to the birds sing, or open your windows at night and listen to the frogs.

One of the challenges I find in taking this step myself is that I too often experience the violence we reap on the earth.  For example, earlier this evening I observed a young mother spraying herbicide on her lawn while her toddler played next to her,  I breathed in the exhaust fumes from my neighbors riding lawn mower as I sat with my family outside trying eat our supper, and the engine noise from the airplanes flying over head made it difficult to hear the quiet songs of the birds.

But working through the violence, I also watched my neighbor turn off his lawn mower and talk with his new neighbor, I noticed how green the leaves on the trees had become as a result of the recent rain and warm temperatures and  sunshine, and I felt the cooling air blow across my face as the sun set for the evening.  It is experiencing that beauty and compassion that will guide us towards the good society we seek.     

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bridges From Profit

Capitalism as we know it today encompasses the core economic concept of private employers hiring workers to produce products and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit.  But it also includes competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principle institution, the consumer society and the materialistic values that sustain it, and the administrative state activity promoting economic strength and growth for a variety of reasons.  

Inherent in the dynamics of capitalism is a  powerful drive to earn profits, invest them, innovate, and thus grow the economy, typically at exponential rates, with the result that the capitalist era has in fact been characterized by a remarkable exponential expansion of the world economy.  (…).

These features of capitalism, as they are constituted today, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive to the environment.   

The excerpt from James Gustave Speth book, THE BRIDGE AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD,  has been instrumental in helping me to understand the frustration I have had in trying to protect our environment through environmental regulations.  The root of this frustration comes from the reality that no matter how well the regulated community complies with environmental regulations, economic growth eventually results in more and more pollution being dumped into our ecosystems.  As long as the profit motive and materialism dominate us, we pretty much seem doomed.  Most days lately, this domination makes it tough to be motivated to do my work.

Once in a while though, I receive some hope, that not everyone has succumbed to these drives of destruction.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with a woman about environmental air regulations that affect the auto body shop her husband and son operate.  I informed her that based on their current paint usage; they would not need to get a permit to cover their air pollutant emissions.  I advised her that if they planned to increase business in the coming years and therefore use more paint, that they would likely need to get a permit.  The woman said she did not think that that would be an issue, because their goal in operating the business was not to make more money, but rather to simply do enough business to make a living.  

It is that attitude of working to live that gives me hope that we can find a better way to do business that doesn’t have to result in the destruction of our environment – it is the prophets like this woman, who give me hope that there is more to motivating people then simple profit.   

Monday, May 10, 2010

Economic System versus Ecosystem

In the ecological world, survival depends on finding ways to coexist with your surroundings.  I was reminded of that coexistence this morning while riding my bike to a bus stop.  

I was peddling along at a good pace, when I saw an osprey hovering over one of the stormwater ponds the bike trail weaves around.  That voice in my head that reminds me to pay attention now and then told me I had plenty of time to catch my bus, and stop and watch the osprey for a moment, so I did.  

I was rewarded by seeing the osprey dive down one hundred feet or so through the air into the water with a splash.  Within seconds, the bird was back in the air, shaking the water from its feathers, and its talons void of a fish.  The bird took up a hovering position again, and then repeated the dive, but this time rose from the pond with what looked like a small pan fish clutched in his talons.  The bird shook the water from its feathers and flew off, presumably to feed its nest of young osprey.  Over their likely millions of years of existence, ospreys have mastered the fine art of survival in their ecosystem.  

The ongoing ecological disaster of crude oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana demonstrates unfortunately, how much we petroleum-fueled human beings have forgotten about how to coexist with our ecosystem in the past several hundred years of our experiments with industrialism.  The ongoing hundreds of thousands of gallons per day of leaking oil covering the gulf has essentially shut down the fishing industry in the impacted area, eliminating jobs and food for many people, and creating toxic conditions for many birds, fish, and other life that once thrived in that Gulf environment.  The total cost and impact of this disaster will likely never really be known or understood.

