Reframing The Ecological Challenge

(This the 8th posting in the series on ecology)

This image is unsettling for me because I’m guilty of using plastic bottles to assuage my preference for carbonated water. This manufacturer responded to my request that they use a container that would decompose, saying their bottles are recyclable. I contacted our local recycling company and they confirmed that this was true. Still, I’m not happy about it. This photo was taken in a city park where a holiday was being celebrated.

One of my highly respected authors in the area of ecology, Rev. Sallie McFague, wrote “In  fighting  climate  change,  we  must  fight  not  only  the  oil  companies, the airlines and the governments of the rich world; we must also fight ourselves. We are the enemy: our beliefs about who we are and what we are entitled to are as much at fault as the institutions that control trade and war.” 

I was in accord with that point of view, especially the part about the perception of who we are— until I encountered Charles Eisenstein’s rejection of “reductionistic war thinking,” the paradigm of destroying problems, even if the problem is climate change. The language of war and destruction, he says, “is an extension of the culture of death, domination and control that has led us to the verge of collapse.” Instead, he invites us to adopt a framework of love which gives us permission to trust what is innate to us, namely “our love of life and our desire to save it.”

The language we use to characterize people, events and challenges matters greatly. Eisenstein’s comment brought to mind a string of war phrases: The war on drugs, fighting wildfires, battling cancer, defeating ISIS and so on. Indeed, the “culture of death, domination and control,” largely inherited, maintained and fueled by testosterone, has contributed to a society where winning  matters more than participating, competition supersedes collaboration and violence is generally perceived as the most effective way to win. Whatever the issue, the language we’ve been using, largely adopted from the media’s propensity toward sensational and confrontational news stories and soundbites, has fostered a climate of polarization rather than unification.

An example of how the paradigm of war is being sustained through polarizing language comes not only from Donald Trump, but also anti-environmental lobbyists, and not unexpectedly the CEO of the National Rifle Association who characterizes those who oppose gun legislation  as “socialists,” “elites,” and “legacy media,” saying “evil walks among us” and we’re in a “cultural war.” I notice that these are all undefined abstract terms that serve only to fan the flames of fear, insecurity and division.

High thoughts must have high language.

Aristophanes (Greek philosopher)

Polarization is built in to significant issues by virtue of duality—my view against your opposing view. But rather than framing the matter in the language of war and competition, which encourages people to take sides and respond forcefully, sometimes violently so they can more certainly win the dispute, there’s the option to frame it in the language of love. Okay, I know that sounds unrealistic, so how would that work and can it work in the real world? 

No matter the issue, what’s required are shifts in perception and attitude toward—

  • I have a strong point of view, but I will keep an open mind, willing to be convinced of a greater good for all.
  • We are not in a war, battle or contest. We will work together to find the best decision, ideally not one that is right for me and wrong for you.
  • Both our views deserve to be heard with equal respect and serious consideration.
  • Both our views need to be supported by facts and debated with sound reasoning.
  • Because we are in this together, an enlightened change of mind is highly respected.
  • Lacking facts, our guideline for decision-making will be the optimization of benefit and minimization of harm to all—people, environment, society, world.
  • Before deciding, we will investigate and openly share the positive and negative consequences  of our perspective in consideration of people, environment, flora, fauna, society and planet.
  • Once a vote is taken or an impartial judge decides, we will accept the outcome gracefully and move on.
  • Maintaining a friendly and respectful working relationship is more important than having things go my way.

Climate change is normal and natural. It’s been going on since the Earth coalesced, and it will continue until it’s subsumed by the sun in billions of years. The recent concern is that one dominant species has accelerated the rate of change—10 to 100 times faster than in the past 65 million years— to the point where the quality of life, perhaps even life itself, is threatened. 

Writing in The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing The Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Tim Flannery, Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission of the Federal Government, reported “The Earth’s average temperature is around 60º F. A rise of a single degree will decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of species, and most probably billions of people.  In 2005, the time of that publication, atmospheric CO2 was 381 PPM. In 2019 it’s 7% higher. A 2017 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters estimates that Earth’s climate will be 1.5º F higher as early as 2026—seven years from now. By 2050, the physical world and lifestyles worldwide will be dramatically different. The ways in which it will be different is the challenge of this and the next three generations.”

As a process, climate change normally proceeds at a glacial pace. Literally. As yet, the window of opportunity to undo the harm we’ve caused is barely open. Despite the fact that the change is occurring 10 to 100 times faster than in the past 65 million years, scientists advise that if we can reduce CO2 emissions and slow the process, even reverse the damage in some instances by reforestation, preserving wetlands and wildlife, preserving and invigorating soils, moving to organic independent farming, regulating fishing, air and water quality and so on, we could reach sustainability. Basically, what’s required is stewardship—letting nature be as it is, taking only what’s needed and will actually be used, reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, recycling what is discarded and cleaning up afterward. When the First Americans pulled up their teepees to move on, they left the land as they found it. The ancient Maya went so far as burying entire cities under rocks, rubble and weeds before they left, allowing nature to turn the land they used back into jungle.  

I’m encouraged by three trends. One is the rise of the feminine. We’re seeing it all over the world, in part because the domination and competition paradigms, inefficiencies, self-centeredness and power-seeking competitiveness of the masculine has become unmanageable and inequitable, even toxic. Another is the rapid proliferation of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) that are not waiting for governments to take responsibility for environments and the quality of life, instead, creating networks of empowered people who are innovating and leading the way to sustainability. In a previous post I referred to them as emergents. And finally, I’m encouraged whenever I see or hear about young people talking about the environment and what they’re doing to make a difference. 

  • Eleven-year-old Americans Gavin and ten-year-old Max Guinn co-founded the Kids Eco Club, a context for speaking in public about animal conservation.
  • In Dubai, teenager Adithiyan Rajan has spoken to over 3500 people about sustainable development. He writes newspaper articles, volunteers his time and money to charities. He has personally saved 50 mature trees, planted and nurtured 285 saplings of 20 different types. His recycling programs resulted in a reduction of 15.7 tons of GHG emissions, and he has helped change the minds of thousands of students to think and care for Mother Nature. He has won “The Diana Award” which is one of the most prestigious global awards presented for his outstanding & selfless contribution to the community and environment. His stated goal is to encourage social responsibility and sustainability.
  • In California, at age three in 2012, Ryan Hickman went with his dad to a recycling center to cash in some cans and bottles. The day after, he notified his mom and dad that he wanted to give empty plastic bags to all the neighbors so they could save their recyclables for him. They did. So did their friends, families and co-workers. Today, Ryan has customers all over Orange County. He spends a part of every week sorting cans and bottles from his customers, to get them ready for the recycling center.

