Compassion and Empathy

Compassion means that one realizes that, “I am not separate from this suffering” – Joan Halifax

When one talks about compassion,equality, social justice, and the act of becoming a community, it is important to understand that even though we all have unique personalities (soals, spirits, et cetera..), the reality is that we are all literally of the same body. During conception, a new baby is not created out of nothing. A cell, who’s essential components come from mom and dad, splits. This is important because we are not the completely unique individuals that the American dream professes that we are. We are a part of a infinitely long process of continuous creation. What we see when we look at each other, the trees, the animals, butterflies, is a reflection of our literal selves.  The genetic difference between a mouse and a human is very, very small, and that matters when we talk about how we treat other people, and how we treat other species. Violence toward “others” is really violence towards ourselves…the effects of poverty and climate change are proof.
Gaia Theory, following this line of thought, claims that the earth is a single living organism, where everything is integrated and networked into infinitely complex relationships. Middle class white men are a piece of that network, but so are monkeys, soil, air, penguins, water, and every other living and non living component on earth. The living cannot exist without the nonliving “stuff” that supports it, making that non-living stuff just as important as the living stuff. The continuous flow of materials (carbon, oxygen, etc,.) and information (DNA) between the living and non living really blurs the line as to what life is. This is why the Native Americans felt that rocks and water and stars had souls, and were alive. They recognized the infinitely complex relationships of which they were a small part of.
The privilege, and curse, to people is that they are self conscious. Remember that we are made up of molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, et cetera. No where else in the entire universe has structures of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, risen to the level of having feelings of love, hatred, and compassion. Think about that. It is truly an amazing thing, but it puts a tremendous burden on us to find a healthy place for ourselves in this universe. We have to make decisions. Rocks don’t make decisions. Animals make decisions, but they live in the moment, and can’t comprehend the gravity of their actions onto others. When humans hurt others we know it, and we choose to do it usually for personal or family gain. It hurts everyone involved, simply because we are all of the same body, and we are self conscious.
The idea of the Beloved Community, as popularized by Martin Luther King, is to hold that paradox in your hands gracefully. We are actually all of the same physical body, and we have risen to the level of self consciousness where we must make difficult choices. All choices we make have consequences, either directly or indirectly through the people and environment that we live with(in). Creating the Beloved Community is about effectively playing our small, but important, part in creating the infinitely complex and beautiful world that we are. Seeing others as the same, but unique, special, but not exceptional, simply follows from this line of thought. “Social Justice” becomes just a word. Compassion becomes natural.

Corporate Government?

After viewing this film, I was left wondering if it is appropriate to allow extreme wealth to have such a disproportional influence over the democratic process?

In the landmark ruling, “Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission” the US Supreme Court upheld the idea that government cannot restrict free speech even when the entity engaging the process is a corporation. In a 4 to 3 vote, it was decided that corporations are entities that have heavy investments in the direction of US policy, in the same way that most individual citizen have, and thus have the same rights to express themselves as people do. It means that a corporation has a voice independent of the executives and staff of a company (which would exercise their own civic responsibilities), and that corporate voice has a legitimate right to be heard. Corporations are encouraged to bring to bear all of their available resources to support the candidates and legislation that best represent their business goals.

This is interesting because global business goals are not necessarily synonymous with the goals of creating a “more perfect union” here in the United States.

There is a tremendous, almost unimaginable disparity between the lower & middle classes and the ultra-wealthy in the United States. The film above does a great job of capturing the lifestyle gap between the wealthy and the ultra-wealthy, but doesn’t hardly mention the massive number of poor people throughout the world. The richest 1% of people in the United States hold about 38% of all privately held wealth in the United States, while the bottom 90% hold 73% of all debt. The richest 20% of people in the United States own 80% of the wealth, while the bottom 40% own only .2% of the wealth. It is extraordinarily difficult for average people to contribute substantially to the democratic process when they are so outmatched in resources. Any policy that does not support the goals of the ultra wealthy simply cannot gain traction in a system where public officials are dependent upon large amounts of money to remain in office. However, that has always been our system and the fact that the wealth gap is much greater now than ever before, is a different challenge.  If we say that this current system is acceptable (which I don’t), the recent Citizen’s United decision positions corporate revenues that run into the trillions of dollars (exceeding that of most countries) behind policy that has little, or nothing, to do with the welfare of 80% of the population of the United States. It supports the goals of the wealthy with insurmountable force. It compounds the power gap exponentially and clearly sends the message that our government does not represent all of the citizens of this country. Democracy is dead.

