David Simon | Alice Dreger | Peter Beilenson | Jim Gerritsen | Lera Boroditsky | David Korten | Diana Beresford-Kroeger | John Warner | Gary Paul Nabhan | Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett | Peter Williams | Tim DeChristopher | Representative Keith Ellison | Dr. Tabatha Parker | Azzam Alwash | Carl Safina | Humira Saqeb | Debbie Sease | Orayne Williams | Faith Gemmill | Paula Cannon | Tom Philpott | Monica Vela | Parker J. Palmer
David Simon: Television Man
Through shows like the highly acclaimed The Wire, Generation Kill, and Treme, David Simon has shown that television can be more than a tool for appeasing audiences and stoking ratings. It can be a medium that forces us to reconsider our world.
Watch Bill Moyers interview David Simon on Bill Moyers Journal in 2009.
Read an interviews with The Progressive magazine, and Vice magazine.
Learn more about The Wire on HBO’s show page.
Learn more about Generation Kill on HBO’s show page.
Learn more about Treme on HBO’s show page.
Utne Reader associate editor David Doody interviewed David Simon by email in early September 2011. Here is the transcript.
Utne Reader: Just to make sure our readers will be up-to-date, I’ll start with this question: Is there anything you want to say about Treme—how it’s going, any reactions to how it’s been received? And, are you working on anything but Treme right now…anything else we should be checking out or looking forward to? (What was the deadline you were on when I first emailed you?)
David Simon: We're working through the story arcs for season three currently and will begin filming in New Orleans at the end of next month.
Treme is the story that the writers intend to tell and we're executing that story in some detail. We are using the actual timeline of events of post-Katrina New Orleans as a spine for our story, which is about the role of culture in American life and the relevance of American urbanity to the creation of culture. We’re pleased.
For the most part, New Orleanians seem to recognize themselves and their world in our story, which is important to us and gratifying. I confess that the criticism of those who have lived a given event—be they Baltimore police or drug dealers or recon Marines or New Orleans musicians—matters a great deal more to me than criticism from generic viewers.
We are open to criticism of our storytelling, but of course we’re far more interested in discussions of our chosen story and our execution of that story than we are interested in debate over what other people would like to see in our narrative. By and large, we’ve found that when most viewers of American television offer their insights into what would make The Wire or Treme or Generation Kill better in their estimation, they are usually arguing for a return to accepted television tropes and conventions.
This isn’t our purpose in telling such stories and the accepted norms of television do not seem to us to be a solution to much of anything other than to transform original storytelling into basic formula. We know what we want to do and we try to do it. It doesn't have much connection to the means by which television shows ordinarily achieve a mass audience. In short, other than the reaction within New Orleans, we’re not devoting a lot of concern to the reaction. Either the story is worth the telling or it isn't.
Forgive me, but I’d rather not discuss projects until they’re greenlit. HBO has scripts from us on several projects. Which get filmed is entirely their decision. And other projects as well are not at the stage where a discussion would be anything but premature.
Given that yet another anniversary of Katrina just passed and you’re currently working on a series focused on that hurricane’s aftermath, can you speak a little bit about New Orleans today and its relationship to Katrina? How prevalent is the storm today in the day-to-day lives of New Orleans residents? What does it mean six years later?
New Orleans is about two-thirds to seventy percent back. It is whiter than it was, given that many of those who were unable to return were African-American. The refusal of the federal government—backed by compliant city officials—to reopen housing projects was quite telling, in fact. I think this outcome dovetailed nicely with the Bush administrations desire to see New Orleans—the blue part of a purple state—become a little less blue, allowing Louisiana to slip into the red-state category in all ensuing national and statewide elections. I think it was a remarkably cynical political performance.
There has been, in places, a land-grab by various entities and developers, often aided by connection to federal disaster funding and interested local political faction. The police department, quite obviously from the range and depth of federal civil rights prosecutions ongoing, was one of the worst and most thuggish of all major department’s in the country. Reform, if it happens, will be slow as community trust in the agency is at an all time low. The school system, which was among the worst in the nation before the storm, has been balkanized by the rush to charter schools and the abandonment of public education as a national philosophy and as a cultural and economic equalizer. That means that some children—those who have parents most capable of negotiating the new terrain and most aggressive in seeking out the best opportunity for their child’s education—are doing better. And it means, of course, that the rest are being tossed in the gutter. This is America as it is now, a shipwreck with only a certain number of lifeboats. It’s the best we can do, apparently.
The fact that The Wire has been so widely praised and has been taught on university campuses suggests that it was not just a regular television show. In that same vein, a Marine friend of mine who was in Iraq early on in that war said that Generation Kill was about as realistic as you’re going to get on television. Do you feel like you’re doing something revolutionary with television? Or, if you wouldn’t use the word “revolutionary,” tell us what, at its best, television can offer and to what end you hope to ultimately use it.
I feel as though we are using television to make arguments about what is true, to the best of our ability to discern. This is not revolutionary in any sense—all storytelling in all media have always maintained a significant cadre of practitioners who attempt to use their medium for the purposes of making political, social, and economic arguments. Art and literature have always been entwined in politics and society to a certain extent. It may seem somewhat unique to television—a medium that has been completely dominated by its advertising-based revenue stream for all of its brief existence, making it a juvenile mechanism for storytelling until very recently, when premium cable finally offered an alternative revenue stream and therefore a new window through which darker, more political and more politically honest storytelling might be created.
You said to Bill Moyers in 2009 that one of the problems with journalism was that journalists’ “highest ambition…was to bite off a small morsel of the problem,” which wasn’t an issue when creating The Wire (and presumably Generation Kill and Treme). So, that’s an advantage you’ve stated about not working in journalism, but how useful do you find your past experience in telling the stories you’re telling now? Your instinct to track down details, to follow a story to its end, to produce (as you’ve said of your journalism) “very well-researched pieces”—how useful has that past experience been to you?
I was a good reporter. I was comfortable asking questions and interested in answers. It makes more achievable and efficient the research necessary for telling fictional stories in an accurate political and social context. Frankly, though, while some of my journalism might have allowed enough reporting time to produce some well-researched pieces, other newspaper work was entirely reactive. That’s what journalism often requires, a first, rough-draft of events. You’ve taken a quote that I made specifically about some coverage I did on drug enforcement in Baltimore and made it a blanket compliment that I seem to have given my journalism. I never said it in that context.
The highest ambition for the fellows running the Baltimore Sun when I left was to surround a seemingly obvious and simple problem, over-report that issue ignoring complicating factors, create a sense that the newspaper was championing a righteous cause, and finally, win a national prize. This is the thin margin by which they measured themselves and newspapering.
I found it to be, in large part, unimportant to what truly ailed Baltimore and Central Maryland at best, and in some key ways—which included manufacturing and shaping facts to fit preconceived prize-campaigns—to be dishonest at worst. Real issues and real trends—in all their complexity and contradiction—were ignored. That newspapering, which for a brief moment in the sixties, seventies, and eighties promised a future of increasingly sophisticated coverage, had been reduced to such weak ambition and low cunning was disappointing. And of course while they were occupying themselves with such small pursuits, the newspaper industry leaders, prompted by Wall Street and the devotion to profits, were gutting their product with buyout after buyout, reducing newsrooms and coverage even as the internet began to rear its head, and the new delivery method for information would be mistaken as advertising for news product when in fact it needed to become the product itself, with its own copyrighted revenue stream. The mismanagement of American newspapering is quite remarkable. But all of the fellows responsible are now on a golf course in Hilton Head or some such [place], having secured their bonuses and golden-parachute buyouts. They’re teeing off right now, bemoaning what’s happened to American journalism and then agreeing on where dinner will be tonight. So it goes.
You sometimes speak almost longingly about journalism—where it’s easy to feel your profound respect for that field when it is done at a high level. And you also are realistic about TV, pointing out that since it’s not held to the same standard of fact as journalism, it can be “readily dismissed as mere propaganda.” But through TV, you’ve noted, you can reach more people and your characters can make someone care and maybe, in doing so, you can change that person’s perspective. If things had gone differently in journalism, if profits had gone back into newspapers instead of to shareholders, would you have stayed in that field or would you be where you are no matter what? Did you need to tell these stories—the ones you’re telling now—in a different way?
Entertainment is not journalism. Drama is not journalism.
Entertainment should often be dismissed, but drama, if it’s executed well, never. I don’t think I ever said that drama should be dismissed. I said it should be dismissed if it attempts to pretend to be journalism. As drama, it should be considered, no doubt.
I know that there is a meaningful purpose to what we are doing with this kind of storytelling at HBO. I also know that it is not journalism.
Both things are true and not contradictory.
If the Baltimore Sun had grown in its ambitions and if profits had been used to grow the newsroom and its product in the 1990s, I certainly would have remained at the Baltimore Sun, albeit it in a role in which I alternated my newspaper work with non-fiction book projects. I would not have drifted into television. I would have dealt with the same issues as The Wire or Generation Kill or Treme, but certainly the stories would have been different. They would have been journalism. Not drama.
How do you decide what project to take on next? Do you specifically look to work on particular issues that you feel are important stories not getting enough good, in depth coverage in the media? This seems to be the case from an outside perspective—your series seem to be about the stories that go underreported: The two Americas, as you call it, or more broadly, the drug war in The Wire; our country’s wars through Generation Kill; and now, New Orleans in Treme. Is your goal moving forward to continue tackling these big issues that our country faces through your series?
Issues first, theme and story second, character third, visuals last: That’s how it’s prioritized in my head, anyway.
Obviously you’re currently working on Treme, but if you could pick your next project from anything in the news right now, what would it be—what would you take on in either a series or a miniseries and why?
Again, I don’t think it helps for me to drag any number of projects in development out in public before they get greenlit and are budgeted. A script is just a script, until you film and edit it, does it really exist? That said, I would like to do something on the rise and fall of organized labor in America. John L. Lewis said the future of labor is the future of America. Sadly, he was exactly right. And I would love to create something that would track the rise of organized labor from the Haymarket through to the Patco strike and the beginning of the end of the American working class as a viable economic engine. Organized labor not only created the American middle class, it created the American consumer class, which is the dynamo that made us a world power. Since 1980, we’ve been eviscerating ourselves, and our declining status in the global economy reflects the inevitable result. It’s an important story, but when you mention it to people in L.A. their eyes glaze. To them, the story of labor is a museum piece and scarcely relevant. They’re wrong. But then again, so is the nation as a whole.
What about moving away from an American story? Generation Kill was obviously an Iraqi story, too, but it was really the story of the Marines, of American soldiers. Would you be interested in focusing on any other part of the world?
Generation Kill was NOT an Iraqi story. If it was, it would have been a different story. In which case it would not have been Generation Kill and it would not have been about those Marines.
People who understand political or cultural realities often argue, mistakenly and foolishly, that stories should be more inclusive, that the points-of-view should be expanded. This is true, perhaps, of journalism, of non-fiction examinations in prose. It is NEVER true of drama. Drama requires limiting the point of view to key characters. It demands that point of view be a conscious and clear choice. If you embrace a multiplicity of viewpoints in drama, pretty soon you have a story that doesn’t deserve to be told as drama. It can be a political argument. It can be didactic and ideological and serve the political argument of the author in every sense. But it will not be drama. And people will turn away because dramatically, if not journalistically, it is dishonest. You are attempting to insert your own politics in the viewpoint of characters who do not and should not reflect your politics so cleanly.
Generation Kill reflects the cost of our invasion to Iraqis at only those points where the cost becomes clear to the recon Marines who are having their story told. The drama is in how they see the world and how that viewpoint changes or doesn’t change as they close on Baghdad. It is not the story of the Iraq war with all points of view represented. Frankly, such a story would, as drama, suck. And even The Wire, which moved from one world to another, was careful in which characters were granted POV. Drama requires choices. And a lot of ideologically motivated people never understand that. They want the POV to be their own. But writers learn to love their characters as a means of telling a story that truly reflects the lives and times of those characters. That’s the goal, not to appease someone who only wants to serve a political or social argument.
Speak about making Generation Kill with Americans being so apathetic to the fact that we’ve entered a period of perpetual war. Do you think you could have made Generation Kill today, just three years later?
I don’t know what HBO would do with that project now. That’s a question for them. At the time, they gave us the money to tell that story and they embraced that project. God bless them.
Americans are willing to tolerate this level of institutionalized violence because military service is a matter of personal choice and absent a draft, we are unwilling to push back at the climate of fear that was so grandly exploited in the wake of the 911 attacks. Indeed, the privatization of our military response and the use of contractors in all facets of American warfare, intelligence, and counterterrorism efforts makes the likelihood of organized protest even more minimal.
Capital is spending itself to serve its direct interests and very little in American life has stood up to capital in the last thirty years. Absent a national understanding that profit is not the measure by which just and healthy societies are maintained and created, capital will have little problem routing itself to increasing power, authority, and profit. If wars result, then wars will be funded. If cities are no longer essential repositories of valuable labor, they will be abandoned. Profit is its own argument, and the only argument to which anyone shows any fealty. This is what happens when capital triumphs unequivocally.
In that same Bill Moyers interview mentioned before you said when talking about the Haymarket riot and the anti-Vietnam War movement in reference to today, “As long as they throw enough scraps from the table that enough people get a little bit to eat, I just don't see a change coming.” Talk about this in our current climate, with all that’s going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere to fight against working people and labor, and the fact that we’ve been at war for over a decade and any anti-war movement seems to be diminishing instead of getting stronger. What would it take to get people involved, to stop the train that has run over us? Or has capitalism “won a complete victory,” as you’ve previously said?
What happened in Wisconsin? Labor lost. A worthy fight, but a losing one. And Americans have accepted our foreign policy in all its interventionist malevolence since 1945. The only exception was when the military made the mistake of trying to impose a draft during the Vietnam intervention.
Starvation will get people involved. Homelessness, too. Joblessness to the point where previously sound working class and middle class neighborhoods begin to implode, that will result in certain actions. What actions? Someone will throw a brick. In Detroit, in West Baltimore, in North Philly or East St. Louis—somewhere, and at some point on the American landscape where the national dream is no longer inclusive of anyone still standing, someone is going to pick up a brick. And it will be bad for whoever they throw it at, and it will be bad for whatever or whoever it hits, and it will be ugly. But the Haymarket and its aftermath changed this country, as did the Michigan lock-in, as did Harlan County and the '68 riots. It’s often in extremity that capitalism is obliged to recoil just enough to acknowledge social cost. And that kind of extremity is coming, and in fact, would have come a long while ago if we weren’t tolerating rates of incarceration in America that exceed every society on the face of the Earth. We’ve thrown the drug trade into the ghettoes and we’ve used it to declare war on the underclass, but soon, if for no other reason than it is helping to bankrupt us, we will reach a point where we no longer are able to narcotize and incarcerate enough of the rage. But short of a thrown brick, I don’t think much will disturb the march of capital at this point. With Citizens United as the new Dred Scott decision, I fear that any effort to reform our government or restrain capital is now impossible. Our government and our ensuing elective contests have been purchased.
I thought the way Nancy Franklin finished her early review of Treme in The New Yorker was interesting (if a little quick on the draw, being that it was only three episodes in): “The characters in the show are ambivalent about outsiders, and if you’re at all sensitive to that you feel intrusive, rude—almost a colonist—for appreciating what you see and hear in ‘Treme.’ The series virtually prohibits you from loving it, while asking you to value it. In that sense, I suppose, it may be the bravest show that David Simon has ever made.” Though it’s been a long time since she wrote that, can you speak to that comment—about this intrusion on a culture through a television series?
Not really sure what to say to that. I find the premise not particularly useful.
Why do viewers want the world made a la carte for them? Is television so passive and indulgent a storytelling medium that it must first assure viewers of their own worth and relevance, that the views of the characters living the event—recon marines going to war as their chosen profession on behalf of a citizenry who knows little of war, or New Orleanians enduring the near-death of their city in relative political isolation, or teenaged drug dealers going to work in the only factory still open in their city—must be muted and made polite to appease the sensibilities of the average viewer?