And that’s just a small sample. While governmental houses are frozen in debate and political in-fighting, people all over the world are getting things done. There’s is not the language of war and competition, its the language of love, personal responsibility and collaboration.   

All living systems heal in true relationship. We need a deep revolution in how we relate to the rest of life—not as dominators of nature, but as partners in an evolutionary process that is much greater than ourselves. Only love can give us the kind of courage and willingness to offer ourselves to the more beautiful world we know in our hearts is possible.

Charles Eisenstein

Our language and nervous system combine to constantly construct our environment.

Francisco Varela

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

VII. Environmental Ethics


This is the 7th posting in the series on ecology

Definition Of Ethics: The basic concepts and fundamental principles of decent human conduct. It includes study of universal values such as the essential equality of all men and women, human or natural rights, obedience to the law of land, concern for health and safety and, increasingly, also for the natural environment. The Business Dictionary

I like this definition because it includes the environment as a universal value that deserves consideration and respect. When the top priority of industry leaders is profit, and when government leaders put the economy and jobs first, they view the environment as a resource, a means to those ends. Seeing environmental policies and regulations as an obstacle, they’ll block or override them. Historically, this mentality has been fanning the flames of climate change since 1950—and it’s still happening—accelerating actually. Profit-driven leaders are pressing the peddle to the metal, not understanding or caring that the health and well-being of the world population is at stake. In the first place, it’s a problem of wrong-perception driven by the illusion of separation that results in self-centeredness and greed. It’s a psychological virus. And  it thrives because the breaking influence—the antidote—of moral-ethical thinking and behavior isn’t functioning. 

Ethics Can Be Learned

A study by Lawrence Kohlberg, cited by psychologist James Rest at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University is summarized as follows:    

  • Dramatic changes occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s in terms of the basic problem-solving strategies they use to deal with ethical issues.
  • These changes are linked to fundamental changes in how a person perceives society and his or her role in it.
  • The extent to which change occurs in a person is associated with the number of years of formal education (college or professional school).
  • Deliberate educational attempts (formal curriculum) to influence awareness of moral problems and to influence the reasoning or judgment process have been demonstrated to be effective.
  • Studies indicate that a person’s behavior is influenced by his or her moral perception and moral judgments.
  • A person’s ability to deal with moral issues is not formed all at once. Just as there are stages of growth in physical development, the ability to think morally also develops in stages. 

(Click the Markkula Center link for descriptions of growth stages—and much more on ethics).

Where And How Has Ethics Been Learned?

Home. Primarily, moral-ethical awareness and practice derive from observing these in our parents.  Also, by having conversations about it. When an issue came up in my family, besides a scolding, part of the price was a healthy dose of discourse on right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper behavior—and its consequences. Over an over, we heard “It’s not what we do.” “It’s not who we are.” “You’re better than that.” “The one you hurt most is yourself.” And in one way or another, these messages were reinforced by relatives. 

Religion. Worldwide, most religions teach a code of ethics, principles that promote honesty, respect for others, selflessness, altruism and good deeds. Exposure to these principles fortifies one against the inclination to “take the easy way out. Religions provide the “brakes” through an emphasis on negative consequences. “You’ll go to hell.” “You’ll create negative karma that will have to be paid through suffering in another lifetime.” But there’s also the positive side: “If you’re good, you’ll go to heaven.” “You won’t have to endure the endless round of incarnations.” Having been raised in the Catholic tradition through high school, I was exposed to the history, as well as the principles of morality and ethics. 

Educational Institutions. Many colleges offer courses that involve ethics. At R.I.T. (Rochester Institute of Technology)  it was taught in a required philosophy class. I still remember the lecture where the professor said ethics was not acquired naturally, that it had to be taught, and that ethical behavior occurred as a result of an internal commitment made before an ethical dilemma presented itself. It made such an impression on me, I can paraphrase: “Ethics has to be carried in your back pocket like a wallet. When a situation comes up, you pull it out and you’re reminded of your commitment to be a person of principle, strong in character, unwavering in your resolve to do the right thing.” 

Life Experience. Acting unethically can and often does result in negative, even life-altering consequences. The trial and error method is learning ethics the hard way.

Business. Many corporations and smaller companies have a Code of Ethics designed to specify and regulate how they will and will not conduct their affairs. Infractions can be cause for dismissal. 

Discussion. Casual discussions with family members and friends often involve ethical judgments that have been made or need to be considered. Whether in the context of “gossip” or “small talk,” the opinions of others matters. It’s why “peer groups” are so important in early childhood development. Into adolescence and beyond, if being “cool” or just accepted is being “bad,” ethical considerations never come up. There could be a gun or knife in the back pocket, rather than an ethical reminder.

Readings. Authors of ethical philosophy include the classics by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Thomas Aquinas and also contemporary scholars and writers who relate it to the arts, sciences and business.  

Given that these sources were mostly available to families privileged with the means and access to higher education, it’s not surprising that many people have not been exposed to ethical thinking, modeling or instruction. 

Environmental Ethics

As a field of study, philosophers in environmental ethics wrestle with questions of balance between human and nonhuman concerns. On the human side: Should ecosystems be used freely as a resource? What is the role of “beauty?” As an intrinsic value, does it have a place in discussions of environmental considerations? “Place” is also important to people. Should some places be protected? Why? For whom? How long? “Justice” is another consideration. One group may live on land that another wants for development or pass-through rights. And what of future generations? What will be the impact on people who don’t yet exist?

On the nonhuman side: Do all sentient organisms—insects, flora and fauna—need to be considered? What, if any, is their value? Are they equally significant? What about extinction? Which species are expendable? Which are not?

Aldo Leopold, a famous American philosopher and forester said that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” Opponents to this view argue that “we can’t clearly identify the boundaries of ecosystems… And why would we think the integrity of a system mattered morally anyway?” 

