Electric Power

In the summer of ’76, the year Linda and I were married, we went to the Cayo district in Belize so I could better appreciate where and how she’d lived for a year, teaching English to high school students under the auspices of the Papal Volunteer’s—the Catholic church’s version of the Peace Corps. We hired a taxi at the Chetumal, Mexico airstrip to drive us a hundred miles into the jungle. For hours, the only lights we saw were the taxi headlights on the deeply pitted dirt road and occasional kerosene lamps flickering through the trees.

Linda’s dear friends were excited to reunite with her and they welcomed us to stay with them. That same night, a roach as big as my forefinger was on the sheet when Linda pulled back the blanket. And the fluttering I heard as I brushed my teeth in a basin, turned out to be a bat. I said I wanted to leave in the morning. But she informed me that there weren’t any taxies in town, there was no bus that day and the only telephone line had been destroyed by the Maya burning their fields for planting. So I resigned myself to stay one more day. The next morning I stepped outside and into a jungle with dripping leaves, parrots, glistening lime trees and sparkling bright sunlight. I ran and got my camera. I was in photography heaven.

So what’s that got to do with a lightbulb? Appreciation—for the gift of electric power and the lack of it. At that time, San Ignacio had neither televisions nor electric refrigerators. Most energy came from kerosene, which was very limited, and the town’s electric generator shut down at ten o’clock after three hours of use. So as darkness approached our hosts, friends and Linda and I sat around a 60 watt bare bulb that hung from the ceiling on a wire—and we talked. As I remember it, these were less like conversations and more like family reports on who did what, who went where, when certain animals would be slaughtered for market, who said what to whom and what politicians were doing. When the generator shut down the talk continued for another hour, by the light of a kerosene lamp.

The light bulb in this image evokes memories of that challenging and wonderful week, in particular an appreciation for the luxuries—and necessities—that electric power affords. I understand now, how the light bulb became the symbol for the word “idea.” Now, instead of sharing the news and gossip of the day with family, friends and neighbors, electric power allows us to converse, interact, read and watch movies at night, and in the comfort of our well-lit and air-conditioned homes. It’s staggering to consider how much has been gained because of access to consistent, affordable and abundant electricity. Don’t we notice, whenever it goes down, for whatever reason, our appreciation awakens and grows with every passing hour.

But something has also been lost. We no longer sit together, face-to-face in the evenings, sharing the close-in happenings of the day with family members, friends and neighbors. It’s not that I miss what’s been lost. I don’t. But the light of that 60-watt bulb in San Ignacio, Cayo gave me a fresh appreciation for how people—and our not-to-distant ancestors—managed and thrived without electric power. The light of that little bulb created a context, a call to gather without distraction. And share.

We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle, a good candle, provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100 watt light bulb.

Bill Bryson

About This Image

Title: Light Bulb

Theme: Electric Power

File #: T13

Studio: Rochester Institute Of Technology, Rochester, New York

This photograph was made as part of an assignment at R.I.T. The bulb was about 12 inches tall. Someone had discarded it and I wanted to see if it worked. Not having a proper socket to screw it into, I stripped the end of a lamp cord and taped the wires to the terminals. When I plugged it in, the filament glowed yellow.

The setup was simple. I unrolled a length of red seamless paper, punched a little hole for the wire that ran under the paper, and used modeling clay to stand the bulb upright. I critically focused on the filament and set the camera’s aperture to wide open so the taped base of the bulb and the clay would not show. After setting two flood lights to evenly light the paper, I found that there were distracting reflections on the glass. So I darkened the room and moved the lights to minimize the reflections. I plugged in the bulb, did a last minute check of focus with the filament burning and made two exposures on Kodak 4×5 Ektachrome film.


Leaf In The Surf


One among many leaves that float on the surface of life, I ride the waves.

The calm—

meaningful conversations,

helping where help is needed,

Linda’s cooking; Graeter’s ice cream; Skyline chili,

researching and writing novels of the ancient Maya; visiting sites,

Scott Hamilton’s tenor saxophone; Barry Manilow; Andrea Bocelli

traveling backroads to photograph; making prints in the darkroom,

orange tabby cats,

The West Wing; Northern Exposure; Morgan Freeman’s Through The Wormhole,

The Life of Pi; Avatar; Singin’ In The Rain.