People are accustomed to television cueing them as to heroes and villains. People are accustomed to deciding whether characters can be “rooted for” based on how pleasing they are to the ear of passive observers. These are not necessarily dramatic equations; great drama has always left room for ambiguity (“Hamlet,” “Iceman Cometh,” almost anything by Chekov), but American entertainment and television especially have been constructed to make viewers comfortable. I began as a journalist, and I genuinely believed that it was the role of a story—if it was addressing societal or political ills—was, at times, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, as has been famously stated. I want to get Nathaniel Fick or Gary McCullough or Bubbles or Dukie right; and I want to be correct with them. I’m not really thinking about Nancy Franklin and whether it makes her comfortable or not. If there’s merit in the story and purpose in the story, then it’s worth the telling. How the audience feels or whether they can tolerate not being catered to directly, I really don’t care all that much.
Alice Dreger: Gender Bender
Alice Dreger has made it her life’s work to investigate, and at times expose, the unethical medical treatment of people who have intersex conditions. As recently as 15 years ago, many people grew up not knowing they were intersex, only that something had been “fixed” down there and that they had spent a lot of time with their legs spread for parades of physicians and medical students.
Alice Domurat Dreger site
Dan Savage blog post exposing surgeon Dix Poppas: “Female Genital Mutilation at Cornell”
Accord Alliance (formerly Intersex Society of North America)
Article on intersex genital cutting, Ms. Magazine: “Making the Cut”
Utne Reader associate editor Danielle Magnuson interviewed Dreger on August 29, 2011. Here is the transcript:
Utne Reader: How many people are affected by a disorder of sex development (DSD)?
Alice Dreger: It depends how we count. If we’re talking about children born with very ambiguous genitalia, it’s probably 1 in 2,000. But there are a lot more people with subtle variations. You can be born with male internal anatomy but externally look absolutely female, and that won’t even get picked up until you’re a teenager and not menstruating. The same with the opposite, too: You can be born with ovaries and uterus inside but look absolutely male. That gets picked up more nowadays because of newborn screening for the condition that causes it. So if we count every type of sex anomaly, Anne Fausto-Sterling estimates that it’s 1 in 100. That includes stuff you would only find out if you ended up going to an infertility doctor because you’re having problems conceiving.
In the past, they had these crazy statistics about how big a clitoris had to be before it counted as intersex and how small a penis had to be, so there were a lot of people who counted as intersex. Nowadays they’re much more comfortable with the idea of, “Oh, a big clitoris is not that big a deal, a small penis is not that big a deal.” In those circumstances they don’t even count them anymore. It all depends on what your standard is for normal, and the standard for normal is relaxing in the pediatric population. They’re getting stricter in the adult population because of labiaplasty stupidity, but they’re relaxing in the pediatric population.
How far the DSD movement has come in the last couple of decades? How is life today practically different for someone with a DSD?
Twenty years ago the movement didn’t exist. We’ve had tremendous progress for twenty years. When Bo Laurent started the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) in 1993, it was standard practice to deceive patients—like women who had Y chromosomes and you either just didn’t tell them or you told them some bizarre euphemism like, “You have a second X with a short arm,” which is not what a Y chromosome is. And they were sex-reassigning boys with small penises to be girls. They were cutting down clitorises willy-nilly. They were not always telling parents what they were really doing. I’m not convinced that we have informed consent yet because they still don’t seem to tell parents.
What’s interesting is that in the literature, the doctors claim to have changed their attitudes. They now believe in full disclosure. They now believe they should be much more conservative when it comes to cutting genital tissue. But in practice, it doesn’t seem to have changed a huge amount, with the exception that they now refer to the support groups much more actively. They put people in touch with the Hypospadias and Epispadias Association or the Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group, which is a gigantic step forward.
One huge change is that almost nobody makes micropenis boys into girls anymore. They’re must less likely to take a boy born without a penis—there’s a condition called cloacal exstrophy, when you’re born basically with your guts hanging out, kids used to die from that but now they survive it—and they used to take those boys and turn them into girls even though they had functional testes and their brains were subject to the typical male development. But they usually raise those kids as boys now. So they care more about the nature of gender, not just the nurture of gender.
Also for the first time we’re seeing what’s called pediatric and adolescent gynecologists. They’re a special type of gynecologist who deal with children, and that’s really huge because those people have a very long-term view of sexuality, which the endocrinologists don’t. The endocrinologists think in terms of hormones. They don’t think in terms of, “When you’re 16, what are you going to tell your boyfriend?” But the gynecologists dealing with a 2-year-old girl do think about that.
We still completely lack what’s called transitional care, which is the care for people who grow up. So when you’re 18, and then 20, and then 25, and then 30, you’re still seeing your pediatrician for this stuff, which makes no sense. They’re working on that.
But the clinicians really agree that there have been problems and agree that solutions must be found, so that is a big, big difference. When we started, they told us we were crazy. They said, “You’re just dealing with a very small, unhappy minority, and we don’t have to pay attention to you.” And then they came to realize that this is not the exception, that many of the people who had been treated were very scarred by what happened to them, that they were very averse to going to physicians and very damaged sexually. And damaged not just by the surgeries, but damaged by the clinical environment, damaged by the sense of shame they got by the way they were treated. It really says something if your doctor can’t even speak the name of your condition to you. It says, “It’s so shameful, we can’t even talk about it.”
Also the repeated genital exams done with medical students and residents really mess people up. I tell the doctors, “You cannot keep subjecting these kids to these genital exams in front of strangers over and over and over again.” It scars them. In fact, when I was giving the keynote to the Androgen and Insensitivity Syndrome Support Group in Nashville last year, and I said, “What I’ve heard from you is that the worst thing that happened to this particular group is the repeated genital exams. I assure you I will keep working to stop those.” They literally stood up and were applauding, and about half of them were crying.
Kids don’t know, especially at the age of 4 and 5, that somebody stroking their genitals is a doctor thing and they’re not supposed to experience it as sexual. It’s messed up. It’s messed up. It’s really messed up. So we’ve really come a long way, and there’s still quite a ways to go. I would say we’re halfway there though.
Can you talk about how ISNA founder Bo Laurent impacted your career?
Sure. She dragged me into what we then called the intersex rights movement. She asked me to look at what was going on at the current system. I did, and I was stunned because it was so backward. It didn’t care about women’s sexuality. It treated women as if they just had to have a hole. It was so homophobic it was astonishing. It involved lying to people. I became involved in ISNA in 1996, and I thought it would take about 6 months to change the medical system. It’s so funny, isn’t it? I thought it would all be very rational. So 15 years later, I’m still working on it. But it’s much better nowadays.
Bo and I had a very productive working relationship. I became the chair of the board of the Intersex Society of North America, and it was actually registered to my home where I’m sitting for 7 years because she was mobile and I wasn’t. ISNA eventually made itself obsolete, because it was a very confrontational, very activist organization. By the time ISNA closed, we didn’t need that anymore because we had the physicians talking with us in a way that was finally productive. Bo decided to help create this new organization, Accord Alliance, and transfer the assets to Accord, which I fully supported. Accord is doing a bunch of exciting projects.
I did a huge percentage of the writing for ISNA, including ghost writing and ghost editing. I was the writer-in-chief and the editor-in-chief of the movement. I would get a hold of people with intersex conditions who had compelling stories, and I would write them up.
ISNA was always much smaller than it appeared. We were very, very clever about the internet, and I credit Bo with that. She understood that the internet could make you look much bigger than you were. There were hundreds of affected individuals who were behind us who did media work on their own—people like Martha Coventry who actually used to work for Utne, people like that went out and did important stuff. But the actual running of ISNA was most of the time me and Bo with occasional help from somebody else.
Accord Alliance certainly has a more dispersed power structure from what I can see, but it’s not a huge organization. I do free work for a whole bunch of intersex groups now. So Accord’s FAQs, I wrote all of those for them. I just go out and write stuff really fast for everybody. It’s a useful skill. And I can write in a lot of different voices. A lot of the blogs at Accord Alliance, I write those. I interview people, and then I write it in their voice. If somebody is doing something cool in the clinic, if I find out somebody is using genetic counseling in a novel way, I’m like, “Tell me about that and let’s write it up.”
What is the biggest issue confronting a person today living with DSD?
I would always say shame and isolation. That’s not true, obviously, for every person with DSD, because some of them have come out and found others. But for the average person, shame and isolation have always been, and continue to be, the biggest problem. The good news is that the docs are actually writing about shame in the literature, which is huge. For surgeons to use the word shame, it means they get it’s there.
Shame and isolation get solved not through the clinics but through the peer support groups. When I get contacted by people who have not met anybody else, I immediately introduce them to somebody else by phone if not in person. It’s an intervention that unquestionably saves lives. A lot of the time my husband and I just fund people to go to support groups. People I meet in later life, they don’t have any money. Their lives have been screwed up because of their shame. They didn’t go to college because they were afraid. So we buy plane tickets for people and send them to these things, and it’s so worth it, because their entire life is changed by meeting five other guys with the same condition.
The support groups are great for the parents, too. A lot of the support groups mix it up now so they’re both for parents of children and they’re for adults who are affected, which is perfect, because then the parents go to the group and they meet a grownup with the same condition who now has a partner and a house and a job, and they’ll say, “Oh, god, it’s all going to be all right.” They can see the end game in a way that they can't when the baby is just a baby. It helps the family recognize that this is just one aspect of your life. It doesn’t have to be your entire existence.
Peter Beilenson: Health Care Hero
If Peter Beilenson and his organization, The Evergreen Project, are successful, your next visit to the doctor will be at a health care cooperative. Both cutting costs and providing excellent care, the co-ops will have dedicated insurance companies and your doctor will have half the typical patient load.
The website for The Evergreen Project, tells about their “audacious attempt to create systematic change.”
Urbanite’s article “Change Is Brewing” provides a clear overview of Peter Beilenson’s Evergreen Project.
Here, Peter Beilenson writes an opinion piece about the feasibility of health co-ops for the Baltimore Sun.
Listen to NPR talk with Peter Beilenson about The Evergreen Project.
Jim Gerritsen: Organic Food Champion
Monsanto has a well-documented history of aggressively defending its genetically modified seeds. Organic farmer Jim Gerritsen is leading a lawsuit against the corporate agriculture giant on behalf of 270,000 family farmers, gardeners, and consumers who are suing to keep a portion of the world food supply free of genetic modification.
Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association.
Organic lawsuit against Monsanto news, Wood Prairie Farm.
Public Patent Foundation advice on avoiding Monsanto seed patents.
Organic v. Monsanto blog post, Utne Reader.
Official Food, Inc. movie site.
Lera Boroditsky: Language Teacher
Stanford University cognitive scientist Lera Borditsky conducts groundbreaking research on how language shapes thoughts, making her a figure of controversy among traditional linguists like Noam Chomsky. Boroditsky makes the bold claim that “different languages invite speakers to develop different cognitive skills.”
Podcast interview with On the Media: “Does Metaphorical Framing Really Work?”
Article about Boroditsky’s research, Stanford/Utne Reader: “Lost in Translation”
Peer-reviewed research article, PLoS ONE: “Metaphors We Think With”
David Korten: Money Changer
Economist David Korten is building a framework for a new economy that puts money in its proper place. Drawing a distinction between real wealth and phantom wealth Korten sees placing money, which has no intrinsic value, above community and nature as an act of “collective insanity.”
Read David Korten’s adaptation of Agenda for a New Economy and other articles on his blog at Yes! Magazine.
Read the How to Liberate America From Wall Street Rule report from the New Economy Working Group.
Yes! Magazine’s website.
The New Economy Working Group (NEWGroup) website.
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) website.
Read blog posts about David Korten at utne.com.
Read the article “The Seven Capitalist Virtues” that appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.
Utne Reader associate editor David Doody interviewed David Korten by phone in September 2011. Here is the transcript.
Utne Reader: Update us a little bit on what you’re currently working on.
David Korten: Okay. It’s hard to know where to start.
I suppose. The How Liberate America From Wall Street Rule [report], I’m sure you’re doing a lot with that right now.
Yeah, that’s a major focus. The whole set of activities with the New Economy Working Group is very much at the fore of my attention, and we’ve been working on a parallel report connecting with the jobs issue, as a political hook. The new report will look at what is the New Economy perspective on creating jobs. It ties very much to the money system paper. You know, getting clearer and clearer on the frame[work]. The Federal Reserve’s efforts to create jobs have focused on pumping more money in the Wall Street banking system on the theory that that will trickle down and create jobs, and of course Wall Street has no interest in creating jobs. They need to direct that money to Main Street. So that’s kind of what that whole money system paper is all about.
Anyhow, my immediate focus is on the jobs paper. You’ve probably been following the blog series I’ve been doing—essentially a blog serialization of Agenda For a New Economy. I’m now getting to wrapping that up and I want to find a way to pull that together into a coherent series, so that people can go back and review the whole thing in order.
Partly what I’m finding is, I’m 74 years old now and it’s not as much fun to travel as it once was. So I’m trying to do more things at home, and I’m very much focused on trying to make inputs in as many places within the movement as possible, to shift the framing. As you’re probably aware from my work, my view of the foundation of change starts with changing the framing story, the cultural story, and so I’m trying to work with many different groups on that.
On Friday I have a conversation with some of the leaders of the Green Party to talk about how you think about third party and the Green Party platform in the current political context. This afternoon we’re going to an interfaith retreat outside of Seattle, which is organized around a transpartisan dialogue, essentially a dialogue to try and bring libertarians and greens together in search of common ground on some of these economic issues. It’s part of a larger conversation that’s developing in Seattle, both a secular-political context, but also within the faith community, looking for common ground. Trying to seed these ideas into those processes.
Also, I gave the keynote address a couple of months ago to the national conference of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics. The Ecological Economists are the closest thing we have to a group of economists who are challenging conventional wisdom.
This is a major piece of this conversation. Recognizing that we have organized our economies and our societies essentially around the use of a fossil fuel subsidy to work in opposition to the structure and dynamics of the biosphere. And the foundational frame is that we need to restructure our economic institutions so that the structures and dynamics of our human economies align with and engage in integral partnership with the biosphere, so that our economies work in a similar pattern. This recognizes that the biosphere as a system is locally rooted everywhere, and it has this extraordinary capacity to self organize, to capture water, nutrients, and energy locally and continuously recycle, repurpose, share, to maintain healthy living systems. We basically created a global economy that is a totally oppositional system model to that in terms of hauling our energy and our nutrients from huge distances, depending on a fossil fuel subsidy, stripping the local of its capacity to self organize using its own resources to meet its own needs, and leaving us dependent on global supply chains that are inherently inefficient and unstable.
You said you’re working with some of the Green Party people. Liberal parties like the Greens and Independents, seem to have had such a struggle making inroads in the larger political discussion in this country and just in the last couple years we see this tiny group, this small percentage of people seeming to have such a great influence on the political debate. I’ve been wondering why these other parties—the more liberal, the green, the independents—have not been able to swing the conversation the way this small Tea Party group has.
Well, one [reason] is that the Tea Party is backed by some big money and big media.
So that makes a huge difference. They also have a very clear ideology and policy framework. Very very simple. You know, “Government’s the enemy; shut it down. Starve it to death; no taxes.”
I realize that the things I’ve been telling you about are the things kind of at the periphery of my attention that are kind of interesting. My primary focus continues to be on the three groups that I’ve had a key role in founding, which is Yes! Magazine, which as you’re probably aware, has been expanding at an extraordinary rate in terms of our reach, particularly online and the effectiveness of our online outreach.
The deep changes involve a three-part strategy. One is change the cultural story. Two is create the new reality from the bottom up. And three is change the rules. In terms of my life and work, YES! is the primary vehicle that I’m engaged with in terms of changing the story. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which I’m a founding board member of, is primarily focused on creating the new reality from the bottom up, through the strengthening of local business and building connections between local businesses to create the fabric of strong, new local economies. And the third element, changing the rules, that’s the New Economy Working Group, which I co-chair with John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)—it’s a group of folks who have been working together in one way or another for a long time around a shared vision, trying to clarify that vision and framework of a new economy. The basic idea is to create the frame of what is necessary in terms of an economic system that will lead us to a positive human future, and we believe it has to have three defining characteristics. One, it’s got to organize toward ecological balance, balance between humans and the environment. The second is shared prosperity. Essentially it has to provide an opportunity for everyone to meet their essential needs. And a third characteristic of a new economy: Living democracy, which means really deep democracy—not just voting—through active engagement and community life and decision making on the basis of one person, one voice. The key to that economy is essentially shifting the rules so that the power resides in Main Street economic institutions rather than Wall Street economic institutions. In shifting the distribution of power you’re also shifting the value system from a system of absentee ownership and financial games by institutions that value only money to Main Street institutions where people live and where there’s a natural interest in creating good jobs, having strong families, communities, and a vibrant natural environment.