Image from Wikipedia

I like Pam White’s short article, in the Boulder Weekly, where she writes about the legal benefits of incorporation: “So  now corporations get to have it both ways. When it comes to crime and  punishment, the individuals who make up a corporation can’t be thrown in  prison. But when it comes to participating in our elections, they have  the same rights as you and I. Except that you and I don’t have billions  of dollars to ensure that politicians hear our voices.”

The underlying imperative for most companies is to produce wealth and therefore growth. Most companies see themselves in an incredibly competitive marketplace, where every possible opportunity to save money contributes to their ability to stay alive. The idea that a company can act in the interest of the greater good is seen as an excessive luxury that puts the company at risk. Companies will use every legal, and frequently illegal, option at their disposal to reduce their burdens, increase their productivity, and extend their foothold in an ever hostile marketplace. Corporations will do what needs to be done in order to gain an advantage over the competition, frequently at great expense to society.

Consider the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP (similar to all other oil companies) have signed environmental impact statements that claim knowledge, resources, and ability to stop worst case disasters. These are legal documents that normal business people will take seriously. It took 5 months to stop the oil leak, and the clean up never really happened. The reality is that nobody, not one single company, had the knowledge or technology to end this incident quickly and control the damage. This was a systemic failure on the part of an entire industry. The “.com” bust, the sub-prime housing bubble / Wall St collapse, the environmental disasters inflicted by Mansanto, the Exxon Valdez failure, Enron, Bernie Madoff, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The list of corrupt and greedy corporations (and corporate leaders) is endless. These large companies that want to influence the Democratic process have endless resources, but feel no obligation to improve the human condition (unless it means they can grow to make more money).

In “The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy,” Raj Patel offers an observation regarding the behavior of corporate America, by matching symptoms against the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He shows that the American Psychiatric Association classifies psychopaths and sociopaths as having “antisocial personality disorder.” To be diagnosed with the disorder the patient must meet three out of the following seven criteria:

1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest,

2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure,

3. Impulsivity, or failure to plan ahead,

4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults,

5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others,

6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations,

7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mis-treated, or stolen from another.

Patel continues throughout chapter 3 to show how these unhealthy behaviors are typical of large international companies (like Mc Donald’s). So, are corporations the same as healthy, well adjusted people, like our Supreme Court would have you believe? No, not really. Does a corporation have a voice separate from the executives who run the company (which presumably act upon their own civic responsibilities)? Probably, but it is not a voice that is fundamentally concerned with the good of others, like mentally and spiritually stable humans are. A corporate voice is not concerned with the extinction of unknown species, nor are they concerned with the environmental cost of destroying forests, mountain tops, or watersheds, so long as it doesn’t affect their ability to stay alive in the marketplace.

The ultimate issue is that most of the natural world, and much of the human world has no value to business. The aesthetic things, or the moral ideals, the artful commentaries, the millions of indigenous people on the planet, as well as most of the species of plants and animals are “priceless.” In other words, they have no value. This is what makes the old American Express commercials so funny, yet extremely ironic. You know the ones, “Green Fees: $240, Lessons: $50, Golf Club: $110, having fun: priceless.” That last one, the one that is “priceless,” that is the one that has no value in business, yet it is the most important human value. This is funny for a second, but only until you think about it.

Allowing corporations the right to influence our democracy to such a great degree severely undermines our ability to sustainably live on this planet, and it is just one of those things that “The Comfortably Numb” will let happen because they are too busy and apparently too comfortable to be bothered with picking a fight with the corporate world and the US government (which is charged with creating a more just and perfect union for all of its citizens, not just the top 1%).

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Arctic Sea Ice

Image from National Snow and Ice Data Center September 2012

Well, we’ve hit another major climate record. Yesterday the National Snow and Ice Data Center, out of Boulder, Colorado, issued a statement indicating that we’ve finally hit the low point for the volume of sea ice in the Arctic. Every year the amount of ice in the Arctic rises and falls with the seasons, as one would expect. September is typically when we see the end of the summer melt off, before the temperatures start to significantly drop and the ice starts to accumulate again. This year we’ve fallen way below the average low point for ice volume, breaking a record that has stood since they were able to put satellites above the north pole to study this phenomenon.

To provide some perspective, the continental United States contains 3,119,884 square miles. The size of the Arctic ranges quite a lot, but in its current late summer state, it has 1.32 million square miles, which is about 42% of the size of the US, or about twice the size of Alaska. It is about 18% below the previous 2007 record, and 49% below the 1979-2012 average. From the graph below, one can see that it has generally on a downhill slide since they started taking measurements in 1972.

