Wednesday, April 20, 2005

We've Had Thirty-Five Years of Earth Days and the World Is Still A Mess

by William S. Kowinski

So it's been 35 years since the first Earth Day and the world is still a mess. It's not that we haven't learned a lot and done a lot, just not enough. How far we've come in understanding the extent and nature of the problems, in devising and carrying out solutions, and especially in communicating that understanding and getting politicians and the public to listen, can be gleaned from this new book: '>WISDOM FOR A LIVABLE PLANET by Carl N. McDaniel (Trinity University Press. )

We come to this view of the relative successes and failures of the environmental movement through profiles of eight "visionaries," half being pretty well known at least within enviro circles (Dave Foreman, Wes Jackson, Stephen Schneider the climate scientist and David Orr) and the other half deserve to be better known for their work: Terri Swearingen, whose revealingly unsuccessful and achingly long attempt to shut down a toxic garbage-burning plant in Ohio raised national awareness of this previously ignored air pollution problem; Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute in Washington, whose new ideas may help counter the bad impressions made by the 1970s "don't have those kids, especially you poor people" activists; economist Herman Daly, adding practicality and a little poetry to the more-is-less philosophy; and Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

The chapter on Norberg-Hodge caught my eye first. Beginning with a disquisition on language as a distinguishing human characteristic, and how it developed in small human groups, McDaniel describes N.-H.'s first visits to the Shangri-la of Ladakh in isolated Tibet, where she found a culture that proved to her that "the widespread expression of human traits such as greed, selfishness, and acquisitiveness in Western culture are not innate but culturally elicited, as are expressions of traits such as cooperation and generosity."

The people of Ladakh had such a cooperation-based culture, with habits of dealing with conflict that avoided violence. But Norberg-Hodge also was around to see this society transformed by tourism and trade. Innocent of the impact the money economy would have, the people yielded easily to the globalized culture of consumption. But she didn't fade away from this challenge. Instead she helped people understand what was happening to them, and helped them devise strategies for retaining their culture while still enjoying benefits of the modern world. They had little heat in their homes in the old days, but found themselves going away to work to earn money for kerosene, which gave them heat and also pollution. Norberg-Hodge found appropriate methods of renewable solar energy that would provide heat without pollution or the extra step of working elsewhere to pay for it.

So the chapter moves from language and local culture to the impact of globalization on economics and culture, and the political efforts on a global scale as well as local projects to address these problems. The prose is not especially exciting, but it is direct and informative, and the apparently disparate ideas and activities are organized to illuminate the kinds of organic connections that need to be made.

This is a useful guide to the state of environmental action and thought, as it becomes more truly ecological, recognizing such important relationships as economics and culture. It deserves a wide readership.

Childhood teaches us that language and culture both arise, at least partially and potentially, from play. As humans we have perhaps forgotten our species' childhood, when we learned most of what we now think we invented, from animals.

In '>THE GENESIS OF ANIMAL PLAY: Testing the Limits (MIT Press), professor of psychology and ecology Gordon M. Burghardt examines and analyzes the "mysterious" and "enigmatic" phenomena of animal play. Inoculated against the unscientific specter of anthropomorphism (we just think those kittens are playing because they look like children who we know are playing), animal play has been ignored, if not taboo. So Burghardt is careful to include lots of graphs, tables and charts, showing (for example) the "Phylogeny of avian orders and occurrence of different kinds of play." So it turns out that flying really is fun, at least sometimes.

Did dinosaurs play? How about turtles? (How would you know?) Burghardt will tell you, as he evaluates the reasons for playful behavior, the benefits and the costs (you can hear your mother now---don't play with that stick, do you want to put an eye out?) The prose gets a bit thick, but fortunately Burghardt can be, well, a little playful, so even the non-scientist can have some fun here, and learn a bit more about how deeply embedded in our natures is animal play.

And now for something completely different... '>AFTER THE ICE: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC by Steven Mithen (Harvard University Press) is getting noticed, and though it's been out for several months, it's another appropriate Earth Day read. It's not environmentalism exactly, but it sure is about the Earth, and some fascinating phenomena on and in it, including the interaction of early humans with the changing environment.

For example, Mithen skillfully sums up the various discoveries and controversies over the settlement of the Americas. After evaluating the archeological claims, he concludes that human occupation began far earlier than previously accepted, some 33,000 years ago, although he doesn't really know how. (For an entertainingly detailed account of the craziness of the controversies, with grown scientists acting like medieval church dogmatists, I recommend '>THE FIRST AMERICANS by J.M. Adovasio with Jake Page (Random House, 2002.)

"To my mind," Mithen concludes in this section, "the First Americans, those who must have traveled from Alaska to southern Chile within less than a hundred generations, were the most extraordinary group of explorers ever to have lived on this planet. I suspect that the mystery of the peopling of the Americas can only be resolved by invoking those peculiar human qualities of curiosity and thirst for adventure that in recent times have taken men to the poles, to the deep oceans, and to the moon."

Except for that "peculiar human qualities" bit---he should read Burghardt---it's a welcome notion in a field that seems to favor materialist explanations too often.

This is only one small part of a book of multi-epic sweep, full of fascinating information and surmises, with terrific illustrations throughout. It was a great idea, and Mithen makes it work beautifully. Mind-expanding. Remember that? We used to say that a lot, on the first Earth Day.

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