So, as we develop the framework in the New Economy Working Group we’re engaged in a series of conversations, drawing in many elements across the progressive community. So, we’ll organize these gatherings, which are based physically at IPS in Washington DC, but are also connected in by webinar with other invited participants across the country. We’ll have a discussion on what we do about corporations. The money system report grew out of those conversations. You know, bringing into the conversation the experts that are working on each of the elements of the redesigned financial system that I laid out in that report. Then, a session on messaging. A session on redistribution of wealth. Through these conversations [we begin] to lodge in the minds of a much larger segment of the progressive community these foundational ideas of what a truly new economy that deals with the environmental, social, and political issues can and should look like.
One piece of that that comes back to your question about the Tea Party—I assume you’re familiar with the movement, Rebuilding the American Dream with Van Jones and MoveOn, a very large alliance of folks?
We’ve actually been working with Van Jones and others engaged with [Rebuild the Dream] from the inception about bringing in the New Economy ideas and frame. Of course, Van’s underlining idea is that is building the progressive equivalent of the Tea Party. It has the advantage of the Tea Party in that it’s not a political party and it is trying to build a coherent constituency that people can be identified with to help move the political system in a progressive direction around an attractive and substantive agenda. So, in terms of a real counter to the Tea Party, that’s kind of where I’m placing bets now.
You said back in 2009 that realistically “we may be finished, but as a practical matter we have to move forward with the assumption that we still have time.” Has anything changed in the last couple years that make you feel more optimistic, particularly are there any highlights in the Obama administration that you feel have been great successes.
That’s easy: No, in terms of the Obama administration.
Okay, what about other large scale movements, like Van Jones’ or the other one that comes to mind, the “move your money” movement that seemed to have a big charge behind it.
I perhaps need to explain that statement. When I said that realistically we may be finished, that was not a political statement. That relates to our environmental reality.
That’s the issue that we may already be so far into overshoot on things like climate change that recovery isn’t possible. But the basic idea I try to communicate with that is that if we assume it’s too late and act accordingly, then we assure the collapse. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we have to simply maintain our courage.
Now, in terms of positives, the fact that at YES! we are doing so extremely well in terms of expanding our outreach, both our print subscriptions and online—you know, it’s partly effective management on the part of our team, but it also reflects the hunger out there for a positive vision and positive ideas. Similarly, in terms of the work with BALLE, it’s just taking off. Now again, we’ve got new leadership. Michelle Long as the executive director is just phenomenal, but they’re also playing into a really powerful emergent energy from communities all across the United States and groups popping up in other countries that realize that our national government is not going to solve the problem. It’s not going to put people to work. They may or may not have any analysis about it, but people recognize that if they’re going to have food on the table and shelter over their heads and energy and so forth, they’ve got to put their shoulder to the rebuilding at the local level. You know, the theme of the latest Yes! issue (Fall 2011): The Do It Yourself Economy. Part of what’s really interesting about that is what we see happening among the youth, in terms of a back-to-the-land drive. One of our Yes! staff said, “You know, I don’t know any young people that aren’t talking about going back to the land in one way or another. You know, that’s a huge culture shift, not very well identified, pretty much under the radar screen, but potentially enormously powerful.
So, that’s where the hope is. The other thing is that politically, again, while the national politics are in a disaster—and we keep picking up things from these out-of-control, far right governors—the positive action in terms of energy and limiting waste, of rebuilding local food systems is coming from local government. I mentioned our Seattle city council president. Seattle’s put through a zero-waste initiative. The goal is to absolutely eliminate all landfill waste in Seattle. They’re doing initiatives on energy self reliance, on food self reliance, and going about it in a very serious, sophisticated way. Similar things are happening in other cities and communities. This seems to be where the energy is. Again, it does not get the attention of the media, which is focused on the crazies. It’s a very important force. That’s where I see hope.
I think we need to get frameworks into the people working on the national level, on national policy. Hopefully, at some point, we can get a break through. But I have no illusions about the Obama administration or the Democratic party at the national level. The whole system is just so captive to Wall Street money that it’s hard to see anything positive coming out of it.
The six parts of the How to Liberate America report seem so common sense to me, but they’re sure to face such resistance. I’m thinking here about the state banks—if that were put into the debate in Washington, you’d be called a socialist. Is it just a matter of working with these other progressive groups to build from the ground up?
It’s about creating a new political imperative from the ground up that cannot be ignored by the national politicians. And I think of it—and I write about this in Agenda for a New Economy—as parallel in some ways to the original American Revolution. That didn’t start with the founding fathers; it started with people mobilizing, and it got to the point where the folks we call the founding fathers had to get together and make it official or they would have been pushed aside. Essentially it was the people that created the political imperative, and I think that’s the way it happens here.
Now, in terms of that paper on how to liberate America from Wall Street rule, the move your money campaign, the state banks campaigns are growing out of an implicit recognition that we’ve got to draw energy away from Wall Street banks and support our local banks. But what we’re aware of is that there is no larger, overarching framework out there in the conversation that connects the dots in people’s minds and directly addresses the system of how money is created and allocated? What are those institutions? Those are not a given, they define a system of power and where that power flows is where prosperity flows, so we need to think systematically about changing the whole system. Those individual initiatives are points of intervention, but the more we address those points of intervention with a larger vision of the whole that we’re trying to achieve, I believe the more effective we can be.
Speaking of those “points of intervention” do you think that some positivity could be found from the financial meltdown, because it created an environment where it’s easy to point to some of these things, and then to interject the solutions?
Yeah, absolutely. Exactly what you said—it focuses attention on Wall Street and the money system in a way that creates an opening for this conversation. Now, my disappointment was that the conversation didn’t get more traction from the beginning. It’s partly because there was no framework out there for a different conversation. The framework is key. It was kind of limited to, “Do we save the Wall Street banks or let them collapse?” If they’re too big to fail, how small is small enough that they can fail? But the conversation was never framed in terms of—you know, we used to have a system of local banks that provided real financial services for the community and were engaged in creating community wealth. Wall Street came in and changed the rules to consolidate that power in Wall Street institutions that couldn’t care less about creating community wealth; they’re only interested in extracting it. Essentially we need to reverse that whole process if we’re going to have an economy that works. That conversation was never there, was never engaged, because no one had the framework to do it. It’s very discouraging, because, as you say, when you look at that report, it all seems so obvious, and there’s nothing in there that’s really new. But even with all the focus on money in our society there is just not a conversation about those most foundational issues. Even just the basic frames: recognizing that money is not real wealth, money is just a number, and it has no intrinsic value, and that to essentially mine and destroy the real living wealth of nature and community to grow the numbers on computer hard drives is an act of collective insanity. That, to me, is the thing that is most discouraging in terms of, are we an intelligent species? These are not complex ideas. [Laughs] Of course, most people are conditioned to believe they can’t understand these things because they don’t make any sense. I often say, if what the economists are saying doesn’t make sense to you, then it probably means you do understand it, because, in fact, what they’re saying doesn’t make any sense.
I can’t tell you how good that is to hear.
[Laughs] Yeah, a lot of people find that very reassuring.
And you’ve said as much in other interviews, that when you point it out, a light goes on and people say, “Of course this is the case.”
We’re so prone to, “Well there must be something I don’t understand, because all these really bright people seem to think this makes sense.” It’s the emperor has no clothes situation.
And of course the system does work beautifully for an awful lot of people in the short term. And so many of us are in a position where our retirement or some major aspect of our lives depends on the money generated from that Wall Street system and we really don’t want to step back and say, “You know that system is not really productive, it’s not really producing anything, and by living off that system, I’m actually being a parasite on society.”
Now I’m going to ask a nearly impossible question, in terms of what people can actually do—we’ve touched on some things: the move your money, buy locally, the back to the land movement—but what about, say, a person’s retirement? What can someone do if they are looking to get out of this economy, but still try to plan for their future? What are some practical steps that we can take now?
That is an extraordinarily difficult question. It’s where we get into a huge trap. There is no individual answer to that question. This, again, is where we’ve gotten a misdefinition in society about the nature of retirement. Of course it starts with the idea that at 65 you should retire and go away, no matter how healthy you are. And you should expect to be supported, either with Social Security or with your individual savings. As we extend the life span and more of us are living longer and longer after 65 it just doesn’t work from a society standpoint. So, I guess part of it is that we should all be working and contributing to society as long as we’re physically able to do so. But the real issue is meeting our needs when we’re literally no longer able to care for ourselves, which is very expensive. The key here is recognizing that it is an insurance problem that has to be solved collectively, it cannot be solved individually. And the fact is none of us know how long we’re going to live, nor do we know what physical condition we’re going to be in or what need we’re going to have. So, a given individual can save up for their retirement and they have some modest Social Security benefits, but the may die before they reach 65, so they don’t need any of that. Another person may live to 100 or 105. They may be healthy all the way up, they could work all the way up to the end. Or, they may have ten or 20 years of significant disability or huge expenses that are way beyond the ability of even multi-millionaires to cover. So, the only way you can deal with it, ultimately, is it’s got to be a social contract. You know, it’s like as parents we care for our young. That’s just what we do. And, as traditionally happened, societies figured out various ways to organize to care for the elderly. At least coherent societies. Now, as you get into a more fragmented, individualistic society, in which the family breaks up and we are not caring for our own elders, then you have to have some kind of solution like Social Security that covers everyone.
That’s about as quick an answer as I can give to that.
That’s perfect. Thanks again for giving me the time. We’re thrilled to have you on this list.
It’s all part of getting these ideas out in circulation, to change the story. The wonderful thing is that once people get the truth, it tends to stick. If you’re telling lies, you have to have FOX News to keep repeating it. Over and over and over.
Diana Beresford-Kroeger: Tree Walker
Scientist and author Diana Beresford-Kroeger speaks for the trees. She has studied their environmental, medicinal, nutritional and even spiritual aspects, and she has a “bioplan” in which they could reforest and heal the planet.
Read a profile of Diana Beresford-Kroeger in the New York Times, listen to an interview with her by the CBC, and listen or download a podcast about her work by Living on Earth.
Beresford-Kroeger’s most recent book is Arboretum Borealis. The paperback version of her previous book, The Global Forest, comes out in November.
She is a science advisor for the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, which works on behalf of the world’s old-growth trees.
Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman interviewed Beresford-Kroeger. Here is the transcript:
Utne Reader: What initially led you to become interested in studying trees?
Diana Beresford-Kroeger: Please use your discretion on this, because I don’t want to sound crazy. I was orphaned. I come from a family in Ireland. My mother’s family goes to the fifth century—it’s a very old, Irish, aristocratic family. And my father’s family … they are also a very ancient family, going to the 12th century. And I was orphaned at 11. Everybody was wiped out by the time I was 11; as the child of a fairly prestigious family I was the only one left. I was taken in as a ward of court, and the judge was frightened to put me into a laundry orphanage, because it’s just like putting a Roosevelt or a Churchill into a laundry orphanage. He was frightened to do that, and he gave me the choice of being able to live with a bachelor uncle—my mother’s brother, who was a very famous athlete. It was extraordinary to put a single child in the custody of a man.
Have you ever heard of the Brehon law? [an early Gaelic legal system] Well, I’m a Gaelic speaker, because my mother’s family are ancient Gaels. And so, under the Brehon system, a child who is orphaned is everybody’s child. … I was taken, as the last child of an ancient family, and all of the 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds—who didn’t speak any English, they spoke Gaelic—taught me the ancient last things … of the Druidic system. I was given all the ancient knowledge of the Druidic world. I was brought from house to house to house, and [each one] taught me all that they knew.
I was told that I would be their last voice, the last voice of the ancient Gaelic world, and that I had to carry this knowledge into the new world. Really, in a sense, it’s a sacred trust. I studied at university, and I was very advanced in math and all different kinds of stuff, and as I got older, I started to see the wisdom of the old, ancient things that they told me. … And I hadn’t taken them seriously at the time.
I was a brilliant child—I was really, really clever—and I had an unusual education in that my uncle was a chemist, and every day in Ireland, he’d sit on one side of the fire and I’d sit on the other, and we would read physics and chemistry, and theater, and old Gaelic songs, and all kinds of literature. That’s what I grew up with every day—I went to a private school. And I think it all went together.
Then, when I came to North America, I looked back and saw that the society of humanity was losing its memory. That the wisdoms of the ancient world were being lost. That we as a people within our souls were losing our compassion, that we were losing things that would endear one to the other. Then I started to think, and I saw what was happening to the forests here. And the forest is really—it is the basic unit of life. The tree is the basic unit of something which is quite extraordinary. And I also had a vision because the man I married was the son of Iwan Kroeger of the Apollo system. He was brought up with Werner Von Braun, and I know a great deal of the Apollo scientists, and they help me with my heart research.
I decided that I was going to, myself, initiate some research using all the old knowledge I had for the good of humanity.
How did you end up focusing specifically on trees?
Well, I saw that they were being cut down. Here in Canada, we have a phenomenon going on—and actually, you do in the states, too. In California … all of your redwoods are on the cusp. They are in the hands of greedy people, and it is really quite unbelievable. [I want] to alert people to the fact that the trees, the green chloroplast trees, are the only unit that has a thermodynamic reaction which is capable of pulling in photons with 100 percent efficiency into the chloroplast, and then transforming carbon dioxide into sugars and … oxygen. Without that reaction, without that phenomenon, we would not have an oxygenated planet. We would not have you and me speaking to one another. All of the creatures that require oxygen, and the vast majority of them do, we would not have them.
When Einstein was studying his E=MC2, he knew that light traveled in a straight line. He also knew that light traveled in a sine wave, and that’s a very fine wave of photonic energy. He never knew what the sine wave was. He could never quite fathom what the blazes that was doing coming in through the atmosphere and to the earth. Well, what it’s doing is that particular wave that actually lands on the chloroplast, and that particular wave of photons does a form of dance, and that form of dance gets in very, very close contact to the metal of the chlorophyll, and the metal of the chlorophyll changes valency, and it’s that valency change that gives us our life. It’s that valency change, an exchange of trillions and trillions and trillions of amounts of electron energy, that really fires the whole planet.
You know, scientists up to this point have taken the hair out of your head, let’s say, and looked at it and said, “Well, you’re getting older,” or maybe, “Your potassium levels are down,” or maybe, “You have too much cyanide in your hair.” But they don’t at you as a man. Science—and I am not decrying science in that sense—science has not looked at the unit of the system, and what the problems are, and how it’s functioning. And so in a sense I went on a road trip into another form of science, another form of thinking, where I wasn’t afraid to ask questions because I didn’t have the institution around me. I couldn’t be fired. … I set up a huge, huge world-class garden here where I’m putting all kinds of endangered species and I’m studying them. I have a living laboratory here.
So everything that I write about, I work with, with a shovel. Everything that I write, all my research, all of the things that I do, I do by myself, with my own observations, with my own science, with my own ability to think, with my own ability to question. And it’s that kind of academic freedom that I’ve given myself, to have some pure thoughts on all of these things, because I think it’s very, very important to look at the planet as a unit, and to look at each person as a unit, and each specie as a unit. We’ve forgotten how to do that. …The big questions of the functioning of the planet have to be asked now, and they have to be answered by governments, and by all of us, because it’s affecting all of us.
You’ve called yourself a renegade scientist. Is that because this sort of holistic thinking isn’t necessarily normally accepted in the scientific community?
Well, I’ll tell you why I call myself a renegade scientist. My research area has been in artificial blood, and in the hemodynamics of the heart, the sheer rate of blood flow within the heart, and all kinds of arenas … within biochemistry. And if I, as somebody who, let’s say, had a professorship in medicine—which I was actually offered and refused—then I would take botanical systems and correlate the botanical systems to the body. Because there is serotonin in a tree; there is serotonin in a body. There are all the proteins. All the sophistication that we have within our systems, are in fact within trees and within living systems, and then some.
If I actually were to write about that, then the botanists would say, oh, we don’t understand anything about molecular chemistry. And the medicine people would say, no, no, we have never understood botany. But in the old Renaissance, in the olden times, all of these things were put together. I think we should all work as a team. I would love to work with physicists. I would love to work with poets and physicists and people who are nuclear physicists, and indeed I’ve been asked to do that. Because the questions I would ask of a physicist would be a different type of question, and we need to ask those questions.