Yearly Extent of Sea Ice from NSIDC

Some scientists are estimating that within the next 20 years, Arctic sea ice will completely disappear during the late summer months. If this happens, and it is likely that it will, it will cause all kinds of serious problems with the environment. The white sea ice has a very high index of reflectivity, but the dark color of the melted ocean water will absorb the warmth of the sun, further complicating the trend toward global warming. The worry is that, if the sea ice is lost, then the added warmth of the atmosphere will lead to the accelerated loss of the freshwater ice locked up on Greenland (which is melting fast anyway). Unlike the Arctic sea ice, which is frozen sea water, Greenland is freshwater because it is ice that sits on land and has accumulated through moisture that has come from the atmosphere. Greenland holds so much frozen freshwater that when it melts into the sea, it will actually cause the oceans to rise, which is what most media outlet talk about. However, there is another more serious outcome. It will likely stop the naturally occurring currents of water that move around the planet.

Thermohaline Circulation – Image from NASA

The salinity of ocean water changes depending on where you are in the world. It also changes depending on how deep you are in the ocean. The currents move according to the salinity levels, and this giant conveyor belt moves warm waters northward, and cold waters to the south, creating a perfect balance which our 21st century cities are built for. It is called Thermohaline Circulation. If Greenland melts off, and dumps all that freshwater into the high salinity north Atlantic, it will likely shut down the conveyor belt, therefore slowing, or stopping, the warm waters of the south from moving northward. The result of such an event is nothing short of the next ice age because water is a fantastic heat sink, and the constant movement of the ocean water keeps a consistent temperature balance on the planet. I realize that calling for the next Ice Age sounds inflammatory, but it is a real possibility, that is not really discussed in the media.

You may have heard that Greenland has, like the Arctic, had record melting this year. It has been all over the internet. PBS did a pretty nice job putting it in context. Also, this (admittedly overly dramatic) video gives you a feel for the amount of water that is melting in just one location. They say that this particular 4 day melt is a result of a localized weather event, as opposed to climate change. It sure seems like it is part of a larger trend. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned to see if it continues to happen, or if this is just a single event.

So, I write about these things, knowing that there are many unknowns in the scientific community regarding these events. Similarly, I fully admit that like most people, I am not a researcher, and do not have the expertise to know anything for certain. However, this is one of the many things that I see in the world that tells me that we are heading in the wrong direction and things must dramatically change soon. It wakes me up from the numbness I’ve experiencing living in the bubble. You see, the feedback loops of major global systems are getting disrupted as a result of fossil fuels. The scientific community is in total agreement that our use of fossil fuels, in all their varied uses, is causing climate change. Climate change is causing the Arctic to melt, which has systemic relationships with a whole host of other complex systems (including the melting of permafrost).

The question of whether coal-fired energy plants, or oil based combustion engines, are appropriate as we move into the near future seems to totally miss the point. Both are totally inappropriate when more appropriate technologies already exist today. It amazes me that oil companies are spending billions of dollars to get to the sub-surface oil that is below the arctic. It is so incredibly inappropriate. Put your billions of dollars into something healthy, that makes sense to the long term welfare of the human race. The change will come eventually. It has to. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be much easier if we do it boldly now, rather than desperately later.

Oceans of Trash

Image from Miriam Goldstein and Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The Great Garbage Patch is difficult to describe. It is a vast area, estimated to be about twice the size of Texas, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is kinda like a floating landfill, some 40 or 50 feet deep, filled with many types of human trash. There are many places in the United States, and the world, that are very much like the image shown above. This floating trash provides source material for human garbage to enter waterways and the oceans. The Great Garbage Patch, however, does not look quite like the picture. It is in the middle of a vast ocean, and the trash has been floating on the waves, and in the sun, for quite a long time. As the trash gets beat up by waves, and becomes brittle from the heat of the sun, this trash breaks into finer and finer pieces of buoyant particles about the size of plankton. To the untrained eye, most of the Great Garbage Patch, is invisible. There are a few places where large trash has gathered, but most of it is very fine. The fine plastic pieces are actually more harmful than larger pieces because many types of marine life depend on plankton as a source of food. In many places of the Pacific Ocean, there are 8 to 10 times as many plastic particles in the water as there are plankton. Much of the wildlife ends up consuming quite a bit of plastic. Even if they manage to pass the plastic through their digestive system, which many can’t, the presence of plastic in one’s diet substitutes for proper nutrition.

This is a widely studied phenomenon, with a great deal of information available online. I include it here because it is just another human made environmental disaster that is obviously not contributing to the health of the ecosystems, and therefore not contributing to our sustained ability to live on this planet. It is one of the many things, that as an average person, I can look at and know that we have to change our ways. I don’t need piles and piles of research to tell me that there are deep underlying issues that need to change. This is what I think of when I hear Republican leadership make jokes about climate change.

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