In my view, it comes down to the kind of world we want for ourselves, our children and the generations after them. Do we want a world without—(enter any living thing)? Do tigers, polar bears, mountain gorillas, sea turtles, orangutans, Sumatran elephants or rhinos have value beyond their utility? If so, here’s the $64,000 question: What are we willing to sacrifice to keep them alive, healthy and reproducing?

A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as that of his fellowman, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.

Albert Schweitzer

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

VI. Climate Change

The History

Climate change has a long history.In the last 650,000 years, there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era—and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives. The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) to be the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented.”


The Situation

Climate change is increasingly in the news due to global warming. “Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have generated excessive greenhouse gas emissions, causing massive amounts of heat to be trapped in the atmosphere. The principal sources of these human-induced gasses are the production of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, and the emissions of methane from the management of livestock. Warmer air means there are more energy and moisture in the atmosphere, and this can lead to a variety of consequences—floods, tornados, and hurricanes, but also droughts, heat waves, and wildfires… The most alarming discovery has been that human emissions of greenhouse gasses have caused the Arctic to warm about twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.” The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi. 

As the ice melts it exposes the darker ocean waters, which absorb heat rather than reflecting it back into space, the reflectivity of ice is diminished before it even melts and air pollution combined with soot from wildfires leads to greater absorption of heat which accelerates melting. Further, the warming of the atmosphere deepens the meandering of the polar jet stream pushing ice and snow from the Arctic to the south and warm air from the south to the Arctic, resulting in the more frequent and severe weather conditions we’ve been experiencing in recent years. 

For millennia, atmospheric carbon dioxide had never been higher than 300 parts per million.  According to NASA, beginning in 1950 the level spiked dramatically to the current level of 420 ppm. The global temperature is rising; the oceans are warming and becoming acidified; ice sheets are shrinking; glaciers are retreating; there’s decreased snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere; sea levels are rising; the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is declining rapidly; record high temperatures are being exceeded regularly and the warming of the atmosphere and oceans are causing major shifts in species extinction and avian, animal and sea life migratory patterns worldwide. 

The Good News

There are, however, some encouraging perspectives. “If all economic and governmental institutions worldwide were to take the necessary measures, through taxes and incentives to ensure lifestyle changes throughout all levels of the human population, the task could be accomplished. We could stabilize greenhouse gas emissions so as to keep the global temperature at approximately 2°C by the end of the century. In other words, climate change is not necessarily an apocalyptic event that will destroy human life and other life on our planet. We know what needs to be done, and we have the technology to do it.” A New Climate For Theology: God, the World and Global Warming by Sallie McFague. 2008. p. 23.

We must enact a civilization-wide unifying purpose: to restore beauty, health and life to all that have suffered during the Ascent of Humanity. 

Charles Eisenstein

Especially encouraging is the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s), non-profit, voluntary citizens’ groups, recognized by the United Nations, organized locally, nationally or internationally oriented and driven by people with a common interest to perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions. They bring their concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation by providing information. In the ’60s there were 20,000 of these. With the advent of computers that number has skyrocketed to an estimated 10 million. 

Because they’re funded by donations and run mostly by volunteers, they’re not hindered by short-term financial objectives or political partisanship. That means they can focus on long-term and complex issues such as climate change. Because they enjoy a high degree of public trust, they have already been effective in rallying people to their causes and making change happen when governments couldn’t.

Fritjof Capra says the global coalition of NGO’s, combined with global communication technologies has produced a global “civil society” that forms an interface between the state and its citizens. “While the nation-states have been losing power, a new kind of civil society, organized around reshaping globalization—humanizing it on behalf of the health and well-being of people, ecosystems and the planet—has gradually emerged. (Remember my posting on “emergence”?) Indeed, dysfunctional systems, by their divisiveness, ineptitude and inability to act are precipitating the emergence of systems that can act decisively. 

An example Capra gives is in the area of agriculture. “If we changed from our chemical, large-scale industrial agriculture to organic, community-oriented, sustainable farming, this would contribute significantly to solving three of our biggest problems. It would greatly reduce our energy dependence because we are now using (In the USA) one-fifth of our fossil fuels to grow and process food. The healthy, organically grown food would have a hugely positive effect on public health, because many chronic diseases—heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and about 40% of cancers—are linked to our diet. And finally, organic farming would contribute significantly to fighting climate change, because an organic soil is a carbon-rich soil, meaning that it draws CO2 from the atmosphere and locks it up in the organic matter. Today, hundreds of systemic solutions are being developed all over the world to solve problems of the economy, environmental degradation, energy, climate change, food insecurity, and so on.”

In our view, climate change will determine the destiny of mankind, so it is imperative that our generation makes the right choices.

Wang Yi (Chinese Foreign Minister speaking at the 2019 G20 Summit)

Click here for a listing of NGO’s by category


I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

V. Earth House Rules

This is the 5th posting in a series on ecology

In Ken Burns’ documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a paradox was cited where Congress debated over whether or not the Grand Canyon should become a “national park” or remain a “national monument.” The former restricts a park against any human use other than tourism. I cite it here because it very well represents the distinction we made between “surface ecology” and “deep ecology” in post #2 dated August 18, 2019. At base, it points to aspects of human nature that often come in conflict—the urge to “use” the material world in order to build, create wealth and expand, and the urge to “appreciate” it toward lifting the spirit and enriching the soul. In essence, when it comes to the environment, we have and continue to oppose the physical and the spiritual (in the reverence sense, not the religious). The irony is that these are properties of whole and living systems—individuals, societies, nations and species. 

Historically, there are at least two primary reasons for the divide: the perception of God and the world as other, separate, and the injunction to subdue the Earth. In New Climate For Theology: God, the World and Global Warming, theologian Sallie McFague refers to the former as the deistic model. “It sees the world as totally secular, divorced from God—and from human beings, except as a ‘machine’ for our use. The relationship between God and the world as well as between human beings and the world is utilitarian: we and God are ‘subjects,’ whereas the world and all its other creatures are “objects. This utilitarianism (italics mine) is in large measure why we are presently in our global warming crisis.” And it’s roots, says Charles Eisenstein in Climate: A New Story, “are in fundamentalism of all kinds, a disengagement from the complexity of the real world… that offers certainty, a lockdown of thought into a few prescribed pathways.” He’s referring to Genesis 1:28 of the Christian Bible that says: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.’” We’ve done that, and as a result, we’re racing toward global catastrophe.  