Now, what I’ve done is I’ve set myself on another sort of thinking, and another kind of academic situation, where I’ve invented a vocabulary for my thinking, which has been taken seriously all over the world.
It becomes clear in reading your book The Global Forest just how very interconnected trees are with all life, and how humans among many species depend on them for their survival. But we rarely treat them with the reverence this view seems to call for. How can we foster a greater sense of awareness about the importance of trees in more people?
Well, how I think about this is: Your local tree, wherever you live, is your tree. It’s the tree of your landscape. It’s the tree of your children, and it’s the tree of your wife, and all of your family. Or maybe it’s a grove; maybe it’s a bunch of trees. They’re your trees; you protect them. And then when you hear that the large corporations are coming into your area to cut them down, which they may, object to it. That’s all you have to do. I mean, really, that is all you have to do. Right now, in Canada, there is a big yoo-hoo going on about protecting 4.9 percent of the boreal forest. That means that 95 percent of it is open for cutting. They’re protecting it for three years. We’re talking about ethnic cleansing here.
You, in the United States, have your boreal forest in Alaska, quite a substantial one. But because you don’t go there, or you haven’t been there—most of the people in the United States will not go there—they think, oh, well, it doesn’t matter. But as a matter of fact, it matters greatly. It matters greatly to all of the people on the planet.
Right now, as you and I are talking, one hectare of forest oxygenates the air for one breathing person. That’s where your air is coming from right now. So you start cutting the forest down, and the aeration gets less and the carbon dioxide gets more. And when you have an increase in carbon dioxide, you can jolly well expect the Caribbean area to whip up storms like we have never, ever seen in our lives.
You’ve spoken and written about a reforesting plan called bioplanning. Can you explain what a bioplan is and how your conception of a bioplan would work?
Well, my concept of a bioplan is that if you’re living on the West Coast—and to me the redwoods are the iconic trees of the world, so let’s take them as an example because they are an extraordinary species—those forests once stretched from the Baja Peninsula up into Alaska—once upon a time—and they are down to a really meager few trees. Some of the aboriginal people have some of the larger trees; General Sherman is not actually the biggest tree.
I would say to people, plant them. Protect them, plant them. Muir Wood: Expand Muir Wood. Take it from the 4 acres and make it into 100 acres. All of the Hollywood people who are living along the great shore, you get your land into Monterey pines, into redwoods: You start planting your trees. And, for instance, coming here into Eastern Canada, you don’t take down the hickories. We have very, very, very few hickories left. The hickories would be the shagbark hickories, the seeding species of eastern North America—this is your history. This is how the people in eastern North America lived, the aboriginal people. They made nut milks, nut creams and nut cheeses out of these trees, which were called antifamine trees, and there are very few left.
So everybody starts planting some trees. If you don’t have the ability to do that, if you’re living in a city, then protect some trees around it. Be aware. It’s really increasing the awareness. What I want to do is to have it like not smoking, where it’s peer pressure put on people. It is no longer good enough to sell your house, cut down a tree, and give the house to somebody else. It behooves us now to look after nature around us.
If you speak for the trees, you speak for all of nature. It’s everything. You know, we have a huge amount of pesticides that are being used now in North America. And in fact, 97 percent of all possible water in North America, in where we are living, is contaminated with pesticides of some shape, sort, or another. Now, if we were to keep our forests intact—and I’m not talking about plantations, I’m not talking about putting in some lollipop trees down the road, I’m talking about keeping our forests together and intact—then the migration of all of the birds and butterflies from the south to the north, and from the north again, can take place. Birds are not just birds. They are patrolling insects for all of the diseases of the planet. They go up and down the tree, forward, backward, upside down, and they eat all the grubs, all the insects, right off the trees. They groom the trees to live. We wouldn’t need that many pesticides.
They say, oh, we’re running out of food. No, you’re not running out of food, you’re running out of wisdom. You’re running out of ideas. And the farmers say, well, you know, we don’t have enough food. Yes, you can put in two-tier agriculture. Now we’re talking about the bioplan and about reality. The farmer can put in a two-tier form of agriculture, which means that his hedgerows get replaced by nut trees. And the nut trees of North America are really, really extraordinary, and there’s a huge market for our nut foods all over the world, because we have a 20 percent higher solar exposure here in North America than any other place in the world. Our nut fruits are first-class protein: One pound of nut fruit is equal to one pound of angus beef. But that one pound will stop diabetes, will give you good circulation, and will enable your brain to work. It’s a win-win situation.
I’m trying to get that thinking out there on the platform, up to date for people, and say, Why are you eating omega sixes when you should be eating omega threes? I mean, if you were to have a racehorse, and your mare had a foal, and that foal you wanted to run in the derby or God knows what—a big race—and you took the foal off the mother’s milk and you gave that foal crap, you could not expect that foal to win a race. It just doesn’t happen. We’re doing it with our children. We’re turning them into fat sausages. And people, too.
So it’s changing a paradigm. And you know, the only way I can think of doing it, to be honest with you, is writing—first of all, writing and books. I wrote The Global Forest in a mantra. As a scientist you have to study what you’re doing. You can’t write something that bores somebody to death, OK? So you have to write, la-la, la-la, la-la-la. [sings a melody] I took some very simplistic lullabies, and I wrote into those lullabies, so that it triggers the mathematical part of your brain for memory. If you write into that onomatopoeia in the mind, then you have memory for a long, long time. I wrote it on purpose in that way.
So that’s my number one plan. And my number two plan is, I’m in the process of doing three major films. The first one is The Global Forest. It will be called She Walks in the Woods, or that’s the working title right on it now, I’m not sure—it’s based on The Global Forest. Another one is based on Arboretum Borealis. And the third one is a series of short pieces that are going to be united into a film. We’re going to really do the whole globe in terms of sacred trees and things like that.
You seem equally at home in the worlds of science and art. In fact, you write in The Global Forest that “art and science are of the same house.” What do you value about each of these disciplines, and what do they bring to the other?
Art captures the dream. Artists are quite often kind of flaky people; they’re a bit eccentric. But they capture the dream. And so do scientists, as a matter of fact. Art has always captured the dream, and science followed the dream. We have no other dream other than our art. I mean, the cave paintings gave the dream of what they were doing, and now we are giving the dream of what we are doing. And scientists are particularly lacking in imagination, but the artists aren’t. If you track art from very early times to now, you actually see the dream; you actually see what has emerged in science.
All good scientists who have decent, functioning, thinking brains always have art on the side. It’s like a side dish of art to be served to them. In science, you run with a hunch and you think, ah, maybe this will work. And you know, you do the same thing in art. So I have a great respect for art. I have a great respect for all of the people who are out there on a limb doing their art. Because science is out there on another limb, doing its form of art, which is a mental art.
So yes, I follow art all over the world. … I’m really fascinated by art. In New York there was an exhibit of Van Gogh’s night art. He taught himself how to paint at night, sometimes using the illumination of a candle. But to see how he did it—all of his letters go with that exhibit, and they’re all in French, and translated into English—but read the French ones. It’s unbelievable. I mean, you read what this man did and you think, Oh my God, oh my God.
You are working with the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive to store the genetic material from tough, long-lived trees. What is the value of saving this genetic heritage?
The ancient trees of North America and the world—and some of them are 4,000 years old—these trees have what is known as the epigenetics in their genome to withstand extraordinary events. They have the ability to withstand drought, and they have a proven ability to withstand disease.
In normal circumstances, in a normal forest about a hundred million years ago—the forest has been growing for more than 400 million years—you and I would go around the world and we would see extraordinary trees, huge trees. I measured one ancient redwood down on the West Coast, and it was 55 feet in circumference. Now that was an old tree and a big tree. So these trees have the ability to withstand climate change. And the genome of those trees had always been put back into the forest. In other words, the old trees continued lasting for a long time, and they continued fruiting, and their genetic DNA pollinated and got crossed and was always spilt back into the forest, for that genome to be replicated and replicated and replicated. We stopped doing that.
Now what happens is that the number people go in and cut the best, so the best can no longer spill out its genome. And so my idea is that we will go around the world and we will do somatic cloning of all of the trees—10 percent of them have already been done—and hold them in a living library and make them available for all the people on earth to actually plant and have around their own homes and have in their gardens—and replant native into native areas.
In 50 years’ time, it will decarbonate the atmosphere. It will actually be the cheapest, easiest, smartest way of grabbing carbon dioxide out of the air, of sequestering carbon dioxide. It is the only way we know. We’re putting carbon dioxide into the tree, and the tree is valuable, so you have a greater fund of money, and a greater fund of forest. Trees are money. So in 50 years’ time, the world will be more wealthy by way of its own forests, and by way of its own food. It’s a win-win situation. But nobody’s done it. Nobody has thought about it.
It’s the holistic thinking of the globe that I’m getting at. It’s to look at the planet as a unit and to say, well, what can we do here to improve things? I can do this, and I am doing it.
You’ve written often about the medicinal properties of trees. What are some healing properties that people may not even be aware of?
Well, for just a normal family, with maybe some kids and some old people, go for a walk in the pine woods, any kind of pine woods, when the temperature is warm and it’s fairly humid—i.e., in the summertime. The pines produce a compound called alpha pinene … and the pine actually acts as an anesthetic on the brain, affecting the neural sheath of the brain itself, and the thinking capacity of a child. If a child is having a problem learning, it helps the child to focus their brain. It is a fat-soluble material, it’s a fat-soluble molecule that actually helps a child to have a higher IQ. So you take your kids into the woods for a picnic, or a walk, or something like that for half an hour, and the child comes out functioning better. That’s one fairly simple thing.
Another one would be in the birch family, and all over the world there are birch species. There are not too terribly many down in South America, but they’re mostly in the northern part of the world. You go into the birch, and you get betulinic acid, which is produced by the birch, as an aerosol in the air, and it actually helps to maintain the integrity of the body by stopping the growth of certain types of cancers. Betulinic acid is an extraordinary compound. And it’s very important for men, because 9 men out of every 10, by the time they reach about 90 years old, will get prostate cancer. So men need to go—I call it birch bathing—and just be around a birch for a short period of time to help the prostate. It’s an awfully simple thing to do.
“Tree hugger” is often used as a pejorative, but some people embrace the term. How about you: Are you a tree hugger?
I’ve been called by a real right-wing newspaper “the super tree hugger”—here in Canada, by the Financial Post. … Am I a tree hugger? No. In some senses I understand trees have to be used for civilization. I am a tree respecter. I respect trees. I respect what they’re doing.
But personally, I have hugged a tree. Yes. (laughs) I have hugged a tree, and I love trees. My favorite tree is the copper beech. I love them.
If you go into the redwood forest and stand breast to breast to those redwoods, there’s something there. My God. There’s something there. And I’m reminded of the ancient Irish thinking that a tree can listen to speech, and of course that’s the legend of the heart—that the speech of the king went into the heart—so I’m surrounded by legends when I go into the forest. To me trees are wonderful, they’re wondrous, they’re extraordinary, they’re like seasons, they’re like the landscape. It would be very, very tough to live in a world without trees. I admire their beauty, their serenity, their silence. You go into a forest, and you come out with something added to you. You go in with a scattered mind, and you always come out in a good mood.
John Warner: Green Chemist
A successful industrial chemist, John Warner helped found the field of green chemistry when he became concerned about artificial toxins in our environment, and in our bodies. Since then he’s done groundbreaking work in promoting a “benign by design” approach to his field.
Read about green chemistry and green chemists including John Warner in a feature story in OnEarth magazine.
See a video of John Warner speaking at the 2010 Bioneers conference.
Warner is the co-author of Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, an influential book that lays out the 12 principles of green chemistry.
He is the co-founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in Maryland.
Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman interviewed John Warner. Here is the transcript:
Utne Reader: Chemistry, in the minds of some people, doesn’t have such a great reputation, because the world chemical connotes pollution, disease, contamination. How did chemistry get to this place, and how can it get out?
John Warner: That’s probably the heart of the whole problem. If I go to a cocktail party or something and someone says to me, “What do you do?” and I say “I’m a chemist,” the immediate reaction is, “Oh, my God, I hated chemistry in high school,” and they look at their shoes, and it’s pretty much a conversation stopper. And if you think of it, that abdication of any relationship to chemistry or chemicals is kind of how we’ve gotten to this point.
I feel very strongly that chemistry is no more difficult of a school subject than any other subject, it’s just typically the most poorly taught. And so people grow up not really understanding chemistry, and carry that through their entire life, that they just don’t have the fundamentals. People kind of wrap themselves around biology. They think they know what a plant it, they know what a bumblebee is, they know what a dog is, and they feel that they can understand. They have different intimate relationship to think that they are one with biology, but somehow they’re not one with chemistry—when in fact, we’re all a bunch of chemicals, and we are just as much one with chemistry as we are with biology. But sadly, that early childhood education experience is usually so bad that people kind of shun it. And that’s the biggest tragedy, because there are products that we buy, the politicians that we vote for, there are some very hardcore, serious chemistry issues, and yet we don’t have many people in our society who are capable of having a meaningful dialogue about it.
So now, what ends up happening is it goes to hyperbole—it’s an epic battle of good and evil. Industry is evil, only motivated by greed, and the people fighting industry are the good guys. We have this epic battle syndrome going on, and it polarizes everything. But at the end of the day, it’s an invention problem. It really is a science problem. We need to invent new materials that are safer. And so I come to the sad reality that this isn’t a choice. It’s not like companies choose not to make safe materials; they don’t know how. And so at the very moment that we need more people to come into chemistry—we need new ideas, we need new, diverse ways of looking at things to come and invent the next generation of materials, and yet you’re absolutely right: Any wide-eyed kid who wants to save the world, you list the careers they want to go into, and chemistry ain’t going to be in the top ten. And in fact it has to be; it should be number one, because we need safe products to be invented. And if we have no one going into that field, oh my God.
What first spurred you to start thinking about green chemistry?
Well, a couple different things. It’s a two-stage thing with me. I started initially at a kind of corporate-intellectual level. I was an industrial chemist who worked at Polaroid, invented a bunch of things that were profoundly good for the environment, but the existing structure of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] made any change in the manufacturing process so difficult that it was almost rewarding companies to stick with the nasty, because they put so many hoops in front of changes, good or bad. It was so difficult and expensive that it actually motivated people to never change a process. So that kind of gave start to the birth of green chemistry: We’ve got to incentivize the process of inventing better things, not penalize it. So that started the whole concept of green chemistry. Then, oh my God, when I really got into it, the cost savings—you know, companies just making something that was a little bit safer for the regulatory fees, all the cost structure, all of that—it just became such a no-brainer. That’s really where green chemistry started, was as this intellectual, fiscal conservative, industrial thing.
Then, the second chapter of my life was that I, as probably the most prolific industrial chemist on the planet for my age—super successful—ended up losing a 2-year-old son to a birth defect. And it kind of stunned me to say for a minute, well, how can I be such a successful chemist? What if something I touched, what if something I worked with, caused my son’s birth defect? So after writing the book, after doing all the principles of green chemistry, I came to a second epiphany that, well, wait a minute: Here I am, an Ivy League PhD chemist, given a piece of paper, sent into the world to invent the next generation of molecules, and I never had a course in toxicology. I never had a course in environmental mechanisms. Come to think of it, not one university on the planet sees that as a requirement. It is nothing short of stunning and shocking.
If you go to Google and pretend that you’re going to get a chemistry degree from any university on the planet, you won’t find a toxicology course required or even offered in most universities. None will require it, and most won’t even offer it. So when we ask ourselves, why would a chemist in industry invent a toxic material, the answer is, how could they not? It’s not part of the way we train. You think about it—doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, architects—so many professions have licensure to make sure they can do things safely. My father was an electrician; he couldn’t come to your house and change a light bulb unless he had a document from the federal government saying he could do it safely. Yet in chemistry, anyone can make a molecule that has never existed before, potentially making the most potent neurotoxin in history, and never in their education were they ever required to demonstrate any ability to anticipate it. Until we change that, we cannot possibly have a sustainable future.
So it’s not an epic battle of good and evil; it’s an education bizarreness. How is it possible that we could think that there is at all an ethical responsibility? We are sending graduating students to go and invent the future, and we don’t feel that this is part of their base core understanding—we’re completely messed up. And so that’s when I amped up the passion, realizing that, well, that’s the missing element here, is that we don’t have this completeness in our education process.