And the turbulent—

war; man’s inhumanity to man; intolerance

cruelty to animals,

not being able to help when help is needed,

health challenges,

loud music in malls; discordant jazz in bookstores,

loud talkers in restaurants; busers clearing gravy-stained plates near the table,

littering; line jumping; horn honking; cursing; telemarketing interruptions,

television ID’s in the corner of the screen; hype and destructive commercials

apocalyptic movies

On the surface I come to know who I am and where I fit.

Beneath the surface, I become aware of the depths; expanse, and it draws me.

Further down, there is stillness, the prospect of peace of mind.

Deeper yet, ironically, in darkness comes greater illumination.

Descending through the abismal plane, the adopted surface-self diminishes.

With no place to look and nothing to see, authentic self emerges.

At Tranquility Base, where not knowing is embraced, being takes precedence over doing.

There, aware of how much more there is—and how much more there is to me,

I rise to the surface with fresh insight: Though I am still a leaf, I am more the water.


You can’ t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.

Henry Louis Mencken

About This Image

Title: Leaf In The Surf

File #: 463-C4

Indian Rocks Beach, Florida

Although it has been many years since I made this photograph, I remember being reluctant to take my 2 1/4 Bronica to the beach. Even though you can’t see the sand in the air—it’s there. So on this occasion I kept the camera in a sealable plastic bag until the last minute when I saw a shot. The plastic enclosure emboldened me to get in the water with it.

So I was up to my knees in the surf around sunset when I saw this leaf bobbing up and down in the waves. I adjusted the settings while the camera was still in the bag, got into position, removed the camera and took the shot. The camera doesn’t have a built in exposure meter, so I made the best compromise I could between a shutter speed fast enough to “freeze” the leaf, and an aperture small enough to keep the background highlights sharp. Fortunately, it was a good guess. In my printing notes I identified it as “numinous,” an image that fed my soul. It still does.


Urinal Handle

If this object happened to be found by future archaeologists, isolated and with nothing to compare it to, it would signify the existence of a complex and highly advanced civilization—even if its function was not known. The evidence: chromed metal, parts that function together as a whole, intricate design, meticulous manufacturing, a “system” to convey the flow of water complete with fittings, seals and regulators to control that flow—all without leaking. Although such an item could well be exhibited as an object of ancient art, the clear indication is that it was functional and mass produced.

Civilization. It’s what can happen when people, oriented toward a common goal, come together to collaborate, not to serve or support a powerful individual or committee, but to build a social structure that works for everyone. Bottom to top. For me, at this stage of human evolution, one of the indicators of an advanced society is the extent to which people work together to create and maintain an infrastructure, particularly, but not solely, systems that satisfy basic human needs including abundant and healthy food, clean water, sanitary and safe living conditions, efficient and effective means for managing waste, safe and efficient transportation modalities and widely distributed electric power.

Social collaboration is difficult and slow to evolve, in part because of the prerequisites. People have to have a common objective, come together, and agree. They have to be willing and able to pay taxes. There has to be a trustworthy management team that has both know-how and access to resources. And all of this needs to be coordinated within a structure where, again, the intention is to build a workable and sustainable society—for everyone.

What prompted my selection of this image for contemplation is that it stands as a symbol of collaboration, in contrast to symbols of dysfunction, such as war, poverty, and crime. Other signs include the felt need to own guns and other weapons for protection, buildings that lack plumbing, contaminated water, open sewer trenches, shanties and so on. Without becoming maudlin or political, I observe that in many places age-old rivalries, greed, and power-grabs are preventing the possibility of collaboration, thereby sustaining conflict and violence in a vicious cycle of pain and retribution. I don’t have a solution. But I do have faith. In the final analysis, human beings want to have the freedom to be more, do more, have more, know more, contribute and experience life more fully. Those who interfere with that, cannot long endure.

It’s going to take collaboration of the whole planet to save the planet.

Joseph Firmage

 About This Image

Title: Water Control Valve

File #: DF 1094

Something wonderful happens when you take up a camera and start looking for subject matter. You find it! Just as a hunter becomes more sensitive to movement in the forest and a cook discovers the nuances of flavors, the search for images sharpens the eye, enhances perception and activates the aesthetic “muscle.” This is why some people carry a camera with them wherever they go, a circumstance made easy by smartphones. But just having a camera available is not the same as looking for images that communicate or express.