If the cause is the illusion of separation from God, the earth and each other, which allows for the use of the planet to fulfill human needs, wants and aspirations, then the saving of the planet requires a shift in perception—from we are separate, independent operators, to we are members of one species and one interdependent and interconnected living system. The health and well-being of each member depends on the health and well-being of the whole. And vice versa. Perceptions are choices we make. We can shift out of necessity (the hard way), or the gentle way by acting with wisdom and foresight. With climate change and the sixth extinction already underway, globally, our leaders are choosing the hard way, preferring short-term gains, passing off consequences to the environment to future generations. In such a climate, what can we, everyday people, do to affect positive change?

What could change the direction of today’s civilization? It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit, in the sphere of human conscience. It is not enough to invent new machines, new regulations, new institutions. We must develop a new understanding of the true purpose of our existence on this Earth. Only by making such a fundamental shift will we be able to create new models of behavior and a new set of values for the planet.

Vaclav Havel

And we can vote our conscience. Personally, I look for candidates who evidence the perception of the world as one, integrated and interdependent whole; people who are committed to sustaining, ideally enhancing, the health and well-being of all people, environments and animals; people with light in their eyes, not just dollar signs, people who put the needs of others above their own preferences and gratifications. Especially, those who demonstrate empathy, the capacity to vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, and experience of others—all others. This is a tall order, so it’s no wonder that we’re experiencing a crisis in leadership. Nonetheless, the whole—family, community, nation, species, planet—can only flourish when all its parts are secure and cared for. That’s the challenge of leadership.  It’s why the business world trains executives in “servant leadership,” and why students of ecology are encouraged to think of themselves as “stewards” of the planet.

Closer to home, there are everyday things we can do to reduce or impact on the environment:

  • Take shorter showers.
  • Ask for paper rather than plastic cups in restaurants—and always tell the server why.
  • Use paper straws—or none at all.
  • Take reuseable bags to the grocery store.
  • Reduce meat intake.
  • Buy organic where possible.
  • Wear a sweater rather than turn the heat up.
  • Fly less. Use the phone or video conferencing for work meetings.
  • Turn the lights off, except when necessary.
  • Shop closer to home.
  • Walk or ride a bike rather than drive short distances.
  • Choose a low mileage vehicle.
  • Ride the bus or carpool.
  • Improve the energy efficiency of our houses.
  • Recycle as much as possible.
  • Turn electronic devices off overnight.
  • As much as possible, wash only full loads of clothing.
  • Avoid aerosols, pesticides and lawn chemicals (that kill worms and insects,  etc.)
  • Have tools repaired or sharpened rather than replacing them.

Making small changes to my personal consumption habits means my dollar will start putting pressure on companies that are wasteful, environmentally damaging or polluting. With more people shopping local, clean and ethical you can bet the lure of profits in greener consumer products, will inspire change on a large scale.

Amie Engerbretson (Professional Skier)

If we care about the planet and all its creatures, we’ll think about the consequences of our actions and do the right thing—even if others are not and when no one is watching. In the source cited above, Sallie McFague, writes that “Earth is a home, not a hotel.”  As such, she provides three simple guidelines that she calls “Earth’s House Rules.” 

Take only your share. Since all creatures must have food in order to survive, distributive justice becomes a necessary and central human behavior. The whole, the planet, cannot flourish unless the parts are healthy. Hence, “Take only your share” is not a plea for charity to the disadvantaged; rather, it is a law of planetary well-being. 

Clean up after yourself. This home is the only one we will ever have. We must reuse, not use up, everything on the planet. In a healthy ecosystem, everything is recycled: we need to structure our societies on that model. This will not be easy, for our consumer culture thrives on its exact opposite—throwing away. 

Keep the house in good repair for others. The house is not ours; we do not own it. Rather, it is on loan to us for our lifetime, and we must sustain it for others. 

Indigenous people around the world lived this way naturally because they believed the world with all it contains is alive. They were right! They understood interdependence at every level. There was no division between the physical and the spiritual—in human beings or the world. Balance had to be maintained, otherwise, the life force would die and the world would end. Fortunately for all humankind, Congress saw fit to establish the Grand Canyon as a national park. Had they not, it might have been strip-mined with hotels and electronic billboards dotting the rim.

There is no “safe place” on earth where pollution, global warming, acid rain, and so on can’t find us—and the places we think are safe can turn out to be the most dangerous… One of the most important forces behind behavior change is the belief that things can be different, that what we do makes a difference. A common motto of many NGOs—“A different world is possible”—rests on this belief in the human ability to imagine alternative worlds and to work for their realization. We must begin to see ourselves as interrelated and interdependent with the animate and inanimate elements of our planet and begin to follow earth’s house rules of limited use, recycling, and long-term sustainability.

Sallie McFague

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

IV. Sustainability

This is the 4th posting in a series on ecology

To sustain is to maintain. With regard to ecosystems, that isn’t enough. While sustaining certain ecosystems may be all that can be done now to preserve what would otherwise be lost, the word “sustainability” allows us to continue to see the world as composed of “resources” to be used—ideally in ways that don’t contribute to greenhouse gasses. Further, it relegates human beings to the role of manager, as if the planet is a machine that we can control. Nature cannot be controlled; we can only respond to it. We cannot sustain life as we know it, or as it has been. Attempts, though good and necessary, will always be partial and temporary. But there’s good news ahead. Keep reading.

Sustainability invites a linear response to a nonlinear problem. But Earth is not a machine; it is alive, and it will remain hospitable to life only if we treat it as such.

Charles Eisenstein

So what is our proper response to change? How can we best relate to nature and life processes in ways that both sustain and enhance? Leave it alone? We can’t. As the population increases at an estimated 82 million people per year, racing toward 8 billion, the demand for resources will only grow. 

Paleontologists have identified five mass extinctions during the past 500 million years. “Estimates of current extinction rates due to deforestation and the destruction of other habitats, indicate that the Earth is now in the midst of a sixth mass extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, 2015). This one, according to the 2010 report of the Royal Society of London “is caused, for the first time, by the activities of a single species: Homo sapiens.”