So after 10 years in industry I went into academia and started a PhD program in green chemistry—and it was phenomenally successful. I was named the country’s number science professor in 2006, I went to the Oval Office with the president for half an hour, all these fancy things happened. So education wise, it really started to catch on, and now, you see a lot of colleges and universities are just now starting to offer courses in green chemistry. They’re starting to put their toes in the water just because students demand it.
And companies love it, because they understand that the biggest impediment to success in the commercial marketplace is understanding regulation and toxicity issues. They know that no one in their company has that knowledge, so having chemists actually trained to anticipate this make them even more cost effective. So it’s kind of a win-win scenario where we’re making a safer product and we’re being more competitive in the marketplace. Gee whiz.
Why are we only beginning to think of this after creating tens of thousands of toxic chemicals that are coursing through our world, causing everything from birth defects to air pollution?
I wish I knew. My belief is that three hundred years ago we did not have the word art, we did not have the word science. Was Galileo an artist, was da Vinci a scientist? We didn’t really think that way. And then what happened was we came up with the institution of academia, and we started to have art and science. Then we said, oh, let’s divide it some more, so we had chemistry, physics, biology. Then we said, let’s divide it some more, and we had organic chemistry, physical chemistry, then let’s divide it some more, and we had synthetic chemistry—and we became super-duper compartmentalized. We applied the reductionist approach and created academic institutions with the narrowest of narrow focus.
So someone who was making a molecule would never encounter someone else in an academic discipline that looked at toxicity. And we just kind of went our own separate ways in the ivory tower of making stuff, and we just never interacted with people who actually studied toxicity. So it’s just this bizarre reality that science and academia do not really, when you get down to it, serve society. They serve their own sub-society. There is the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Biological Society. Scientists excel in their fields by impressing those sub-societies, not the outside society. So we, outside, are hoping for safe products, and we think that common sense is part of the process, but in fact it never has been.
So the revolution here is, well, maybe it should be the first thing we think about. And again, it’s not this epic battle of good and evil. I can honestly tell you that in the 25 years that I’ve been at it, no one has ever come to me and said, “Yeah, we know that this is toxic, but screw it, we’re making a ton of money.” Now, I do believe that there is evil is the world, so sometimes sincerity is in question, but for the most part I think they really do sincerely believe that their stuff isn’t toxic. They don’t believe the results. So it becomes a battle not of “Should we replace the material,” but, “Is it toxic in the first place.”
So the solution, in my opinion, is to have a dozen alternatives that are just as good in the marketplace, that are just as inexpensive, that fit that model, and let market forces drive success. But because no chemist is learning how to do that, it’s monkeys typing Shakespeare: Every once in a while, something randomly comes out safe, but it isn’t part of the design. So until we integrate it into part of the design, it’s just going to be random happenstance.
The way people have dealt with it before is they’ve said, OK, chemistry has to be dangerous—but that’s OK. We’ll wear gloves, we’ll put on masks, we’ll wear goggles, we’ll put in scrubbers and filters and smokestacks, and we’ll protect people by limiting their exposure, and our ego made us believe we could do that. And all I have to do is say “Bhopal,” “Exxon Valdez,” “Louisiana.” We know, time and time and time again, shit happens and stuff doesn’t work, and these exposure controls ultimately always fail.
And so the revolution, if it is a revolution, in green chemistry is to say, let’s stop relying on exposure control and build into the design of the molecule. Merge people together. Merge biology, physics, and sociology and environment and toxicology. Have more eyes on the process, and ask the scientists to invent molecules that are nontoxic and safe in the first place, so that we’re not relying on these exposure controls. And that is a revolution. Forever, we’ve just always accepted that chemistry has to be dangerous, and the question that I ask is, why? If we always accept that, we’ll always have that. The day we all agree we need a future when that’s not so—well, OK, we can’t be impatient. Modern chemistry has been around for 160 years. Green chemistry has been around for less than two decades. We can’t snap our fingers and overnight have everything be green. This is going to have to be a meticulous process in which we learn how to do things one by one, celebrate incremental improvements, and hope that everybody’s working toward a day where we can do better. That’s the only way science can grow.
You said in your speech at the 2010 Bioneers convention that chemistry has often been “ego-driven” to make molecules do what we want them to. So does practicing green chemistry mean being a little less egotistical in the lab?
To me it does. You know, the one thing that’s really important for any movement, for any program like green chemistry, is to allow individuals to make it their own. I would never be so presumptuous as to say, “Someone doing green chemistry must do blank.” Who the hell am I to tell anybody what they should do. All I can say is, I feel that when I do green chemistry, the only way I can successfully do it is to park my ego outside. I never want to preach to people that this is what they must do. They’ve got to do what works for them. I don’t want a world with people being told what to do. But yeah, I believe, myself, in my research, in doing what I jokingly refer to as molecular psychology—understanding what the molecules want to do and designing products to do what the molecules want, rather than me forcing them. I prefer to do that, and my institute has been stunningly successful in that pursuit.
How is your message received in the chemistry world? Are you sometimes told to just be quiet and go away?
Never. As for the perception of green chemistry, I walk into every room and there’s a lot of people who look like they just ate something that tasted bad. They have a preconception—oh God, here comes this guy who’s going to tell us something about, you know, saving the world or whatnot. I can promise you, I have never at the end of one of my talks, had anyone, ever, argue with me. And so the problem isn’t the message of green chemistry, it’s the misperception of green chemistry. When they hear what I have to say, they get it. I’ve never, ever, had anybody argue with me, of the hundreds of thousands of people I’ve spoken to. No one has ever come up afterward and said, “No, you’re wrong.” No one has ever written to me—I’ve never gotten an email saying, “You’re missing the point.” Never happens.
But I do realize the world is a big place, and most people have perceived green chemistry to be something different from what I say green chemistry should be. And that’s the biggest problem, that misperception. You would be shocked to find out that most big industrial companies—the Dows, Duponts, 3Ms—have internal green chemistry programs. They’re training their chemists to learn green chemistry. I would argue that industry is ahead of academia in adopting green chemistry. That might shock you, but that’s the reality, because they know that to be competitive, and to be cost effective, they’ve got to do green chemistry, and they know that the universities aren’t training their scientists, so they’re doing it themselves.
In a recent OnEarth magazine story about green chemistry, I noticed you were quoted saying that all of the big chemical companies are engaging in green chemistry on the quiet, because to trumpet it too loudly is to sort of admit that they’ve been doing things wrong. When will this cease to be a hidden activity?
Well, there’s two aspects to it. The first is that you’re absolutely right: We have the most litigious society on earth in the United States especially. We are just so litigious that every organization—whether it’s a company or a nonprofit—is terrified of doing something that can open up some liability for them to be sued. That’s just a reality that we have. The structure of the American corporation is that their corporate officers have a fiduciary responsibility to protect that company. If they make a statement, if they create a program, that puts the fiduciary health of the organization at risk, they can go to jail. There is a hardcore reality here, and so if some vice president at a company says, “I’m looking at this product that we sold last year, and you know what? It is toxic. We’ve got to invent a new one.” I would hope they would immediately take it off the shelf. Now, who knows, I could be in a dreamland here, but I would hope they would. So they can’t then say, “So we are going to invent an alternative to replace it,” because that becomes the smoking gun, and some class-action suit comes and says, “Aha, Vice President So-and-So says they’ve started a program to replace it, therefore he’s acknowledging that it must be toxic.”
We need an environment that fosters that, that celebrates that, that applauds that. And right now, in some weird and twisted way, the moment the company acknowledges that something might be toxic, we actually kind of pounce on them and punish them for it. We don’t reward them. So it’s when we recognize that this is less of an epic battle of good and evil and more of a battle of ignorance and silliness in the way we train scientists, that is when I think that aspect goes away.
So that’s answer one. Answer two is: I’ve been to meetings with senior corporate executives, and I talk about green chemistry. I can always break the crowd into thirds. One-third of them kind of listen, nod their heads—“That sounds great.” For another third, it’s interesting, it’s good, they take notes. And then there’s a third that—they’re not disapproving, they can’t disagree with me, but they just kind of pretend it doesn’t really matter in their business. They say, “OK, I kind of see how other people might be interested,” but they roll their eyes. They applaud at the end, and they say, “Well, that might be interesting, but it doesn’t really apply.”
The next day, those are the people I get the emails from. It’s almost as if they see this as their competitive advantage, and if they let on in public that “Oh, this is so cool, we’re going to start pursuing it,” it’s showing their hand in a very competitive world. So they choose to keep this as part of their top-secret mission, because they don’t want to lose the competitive advantage.
So they email you wanting to learn more about it, or to ask more in-depth questions.
Yeah. Absolutely. And I find the least enthusiastic publicly are the most enthusiastic privately. And the ones who are most enthusiastic publicly never come talk to me. So it’s almost as if there are two approaches to green chemistry. One is PR: We’re going to put on a green coat, and a big green hat, and we’re going to beat our chest and proudly proclaim that we’re the greenest company in the world. Those companies rarely, rarely are really doing it. They’re spending their money investing in PR. The quiet companies that aren’t wearing the green coat and hat and beating their chest, have probably started a research effort and are really doing it. It’s interesting—it’s one of these things that’s almost counterintuitive in my experience.
How long will it take to clean up chemistry? This seems like a long and slow process that has barely begun.
You know, in my opinion, step number one is when every college, every university, requires their students who are getting degrees in chemistry and material science, to have a one-semester course to identify hazards and anticipate the risks of materials. Then and only then will the next step be that all of those people will then populate industry and start making safe stuff. I believe we are a super-fast track after that happens. But until that happens, it’s still a sense of randomness and weirdness.
It’s important to recognize how funding in science works. So, for example, nanotechnology. Can you name any college, any university, that doesn’t have some big nano program? What happened? Is that just so awesome that every scientist on the planet spontaneously realized that nano was cool? No. Actually, what happened was that about 10 or 11 years ago, a group of scientists went to Congress, scared the heck out of them that America was going to lose its competitive advantage—it was in a climate where they could allocate resources—and over $10 billion went into nanotech. So now the federal government puts out a plate of $10 billion, and all of a sudden every scientist on the planet says, oh, I’ve been doing nanotech my whole life. Here’s my grant proposal.
So right now—there was a bill in Congress called the Clean Chemistry Research and Development Act that was asking for $700 million of funding—something around that level—and it didn’t pass. It passed the House, then failed in the Senate a couple of times.
When that happens, when finally there’s an actual allocation of resources, everyone will be fighting to convince each other that they have been doing green chemistry. It’s a sad thing, but funding drives science. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is, and so if we want to accelerate this, we need to allocate it.
Now, ironically, other countries are doing this. India has mandated that all of its students take a course in green chemistry. They’re piloting in Delhi. Chinese has opened up like 15 different national research labs. In the United States, if you want a federal grant, you better say “nano” in your proposal. In China, you’ve got to say “green.” So here it is, the federal government of China is funding research to do that. All we need to do in the United States is to start doing something like that, and maybe we can make a big change.
Gary Paul Nabhan: Mother Nature's Foodie
A Lebanese American living in the Southwestern United States, Gary Paul Nabhan has for decades been writing, speaking, and doing research on the importance of local, sustainable food. His work has been vital to the current conversation about how we eat.
See videos of Gary Paul Nabhan speaking about local, sustainable food at the Mother Earth News Fair, Clackamass Community College, and Arizona State University.
Nabhan is the author of Chasing Chiles, Where Our Food Comes From, Renewing America’s Food Traditions, and other books.
He works as a research social scientist at the Southwest Center in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona. He is the endowed chair of a new food security project called the Sustainable Food Systems Program in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security.
Visit his website for videos and other information about his recent work.
Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman interviewed Nabhan. Here is the transcript:
Utne Reader: You’ve been talking and writing for years about local and natural foods. Now those are buzzwords and there is a lot of talk about rethinking our food systems and our diets. Are you encouraged by this new awareness of food, and do you feel some sense of accomplishment in helping to start this dialogue?
Gary Paul Nabhan: Well, I think it’s a collective accomplishment. There are many people, from folks you have honored in the past [as Utne Reader visionaries] to many community members and unsung heroes, who collectively did this. There’s no single person. We wanted the discussion of local and sustainable foods to go beyond the same choir, and I think it has now, and that creates complexities and opportunities—in other words, there can be the possibility of greenwashing. But as people get educated, their understanding of these issues deepens, and the terrain grows more complex, and I welcome that.
How did you first become interested in food issues?
My grandfather was a Lebanese immigrant who was a food peddler in the Great Lakes after being an orchard keeper and sheep herder in the old world. And he brought such terrific food to our table that when I went away to school and didn’t see that same quality, I became concerned about that and helped found campus community gardens and things like that when I was younger—and somewhere along the line decided to get an ag degree and focus on crop diversity and desert agriculture as my topics. So this is something I’ve been involved in since about 1975; I think we founded Native Seed/SEARCH in about 1982 and had the first national conference on community seed banks in 1982.
You’re the endowed chair of a new food security project called the Sustainable Food Systems Program in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security. What will do in this project?
I’m trying to put the pieces together. The point is that seeds alone aren’t enough, even if they’re diverse, to make our food systems sustainable. We’re taking a whole-system, foodshed approach to building future designers of just, equitable, and sustainable food systems. In the face of climate change and water scarcity, and decreasing traditional knowledge about farming, very few Americans grow up with that orally transmitted knowledge about food in their families. So we’re trying to do all that and put the pieces together that are essential for a whole food system that’s healthy and just and equitable, and biologically as well as culturally diverse. It’s going beyond just thinking about the biological diversity and the food systems to the cultural diversity and structural diversity as well.
You just touched on your founding of Native Seed/SEARCH. Why did you found this organization, and what’s the goal?
Well, I don’t think it’s possible to have food security and resilience in our food systems unless they’re biologically diverse—and that’s not just the crop seeds, but also having diverse pollinators, soil microorganisms, and wildlife species engaged in producing not only the food but also the ecosystem services that come along with healthy farm and ranch lands. So the whole notion is that part of agricultural biodiversity that we knew is rapidly decreasing, due to the consolidation within the seed industry, and hybrid seeds replacing dozens of place-based or regionally adapted crop varieties. That work continues—I live right above the Native Seed Search farm, though I’m not professionally part of their staff or board—I’m just kind of like the weird old uncle. The point is that we need organizations that are not only saving the seed diversity but also the soil microbes, the pollinators, and the cultural knowledge about how to farm particular environments in the face of all the upheavals and disruptions that we’ve had in agriculture.
You’re an ecumenical Franciscan brother. How does your spirituality inform your work, and vice versa?
Whatever stereotypes we may have of St. Francis, he’s clearly someone who understood caring for creation—not just caring for humans, but the wide range of species that we share this planet with. And sometimes the simplest messages and gestures such as his are the most eloquent. They remind us that we spend almost all of our time taking care of other human beings, but not the other life forms that are essential to nourishing us and our environments, our habitat. And so after being involved with the Catholic Franciscans I took my vows in an ecumenical Franciscan order that includes people of many faiths, including Jews—not just Christians—who are inspired by the social and environmental challenges and inspiration that St. Francis provided.
So my work in caring for creation and biological conservation and agricultural sustainability is what I focused on when I took my vows—that we need to celebrate creation through working to keep our planet healthy and healing the wounds in the land as well as the wounds in land-based cultures.
How can we start to get back to a diet that is geographically and biologically and ethnically right for us?
I think this comes back to vision. We all need to envision ourselves as codesigners of food systems that are healthy for our bodies and healthy for the land. Parts of the last 20 years have focused exclusively on the health of our bodies and souls, and other parts of it have focused on land health or environmental quality. And I think we need to bring those issues together under one umbrella so that what we put in our mouths not only nourishes us, but helps sustain and enhance the land by the way it’s grown. What we choose to eat can either cause damage or heal, and healing the land as well as the diseases and infirmities that environmental contaminants have heaped upon our bodies; trying to overcome diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases by having food grown that’s also healthy for the land is of paramount importance at this point in time.
You’ve been active in some local environmental issues and have written often about climate change and its impacts. Clearly you seem to be a person who doesn’t think climate change can be separated from other issues.
That’s exactly right. One way of saying it is that everything that some of the climate change skeptics suggest that we only want to do because of impending climate change, we should have been doing anyway, whether it’s reducing our carbon footprint or growing more perennial crops or increasing the amount of carbon retained in our soil via biochar and other means. We should be doing these things even if there were not rapidly accelerating climate change.