I went to our local conservatory with the intention of photographing flowers on a day when the temperature was in the single digits. The men’s room is located between the entrance, which is glass and cold, and the interior of this tropical greenhouse, which is warm, so there was a great deal of condensation on this valve. What you see is how I found it. I took the shot and didn’t think much of it, beyond the curiosity of it being attached to a urinal. Until now.

It’s not a great photograph by any stretch of the imagination, but when I gave it more than a cursory glance, it struck me as a symbol of infrastructure, and that led to a contemplation of both appreciation for what we have and insight into its significance considering what had to happen for it to exist and function. Vision, collective will, and collaboration.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

Bounty And Beauty


Amish Hay Shocks

Two words come to mind when I look at this field: bounty and beauty. Even more than the shocks, the cultivated ground on which they stand evokes in me a sense of the skin of the earth—how thin it is and how marvelous that, year after year, seeds dropped into it rise in such a short period of time to provide the nutrients we need to survive. It seems like a miracle—until I remember that it’s part of the chain of interconnections that evolved to make life sustainable and more abundant.

Images like this also remind me to appreciate that we in the technologically developed nations of the world enjoy regular and bountiful harvests. It’s not something to take for granted when, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 870 million people (of the 7.1 billion people in the world—one in eight) suffered from chronic undernourishment between 2010 and 2011. More recently that number dropped to 843 million, but it’s still a sobering reality.

I made this photograph in Amish country with a 4×5 view camera. As I was standing close to the roadside with my head under a dark cloth to adjust the composition on the ground glass, I heard a horse and buggy approaching. Not wanting to get my tripod bumped or frighten the horse, I stepped aside and waved to the driver. Surprisingly, he stopped. “You like that field do you?” said the long-bearded farmer wearing a wide-rimmed black hat.

“I do,” I replied. “These fields are amazing. May I ask what those stacks are called?”

“Shocks,” he said. “Wheat shocks. Do you know why we arrange them like that?” I shook my head. “It’s a lot more work to do it that way, and it takes longer than rolling. Either way, the bulk of the hay stays dry. But we do it because it’s beautiful.”

That little but precious comment took root in my soul that day as both an inspiration and an injunction to, as much as possible, make beauty an essential component of all my creations. I don’t always succeed, but the intention is firmly planted.

Beauty is finally our surest indication of whether what we do is in the most creative direction for nature as a whole. 

Fredrick Turner

About This Image

Title: Wheat Shocks

Theme: Bounty And Beauty

File #: 602

Sugarcreek, OH

In the middle of Ohio there are miles and miles of rolling hills inhabited by the Amish. I photograph there often and in every kind of weather. The fields change so much from season to season. The same spot where I set up my tripod years before, always has something new to show me. Also, the houses, barns and schoolhouses provide exceptional forms and textures, particularly at “magic hour.”

While I never photograph the Amish themselves without asking permission, I often have them in the frame, rendering them simply as “people” from a distance too far away to recognize their faces. And what a treat it is to photograph where there are far fewer fences and wires.

Initially, this field caught my attention because the long row of shocks looked so much like a row of Ewoks (Star War characters) marching in procession. By increasing the print contrast and brightening the highlights, I began to also see them as hooded monks. And that contributed to a more contemplative sensibility. A large print of this image has hung in our living room for many years now. And I never tire of it’s subtle but profound reminders—to appreciate the bounty we have and to make beauty an integral part of everyday living.

Solutions (To Climate Change)

This is the final posting in the series on ecology

We’ve reviewed the climate change situation from a whole-systems perspective observing that the key to managing complex living systems is to manage the parts in right functional relationship with the whole. With regard to climate, Earth is the whole and individual humans are the parts—“members” actually. The proper function of members in a living system is to maintain their integrity—health, ability to communicate and collaborate with others, and make their unique contribution.

We noted that individuals and select groups, mainly the worldwide network of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) are effectively responding to change appropriately despite  the failure of political leaders to lead. For every human problem, there’s an organization we can turn to for assistance. One of the things to do is to support the particular NGO that is working to resolve or effectively manage the challenge at the top of our concern list.

What’s important to do  
Shift Perception

For me, the highest priority need are shifts in perception. First and foremost, who am I? By virtue of being aware of ourselves, there’s a spark that makes us more than our bodies and thoughts. It’s been observed that within each of us are the archetypes of both devil and angel. Right there is a choice. Am I in tune with “The Force” or attuned to “The Dark Side?” Is my being in the world making it better? Is what I do an asset or liability for people and planet? Do my sharings of opinion and information uplift and empower myself and others? Or do they make people feel bad about humanity, helpless or less optimistic about the future? Am I choosing information and entertainment sources that uplift or confuse and depress? 