Edward Lotterman’s REAL WORLD ECONOMICS column  this week points out some of the major reason why we are able to forget about the importance of coexisting with our ecosystem in our free market economic system.  In that system, economic decisions are based on human beings weighing the monetary costs and benefits of decisions, with little if any regard for what the impact is on the ecosystem, and then acting accordingly.  Unfortunately, it has become too easy for us to forget the huge costs that our mistakes from the past have dealt us, and take on the rally cry of “drill-baby-drill” rather then the less macho “bike-baby-bike”.  Lotterman reminds us that “human nature is such that we probably will continue to re-surprise ourselves with the inevitable throughout the rest of human existence”, unless we can find a way to remind ourselves to remember our mistakes from the past.

I am not sure it is human nature that is the cause of our stupidity, but rather the stupidity of our economic system that allows us to continue to destroy our ecosystem.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Save The World Today?

I sat down to eat supper with my seventeen-year-old daughter tonight and she asked me, “what did you do to save the world today?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with anything of real substance to tell her.  I did tell her about talking on the phone with several people who I tried to help them answer their questions respectfully and to try and bring some humor into their day as I talked with them.  Nothing that seemed too earth saving to me.    

She shared with me a story she had heard about a man who decided to commit suicide and before he did, he wrote a suicide note and stuck it in his pocket.  He then left his house and began walking to the bridge he planned to jump from.  On the way he passed many people, and then came to the bridge, and jumped, ending his life.  His body was recovered from the river, and the rescuers found the note in his pocket.  The note said “I plan to kill myself today, unless at least one person smiles at me”.  Obviously, no one smiled at him, or if they did, he didn’t see it.   

A good reminder from my daughter on the importance of acknowledging and smiling at the people who cross our paths.  I am not sure if her story is true, but our newspapers are full of stories on people who likely didn’t get many smiles in their life’s, and unfortunately much of the neglect happens to them while they are children.  Here are examples from today’s paper here and here.   

So how is it we can ignore our children, and what are the consequences when we do?  Robert Greenleaf’s version of leadership that he called servant leadership reminds us to always check the consequences of our actions with his best test “what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”  Our children definitely fit the least privileged category in our world today, and as I look around many of them are being deprived and harmed by the results of our leadership.  

This is a good reminder for me to pay attention to the children in the world, and when I do, they have much they can teach me.    

Monday, May 3, 2010


Many of today’s students of the future nonetheless start from the assumption that an effective response to the challenges facing industrial society requires reaching consensus around some plan of action and then carrying it out.  The raw uncertainties of the future ahead of us, though, make this a dubious proposition.  Even if some common denominator of agreement could be found among competing views of the future, it could at most cover a small fraction of the possible options, and there is no way of knowing whether those particular options are in fact the best possibilities to explore.  A quest for consensus thus risks narrowing the options at a time when the range of potential choices needs to be as broad as possible.

This is where a different approach, dissensus, comes into play.  Dissensus, a concept coined by postmodern theorist Ewa Ziarek, is the deliberate avoidance of consensus.  It has its place when consensus, for one reason or another, is either impossible or unwise (…).  In situations of these kinds, encouraging people to pursue conflicting and even diametrically opposed options increases the chance that someone will happen on an answer that works. 

John Michael Greer, THE ECOTECHNIC FUTURE, Pages 95-96.

At first glance, John Michael Greer’s concept of dissensus seems to be diametric to my initial belief about leadership – that consensus should be the goal.  After letting the idea sink in, I think I like it.  Too often, we settle for outcomes in order to achieve consensus so that we can say we accomplished something, so we can move on.  In the end, we may be in agreement, but more often the not what we are in agreement with is that we don’t really like what we have agreed to.  Holding on to our dissent, can be difficult when it seems that everyone around us agrees to go along with the crowd, but getting out of the herd mentality is exactly what we need in the world today.  So go out and practice dissensus, nurture creativity, and keep our options for the future open.

In addition, if you are looking for more challenges to many of our common assumptions about how we should be moving into the future, you might want to spend some time with John Michael Greer’s book THE ECOTECHNIC FUTURE.    His blog The Arch Druid Report is also worth checking out.  