My way of talking to the farmers and ranchers about climate change is asking them to tell me about what weather shifts they’ve seen in their lifetimes, and how that’s affected their farms and ranches. And if we start there with what we can do locally, on our own properties and in our own communities, to counter the causal effects, not just the symptoms of climate change, I think we have a chance of making the world better rather than just mitigating the worst, as some climate change scenarios suggest—to have as our goal something more than reducing the warming the planet. We should be farming as if the earth mattered, and eating as if the earth mattered.
The real vision I have at this moment is to encourage people to take on redesigning our foodsheds not as if each student and elder in our community is going to become a farmer again, but realizing that there’s many, many niches that need to be taken care of: using low-fossil-fuel means of transporting food, having chefs that know how to get the most nutrition out of each animal or plant that is sacrificed, making food delicious as well as healthy so that in people’s minds, a nutritional meal is not associated with something that’s of second-rate flavor or taste. We need people to be chefs, farmers, market managers, community supported agriculture interns, transportation route designers, sustainable vehicle designers. Everyone can have a role to play in this, and each community should have an office of the foodshed, just like we have an office of watershed management.
You’ve got a lot going on in your life—you’re a busy guy with a lot of different projects happening all the time. How do you stay grounded?
I decided that I couldn’t really write about food and farming anymore unless I practiced it on a daily and weekly level. So I live on six acres that I’m developing as a permaculture orchard. I not only grow food myself but also partner on another 10 acres with a good friend who’s a rancher, and so we grown annual crops near own property. And my wife and I share the cooking of food. That’s what grounds me—those nonverbal experiences and daily activities where, frankly, the eggplant or the tepary bean or the soil microbe doesn’t care about my ideology. I’m in some sort of nonverbal relationship with those organisms that ultimately means as much as what I have to say about them in print. And so I think moving back and forth between the right brain and left brain of writing poetry and manifestos at one level and doing technical research on agroecology at another level reinforces and gives me energy rather than tiring me out.
I would say the same with my spirituality. I can’t imagine doing work toward sustainable agriculture unless I truly had faith that the earth is sacred and it matters what we do with it. So it’s a pretty complex web that I try to spin each week, of balancing labor and intellectual activity and spiritual contemplation about the land, but none of those components alone could keep me healthy or keep the land healthy.
What’s your favorite meal?
The short answer is, whatever is fresh and bursting out of the ground in my garden that day is what I pay attention to, rather than a set menu. I use a lot of wild greens, the weeds that come up between the cultivated plants, because I think they really have terrific taste and are part of what farming provides—not just the plants that we intentionally crop. So last week we had a gathering of 80 people for a countywide food forum at our house, and I made wild-green spanakopita, the Greek spinach pies, with amaranth, purslane greens, local goat cheese, and local spices. And I also have a wood-fired oven, so we did wood-fired pizzas with our own tomatoes and chilis and olives as part of the ingredients we used.
My point is that what I eat varies with what the land is producing that week and that season. It’s those things that are only fresh for a fleeting moment that you really have to pay attention if you’re going to gather or harvest it from your fields and put it on your plate.
Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett: Power Walkers
After hearing a Toronto officer tell women they shouldn’t dress like sluts if they don’t want to be raped, fed-up feminists Sonya JF Barnett and Heather Jarvis organized the protest march SlutWalk. Since then, SlutWalks have spread to every corner of the globe, drawing tens of thousands of walkers.
Check out the website of SlutWalk Toronto, the march that started it all.
Read what the press has been saying about SlutWalk Toronto.
Watch City TV News’ coverage of SlutWalk Toronto.
View SlutWalk marches and signs from around the world.
Utne Reader associate editor and librarian Margret Aldrich interviewed Jarvis and Barnett. Here is the transcript:
Utne Reader: The first SlutWalk happened on April 3, 2011. Tell us about its inception.
Heather Jarvis: I read the story [of the Toronto police officer commenting that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”] and was really frustrated—Sonya was as well—and I commented that an apology is not enough. I want to go down to their headquarters, bang on their door, and tell them they need to do better. And Sonya said, “Well, why don’t we?” We connected later that day and decided to say, kind of, fuck it—yeah, let’s do something about this.
Since we’ve later talked we discovered we’d both been feeling like it had been a really tough year already. A lot of human-rights attacks, from politics in the states, people trying to redefine rape, trying to take away abortion rights, trying to cut funding to vital health care services, homophobic bullying. It just felt like a hard year, and I think this was a breaking point for both of us, where we needed to do something with our anger—so we decided to do something constructive.
Sonya said, “Let’s call it SlutWalk,” and I loved the idea. We thought it was going to be a very small idea and turnout in Toronto.
And how many people came to the Toronto walk?
HJ: Three to four thousand.
Why did you choose to use the word “slut,” and what reactions have you gotten to it?
Sonya JF Barnett: We weren’t the ones to choose it; it was the Toronto police officer who chose it. We just decided to take it and sling it back, with our own spin. Had he not used it in his safety “advice,” SlutWalk may never have happened. We had an idea from the beginning that some people might take offense. But we were tired of being offended ourselves: all the time, with police, with peers, with media. Slut and other words like it get thrown around so easily with nary a thought at just how much they sting.
Many people think our using the word slut was merely a clever marketing ploy to invite controversy and media attention. That’s really not true at all. We were just a few pissed off women, tired of being treated like second-class citizens. Yes, it’s a very uncomfortable word, but we had to show people just how uncomfortable it’s made so many people and that it’s just not acceptable. I had it thrown at me in high school and the burden of that sting stayed with me for a very long time, until I realized it was time to stop being ashamed and to start being vocal. Using this language in a safety forum, on a campus rampant with assaults and with not much of a solution, except to tell women to stay indoors after dark, is more than infuriating.
HJ: We never expected SlutWalk to become anything. We never thought this many people would come out to support it. This is was a Toronto response, involving Toronto communities for a Toronto situation. We never thought it would go anywhere else. We very quickly decided to pick up the language of that officer. He chose to use the word slut when characterizing women, many of whom may be survivors, and when talking about violence. We wouldn’t have used the word slut if he hadn’t used it.
One thing that I think has been missing from conversations about rape culture and victim blaming for a long time has been language. People wouldn’t be blamed and shamed as much as they are without the language people use against each other. We really need to look at that. Whether it’s “she asked for it,” or name calling, or degrading ideas about who deserves what and what you’re worth. So, we wanted to put language front and center and talk about it.
SlutWalks are spreading like wildfire, with marches taking place around the world. What walk location has most surprised you?
SB: New Delhi was the biggest, I think. We had heard murmurings very early on about this area, and were actually a bit nervous about it. As we have no experience in that region, we were worried that it could stir some pretty heated controversy to the point of violence. But the young woman who launched it did an amazing job and we’re very proud. Also, the mere fact that it has spread to so many locations is fascinating. On one hand, it’s awesome (in the truest sense of the word) to see so many people take action in their cities. On the other, it’s disheartening to know that this type of activism is needed. Dealing with sexual assault issues is still a very long road to traverse.
HJ: From something very small we started in Toronto, Sonya and I were shocked for it to reach our ‘hometowns,’ in a way, on different continents—hers in Argentina, mine in South Africa. I was born in Jo’burg and most of my family still lives in South Africa. When I heard that SlutWalk had reached South Africa . . . it’s a very different cultural and political climate down there. Corrective rape is massive in South Africa. So I was really shocked when it got there. And we never expected somewhere like India to have SlutWalks. I think it was more comprehensible when it was in Canada and even the states and the UK, but when it started to broaden into Argentina and Brazil and South Africa. . . . One that definitely surprised me was Kazakhstan, and then Morocco. Those were pretty shocking. The last time I tried to count, I think there were more than 120 walks, and new ones are popping up almost every week.
What about SlutWalk are you most proud of, and what further results do you hope to see?
HJ: I have never seen so much media coverage about victim blaming and sexual violence. And I think this is not just us, it’s the time period right now, but I’ve always held onto the idea that—good or bad, no matter what people are saying about SlutWalk—the greatest success for me is that people are talking about these things. People are talking about victim blaming. The number of people who now know what victim blaming is is huge.
The tens of thousands of people who have come out for these walks—many of them survivors—have blown me away. Not only have people been able to connect with each other, they’ve been able to find support and compassion.
We’ve had to think pretty quickly on our feet, because we thought that this would be a rally and then we’d be done. So, it’s been a hell of a year (laughs). We have had to be on one of the fastest learning curves in the world, because we have faced every single form of criticism and unfortunately have had to quickly know everything about everything. It’s been very challenging, but we want to continue to work on education.
Some people say we’ve bitten off too much with SlutWalk, because we’re trying to tackle too many issues, but I don’t see how you can focus on one when they’re so intertwined. We have to talk about consent and we also have to talk about sexual health education, because that’s a big part of it. If people heard from an early age about consent, and about sexual health, and about how to respect each other, I think we could try to tackle things from the beginning and not have to deal with them at the end. Let’s work on prevention and education. So we want to work on a public service announcement campaign, compiling different survivor stories; we want to work on adding more information to our website to share different stories and accounts.
SB: I want to see change in our protective and judicial services. I want them to take a serious look at the statistics of low sexual assault reporting and analyze why they’re at that level and how they can change it. They have to take a deep look into their own systems to understand key reasons as to why reports are so few. Officers slinging around language like “slut” makes those in need of their services second guess using them at all. As much as we’d like to work with them, historically it’s been difficult in Toronto. I hope they see the power of what we started and how it has spread around the world and they take a good look at opportunities to learn and to teach.
I’m most proud of so many others taking up the banner and crying foul in their own cities. Every region has their own issues with assault—whether it be the instances themselves, how the police and judicial systems deal with investigations, how media covers it all—and people taking a stand to say “We’ve had enough” is very inspiring.
And then there are the stories we get from people who say they’ve been engaging in meaningful conversations with people discussing sexual assault, as well as the way language is used. The fact that there are such conversations happening at a personal level is proof that there is movement forward.
What happened to the Toronto officer who said that women shouldn’t dress like “sluts” if they want to avoid rape? How do you feel about him today?
HJ: We wanted to make this about his comment and about a Toronto police representative saying that, but for months now I’ve actually tried to avoid saying the officer’s name, because I do feel bad for him—I think he truly thought he was helping. The only information that the Toronto police department released is that he was disciplined, but we have no idea what that means, and that he is still on the Toronto police force.
SB: I think about him quite regularly, actually. We had no idea how much SlutWalk would blow up around the world. His ignorance started this whole thing. We never set out to vilify him; we set out to vilify his training. He obviously wasn’t equipped to teach safety in terms of sexual assault and it proves that the issue on campus wasn’t being looked at seriously enough by Toronto police. We avoided using his name in our conversations because it wasn’t all about him. It’s about how his system is failing the public.
I would actually love to speak to him in person to get his side of the story, but as you can imagine, getting to him isn’t that easy, and the Toronto police department is a pretty closed society. And I’m not sure he’d be too interested in speaking with me! I hope that he understands why this all happened, and that he has learned how perpetuating rape myths, using hateful language, and sharing erroneous information is both offensive and dangerous.
I do hope that his life wasn’t ripped apart by it (God knows, ours were). He’s a younger officer and as much as his heart was probably in the right place, it’s the way these situations are dealt with that add up over time and help fuel things like archaic stereotypes and sexual-profiling. Change has to start somewhere.
Peter Williams: Radical Architect
Architect Peter Williams, who knows firsthand that poor housing results in poor health, is on a mission to design healthy homes for impoverished communities in the UK; Cameroon; Saint-Marc, Haiti; and beyond, through his nonprofit Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments (ARCHIVE).
The website for Architecture for Health in Human Environments (ARCHIVE) provides updates on their current work.
Miller-McCune’s article “ARCHIVE Says Home Is Where the Health Is” takes a thoughtful look at Peter Williams’ project.
Hear what NPR is saying about ARCHIVE.
Read Global Health’s report on ARCHIVE.
Tim DeChristopher: Disobedient Green
Driven to act for the wilderness and against climate change, activist Tim DeChristopher threw a monkey wrench into a federal auction for oil leases. He’s spending two years in prison, but in the process he’s become a folk hero to many greens.
Read DeChristopher’s essay after being found guilty at Yes! Magazine, his statement at sentencing on Common Dreams, and his letter from prison on Grist.
See a video of DeChristopher speaking after being found guilty.
Visit the websites of Bidder 70, DeChristopher’s support organization, and Peaceful Uprising, an activist group dedicated to nonviolent action against climate change, to learn more about DeChristopher’s case.
Listen to NPR’s report on a Utah rafting trip that DeChristopher took right before he went to prison.
Representative Keith Ellison: Muslim Patriot
A make-no-apologies progressive surrounded by a party of “moderates‚” the nation’s first Muslim congressman believes true justice begins with tolerance—cultural, racial, and religious.
Keith Ellison's website features videos, supporters, and the latest congressional and campaign news.
Congressman Ellison's government homepage is another good resource for videos, updates, and upcoming events.
Watch this video of Ellison's testimony before the Homeland Security Committee.
The Washington Post offers this quick snapshot of Ellison and "Why He Matters."
Listen to Congressman Ellison speak on civility and inclusion at an interfaith forum in Minneapolis.
Dr. Tabatha Parker: The Healer
A naturopathic doctor (ND) trained at National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR, Tabatha Parker sees NDs as perfectly trained to build bridges between modern Western medicine and traditional healing practices around the world. Her organization Natural Doctors International is based in Nicaragua and has worked with the World Health Organization to broaden its understanding of natural medicine.
Natural Doctors International (NDI) website.
Read an interview with Dr. Tabatha Parker at the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges.
Dr. Parker is an alumna of National College of Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM). To find out more information about their programs, click here.
Follow The Run, Dr. Dennis Godby’s run across the United States to “tell Americans the story of naturopathic medicine.”
Utne Reader associate editor David Doody interviewed Dr. Tabatha Parker in September, 2011. Here is the transcript.
Utne Reader: You started Natural Doctors International in 2005, correct?
We got charity status in Oregon in 2003, 501c3 status in 2005 [which was retroactive to 2003]. We were actually in Nicaragua by 2005.
Update us on where it is now.
For us, what has been really successful is just the model of sustainability, of actually being permanently here and working within the community. One of the biggest challenges when we first started was that we didn’t want to just replicate the model of flying in and flying out like most medical brigades do. In most of the world, in the developing world, a lot of people are receiving their health care in that way. It’s the only access to medicine they have. But when you’re doing that work you immediately realize it’s wrong. After the first day you’re like, “What happens to all these people? If they have a question, where do they go?” That system isn’t serving the patient. It’s serving our convenience—wanting to serve in a way that is convenient to our lifestyle in the United States. We really wanted to change that. If we are going to have that system where people come in and out—because we do have that here, we run global health courses through here about six times a year—we’re going to have people on the ground living and working in the community all the time. That’s what we’ve developed here. Our biggest challenge in recreating this model in other places is to find people who want to commit to go somewhere permanently, or at least three to five years to put something in place that’s going to be permanent. For the first couple years when we were here one of the first questions patients would ask was, “When are you guys leaving?”
Because they just assumed that you’re going to be here for a finite amount of time. Like, “Oh yeah, we had a project in natural medicine, but they left.” Or “We had funding through UNICEF or USAID”—all of the major groups are here—“but only for a year or two years and then it ended.”
There’s actually a lot of knowledge about improving health. There’s a lot of ways to do that. Either through actual clinical services, like we’re offering, but also through public health measures, which we also do. We have a women’s empowerment program. A lot of women might already have that information, they just don’t have the ability to continue a project when it’s just a short term thing. So that’s one piece of what we’re doing.
The other big piece, and it’s expanding slowly, is—I believe that naturopathic medicine, and really the North American naturopathic medicine, the level of education and the level of training that we have there, that we are trained in a way that no one else in the world is trained: To be a bridge between traditional healers and all different types of natural medicine and the Western MD model. Because there’s very few people out there who learn those two models and understand them. So the work that we do, the goal is to integrate natural medicine into the World Health system, into the WHO [World Health Organization], into the UN, so that it’s a part of the larger global health system. That’s happening on different levels, but there isn’t a lot of participation from actual NDs or acupuncturists or chiropractors or actual clinicians in those bigger discussions. The World Health Organization, for example, has a traditional medicine arm, and we did some work with them writing some standards for naturopathy, along with most of the North American naturopathic profession. In that process we found that most of the people in the division don’t even really know anything about natural medicine. So, there’s so much possibility for our profession specifically, and then natural medicine generally to really help change global medicine.