Concern with the environment is no longer one of many ‘single issues.’ It is the context of everything else—our lives, our businesses, our politics. The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities and societies.

G. Tyler Miller (Living in the Environment, 2017)

“The fundamental dilemma underlying the major problems of our time seems to be the illusion that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet… Our current economic system is fueled by materialism and greed that do not seem to recognize any limits… It’s maintained by economists who refuse to include the social and environmental costs of economic activities in their theories. Consequently, there are huge differences between market prices and the true costs, as, for example, for fossil fuels… These movements are facilitated by ‘free-trade’ rules, designed to support continuing corporate growth. Economic and corporate growth are pursued relentlessly by promoting excessive consumption and a throw-away economy that is energy and resource-intensive, generating waste and pollution, and depleting the Earth’s natural resources.” (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, 2014.) 

So here’s the good news: It doesn’t have to be that way. We created a relationship to the Earth that is no longer viable. Now we can create a different, more sustainable relationship, one of stewardship. And there’s a way forward. “We do not need to invent sustainable human communities from scratch but can model them after nature’s ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the ‘Earth Household’ is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable community is designed in such a manner that its ways of life, business, economy, physical structures, and technologies do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life… This wisdom of nature is the essence of ecoliteracy.” (Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living, 2002)

In last weeks posting—Number 3, Ecoliteracy—I identified the basic principles of ecology, perceptions of nature that can affect a shift toward sustaining and enriching the Earth. 

Does sustainability mean lowering our standard of living? “Not at all true. It does mean that we have to do more with less, but as (Paul) Hawken argues, ‘Once we start to organize ourselves and innovate within that mind-set (of sustainability), the breakthroughs are extraordinary. They will allow us to achieve greatly superior rates of resource productivity, which in turn allow us to be prosperous, fed, clad, secure.’” Moreover, he and others maintain that the innovation at the heart of sustainable living will be a powerful economic engine. “Addressing climate change,” he says, “is the biggest job creation program there is.”

Scientific American

In a strange paradox, we who have unprecedented power over the planet are at the same time at its mercy: if it does not thrive, neither can we. 

Sallie McFague, Christian theologian

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.” 

II.Deep Ecology

Cultural historian and ecotheologian Thomas Berry distinguished between “shallow” and “deep” ecology. He said the former is based on the belief that big ecological problems can be resolved within an industrial, capitalist society by fighting pollution and resource depletion in order to preserve human health and affluence—basically the aim of the “environmental movement.” Deep ecology, however, “operates out of respect for all forms of life and accords them equal right to live and blossom.” (My italics).

In The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Fritjof Capra elaborates this distinction: “Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of nature, and as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or “use,” value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humans—or anything else—from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.” He goes on to say that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence, a “mode of consciousness” where the individual feels a sense of belonging and connectedness to the cosmos as a whole.

Charles Eisenstein summarizes our situation succinctly in Climate: A New Story. “Earth is not a machine; it is alive, and it will remain hospitable to life only if we treat it as such… “so far we have been destroying its tissues and organs.” 

Why? Because worldwide, economies were designed to promote the acquisition of wealth with little to no regard for ethics or environmental degradation. The perception of the earth as a perpetual growth machine encourages a posture of maintenance and repair when something bad happens. “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” And really serious problems? With enough money, human ingenuity and technology will fix them. Build a dam, raise the height of flood walls, purchase more equipment, enlist more volunteers and provide better training for first responders, declare states of emergency, enact legislation to bolster emergency response budgets, call out the National Guard, invest in more sophisticated technology in order to detect future crises. These are good and necessary fixes after a crisis, but these are band-aids. They don’t address the whole system. Attributing causes to “nature” just renders us helpless. But we’re not. Economies were structured by people, and they can be restructured. We’ll look at some of the possibilities in future postings. For now, I’ll stick to the topic at hand.

The band-aid fixes cited above amount to enforced caring. We act because we have to. Lives are at stake. In business, we refer to this as “crisis management.” Once the breakdown is healed, the system returns to normal functioning—except for those who lived through a tragedy, as we’re seeing in Puerto Rico.

The goal of virtually all national economies is to achieve unlimited growth, even though the absurdity of such an enterprise on a finite planet should be obvious to all… Undifferentiated economic growth is the root cause of our mountains of solid waste, our polluted cities, the depletion of natural resources, and the energy crisis; and because the continuing expansion of production is driven mainly by fossil fuels, it is also the root cause of the multiple disasters arising from peak oil and climate change. 

Fritzof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi   

“Why should I care? Nobody else does?” Our national discourse seems to indicate that is true. What is being talked about in the nightly news? Murder, active shooters, polarization, race relations, domestic abuse, corruption, drugs, celebrity gossip, natural and man-made disasters. A while back, a friend of mine politely asked his neighbor why he threw a half-eaten sandwich and french fries on the front lawn of their apartment. To paraphrase, the man replied, “Nobody cares about me, why should I care about anybody else?” If we all felt that way, the earth would already be a gigantic garbage dump with toxic air and water.

Why should I care about my home, property, the streets in my community, the food we eat, the parks we visit, security, health, education, the earth and life itself? There’s only one answer capable of sustaining us, and that’s love—caring enough about the quality of life for all living beings, love of the whole system, sufficient to redesign what isn’t working for humanity and the planet. With that, we can amend our lifestyles, economies and politics in ways that sustain and enhance the earth and her life-giving processes. 

Hollywood, the mass media, mass marketing, and the advertising industry, in the interest of generating ever-higher profits, have inadvertently convinced us that “the good life” and the “American Dream” are had through the acquisition and consumption of material goods. In the race to win an ever-increasing share of prosperity, greed, competition and corruption have become business as usual. And if you’re rich enough, you won’t get caught doing something illegal—or you can buy yourself out of it if you do. With some exceptions, corporations and governments are continuing to treat the earth like a money-making machine, a resource to be exploited. Trouble is, the earth is a finite living being and we’re sucking the life out of it. Climate change and global warming deniers, backed by corporations and governments—especially ours—act as if this machine can continue to churn out wealth for the few at the expense of the many. I believe a day will come when the corporate powers and fossil fuel lobbyists will wake up and find that, worldwide, a groundswell of people who care deeply about their health and well-being and the flourishing of the planet, will be enacting a new, sustainable, whole systems design. From what I read, those people are connecting and the design is on the drawing board. Stay tuned.