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ecological Leadership

Coming up with a name can be challenging.  When I decided to start a new leadership blog, the first hurdle was what to call it.  I wanted something short, concise, and easy to remember that related to what I see as a big need in our world, attention to leadership and our environment. I did some quick “goggles” of my initial thoughts “EcoTalk” and “EcoLead”, but they were taken.  That left me with “Ecological Leadership”, not so short, but perhaps more meaningful. 

So what does it mean?  Ecological is of course related to ecology – defined as the science concerned with the interrelationships of organisms and their environments.  Leadership that I am interested in involves leading in the sense of guiding on a way or to direct on a course or in a direction.  This type of leadership is not about one individual taking charge, but many individuals coming together.  So what this blog will be about is a place to delve into how we interact with our environment and hopefully look into methods to guide us to interact in more holistic ways with it.

In doing my initial name research, I came across a fascinating paper called “The Ecology of Leadership” which was written by Kathleen E. Allen, Stephen Stelzner, and Richard Wielkiewicz.  The text of the paper can be downloaded here.   The ideas laid out in their paper resonate well with the type of things I hope to delve into on this blog.  Some highlights from the paper follow.

Leadership based on position and authority is inadequate for the challenges we face today. We need leadership which increases our capacity to learn new ways of understanding, defining, and solving the complex problems we are facing. 

We need a new metaphor for understanding leadership. Mechanistic metaphors assume that an individual leader has the ability to direct an organization independent of other systemic forces that act upon it. What is really needed is a metaphor that more accurately reflects the living systems in which leadership processes operate.

Leadership processes need to take advantage of the multitude of talent or capacities that exist within the organization.

An ecological metaphor serves to remind us of the environmental issues that must be at the forefront of leadership processes. Without a healthy and healthful physical environment in which to exist, all organizations are at risk   

A systemic view of leadership brings forth the importance of a long term perspective in the evaluation of the individual actions and systemic forces out of which leadership emerges. It calls for a perspective of not just weeks, months, or years, but decades, generations, and centuries.

Older generations connect with younger generations which connect with unborn generations. 

I’m not sure I have the endurance to keep this blog going for centuries, but at least for the next few weeks I hope to delve further into ecological leadership. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Barry Lopez Quotes

Quotes from Bill Moyers Interview with Barry Lopez, April 30, 2010, Bill Moyers Journal.  

(…) we have a way of talking about beauty as though beauty were only skin deep. But real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness in order to understand what beauty is.   (…).  What you must do is build a system of civilization that is as aware of darkness as it is of beauty. I would feel on thin ice if the world were nothing but beauty.

I think hope is a space holder that word. It's not the false word, but it's just- for me, it's just holding a place for another word to turn up.

The things that make us uncomfortable in public are a person who wishes to speak of what is beautiful.

(…), we have created a world in which we marginalize that which we don't think serves us as well as it could. We've turned nature into a thing.

And we've created something in which we have excluded from our moral universe everything but us. And in fact, a lot of people have been excluded from this central White Western European dominant culture.

And what I would like to I guess encourage people to understand is that for the sake of our own convenience, we created an "other," and that other was nature. And we said, if it doesn't serve us, kill it, move it, destroy it, crush it. Make it serve us. And if it doesn't, it's no good.

Nature is the full expression of life.

I know in my tissues that I have had other teachers- one of them is the living earth itself.

I'm borrowing from an American philosopher named Paul Woodruff—(…)the virtue of reverence is rooted in the understanding that there is a world beyond human control, human invention, and human understanding.

Zeus said to Prometheus, "Okay, you stole fire. Great for you. Now your people have technology. Wonderful. But here's something you don't know. You lack two things. And if you don't take these two things that I will give you, this will be a failure. Technology, you know, fire, all your magic, it will fail completely. It will be your undoing. And the two things that you need to make it work are justice and reverence. And if you have these two things, you won't get in trouble with this third thing that you thought was the be all and the end all."

I'm not writing about nature. I'm writing about humanity. And if I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold way in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.