Sunday, January 19, 2014

#127 Confidence

Dear all,
Well, the flurry of the holidays is over--what a treat to have that time with our three guys, two wonderful partners and two irresistible little ones, and see the two-year-old so excited about his one-year-old cousin!  Now we're in the midst of cold and snow, slowly picking up the threads of the rest of our lives. 
I've been learning lessons about the limitations of independence, and the sweetness of help--more on that next time.


One end of the drawstring of Chuck’s gym shorts had disappeared deep into the waistband.  He had tried getting it out without success and asked for my help.  I have sewn plenty of waistbands in my day, working elastic or a drawstring through them with the help of a big safety pin fastened at one end, so I was a good person to go to.  It was a challenge, since I didn’t have access to the end of the drawstring.  All I had was the knot, deep inside the waistband.  But as I worked at that little knot, I could feel the potential for motion.  Slowly, slowly, I worked the knot closer to the opening, till finally it came through—and the gym shorts were back in business.

This is a very small story—in itself hardly worth remembering, much less retelling.  But as I came upon those gym shorts one day, taking them out of the washer and out to the line to dry, I thought about the confidence I had brought to fixing them—and confidence is something worth talking about.

Confidence.  Sitting in the trolley, I think about how my mother would have approached that word.  “Confidence.  It comes from the Latin.  ‘Con’ means with, and you can hear the root, ‘fides’.  Think about the word ‘fidelity’.  It means ‘faith’.  So confidence means ‘with faith’.”

I approached the gym shorts with faith in the outcome.  Chuck’s experience didn’t provide him with the faith that he could fix them himself.  But he had faith in me.

I think of that little knot, invisible to the eye, and barely discernable to the touch.  I think of how hard it would be for somebody else to know that this was the movable part, how hard to believe that it could be moved so far, how easy it would be to give up.  And I can’t help but wonder what would be different if we had confidence that bigger things could be moved, fixed, or changed.

What if we could tap into a deeper well of confidence?  It wouldn’t provide any shortcuts.  The work wouldn’t be any less challenging.  But we would be much more likely to take on those struggles that we care about so passionately, and to persist openheartedly when no change was visible on the horizon.

Where could we find such confidence?  In each other for starters.  In the experience of others who have tried—and failed but also succeeded—in endeavors that are foreign to us.  In those who have found strength in very different circumstances, and those who have a long track record of endurance and hopefulness.  In the seasoned elders of our communities.  In the wisdom of our cultural and faith traditions—and the faith traditions of others.

Most of all, it means holding an expectation that faith and confidence are there to be found and are worth looking for.  It requires confronting our defeats and discouragements and not accepting them as the final reality.  It requires building our own confidence by daring to try new things.  It requires exploring for the confidence of others, more deeply and farther around the edges of our experience than may be comfortable.  But every bit of confidence that I have can be useful to others if I can find a way to share it—and if I reach widely, intentionally and persistently, there will always be more to be found.

Imagine:  A new economy is possible!

Cap and What?

Two big economic strategies being considered to help reduce carbon use are cap-and-trade and cap and dividend.  Cap-and-trade involves giving each polluter an allocation of emissions. If it doesn’t use up that allocation in a year, it may sell those emission allowances to another company that polluted more than its allocation.  Cap-and-dividend, in contrast, involves imposing a carbon cap, auctioning off all carbon allowances, and returning the revenues generated to all households on a per capita basis.

Cap-and-dividend avoids the pitfalls of carbon trading, which can be as easily manipulated and abused as has been financial securities trading.   Carbon dividends would help offset the increase in price of most goods that would come with reducing carbon.  If the money were returned to people on an equal basis, higher-income and higher-consumption households would pay out more (in higher energy and product costs) than they would receive back from dividends. But lower-income, lower-consumption households would receive back more than they pay.  Also, by offering a cash incentive, a cap and dividend strategy could spur all households to try to reduce their carbon footprints.

