©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season
By Lillian Vallee


35.  Burial at Sea

One Sunday afternoon this September I found myself walking the planks of Monterey Wharf in search of the boat that would carry the ashes of two dear friends out to sea. Francis J. Whitfield had been a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, and his lively wife, Celina, had been a Polish émigré who had barely survived the Warsaw Uprising. It had been Celina’s wish that their ashes be scattered together off Point Lobos in commemoration of some early happiness they had known there. The working boat that took them (and us) had been a fishing vessel in the morning and usually took people out for whale watching later in the day, but on this afternoon thirteen of us were there to say good-bye to two people we loved and missed.

Frank was the one with a mischievous wit; he was also a brilliant linguist who would spend each summer learning a new foreign language. When a colleague won the Nobel Prize and was quite puffed up about it, Frank posted a list of names on his office door with the question: Who are these people? No one recognized a single name. They all turned out to be former Nobel Prize winners.

Celina was the enfant terrible. She always said what was on her mind, and Frank would just smile and enjoy her provocations, the boldness of her. She said they had never exchanged a cross word, and when he died, she told me she had to stifle an urge to burn the entire house down and everything in it.

I felt a flu coming on but could not miss the final farewell. I believe in the purifying power of sea air and water—I thought they might help. Carrying roses, bags of rose petals, champagne, cake, old photos, and the urns, we boarded our rocking vessel.

It was windy, but the boat rode the swells like a horse moving steadily over hilly terrain. “We won’t see whales today,” someone remarked, “because they’re over at Moss Landing.” I didn’t believe it; whales are sensitive creatures and at least one would recognize the solemnity of the occasion.

Meanwhile we were accompanied by California gulls and pelicans, cormorants and now and then, a loon. Everywhere we looked there were fringed jellyfish bearing a mark like four tiny horse-shoes. These were moon jellies (Aurelia labiata), native jellyfish, which move into Monterey Bay in large aggregations from mid-summer through autumn.

If you go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, there is a moon jelly room: two wall tanks of opalescent jellies pulse in the dim enclosure as they rise and fall. The other two walls are mirrors, so you have the illusion of being suspended in a space filled with delicate beating hearts. Modest moon jellies have none of the beautiful trailing tentacles or ruffled arms like the sea nettles or other spectacular jellyfish, and they may be becoming a problem as pollution and fertilizers in the water cause blooms of jellyfish that consume the food of other sea creatures. But on this day they marked a trail in the water, as they had once for sailors who delighted in them as luminous markers on the high seas.

When we reached the designated spot, the noisy engine was cut, the wind died, and we were left to a silence broken only by hungry seabirds. We said that it had been a joy to know two good people without overweening ambition or egotism who had always welcomed visitors with conversation and good food.

Celina flew into the waves. Frank was slower getting out as Celina had tamped him down in the urn. We joked about this. As their bone ash clouded the water and sank, a woman’s voice caught and said, “This can’t be all there is.” And another: “This would be enough for me.” Someone else said an Our Father in Polish. Red roses and handfuls of rose petals trailed in the wake. The seagulls thought we had thrown out something to eat and followed us for a while. We drank champagne, ate chocolate cake and picked out a few old photographs to take home: Frank on a tricycle or as a bespectacled six-year old with his mother; Celina in London in a camel coat sewn for someone three times her size.

On the return trip the sea was peaceful, as if something had been taken care of, had been settled. The talking had stopped and we were left to our own memories and private good-byes. On shore, I noticed the rust pinks of seeding buckwheats and the first golden poppies ignited by cooler weather. The words of a prize-winning poem Frank had written as a student at Harvard echoed in my mind: “There is the urn, and there are memories/of hours that burned like wounds into our story;/there is the unpainted bridge….Justice and peace have met, but ours is the restlessness;/the turtle has found her nest, we are driven/by autumn thoughts that spin with hysterical dancing/of Herodias’ daughters—constant whirling of leaves/about unanswerable equations and mysteries/(voices and wind are harsh, drowning our wisdom)….”

As night fell, I imagined Frank and Celina being rocked to the bottom of a place full of hunger but also of delicate, pulsing opalescent hearts rising and falling in the darkness. This would be enough for me, I thought, and remembered the whale that did appear, that rose for a breath in our shared rite of passage.

Source: David Wrobel and Claudia Mills, Pacific Coast Pelagic Invertebrates: A Guide to the Common Gelatinous Animals

Living Wealth: Better Than Money

If there is to be a human future, we must bring ourselves into balanced relationship with one another and the Earth. This requires building economies with heart.

If we are to slow and ultimately reverse the social and environmental disintegration we see around us, we must change the rules to curb the pervasive abuse of corporate power that contributes so much to those harms. Taming corporate power will slow the damage. It will not be sufficient, however, to heal our relationships with one another and the Earth and bring our troubled world into social and environmental balance. Corporations are but instruments of a deeper social pathology revealed in a familiar story our society tells about the nature of prosperity.

Empire Prosperity Story

The prevailing prosperity narrative has many variations, but these are among its essential elements:

This money-serving prosperity story is repeated endlessly by corporate media and taught in economics, business, and public policy courses in our colleges and universities almost as sacred writ. I call it the Empire prosperity story.

Few notice the implications of its legitimation of the power and privilege of for-profit corporations and an economic system designed to maximize returns to money, that is, to make rich people richer. Furthermore, it praises extreme individualism that, in other circumstances would be condemned as sociopathic; values life only as a commodity; and diverts our attention from the basic reality that destroying life to make money is an act of collective insanity. In addition to destroying real wealth, it threatens our very survival as a species.

