Friday, October 19, 2007

Northwoods Alchemy II: Save the bees

Thursday morning’s session had an audacious title: “The Human Impact”. And, of course this immediately appealed to me… A veteran of many soccer, rugby and an odd US football game, impact is no stranger. After all, we grow up – especially us boys – wanting to be “impact players”. As we get older, we try to keep in shape through our high impact workouts. And then, as we age, we look back at our legacies. Did we accomplish something meaningful? Did we have an impact?

Well, it appears that our impact has been all too great. However, as any old Grammy-Oscar-Nobel Prize winner these days will tell you, it’s pretty clear all of this impact isn’t exactly working out so well. Our planet (broadly) is a train following tracks that lead off a cliff, and we are passengers – rich and poor alike.

Sounds like an emergency, in no uncertain terms. Still, for most people – myself included – understanding an issue this big in more than intellectual terms, well – let’s just say an idea like this has a hard time sinking in. And so, our speakers this morning tried to paint a picture of today in somewhat unorthodox human terms.

The first presenter, artist Chris Jordan, used some both beautiful and shocking photographs to show just how much we use, consume and waste in the USA, and the images were staggering. His medium is grand, putting together a ream of paper, say, then creating a larger photo made up of reams of photos of the ream… A kind of crazy quilt of scale.

And the numbers he illustrated are beyond absurd: 106,000 aluminum cans used every second, 60,000 paper bags every 5 seconds, 30,000 reams of office paper every 5 seconds. What’s worse, we’re not just consumers in the USA. Think about it. If Chris’ numbers are correct, the US Army shot off 1.8 billion bullets last year in Iraq – just from handguns alone.

We shouldn’t, of course, get lost in the numbers or the images. They are a metaphor, a representation. His point, if you boil it down, is fairly simple: We humans – especially those of us that live in the US -- act as if we’re the only thing that matters, and that our impact on the world is trivial. In fact, we’re wrong on both counts, and it puts us all at risk.

Still, as we sat and had lunch after his presentation I pushed Chris to go deeper. “Be afraid, very afraid” may be an important first part of some sort of global 12-step Consumers Anonymous program, but at least for now, guilt and admonition clearly aren’t working as organizational approaches to the problem.

If we’re serious about dealing with our waste and saving earth (and ourselves in the process), what should we do?

“We need to think more like bees,” says Chris. “To think of others.”

“Hmmm. I says. Hmmm. Think like a bee. Can I think like a bee? I’m not sure.” And so I went off to the afternoon sessions, to – as it were – buzz around and think about it.

As seems to be the pattern here at Pop!Tech, happily some of the afternoon speakers came to the rescue, putting at least some of my fears to rest...

Lee Alan Dugatkin talked about altruism as a part of our common animal heritage – even if it isn’t that common. He reassured me that even Darwin had confidence in our capacity for sacrifice for the common good, citing the common honeybee as an example in the way it protects the hive. It may be that we are more inclined to help bees like us, but at least we have hardwired ability, the desire to think of others. In some measure, altruism could help us stop the train wreck.

Then Louanne Brizendine spoke about the development of chemistry and behavior patterns in men and women, and how we naturally approach problems differently. By extension, I extrapolated, we should have the capacity for many potential models of impact. Perhaps a slightly more feminine version of “impact” might help us change the direction of the track, leading to a saner, safer planet (or at least less trash on the ground at the end of the day). Certainly changes in our family roles and practices should give us access to more feminine thinking as we attempt to solve the planet’s problems... assuming, of course, that we’re listening.

And finally from Daniel Pink, we heard about the changing economics – and thus the changing social organization – we are seeing and likely to see, as we move from left brain to right, from a knowledge society to one more based on creativity. But will the move to a creative society be enough to solve our planet’s problems? Or will we need to graduate to the next level his diagram suggested to me, the economy beyond economy, the stage off the chart – some sort of spiritual, or other-focused economic and social set-up? In short, must we get off the train entirely if we truly want to fix things?

At lunch I was asking myself – with all my conditioning and chemistry and wants, can I really think like a bee? Putting all the afternoon’s speakers together I got at least part of a solution. We have the crucial tools. On some level, we might even happily find we’re bees at heart.

But by day’s end I was still left with too many unanswered questions, and some nagging doubts. If we’re on a train toward extinction and we want to get off… if in response to the emergency we declared Thursday morning we agree to work together… if we’re willing to re-organize to think more like members of the same family – like bees who would gladly sacrifice for each other – well then what exactly should we do?

The future may indeed be more altruistic, more accepting of feminine values, more creative. But even if we all agree we need each other, we still need a plan. Without more of a blueprint for our new socio-economic hive, my fear is that tomorrow will just look like a bigger, closer, scarier today.

So listen, Pop!Tech, lend a hand to a fellow bee here… I know you’ve got some solutions on the drawing board somewhere. Take it to the next level. As they say in the movies, “Show me the honey”.

The world is waiting.

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