Exporting the Western model, which we obviously know is not even working in our own countries, to a country that cannot sustain the cost of it, has often had detrimental results. I think we have to get more creative in how we create models of health care.
That’s one of the things that interested me in other interviews I’ve read with you, this idea of being a bridge [between traditional healers and the Western MD model]. You said that you’re being well received at the WHO, but…
Well, yeah, we participated in that initial [work]. The process was actually quite long, it was five or six years. They just finally published the document recently. Our goal is to continue down that road, and get UN status, because right now there’s not a naturopathic organization that has status with the United Nations. The United Nations represents civil society. There are other organizations—the chiropractors have an association that has UN status. That kind of work takes a lot of time. The more NDs that we can get to go out internationally—it’s really important to go out and get licensed in the places that you’re working. The more we can do that, the more we can demonstrate that our medicine does have a lot of value. And our doctors. You know, I learn a lot from the doctors I work with here, but our training is absolutely incredible. It’s in many ways superior to what third world doctors are getting. So we’re often consulted on things you’d never really be consulted on in the states, and we have the training to [respond to] that.
I feel blessed to provide a service to people here, too, so that they have a choice in their medicine. I really believe we all have the right to choose what type of medicine we have access to. We all should have access to medicine, period. I know that’s heresy in the United States. You’re a Communist or a Socialist. I mean, please. The reality is we have all the resources we need in the world to provide health care for people. And all we have is our life, right? That’s it. Once we’re gone, that’s it. So how could health care be a commodity? I mean, to me, it doesn’t make sense. So I feel really blessed to offer that to people who are otherwise some of the most marginalized people in the world.
Can you speak more about this idea of a broken health care system being exported to places that can’t afford it and what exactly naturopathic doctors can do?
Sure. Let me first talk about the system. It just requires so many resources. The hospital where we work on the island, they generally don’t have gloves, so no one uses gloves unless they’re actually performing a surgery. And the nurse won’t use gloves. Something as simple as that. We, on the other hand, in the states, a nurse or doctor has to change their gloves every time they touch something. So, in one appointment you might have someone changing their gloves ten times. Here they’re actually autoclaving and washing the gloves and then using them for non-medical things in the hospital. Part of this is just our consumer culture. We’ve created a medical system that’s a consumer system and it’s full of waste in every way. You come somewhere like here and waste exists, but in comparison? Everything gets reused that can be. Obviously needles can’t be reused, but everything that can be reused—I mean, the resourcefulness that has to happen just to allow the most basic Western system to function here is unbelievable.
The other issue is that in a country like this generally the WHO gives you a list of essential medicines. So if you have [a chronic disease] you go to a club that happens once a month and they give you enough medicine for the month. Now, if you aren’t responding to that medicine, if you’re having side effects to it, there is no other option. So you either go off of it or you stay on a medicine that actually doesn’t work. And that’s the system.
The other issue: The amount of antibiotic resistance and abuse is just out of control. Again, because your selection is so small to begin with. Then you have issues in a culture that is so poor. A lot of times people will get a [prescription] filled for, say pneumonia, and they’ll start taking that medicine and they start getting better, so they stop and keep the medicine, because there’s a good chance that next time they get sick, there’s no medicine at the pharmacy. So people kind of hoard medicine. Or they’ll only take enough—there’s a traditional belief here that chemical medicine is “hot,” so you don’t want to take too much of it or it’ll make you sick. Because we are respectful of the culture, we know that. We know that people will say, “Am I going to get sick from that? That’s a lot of pills.” So you have to talk to people about that and educate them or they won’t take the pills or they’ll take a portion of [them], but they’re not going to finish the course. When I first got here, for example, Trimethoprim Sulfa was the drug of choice for UTIs, and now it’s 98 percent antibiotic resistant in all of Nicaragua. So, again, there’s no thinking about how that really happens in the real world. It’s just, “Okay, that’s what we have, let’s give antibiotics.”
And one more thing, here where I am there’s no X-rays, there’s no ultrasound on the island, there’s no defibrillator, there’s not oxygen. There are basic things that you need for that system to work, and they just can’t afford that. And yet you go to the Houston airport and there’s a defibrillator every fifty feet. It’s just so skewed. It’s so distorted how we’ve created a society and then expect that the rest of the world is going to be able to recreate that. It’s not realistic.
Then, as far as naturopathic medicine, I think that what our philosophy has going for us is it’s about holism, it’s about sustainability and prevention, so you’re automatically thinking about, “Okay how can I teach and empower and educate someone to stay healthy, so that they’re not getting sick.” I mean that’s so much a part of what we do, and that doesn’t really exist in the Western medical model, especially when it’s exported because it kind of gets distorted when it gets exported. For example, here a lot of wealthy women want to schedule a C-section because that’s what they hear women have done in the U.S. That’s not the healthy route to go, but that’s what ends up happening.
If you look at herbs alone, forget about all the other modalities we have—a lot of developing countries have very strong ties to traditional medicine. So they’re using herbal medicine in their areas anyway. They’ve learned it from their grandmothers and their mothers, it’s been passed it down. It’s something they already access. In certain places in Africa 80 percent of the population is only accessing traditional medicine. So that system has to be a part of the dialogue. It has to be a part of the system if you’re going to actually reach people. On top of that, we learn so many different tools that allow us to really treat the individual, depending on what that person needs. So I might treat someone with herbs and my colleague might treat [the patient] with acupuncture. It really depends on the needs of that patient. And that, I think, is the weakest part of Western medicine—you have pharmaceuticals and you have surgery. Not to say there’s not education, because there is. But you don’t have any other tools. Lots of times the docs down here will come to me and say, “What do you guys have for this? Because we have nothing right now.” They’re really open to what we do and they’re happy to have something they can use.
So the medical doctors down there are happy to have you guys around?
What do you think about the integration of naturopathic doctors and medical doctors? Is there any hesitation to integrate or is it just a matter of handling it the right way?
Personally, I think it’s about handling it the right way. The reality is, at this point, our profession is so small—there’s maybe 7,000 people in North America?—that we can’t fill that hole without getting more people. It should be like in computers: Open access. If people are willing to learn and study and become trained, not taking a weekend course in acupuncture, but really understanding and learning a medicine, I think that should happen. I think in the States it’s more about turf. In a place like this, if you have a pulse and you’ve been trained, people are happy that you want to be part of the solution. People are like, “Okay, great. Tell me what you do and this is where we need you.” It’s so much more open. I’ve never once come across any animosity towards what I do, ever. It has only been, “Wow, what is that?” The first question here is, “Are you a naturista?” which is a natural medicine person, but not necessarily with training. You do mentoring and stuff. So, I’ll explain that in the States there’s an actual degree. There’s just interest. But there isn’t this divide of “Oh, this is who you are and this is who I am.” It’s a lot more open, because it’s not based around finances. There aren’t these turf wars, and I really think in the States there are just so many turf wars. Not only between the MDs and the natural medicine community, because that clearly exists, but between the natural medicine community within themselves. Instead of trying to work together to go, “Okay, how do we get more of us out there doing this work,” we put up our own barriers to that happening. It’s more about competition.
In an interview in 2006 you said that if someone didn’t want to get involved in the politics of spreading the word [about natural medicine] that they may want to think of another field in medicine, rather than becoming a naturopathic doctor because of how important you saw that arm of what you do.
It’s a pioneer profession. There’s no way around that. No matter where you go, unless you stay in the few pockets that naturopathic medicine has completely been excepted—and most of those are where the schools are—if you venture out from there, you are pioneering. You’ve got to first teach people about what naturopathic medicine is. Have you heard of The Run?
There’s a naturopathic doctor right now running across America. He just got to Colorado. He started in Portland at [Natural College of Natural Medicine] and has been running. It’s going to end in New York City and then go to the University of Bridgeport, the last college over there. His name is Dennis Godby. Dennis is running and spreading the news about naturopathic medicine. It’s really a marketing campaign to get people to learn what it is. He did a run like this back in the ‘80s for peace in Latin America. From his start on the West coast to Colorado, not one person knew what naturopathic medicine was. Not one place. Can you imagine? So that’s our biggest hurdle. And if you’re not the type of person who wants to do that type of networking—networking is politicking, right?—you’re going to have a hard time. You just are. So we have a lot of pioneering spirits in our profession for that reason, because I think it takes a certain type of character to go, “Okay, do I really want to add this to the plate of things I’m going to have to do?” And, to some degree that’s true globally, too. A lot of people just don’t know what naturopathic medicine is.
It’s interesting to me that you have a different set of challenges than those naturopathic doctors in the U.S. face. There, the important thing is to define yourself as a bridge between two communities. Here, it’s a matter of introducing these ideas that may be more accepted in other parts of the world and convincing people who are so indoctrinated with the Western style of medicine that this is legitimate and this can be brought to the table and can be discussed. And then [in both places] you have to fight against people who aren’t trained who call themselves “natural doctors,” and people don’t know the difference between “natural doctor” and a naturopath who has been trained for years and years.
Yeah, I think one of our greatest gifts is that we do have amazing training. And again, learning how to differentiate that in a way that isn’t against someone else, but is inclusive, but that is also very clear that I can have that dialogue [about Western medicine]. I totally believe that there’s a place for all medicine. I don’t think that any medicine is going to take over and become the only thing. I just don’t. I think that’s completely unrealistic. I think that everyone needs to have a seat at the table. That’s the only way that we’re going to create something different in the world. Because what we have right now just doesn’t work.
The other thing I forgot to mention about naturopathic medicine when we were talking about what it offers. I think that one of the amazing things that it offers is research. Every day we’re building that. There’s not a ton; obviously it’s not comparable to Western medicine. But that’s what Western medicine demands, so that’s what the naturopathic community has been trying to respond to over the last probably five years—to actually try and produce that research, which is very expensive and very time consuming. But it’s happening. On a global level we have the capacity to take what, for many centuries, has been used in traditional medicine and codify that through research. And that is really happening now. There’s been a lot of energy and money and resources and thinking put into how that is going to happen. Because it has to happen in order to be accepted by the Western model. It has to. There’s no way around that.
Unfortunately, the issue with it is the way that research is done isn’t always conducive to what is true. So, it’s like “This drug works for this,” and then five years later it’s, “Oh gosh, it doesn’t actually.” But that’s what people want. Some cool studies are starting, studying the model of naturopathic medicine, and not just “Okay, you can use guava to treat diarrhea.” But, how does the model of naturopathic medicine work? It’s taken a long time to get there but there are really amazing minds coming together to actually figure out how to study naturopathic medicine. Because there is a way to do it, it just hasn’t been done before. That, to me, is where there is so much potential. If you can, again, merge those two worlds, and bring this traditional knowledge that is like libraries and libraries of information, often not documented anywhere, and actually bring that to a place that the world that we live in today can actually accept and swallow and go, “Yes, okay, I believe that.”
Those studies looking at how naturopathic medicine works are almost a metaphor for naturopathic medicine—taking a holistic approach, rather than looking at individual pieces.
We live in a culture that has monochronic time, so it’s very linear. And there are certain rules about a monochronic viewpoint. If you say I’m going to be at a meeting at noon, that means you’re there, and if you’re not there, there are consequences. Then there’s polychronic time, which means it’s much more circular, so it’s often used in agricultural [cultures] where seasons repeat and you have harvests, and the clock is kind of arbitrary. You except interruptions. I kind of see that with the medical systems, too. The western medical model is very monochronic, it’s very linear. And the naturopathic model is very polychromic. It’s a different way of looking at things, and you can’t just look at one piece without looking at the whole. You just can’t do it. You have to look at the whole thing, and yet we’re asked to look at that one piece, and say, “Okay, we want you to prove this. We want you to prove that hypericin in Hypericum is actually going to do something for depression.” It doesn’t really work, but we have to figure out a way to make it work in order for our society to accept it. It’s an interesting dance. It’s an interesting process that the profession is going through.
By saying that you want NDI to be like Doctors Without Borders for naturopaths you obviously want more than one location. So where, if everything falls into place, would you see NDI in five or ten years.
I would say that we would have actual sustainability, and have clinics—and I wouldn’t even just say clinics, but NDI sites, because we do way more than just clinical stuff here. We really do work in the community in so many ways. And that, too, is very naturopathic. So, to have sites at least on every major continent, minus maybe Antarctica [Laughs]—have a presence in as many places as possible. And to actually have a working presence in the WHO and the UN and in that larger global health system. I would say that we’re just breaking into the global health arena, so you’ve got a whole world of global health out there. The Global Health Council [in Washington DC] is the largest global health organization in the world, and all those people are MDs, MPHs, right? They don’t really say, “Oh, you’re a naturopath, you have validity here.” They’re getting all the big money to make change on the global health playing field. We have to break into that. We’re a part of that organization and have been for a few years now. We’re trying to start developing those inroads and those relationships, but we need some leaders to come and to help us do that. We need to have naturopathic doctors who want to do global health seriously and not just do it as a vacation for a couple weeks. We need some real dedicated people to help us take this to the next level. But in the short time I’ve been doing this there have been many organizations that are strictly naturopathic that have developed, so there’s definitely a desire. We’re just a small profession as is. That is why, for me, collaboration is essential. This cannot be done in any other way. We have got to collaborate and integrate, in some way, whatever that means—again it’s a very political word in the States—but we’ve got to work together with other professions that have a similar view of the possibility that global health can actually change, that we can actually fix the global health system.
Iraq’s marshlands were drained by Saddam Hussein, leaving rich wildlife decimated and the region’s people cast from their homes. Hydraulic engineer Azzam Alwash is working to restore the life-giving waters through his program Nature Iraq.
Read a profile of Alwash and his conservation work from the Jan.-Feb. 2011 Utne Reader, reprinted from Der Spiegel.
Visit the website of Nature Iraq to learn more about Alwash’s marsh restoration efforts.
See stories on Alwash on CBS’s 60 Minutes and PBS’s Nature, and listen to radio interviews with him by WNYC.
Read more about Alwash at Wildlife Extra News, the Mother Nature Network, and the Christian Science Monitor.
A marine ecologist with a deft writer’s touch, Safina has plumbed the depths of the seas’ ecological peril in the books Song for the Blue Ocean and The View from Lazy Point, and he works to save them through his Blue Ocean Institute.
Read more about Safina’s many projects, including his books, his TV series Saving the Ocean, and his blog, at his website. Safina also occasionally writes for Huffington Post.
Read a profile of Safina in the New York Times.
Safina is president and co-founder of the Blue Ocean Institute. Learn more about the group’s sea conservation initiatives at its website.
Watch Safina discuss the BP oil spill in a June 2010 appearance on The Colbert Report, a 2010 TedTalk, an interview with Democracy Now!, and an interview with The Atlantic.
Despite death threats and other monumental challenges, Humira Saqeb launched the magazine Negah-e-Zan to offer a dose of empowerment to Afghani women. Amid war and repression, it is a brave beacon of hope.
Utne Reader featured Saqeb in our July-August 2011 issue. Read more about Negah-e-Zan.
Follow the official Negah-e-Zan Facebook page.
Negah-e-Zan has a very limited audience, Global Post’s Jean MacKenzie writes. It “is directed at the small minority of Afghan women who can read — estimated at less than 20 percent, according to the United Nations. Outside of Kabul, the publication would be unlikely to find much of a market.”
Assessing the state of women in Afghanistan is a complex, moving target. Here is what the Centre for Research on Globalization, the U.S. State Department, Socialist Worker newspaper, and the Penn Museum have to say about it.
If you care about the environment, you owe a debt to Debbie Sease. The Sierra Club’s national campaign director, she navigates the unnatural environs of Washington, D.C., with a savviness that has saved vast tracts of wilderness.
Read a High Country News profile of Sease, “the most influential conservationist you’ve never heard of.”
Once a homeless teenager, Orayne Williams earned a college scholarship. Not content with one success story, he wants to create others through his nonprofit Progressive People Movement Inc., which offers hope and help to at-risk teens.
Get connected at the Progressive People Movement Inc.’s home page, Facebook wall, and Twitter feed.