Here’s just a sample: Underlined names are active links.

  • CERES: CERES promotes sustainable business practices and solutions by working with more than 80 companies. Their Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), includes 100 leading investors collectively managing more than $11 trillion in assets.
  • Conservation International (CI): CI works with scientists, local communities and practitioners in the field to protect nature, global biodiversity and human communities. It has supported the creation, expansion and improved management of nearly 50 million acres of marine and terrestrial protected areas, and its data collection has led to the discovery of more than 1,400 species new to science.
  • Doctors Without Borders: Provides emergency medical aid to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters or exclusion from health care. Since 1971, the organization has treated tens of millions of people in over 80 countries. In 1999, it received the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Food and Water Watch: Works to make food, fish and water safe, accessible and sustainable. They’ve raised consumer awareness of the environmental and economic costs of bottled water, and have helped dozens of communities — from Stockton, California to Trenton, New Jersey — fight the privatization of public water supplies.
  • Greenpeace: The largest nonviolent, direct-action environmental organization in the world with 2.8 million members. Greenpeace’s work focuses on climate change, oceans, forests, toxins, nuclear energy and sustainable agriculture.
  • Heifer International: Has provided over 20.7 million families—that’s 105.1 million men, women and children—with animals and training in sustainable agriculture so that they can feed and care for themselves. Founded over 70 years ago by a U.S. farmer, the organization focuses on ending hunger and poverty.

Source: The 14 Most Influential Sustainability NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations). When you’re thinking about charitable contributions, this is a great place to see who’s doing good in and for the world.

The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

Arne Naess and George Sessions

NOTE: In future postings on the ecological theme, I’ll provide contemplations on what can be done, including examples of what is being done more specifically to move in the direction of sustainability and earth & life-enhancing initiatives. 

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

III. Ecoliteracy

This is the 3rd in a series of postings on ecology

Ecoliteracy involves an understanding of the basic principles of ecology. Understanding is the relatively easy part. The challenging part is living accordingly. Due to the specificity and complexity of this topic, I draw heavily upon The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi.

During more than 3 billion years of evolution, the planet’s ecosystems have organized themselves in subtle and complex ways to maximize their sustainability. This wisdom of nature is the essence of ecoliteracy. We can formulate a set of principles of organization that may be identified as basic principles of ecology, and use them as guidelines to build sustainable human communities.

Fritjof Capra

The first principle is interdependence. All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships—what Capra refers to as the web of life. Members derive their essential characteristics and existence from their relationships to life processes. The behavior of every member of an ecosystem depends on the behavior of many of the others. The success of the whole depends on the success of the individual members, and the success of each member depends on the success of the whole. For the reality of interdependence to translate into everyday behavior, there has to be a shift in perception and emphasis—from part to whole (From “me, myself and I” to “all of us together”), from objects to relationships (From “I want stuff,” to “I want to improve and deepen my relationships”) and from quantities to qualities (From “I want more…,” to “I want better…”)  “A sustainable human community is aware of the multiple relationships among its members, as well as of the relationships between the community as a whole and its natural and social environment. Nourishing the community means nourishing all these relationships.” (Fritjof Capra) 


Ecological processes are cyclical, involving feedback loops, pathways where information and nutrients are continually recycled. For instance, the water cycle and the food “chain.” Being open systems, all organisms within an ecosystem produce wastes, but what is waste for one species is food for another. Communities of organisms have evolved in this way over billions of years, continually using and recycling the same molecules of minerals, water and air. Industrial systems are linear—extract, transform, market, consume and waste. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption would be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes in nature. In many ways and places, we are moving in that direction.


Sunlight, transformed into chemical energy by the photosynthesis of green plants, is the primary source of energy driving ecosystems. “Solar energy in its many forms—sunlight for solar heating and photovoltaic electricity, wind and hydropower, biomass, etc.—is the only kind of energy that is renewable, economically efficient, and environmentally benign. By disregarding this ecological fact, our political and corporate leaders, again and again, endanger the health and well-being of millions around the world.” (FC)

“Corporate economists treat not only the air, water, and soil as free commodities but also the delicate web of social relations, which is severely affected by continuing economic expansion. Private profits are being made at public costs in the deterioration of the environment and the general quality of life, and at the expense of future generations. The marketplace simply gives us the wrong information. There is a lack of feedback, and basic ecological literacy tells us that such a system is not sustainable.” (FC)


“The cyclical exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation. Indeed, ever since the creation of the first nucleated cells over 2 billion years ago, life on Earth has proceeded through ever more intricate arrangements of cooperation and coevolution. Partnership—the tendency to associate, establish links, !live inside one another, and cooperate—is one of the hallmarks of life.” (FC)

Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.

Lynn Margulis (Evolutionary Biologist) & Dorian Sagan (Author)

“Economics emphasizes competition, expansion, and domination; ecology emphasizes cooperation, conservation, and partnership… Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community… The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities—human and nonhuman—in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature.” (FC) 


Within ecosystems, flexibility is a consequence of multiple feedback loops, that can bring the system back into balance whenever there’s a deviation from the norm due to changing conditions. “For example, if an unusually warm summer results in increased growth of algae in a lake, some species of fish feeding on these algae may flourish and breed more, so that their numbers increase and they begin to deplete the algae. Once their major source of food is reduced, the fish will begin to die out. As the fish population drops, the algae will recover and expand again. In this way, the original disturbance generates a fluctuation around a feedback loop, which eventually brings the fish/algae system back into balance.” (FC)  

Each change and response is a “variable.” And the nore variables there are—and kept fluctuating—the more dynamic the system, the greater is its flexibility and the greater its ability to adapt to change. “Loss of flexibility always means loss of health. There’s always the danger that the whole system will collapse when a variable goes beyond certain limits and the system can no longer compensate for it. “The same is true of human communities. Lack of flexibility manifests itself as stress. In particular, stress will occur when one or more variables of the system are pushed to their extreme values, which indicates increased rigidity throughout the system. Temporary stress is an essential aspect of life, but prolonged stress is harmful and destructive to the system. The important realization that managing a social system—a company, a city, or an economy—means finding the optimal values for the system’s variables. If one tries to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing it, this will invariably damage the system as a whole.” (FC) 