For more information:

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

White ranchers and landowners, threatened with eminent domain and the loss of the right to their own land by the Keystone XL Pipeline, who are beginning to understand what the native tribes experienced during colonization, and to notice a shared pride in the land that's the source of both culture and livelihood. As they work together to oppose the pipeline, an 'us' and 'them' is turning into a 'we'.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's championing of the city's divestment from fossil fuels.
Native peoples' successes over the past year in reintroducing fading species--including a record return of Chinook salmon to the Columbia River, restoring habitats and challenging big industry.

Uruguay's recent legalization of marijuana--aimed at breaking the link between the lucrative marijuana trade and organized crime--that has kicked off a trend in a region wearied of the bloodshed, expense and failed results of Washington’s “war on drugs".

More resources

Posts on other people's blogs: 

NEW:  Check out my friend Daniel Hunter's new book, a narrative of direct action campaigning:  Strategy & Soul: A Campaigner's Tale of Fighting Billionaires, Corrupt Officials, and Philadelphia Casinos:

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at

My favorite magazine:  YES! Magazine reframes the biggest problems of our time in terms of their solutions. Online and in print, they outline a path forward with in-depth analysis, tools for citizen engagement, and stories about real people working for a better world:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

#126 Climate and Faith

Dear all,
I wrote this over a month ago, but am just now getting around to posting:  A strong north wind yesterday brought down all the remaining leaves on our street.  It seems fitting then that the essay and poem this month are both about trees.  On a very different front, I'm trying to get some momentum going on a campaign to get my college to divest from fossil fuels--a small step beyond consumer choices that anyone can take on climate change (see the first thing that makes me hopeful, below).  And, as I prepare for Thanksgiving, here's a mind-bender that's stuck with me:  What if we woke up tomorrow to find only the things that we were thankful for today?

Climate and fate

I don’t remember exactly when I first internalized the message that the Sahara was steadily, inexorably pushing south, transforming some unimaginable amount of arable land every year into barren waste.  It was appalling.  While I didn’t doubt that our species had played a role, the forces of nature that had been unleashed seemed now to be beyond the power of any human action to contain, much less reverse.

By the time I heard about draught in the Sahel, with all its unspeakably tragic human consequences, I was so numb that I could barely take it in.  After all, who has ever won against a desert?  Who could fault me for accepting defeat?  So when I saw a reference recently to reforestation efforts in Niger, the image that came to mind was brave little tree seedlings, valiantly trying to survive in a vast expanse of hot sun and bone dry sand—doomed to a short, harsh life and cruel death.  But I was compelled to investigate, and this is what I learned.

When the French colonized what is now Niger, they brought their own experience with agriculture, an unshakable confidence that they knew better, and an intention to use their superior understanding to make a profit.  Big fields are best for export-oriented monocultures, and crops need sun (in France) so trees outside of designated woodlots should be cut down. These practices, along with the starving of local initiative that comes with strong centralized ownership and control, set the stage for desertification.  A period of unusually high rainfall after World War II postponed the impact, but draught came with a vengeance in the 1970’s. With agricultural exports drying up—literally—and uranium mining hard hit by the end of the nuclear power plant boom, the economy tanked.  All that was left for the newly independent nation was to use the tragedy of draught and the specter of desertification—both all too real—to petition for international aid.

Some of that aid went to failed tree-planting efforts; other projects had impact only as long as new money kept flowing in.  But one man in one little NGO discovered that, in many places, the root systems of the trees that had been cut down were still in place; farmers just kept chopping off the brushy growth as it sprouted up in the middle of the fields.  If it were pruned to leave the strongest shoot, however, that shoot would quickly grow into a tree.  The potential benefits were enormous: shade in a sun-drenched land, water retention, a means of breaking the destructive sand-filled winds, carbon fixing, and generation of scarce organic matter and firewood.  But there were obstacles.  Generations of western farming practices left people reluctant to have trees in their fields, and centralized—often corrupt—control of resources left farmers without property rights to any tree they might grow.