Another, critical shift in perception relates to how we view ourselves in relation to the planet—if we think of it at all. Am I simply a decades-long passenger, here for the ride wherever it takes me? Am I just playing the hand I was dealt at birth? Or am I an engaged member of a living system, doing what I can to take only what I need, clean up after myself and keep the house in good repair for others. These are the “Earth House Rules” articulated by Sallie McFague who says the Earth is a house, not a hotel. Am I doing what I can to take care of it, especially the spaces entrusted to me? Scientist James Lovelock has demonstrated that the planet is a living system, an entity that possesses all the qualities that define life. Am I treating her—Earth Mother in Native American parlance—as the source and sustainer of my life? All life? 

The paradigm of separation, fear, domination and competition have resulted in the blossoming of the human species—for many, but not the majority. That manner of thinking and action has been so successful in creating wealth for the few in the “developed” world, it’s nearly impossible for financial and political interests to release their grip. It’s even hard for us to imagine a world no longer dependent on fossil fuel, coal and nuclear energy, strip-mining, deforestation, ocean pollution and meat production. Yet that’s on the horizon, and it needs to happen fast—“it” meaning a 180º shift to the paradigm of unity, love and respect for each other, nature and the Earth and collaboration. Like it or not, we are the generation of the shift. We will succeed together or our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences, which in the near term (scientists predict two decades) is a systemic crisis that affects survival for many and a serious reduction in the quality of life for everyone. Sixteen-year-old Greta Lungren said “We need to act as if our house is on fire—because it is!”

When asked what she considered the core of her message, Greta said it’s for all people everywhere to engage in conversations about climate change. That’s key. We have to acknowledge that there is a problem, that it’s critical to whole systems survival and that something can be done about it. 


For me, another top priority toward becoming part of the solution, is to listen carefully to the priorities of political candidates of every persuasion. What do they talk about most? The economy, jobs, energy, education, health care, military, space, abortion, reforms, threats from other nations, personalities? All of these have one thing in common—money. Of course, it’s important to talk about money; it’s one of the primary functions of governing at all levels. But none of these issues are going to matter if we don’t first attend to the survival threat that is real and bearing down on us. 

Understandably, many of our political and business leaders have their heads in the sand. If they admit that climate change presents a real threat to survival and diminished quality of life for everyone, the economy and profit margins would suffer due to public restraint on purchasing. But that’s precisely what needs to happen if we’re to come back from the brink of widespread disaster. Crisis precedes and is often necessary for positive transformation. At a certain level of the frequency and severity of environmental calamities, the Federal government, insurance companies and banks will reach a ceiling, unable to rescue or even come to the aid of states and cities. The whole system could collapse. We could loose electricity, fuel for vehicles and grocery shelves would be empty.

However, the window of opportunity is not yet closed. There is still time to affect substantive change. What it requires is electing individuals of integrity—intelligent and wise, truth-tellers who understand the seriousness of climate change, make it a top priority, commit to taking responsible action in response to it and LEAD Congress and the American people in the difficult initiatives needed to reverse the damage that’s been done. Never before has so much been at stake when we vote.  

Expert Recommendations

Sallie McFague (Ecologian): She suggests a fourfold practice. I summarize from her book, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming.

1. Voluntary simplicity

2. Focus on the needs of others

3. Cultivate the inclusive Self—expand the circle of caring to the world and everyone in it

4. Apply the above at all levels of activity, personal and public

Charles Eisenstein (Ecologist): Climate: A New Story. “Climate change is inviting us to forge a different kind of relationship, one that holds the planet and all of its places, ecosystems, and species sacred—not only in our conception and philosophy, but in our material relationship. Nothing less will deliver us from the environmental crisis that we face. Specifically, we need to turn our primary attention toward healing soil, water, and biodiversity, region by region and place by place… We must enact a civilization-wide unifying purpose: to restore beauty, health and life to all that has suffered during the Ascent of Humanity… If I were pressed to offer a universal solution, it would be to see and treat the world as sacred again. As my friend Orland Bishop says, the sacred is something that requires sacrifice; that is, it is something we value—and would sacrifice to protect—beyond its use-value to ourselves.”