Diversity contributes to resiliency. For one thing, diverse species within an ecosystem can, if necessary, overlap functions, even replace one another. If a particular species is destroyed for some reason, breaking the link in a network, “a diverse community will be able to survive and reorganize itself, because other links in the network can at least partially fulfill the function of the destroyed species. In other words, the more complex the network is, the richer is its pattern of interconnections, and the more resilient it will be; and since the complexity of the network is a consequence of its biodiversity, a diverse ecological community is resilient.” (FC) 

In human communities, ethnic and cultural diversity plays the same role. “Diversity means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations. However, diversity is a strategic advantage only if there is a truly interconnected community, sustained by a web of relationships. If the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals, diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. But if the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all the relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole, as well as each individual member.” (FC) 

The next few decades will be a decisive time for humanity and the planet. We face an unprecedented crisis where, faster than we expected, the ecological system upon which human civilization depends is unraveling with devastating consequences. An exciting and rewarding era of opportunity awaits us if we rise to the challenge of living more sustainably. 

Duane Elgin (Author, Voluntary Simplicity)

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

X. Ecosystems

This is the 10th and final posting on whole systems thinking. It is also the first in a new series on ecology.

The word “ecology,” comes from the Greek oikos “household.” Ecology then is the study of the “Earth Household.” In The System’s View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luise define an eco-system as “an integrated and interactive system of biological and physical components.” It can be as small as a termite mound, a rotting log, or as big as an ocean. Forests, tundra, scrubland, swamps, mangrove rivers, and deserts are all ecosystems. 

As living systems, irrespective of size, they interact with the environment in a continuous flow of energy and matter, are subject to entropy or disintegration, are self-making (autopoietic), open to randomness, facilitate the emergence of new order, operate within a network where each component helps to transform and replace other components, and their interactions are conscious, determined by their own internal organization. (The italics indicate topics of previous posts in this series). 

According to the above-mentioned authors, ecosystems “do not possess self-awareness, language, or culture, so there’s no justice or democracy within them.” Also, they note that there’s no greed or dishonesty. Because living systems have survived five mass extinctions over the past 500 million years, ecosystems provide a perfect model for how to live sustainably. They offer five principles of ecology and recommend we use them as guidelines for building sustainable human communities. In summary, here are Nature’s fundamental characteristics from a whole-systems perspective: 

1. Interdependence. All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. What happens to one, happens to all. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the whole community.

2. Cyclical. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes in nature. The First Nations understood this—take only what is needed, use everything possible and recycle what’s left. 

3. Renewable Resources. The only truly renewable sources of energy are solar, wind, thermal, hydropower, biomass, etc. “By disregarding this ecological fact, political and corporate leaders, again and again, endanger the health and well-being of millions around the world.”

4. Cooperation. Partnership is an essential characteristic of sustainable communities. The cyclical exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation. “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”

5.  Flexibility. The flexibility of an ecosystem is a consequence of its multiple feedback loops, which tend to bring the system back into balance whenever there’s a deviation from the norm due to changes in the environment. In nature, everything changes constantly.

6. Diversity. An ecosystem is resilient when it contains many species with overlapping functions that can partially replace one another. In the human community, diversity means many different relationships, which provide many different approaches to solving a problem. A diverse community is resilient because it can adapt to changing circumstances—but only if there’s a truly interconnected community, sustained by a web of relationships. The greater the quality of diverse relationships, the greater will be the community’s power to adjust to change. 

Contemplating The Personal And Social Aspects Of Ecosystems 

The current era of human evolution is marked by a revolution in perception. At every level, there’s a battle being waged between the paradigm of independence and interdependence. In Blessed Are The Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint, theologian Sallie McFague makes it explicit. “Are we singular, independent, separate entities that end with our own skins, or are we both formed and sustained by our radical interdependence with all other living creatures as well as the systems that maintain life?” 

The philosophy of separation inherited from the 18th century Enlightenment, fueled by the American Dream, and amplified by movies and the mass media, has resulted in an image of human fulfillment that is selfish, materialistic, and individualistic. Instead of loving and respecting nature, the earth, and people for what and who they are, unregulated market capitalism has quantified them according to their utility. The consequence of objectifying—putting a value on—natural resources and people (who are quantified by degrees of experience, education, and usefulness relative to generating income) has been the normalization of competition, fighting, corruption, insatiable consumption, and winning. Even war. I’m reminded of the greedy seagulls in Finding Nemo who scramble after Nemo and then a crab shouting, “Mine, mine, mine!” It’s the mantra of individualism.

The caterpillar’s immune system is still trying to protect itself as a caterpillar—and to me, that’s what our insistence on clinging to the oil age is all about. From a biological perspective, it’s the job of the old system to protect itself as long as possible. But it’s equally the job of the new system to rally its forces until it can overcome the old immune system and build the new.

Elisabet Sahtouris (Evolutionary Biologist)

We know the old system doesn’t work and we know why: it’s in opposition to natural processes. And it’s killing the planet. Fortunately, increasingly—and in part by witnessing the damage individualism has done to the earth, including the fracturing of civilization in many countries—an awakening is occurring: the realization that it’s not too late to align with natural processes. 

While it can be painful in many ways to witness the death throes of “It’s all about me,” especially when it seems pervasive, we can immediately affect the shift in our own lives to “It’s about all of us together, equal members of the Earth Community” by thinking that way— loving all living beings, paying attention to, caring for, respecting and considering other people, animals, and the environment. Changing perception and lifestyle is a major challenge. But we take our cue from systems science: emergence, the realization of a higher-level reality occurs as the parts change. It may seem small and insignificant, but every scrap of material I recycle, plastic cup or straw I don’t use, light I turn off, mileage I save, gas, electric, and water I conserve, vote I cast, appliance I repair rather than replace and so on is an act of loving and respecting the planet. At least, given my circumstances and where I am, it’s what I can do.