In the mid to late 1980’s two things happened to tip the situation toward change.  A new draught made desperate farmers willing to try anything, and the death of the country’s president resulted in a power vacuum that essentially knocked out all central authority for years.  This created the space for local communities to develop their own protocols for land and tree management, and the speed with which new trees grew, with all the associated positive feedback loops, allowed these communities to increase crop yields and be significantly buffered from the effects of draught.

Such positive results were noticed and replicated in neighboring areas, and by the time a centralized government was functioning again, the evidence was sufficiently compelling that they were induced not only to support replication, but to legislate protection of local land management practices.

By now Niger—said to be the poorest country in the world—has successfully reforested 5 million hectares (almost 12.5 million acres) of land with some 200 million trees, securing the livelihoods of 4.5 million people.  An aerial view of the border between Niger and Nigeria makes clear the difference that this greening has made.

Of course there is no guarantee of a happy ending.  Population pressure can still drive people of the Sahel into poverty and, if rainfall decreases over time, the land’s ability to produce food will be compromised.  The lesson is not that climate change is a myth, but that our numb submission to what seems like fate is part of the problem. The truth is that there is untapped resilience in both nature and the human spirit; the potential for rapid change in a positive direction cannot be discounted; and the freeing up and resourcing of local initiative, whether by accident or by design, may be at the heart of the solution.


An oasis of serenity no more,
great clouds of swirling dust
roar of machines and men in gas masks
have conjured up a war zone in the park.

The enemy is leaves.
Blowing every blade of grass
blasting under every bush
their goal is total mastery
and barren earth
(which will be covered up next spring
with pricey  mulch).

In another universe of possibility
peace and leaf removal coexist:
long-handled rakes and
muscles turned to useful work
bring leaves from grass
to mound around each bush
providing insulation from the winter cold
then breaking down to fertilize the soil.

There’s a modest circularity in this
a hopeful sign of things both past and yet to come
acknowledgment that nature and a few strong arms—
no fossil fuels, machines or noise
no pricey mulch—
can do the job with quiet elegance.

Imagine:  A new economy is possible!

It all turns on affection
Excerpts from a talk by Wendell Berry

Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management.  By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live.  An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another.  Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference.  Most economists think of this arrangement as ”the economy.”  …They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”

…By now our immense destructiveness has made clear that the actual value of some things exceeds human ability to calculate or measure, and therefore must be considered absolute.  For the destruction of these things there is never, under any circumstances, any justification.  Their absolute value is recognized by the mortal need of those who do not have them, and by affection.  Land, to people who do not have it and who are thus without the means of life, is absolutely valuable.  Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth “something”; it is worth everything.

…I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts.  And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities.  I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth:  the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods.  This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

In a focused effort to combat global warming, seven colleges and 22 cities in the US have committed to divest from fossil fuels in the last year--and dozens more campaigns are underway across the nation.

 the name Rolling Jubilee, a group of Occupy Wall Street activists has managed to buy almost $15 million of Americans' personal debt helping them pay off their outstanding credit in one year, using $400,000 to purchase anonymous debt cheaply from banks and then "abolish" it, freeing individuals from their bills.

Healing and Rebuilding our Communities workshops in Rwanda and Burundi that include participants pairing across ethnic lines for a "trust walk", including this testimonial: I remember the trust walk when the person who killed my family was my partner. During the genocide, I witnessed this man kill my two brothers with a machete and my younger sister with a spear. I was shaking because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down, but he also had fear and he took me gently, kindly. I asked him, “Will you lead me in peace?” After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him.

An agricultural cooperative in South Korea with 2,000 growers and 380,000 consumer members, and sales growing annually by 20%, creating an alternative economy that supports local organic farmers, produces healthy food and protects the environment in the process.