His Holiness The Dalai Lama: The Universe In A Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. “Because of the profoundly interconnected reality of today’s world, we need to relate to the challenges we face as a single human family rather than as members of specific nationalities, ethnicities, or religions. In other words, a necessary principle is a spirit of oneness of the entire human species. Some might object to this as unrealistic. But what other options do we have?”

Brian Swimme (Cosmologist): “The solution to our crises: Reinvent ourselves, at the species level, in a way that enables us to live… not just with humans but with all beings—so that our activities actually enhance the world.”

Sarah VanGelder (Editor, YES! Magazine): “Small actions and choices can have major, although unpredictable, effects in determining what comes next. Among the possibilities is that the thousands of experiments and millions of choices to live more consciously will coalesce into a new civilization that fosters community, provides possibilities for meaning, and sustains life for the planet.”

“Small Actions” (Little Things Add Up)

The following is a sampling derived from an internet search among people who are committed to amending their lives in response to climate change. I offer it as “food for thought.”

  • Take shorter showers.
  • Fly less. Use video or phone conferencing for work meetings and gatherings instead. 
  • Travel by train or bus. On long distances, cars pollute more than airplanes.
  • Turn lights off, except when necessary.
  • Turn down the thermostat & wear sweaters in the winter time.
  • Set the summer time air conditioner a little less cooler.
  • Shop close to home; ride a bike.
  • Car pool or use public transportation.
  • Deciding where to live, what vehicles you buy is a 10-15 year commitment to energy.
  • Improve the energy efficiency of the house
  • Turning off the hot water heater while on vacation.
  • Satisfy wants less frequently than needs.
  • Not buying or replacing a vehicle that burns fossil fuel until or unless it’s necessary.
  • Not buying shoes, clothes or other wearing apparel that’s not necessary.
  • Using existing materials of any kind before buying new.
  • Borrowing books and videos from the library rather than purchasing them.
  • Never litter and picking up litter.
  • Wrap sandwiches and other short-use foods in recyclable paper rather than plastic.
  • Offering charitable contributions to NGO’s.
  • Driving the shortest distance between two points.
  • Turning off electronic devices when not needed for long periods.
  • Cutting back on meat.
  • No longer subscribing to a lawn care service because it kills insects and worms.
  • Buying organic foods as much as possible.
  • Switching to pencils, so not to use ballpoint pens.
  • Never throw waste into a pond, stream, river, lake or any other body of water.
  • Using fewer devices that require disposable batteries.
  • When searching for a job, look into alternative energy companies.
  • Using cloth rather than paper towels.
  • Using natural cleaning products; ammonia rather than Clorox.
  • Stopped buying anything with real fur or leather.
  • Using washable cloth rather than commercial diapers.
  • Using existing office supplies before buying more.
  • Mulching leaves in the Fall, don’t just throw them away.
  • Use a printer and copier only when necessary and recycle the cartridges.
  • Reading more; watching television less.
  • Don’t buy the next generation smartphones—or anything—until it’s necessary.
  • Recycling everything possible, and in appropriate ways.
  • Recycling metals that are no longer needed; don’t let weeds grow over them.
  • Using hand rather than power tools, especially not those that burn fossil fuel.
  • Asking for paper rather than plastic cups and straws in restaurants.
  • Borrow or rent tools rather than purchase them; sharing tools.
  • Reusing binders, folders and mailers as much as possible.
  • Reduce, ideally eliminate, single-use plastic bottles and other containers.
  • Taking my own cloth bags to the grocery store.

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

George Bernard Shaw

The Earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.

Pope John Paul II 

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.

Jane Goodall

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

Greta Thunberg

This is the 10th posting in the series on ecology

In a previous posting in this series, one of the reasons I expressed optimism regarding climate change was the concern and initiatives of young people. Because sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has stepped up to speak to power with intelligence, wisdom and passion, I dedicate this posting to her and those she is influencing worldwide. 

As the image above illustrates, a storm is brewing and it’s time to do something about it. Next week I’ll offer some suggestions.

You may have seen sound-bites of Greta on television, but I highly recommend these presentations:  

Greta Thunberg’s 11 minute TED TALK

 (1, 734,269 views)

Greta Thunberg at the UN (4 minutes) “How dare you!”