The idea that our planet is alive, and further, that every mountain, river, lake, and forest is a living being, even a sentient, purposive, sacred being, is not a soppy emotional distraction from the environmental problem at hand; to the contrary, it disposes us to feel more, to care more, and to do more. No longer can we hide from our grief and love behind the ideology that the world is just a pile of stuff to be used instrumentally for own ends.

Charles Eisenstein

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

Soul Train: The Novel


Coming on the heels of my posting on “Fiction And Empathy,” the novel I’ve been working on for three years went live on last week. In Soul Train an African American railroad worker reflects on conversations he had with passengers, significant happenings including tragedies and his exceptional family life. His wife refers to his story as a “spiritual journey,” but he thinks of it as a life spent in “soulful investigation.”

The book is available in paperback and on kindle. Story details are provided on the back cover. Click here.

Fiction And Empathy

I recently came across some insightful statistics on reading. They vary somewhat by state, but here’s an overview.

  • Women read more than men.
  • Most Americans don’t read fiction.
  • Between 1982 and 2012 fiction reading declined from 56% to 46%
  • Men mostly read nonfiction.
  • Women mostly read fiction.
  • Executives far outpace the general population in the number of books read per month.
  • The biggest driver of literary reading is education; the higher, the more books read
  • The genres that make the most money in order: romance/erotica, crime/mystery, religious/inspirational, science fiction/fantasy, and horror.
  • A 2018 survey asked why people read fiction. In order, the reasons included: For entertainment, to appreciate other places and people in the world, to understand the circumstances of others, to escape the everyday world, to learn, to pass the time. 
  • The sale of print books is declining. Only 54% of Americans cracked open a book of any kind last year—print or digital, fiction or nonfiction. Fiction suffered most.
  • In the past decade, poetry suffered the steepest decline. Only 6.7% of American adults read poetry last year, versus 12% in 2002. 
  • 28% of adults read an e-book in 2013, up from 23% the year before.

In 2013, MarketWatch published an explanation for the overall decline in reading. Now, six years later, especially considering the popularity of selfies, their perspective is worthy of consideration. It’s narcissism the author said. “Americans may be more fascinated with their own lives than with those featured in great works of literary fiction: Some 56% of Internet users have searched for themselves online, such as by typing their own name into Google, according to the Pew Research Center. Studies also show that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, in part because “adults have been presented with a tidal wave of easily accessible and affordable entertainment.”

Further, “Students have been abandoning the humanities in favor of the sciences: The number of students taking bachelor degrees in humanities hovers at around 8%, less than half the number four decades earlier, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And in a study released in 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Americans just 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy.”  

I cite this data because I think it relates to empathy, the loss thereof, which is being reflected in public policy here and abroad. In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman defines empathy as “the ability to know how another feels…. to perceive the subjective experience of another person.” In that same book, Martin Hoffman argues that “the roots of morality are to be found in empathy because empathizing with someone in pain, danger, or deprivation moves people to act.” It leads me to wonder if the systems responsible for managing immigrants—worldwide—would be more humane if their administrators sat down and had a conversation with those detained.     

I’m not alone in believing that reading works of poetry and fiction can awaken and activate empathy. A recent article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences observed that “fiction is the simulation of selves in interaction. People who read it improve their understanding of others. This effect is especially marked with literary fiction, which also enables people to change themselves. These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator, and can be internalized to augment everyday cognition.” That’s key: reading fiction can contribute to how we think and perceive the world. I’d like to see some savy journalist ask our political leaders in both parties if they read poetry or fiction.

Unfortunately, “Empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years.” Research led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University. I was particularly fascinated by the methodology that Dr. Konrath used—the Interpersonal Reactivity Index which measures empathy by asking whether responders agree to statements such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” And “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”

I was almost an exclusive reader of nonfiction until I married Linda. Even for a long time afterward, I mostly read to supplement my work, projects or worldview. Browsing her bookshelf somewhere in the early ’80s, I picked up John Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath, and I was hooked. The journey was fascinating and the ending shocking, nothing I could have imagined. Being emersed in a time, place, people’s lives and circumstances that were totally foreign to me—and based in historical fact—was a wakeup call. I didn’t know my general empathy for human beings could be so poignantly activated by reading. 

From then on, I became a regular reader—and eventually a writer—of fiction. Because of my interests and work, I never stopped reading nonfiction, but it was works of fiction that stirred my capacity to empathize and approach an understanding of how other people think and respond to challenges. When I observe what’s going on in the news these days, I’m reminded of a Daniel Goleman quote. He said, “Lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring.” Empathy then is real caring based on understanding someone else’s perspective and circumstances. Importantly, he explained that “rapists, child molesters, and many perpetrators of family violence alike are incapable of empathy.” It speaks to cause. “They’re emotionally handicapped, incapable of understanding what their victim is feeling in the situation. These and other crimes are pursued as though the victim has no feeling of their own.” This appears to be a mental health issue that isn’t even being talked about.

There’s an opportunity here. Encouraging and promoting the reading of fiction and poetry meant to enlighten—humanities publications in general—could be an easy way to awaken empathy and ease social decline due to mental health. This isn’t the whole answer, of course. But the lack of empathy is a serious problem, evidenced by the worldwide trend toward pulling in (nationalism) which suggests self-serving motivations, fear and a lack of trust. The strategy of a person lacking empathy is exactly that, pulling in and drawing lines in the sand—“I don’t need you.” “Keep out.” “I can go it alone.” It’s an illusion. It has been proven that human beings and human societies can’t go it alone. They become dysfunctional and then die because living systems are, by definition, interdependent networks of functioning relationships. As the ancient Maya and other civilizations have demonstrated, building protective walls—physical or psychological—around cities cuts them off from the great and necessary advantage of diversity, an essential evolutionary component that creates resiliency. Creative works that awaken empathy help us to respect and value diversity, and in doing so make us resilient. 

We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know. 

Carl Rogers (Psychologist)

About The Photograph

This has been a favorite photograph of mine since it was taken in the early ’70s. It beautifully records Linda’s love of literature—poetry in this instance. And it expresses the sensibility of peace of mind that both of us cherish. The shot wasn’t posed. You see her here in a quiet moment. I just happened to have a camera with me. Often, having a camera at hand has resulted in unexpected gems.

I welcome your feedback at <>

My portfolio site:

My photo books: <> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”