When Williams moved into his first home, he got some tips from interior decorator Nate Berkus, Gossip Girl star Michelle Trachtenberg, and design expert Kelly Moore.
Read more profiles of Williams at Good, New York Daily News, and Next Gen Journal.
Seeing her Alaskan native community threatened by climate change and oil extraction, Faith Gemmill formed REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands) to fight the fossil-fuel powers. A recent victory against Shell is a measure of the group’s strength.
Working on the front lines of AIDS research, University of Southern California microbiologist Paula Cannon is pursuing a treatment that could enable a patient’s own cells to beat back HIV. If it’s viable, it could be a lifesaver for millions.
Utne Reader first heard about Cannon’s groundbreaking research from this fantastic article in Technology Review. We wrote about it in our November-December 2010 issue. If you’re getting lost in the scientific language, refer to this handy chart.
Cannon spoke about her research at the 18th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. Watch the talk here, presented by POZ Magazine, an award-winning publication for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
Many people think that HIV/AIDS has only reached epidemic proportions in sub-Saharan Africa. Actually, things are pretty bad in the southern United States, too.
The AIDS Beacon and World AIDS News are excellent sources for more breaking news about HIV and AIDS.
As a writer for Grist and now Mother Jones, Tom Philpott draws links between your kitchen, your food sources, your government, and the earth. An organic farmer, he knows how to pull weeds as well as yank the chain of Big Ag.
Monica Vela, a doctor and an instructor at Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, developed a course exploring how income, sexuality, and culture affect care—and how this could and should change.
Read more about the curriculum of Vela’s popular course, “Health Care Disparities in America.”
“I hit reality working out in the community,” Vela said in a her alma mater’s school magazine, “and I realized how resource-poor you can be.”
Some ideas raised in Vela’s classroom have grown legs. Pritzker Mammography Access Partnership and the Comer Food Project—both initially projects of her students—are still thriving and healing.
Parker J. Palmer: Wise Guy
Founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, this public intellectual and author teaches citizens how to infuse their professional and public lives with purpose, passion, and integrity.
The Center for Courage and Renewal.
Podcasts from the Center for Courage and Renewal.
On Being host Krista Tippett interviews Parker Palmer.
Parker Palmer interviewed on Bill Moyers Journal.
Healing the Heart of Democracy web page.
Parker J. Palmer spoke with Utne Reader editor in chief David Schimke in late August. Enjoying a brief respite in northern Minnesota before going to work promoting and organizing around his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy (Jossey-Bass, 2011), Palmer later said that the wide-ranging discussion was one of the highlights of his vacation—and the other involved catching a photogenic fish. We’re pretty sure the newly named Utne visionary was simply being his generous self. Even so, it was gratifying to know that the phone conversation, which required Palmer to leave the woods in search of cell phone coverage, was worth the trip, because we found his personal, political, and spiritual insights to be invaluable.
Utne Reader: Can you talk a bit about your trajectory as a writer and thinker?
Parker J. Palmer: I often talk about life on the Möbius strip hat wonderful form you can trace with your finger and find that what looks like the inside surface keeps merging seamlessly into the outside surface, and vice versa. he inner and outer are not two different things, but constantly co-creating each other. That’s become a metaphor for me about the way life works. We’re constantly co-creating the world and ourselves by living life on the Möbius strip. And a lot depends on the decisions we make as we travel the Möbius strip about how to internalize what the world throws at us and what to give back to the world from within ourselves.
My interests have included spirituality and politics for a long time. I did my graduate work at Berkeley in the ’60s, and already then those themes were alive in the midst of all that external activity. There was also a lot of introspection and inner reflection, which was meant to guide some of that, and in fact did. Following Berkeley, to become a community organizer was to plunge into that external world and realize even more deeply how important that inner-outer connection was. If one didn’t pay attention to it, one might burn out in the hard work of community organizing, or one might start doing violence in different, subtle, but still impactful forms.
After five years as a community organizer, I stumbled across the Quaker tradition and ended up spending 11 years living in a Quaker living/learning community called Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia. I treasure those years because the Quakers, for nearly three centuries, have majored in the relation of inner and outer life. Here’s a small religious community that would look on the surface to be very quietistic, with the silent meeting for worship and a lot of inner journeying. Yet the presence of Quakers in great social movements and moments of the last century—the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement—has been hugely disproportionate to their numbers. I’ve always thought that’s because they reach deep within for the wellsprings of right action—as I think Quakers would call it—for the guidance of that inner teacher. If you keep all of that within yourself, it’s not spirituality, it’s narcissism. But if comes into the world in co-creative forms, then something new and good can happen.
So the red thread running through my books is this dance between the inner and outer, this co-creative dance.
How would you characterize the present political moment, especially in contrast to the various tumultuous periods you’ve lived through?
Conflict is nothing new in American democracy or in human life across time and space. Everything depends on how we hold that conflict, which can range from violent and death dealing to creative and life giving. I think what’s troublesome to me right now, contrasted with some of the earlier moments I’ve lived through, is widespread passivity in the face of what would seem to me to be very visible injustice and a very visible decline in what some people call the American Dream.
But, with the middle class in America rapidly disappearing, with the gap between the very few wealthy and very many who get poorer and poorer as the years go by, one would expect—based on the experience in the ’60s, based on the experience around the Vietnam War, based even on episodes like Watergate—that there might be a more energetic gathering of “we the people” around reclaiming the vision of America. Instead, a great deal of energy on the part of a few people, who are funded by an even fewer deep pockets, is going into exacerbating our problems, like arguing that the wealthy shouldn’t have to pay more taxes or hinting that theocracy will see us out of our troubles.
One of my hopes in Healing the Heart of Democracy was to energize people not by taking a highly ideological position around my own political convictions, but rather appealing to a deeper instinct that I think we have. Lincoln called it “the better angels of our nature.” A deeper instinct to be human, to be at home in our own skins, and at home on the face of the earth, which necessarily means being at home with diversity and otherness, and learning to handle the conflicts that come with all of that in a more life-giving way.
I think it is possible to be at home in one’s own skin and at home on the face of the earth, but not if one is fearfully barricading oneself against people who think differently or look different or believe differently than I do. Not if one is primarily aiming at protecting one’s narrowly defined economic self-interest. Those are things that make human beings nervous, defensive, and violent—whether they know it or not. And for me violence has a pretty broad and deep reach. It’s not just about shooting a gun or dropping a bomb. It’s about labeling people in cruel and dismissive ways. It’s about being uncaring in the face of real suffering.
I want to reach out, not in a lady bountiful way, but in a way that says let us reclaim it on the local level, let us reclaim those habits of the heart that would allow us to come together across lines of differences. Not fudging on our differences, but using those differences to energize a civic community that’s capable of making a claim on people in power. That’s capable of holding elected officials accountable. That’s capable of saying that the emperor has no clothes, when it’s claimed that decisions coming out of Congress are the result of a democratic process, when in fact they’re the result of big money buying the votes.
We the people began this and we the people have to call it back, but that means dealing with our own differences in a much more creative way than we’re doing at the moment.
Is it fair to say that, in your view, this passivity is in large part driven by fear and that fear manifests itself in various ways, one of them being violence?
Absolutely. Tracking the role that fear plays in our lives has been another red thread running through my writing, probably in part because I’ve experienced a lot of fear myself across 72 years and have had to wrestle with that as both a blessing and a curse.
In the book I try to reclaim the original meaning of heart, which is not simply about the seat of our emotions, as we use the word today. It’s that core place in ourselves—coming from the Latin cor—where all of our faculties for knowing converge: intellect, emotion, intuition, will, bodily knowing, relational knowing, and so forth. It takes that full battery of knowing capacities to deal with such a powerful enemy as fear, especially when that fear is being manipulated by some leaders who know that a fearful population is a population that will support anything that the leader claims will reduce or eliminate the sources of that fear. All of which takes us back to the fear of the other, our fear of our differences, and so forth.
Are our leaders doing this consciously—preying on our fear?
It depends on who we’re talking about. I’d be quick to say that I know a lot of politicians and a lot of good people among them who would say the same thing I’m saying about the manipulation of fear. They don’t like it, they try to resist it, but it’s an uphill battle. We have plenty of examples of political operatives who have preyed on the fear among people who have Christian commitments, and I speak now as a Christian myself. Not as an outside critic, but as one who has a lover’s quarrel with his own tradition and his own community. We know that there have been operatives who have mounted fearmongering campaigns aimed at people with religious commitments who don’t share one shred of that conviction. Karl Rove is a case in point. He has acknowledged as much. So when you see something like that, you have to believe this is conscious manipulation.
The inner life, the spiritual life, religion does get used in manipulative ways. The other piece of the problem is that there are political leaders who genuinely fall prey to fear as much as any of us ordinary citizens do. I mean that they really, really believe what they’re saying, even if what they’re saying is palpably untrue. The idea that Muslims have done more violence in human history than Christians have is ludicrous, but there are people who actually believe that and would use that to manipulate the American mind, to line it up against the enemy that some politicians have an instinct for creating, because once they have an enemy they have something for people to rally around.
One of the open questions in my book is whether we can rally around something other than an enemy, something that we’re afraid of.
Do you see this already starting to happen? Do you see glimpses of hope? Where do you think we are in terms of possibility?
I think a lot of it is happening, which is why I was able to cite a number of examples in the book. One of the most encouraging things about American life is that whenever you go local, you find signs of life that simply aren’t visible if you stay up in a helicopter generalizing about America in the abstract.
There’s a lot happening out there, but you have to see it at ground level. At the same time, there is this problem of passivity in other people, who in some sense have become so discouraged by how the media have defined our problems. Problems that are so big and so far away that no ordinary moral can get leverage on them, so why even try? Why not try to cultivate a pleasant private life—whether it’s one’s wine cellar or one’s music collection—rather than engage things that seem impossible, where any sort of engagement would constitute a meaningless, futile gesture?
Both things are true in American life. My book was an attempt to first frame conflict in a more creative way, and to say that holding creative tension is at the heart of a lot of good stuff. But when that slips over the edge into something darker and death dealing, then we’re in real trouble.
If you ask people what’s happening in their local community that makes them feel good, you learn a lot of positive things that are going on. But if you go to those same local communities and you say, “Tell me what you think about American politics,” suddenly the problem gets defined at this level of abstraction, of anger and nay-saying.
One of the things I like about your writing is that you’re very honest about your own struggles, including depression. In some ways, you seem to be consciously writing for people who are struggling with the same sorts of issues.
You’re right. Lots of people in this country are somewhere on the continuum of depression. When I write about those things I’m trying to tell the truth about myself. If there’s one thing I have trouble with when I’m reading a book that wants to uplift me in some way, it is an author who says, “I have no problems along these lines. What’s wrong with you?” And I do have problems along these lines.
I write about the things I struggle with. I write about the things that baffle me. My writing is an effort to peel back the next layer, so I can keep moving on.
While I am prone to depression, I’m not ready to write everything off as strictly genetic. I think the heart is like the canary in the coal mine: It can get a whiff of toxicity and begin to die. We all need to be aware of those signs in ourselves. So we realize that, no, this isn’t about my personal failures or personal propensities. This might be part of a larger condition I’m reacting to, a condition that the canary in the coal mine is sensing.
That notion has a history. One of the most accessible pieces of its history is in the women’s movement. When I was growing up in the ’50s, there was no women’s movement, because women’s problems were seen as idiosyncratic to each woman, and they were fodder more for psychoanalysis than for social analysis and critique. So the women’s movement was a lot about “this is not idiosyncratic to you, this reflects a social condition called sexism, and what you’re feeling is a symptom of a condition that we need to band together to resist and transform.” I once called it, or someone called it, a movement from Freud to feminism.
We keep talking about a new depression in America. It’s an interesting use of the word, because everybody immediately assumes we’re talking about economics. But I think we’re also talking about the state of the collective psyche that has to do with things we touched on earlier in this conversation.
We need to recognize our symptoms not just as personal pathology, but also as social pathologies that must be addressed. But again, I’m deeply devoted to the notion that addressing them has to involve as many of us as possible, and that’s going to mean working across lines of difference. I really do believe in “we the people.” I really do believe that I’ve learned more over the years from people who come to life from very different standpoints, holding very different viewpoints, holding very different convictions than I do. I’ve learned more from them than from people who look and think like me. There’s energy in that, there’s creativity in that, and I think there’s good politics in that, as well.
How does one show up in a conversation maintaining both convictions and an open mind?
In a way, every conversation that anyone has ever had holds that paradox. You can’t have a good conversation unless people are willing to show up with what they really think or believe. At the same time, you can’t have a good conversation if they aren’t willing to hear anything else. At some level, everyone knows that.
Politics is a great example. For instance, I have opinions about the mortgage scam that’s gone on in this country for the last couple of decades, and I express them in conversations. But when someone who knows economics shows up with his or her knowledge of the mechanics of all of that in a way that may challenge my convictions, I have to say to myself that I need to learn what this person knows. Holding a conviction that’s grounded in ignorance or misinformation isn’t worth the time and energy I’m putting into this. It’s a form of self-service to say that I want to be in this world as a learner, because life becomes so much more interesting.
Take it one step further: What if we all have the same amount of knowledge and different convictions? How does one show up with an open mind in that case?
When I’m at my best—and that’s too often not the case, I have to admit—I’m in the world as a learner and to be a learner. I start asking questions rather than tossing propositions at people. That can help keep me open and help keep the conversation open.
The heated conversations one gets into that are pretty fruitless are usually characterized by a complete absence of questions, except for the rhetorical question. So asking questions, which always honors the other person, is a great way to keep a difficult conversation open. I’ve been making an effort in recent years to make sure some of those questions are about the life experience of the person who lies behind the opinion that he or she is holding. Because unless it’s something that we grab out of thin air, most of our thinking has to do with our life experiences—and there’s a story there. The more you know about a person’s story, the less possible it is to dislike or distrust that person. That doesn’t mean we’ll end up agreeing, but something new happens in a conversation when we ask questions about the opinion or where it comes from in a person’s experience.
There have been times when someone has asked me, What’s your story around that idea? And I realize that I don’t have one and I’ve grabbed hold of a conclusion without going through a data-based or experience-based process of reaching that conclusion. Maybe because I’ve been hanging around people who like me better when I say that kind of thing.
Talk a bit about the Center for Courage and Renewal.
About 15 years ago we planted the seeds for what became the Center for Courage and Renewal, which has a small staff of six or eight people who manage a national network of nearly 200 facilitators. Prepared by us, these folks are out there in 35 states and 50 cities, and for the last decade these facilitators have been gathering groups of people in various professions to take them through a two-year process that’s six to eight retreats of three days each. It’s a pretty intensive process of inner journeying and community building, basically around the question of how to bring more of one’s identity and integrity into one’s professional and public life.
We help people rejoin soul and role—that’s what I say when people ask, “What’s your elevator speech?” (I have a friend whose response to that question is “I always take the stairs.”) We’ve worked with about 45,000 people in our programs: K-12 teachers and leaders in the public schools, physicians and other folks in the health care professions, clergy in a variety of denominations, nonprofit leaders, and, to a lesser extent but still in an important way, attorneys, philanthropists, and social change folks.
In other words, we’ve worked with groups who have been defined by the professional role they play. With this new book and the programs the center is doing around it, we’re reaching beyond professional roles into the role that we all share as citizens. That’s been a conscious movement on our part. We wanted to take these questions of identity and integrity more fully into the public arena. All of the professions I named have, in my opinion, multiple opportunities to help folks cultivate the habits of the heart that make for good citizenship. So there’s a feedback loop here where some of the themes will be picked up in the retreats we do with people in specific professions. But we want to do more and more retreat work with folks who are in this generic citizenship role.
Because the work we do is long-term work that goes from 18 to 24 months and takes people through a series of three-day retreats, it’s an opportunity for folks not only to do some inner journeying to deepen their understanding of life on the Möbius strip but also to form a supportive community, without which I don’t think social change has ever occurred. So it’s not just about renewal, it’s about courage too. And a lot of that courage comes from communal support.
People operate in isolation from each other, and that is inherently disempowering. It’s one of the root problems in the slowness of the institutional change that needs to go on in our society. You couldn’t concoct a better strategy for stopping institutional change than to isolate people who work in the institution from one another. In many of our groups, people discover the power of community to advance their agenda of identity and integrity in their profession. And these groups, or parts of them, will continue to meet long after we’ve stopped facilitating them.