(Over 2 million views)

Greta Thunberg speaks to EU leaders (4 minutes)


IX. Quantity vs Quality

This is the 9th posting on the topic of ecology

Living systems grow or they die. Individually and collectively, zero growth is not possible. Faced with the current challenge of rapidly increasing and dramatic climate change, there are a variety of options open to us as individuals. Among the obvious, is observing the Earth House Rules (Blog #5 in this series): Take only my share; clean up after myself; keep my house in good repair. A related option has to do with shopping, for instance less impulse buying and shopping for something to do or shopping for entertainment. When Linda sees something she’d like, her habit is to walk away. After weighing the consequences of the purchase, if the positives outweigh the negatives and the desire persists, she’ll go back. More often than not, she decides not to acquire the object.

Ecologists note that growth in commerce and the economy are primarily based on consumption, which is linear (taking) and limited (because resources are finite). On the contrary, growth in nature is nonlinear and unlimited because the decay of organisms produces materials that are recycled. Mulching is a prime example.

Less considered but equally contributing to the slowing and diminishing severity of climate change is a shift in thinking from quantity to quality. Ecologists promote “qualitative growth”  rather than quantative growth because it enhances the quality of life. According to systems theorist and ecologist Fritjof Capra “In living organisms, ecosystems, and societies, qualitative growth includes an increase of complexity, sophistication, and maturity. Unlimited quantitative growth on a finite planet is clearly unsustainable, but qualitative economic growth can be sustained if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes the inner growth of learning and maturity.” Whatever motivates our desire for bigger, faster, better, newer and more stuff and experiences, those of us privileged to live in plentiful societies consider it the norm.

Psychologists trace motivations and desires to a variety of physical, mental and emotional causes. Whatever they might be, everyday living is filled with choice-points. Growing up in a consumption oriented culture, decisions relating to what I needed or wanted came easily because products and experiences were “on the shelf” so to speak. Available. The only challenges were price and priority. Can I afford it? Is it at or near the top of my list of things to have or do? Consuming was—and is—sold to us, largely by advertisers. But it’s also in the bloodstream of the culture. The unwritten, unspoken but clearly understood rule was clear: Having will make you happy. There was even a well-trodden path: get your toys, books, desk, telephone, computer, uniform… car, degree, apartment, spouse, house, refrigerator… children, profession, pension and  retire to Florida. I’m reminded of comedian George Carlin’s sketch A Place For My Stuff. 

And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. 

George Carlin

I’m also reminded of comments made by people whose homes, properties and material goods have been destroyed. Holding on to a loved one, they say the same thing: “At least we have each other.” Homes can be rebuilt. Material goods can be replaced. What can’t be replaced is family or a significant other. These are reminders that happiness is not attained through acquiring, owning or consuming, not even collecting a variety of interesting or exciting experiences. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with these. I just want to be more aware at my decision-points  so they’re based on real needs and prioritized wants, always taking the environment into consideration. 

The American propensity to value quantity over quality was largely driven by science. Because its modus operandi is measurement, it became the best way to assign value. Often, the first question asked at a decision point is how much something costs. Having more of any good became better than having less. It’s a fallacy. Money, for instance, the commodity we tend to measure most, is no guarantee of happiness, excitement, comfort or health. Neither is it a reliable indicator of the health of a society. Yet, as the photo above attests, “everything has a price tag.”

The perpetual growth myth promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world’s problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root of our unsustainable global practices. 

Brundtland, G.H., et al. (2012). Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act. New York: UNEP Report.

Ecologists recommend a shift in thinking, making life-decisions less about quantity and more about quality across the board—in material goods, services, relationships—such decisions enhance the quality of life and at the same time lessen the ecological footprint and optimize sustainability. I found it curious and on the mark that “the inner growth of learning and maturity” was cited as contributing to sustained qualitative economic growth. It took me a while to realize that, in many  instances, buying cheap products is a false economy. For instance, in the long run, it’s more economical to pay more for a high quality garment that will last, than an inexpensive one that won’t. How we spend our time is another consideration. How much time an I spending on acquiring and consuming, relative to time spent on enriching activities? 

A popular consumer attitude is summed up in the phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Linda had a student who died in his junior year of high school. I paraphrase the lesson she presented to the class: “What you’re doing today could be the most important thing you’ll ever do. Relative to our topic, it matters less how much I get done, far more how well I do it—no matter what it is.  

Ecological healing requires our society to look beneath its consumptive symptoms and reorient toward qualitative development. To do so requires significant reprogramming, since our guiding narratives, from economic to scientific, embody quantitative thinking.

Charles Eisenstein

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”

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

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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

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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


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