Earth Community Prosperity Story

Consider these elements of a contrasting life-serving prosperity story that looks to life, rather than money, as the true measure of wealth.

I call this the Earth Community prosperity story because it evokes a vision of the possibility of creating life-serving economies grounded in communities that respect the irreducible interdependence of people and nature. Although rarely heard, this story is based on familiar notions of generosity and fairness, and negates each of the claims of the imperial prosperity story that currently shapes economic policy and practice.

The High Cost of Making Money

It took me many years in my work abroad as a member of the foreign aid establishment to wake up to the fallacy of the Empire story-the idea that advancing economic growth by maximizing returns to money is the key to ending poverty and healing the environment. The epiphany came during a conference in Asia at which nongovernmental organizations were presenting case studies of the social and environmental consequences of large aid-funded development projects undertaken to promote economic growth. In case after case, the projects displaced poor people and disrupted essential environmental processes to produce benefits for those already better off.

Eventually I came to realize that conventional economic growth indicators rarely measure growth in human prosperity. Rather, they measure the rate at which the rich are expropriating the living resources of the planet and converting them to products destined for a garbage dump after a brief useful life. The process generates profits for people who already have far more money than they need while displacing people from the resources they need for their modest livelihoods.

In summary, the primary business of the global financial system and the corporations that serve it is to increase the wealth gap. It works well in the short-term for the privileged few, but it is disastrous for the society.

We see the effects in the current state of the world. The market value of global economic output has tripled since 1970. By conventional reckoning, this means we humans have tripled our wealth and well-being.

Yet indicators of living capital, the aggregate of human, social and natural capital, tell a very different story. The Living Planet Index, an indicator of the health of the world’s freshwater, ocean, and land-based ecosystems, declined 30 percent since 1970. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 15 of 24 ecosystem services examined “are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.”

Indicators of human capital-the skills, knowledge, psychological health, capacity for critical thought, and moral responsibility characteristic of the fully functioning person, and of social capital-the enduring relationships of mutual trust and caring that are the foundation of healthy families, communities and societies-point to equally unfavorable trends.

Even as living capital shrinks, the population that depends on it continues to grow. Meanwhile, the growing concentration of money means a few people are able to claim an ever-larger share of a shrinking pie of living capital to the exclusion of everyone else. According to a recent United Nations study, the richest 2 percent of the world’s adults own 51 percent of all global assets. The poorest 50 percent own only 1 percent. This distribution of ownership is a measure of the global distribution of power-and the gap is growing at an accelerating rate. The power imbalance allows the privileged minority to change the rules to accelerate their expropriation of the declining pool of real wealth, which increases the hardship and desperation of those excluded. We are on a path to an increasingly violent last-one-standing competition for the Earth’s final tree, drop of drinkable water, and breath of air.

By our measures of financial capital, we humans are on a path to limitless prosperity. By the measures of living capital, we are on a suicidal path to increasing deprivation and ultimate self-extinction.

Putting Life First

If there is to be a human future, we must bring ourselves into balanced relationship with one another and the Earth. This requires turning existing economic priorities and models on their head and making the values of the Earth Community story the foundation of our economy. We must:

1. Turn from money to life as the defining value, from growing financial capital to growing living capital, and from short-term to long-term investing;

2. Shift the priority from advancing the private interests of the few to advancing the individual and community interests of all; and

3. Reallocate resources from supporting institutions of domination to meeting the needs of people, community, and nature.

We have enormous potential to improve the lives of all by reallocating resources from military to health care and environmental regeneration, from automobiles to public transportation, from investing in suburban sprawl to investing in compact communities, from advertising to education, from financial speculation to productive investment in local entrepreneurship, and from providing extravagant luxuries for the very wealthy to providing basic essentials for everyone.

The champions of Empire dismiss any such reordering of priorities on the ground that it will bring economic disaster and unbearable hardship. They ignore the simple fact that those results are already the lot of roughly half our fellow humans. The proposed reordering can avoid the spread of hardship and begin to alleviate the existing suffering.

Economic reallocation and democratization are no longer simply moral issues. They are imperatives of human survival and must replace economic growth and the pursuit of financial gain as the defining purpose of economic life.

The work of bringing forth a new economy devoted to serving the needs of our children, families, communities, and natural environments begins with building public awareness that there is an Earth Community prosperity story that offers a vision of hope and possibility for a positive future. Although a story so contrary to the prevailing Empire story is likely to be greeted with initial skepticism, the Earth Community prosperity story enjoys the ultimate advantage because it expresses the truth most of us recognize in our hearts: if our children, families, communities, and natural systems are healthy, we are prosperous. Whether conventional financial indicators like GDP or the Dow Jones stock index rise or fall is irrelevant.

Rules for Conserving and Sharing

To get from where we are to where we need to go we must recognize that the market is an essential and beneficial institution for allocating resources in response to individual choices. But it is beneficial only so long as it operates by rules that maintain equity and competition and require players to internalize the social and environmental costs of their choices. And it is not sacred. Without responsible governmental oversight, the market can lead to highly destructive social pathology.

By its nature, the market creates winners and losers. Furthermore, the winners are often those most skilled in finding ways to pass social and environmental costs onto others. The winners increase their share of the resource pie, which increases their economic and political power to shape markets and rules to improve their future prospects. The result is a self-reinforcing spiral of increasing concentration of wealth and power. This supports the unjust hoarding and profligate consumption of resources by a privileged class. In an increasingly environmentally constrained world, learning to conserve and share resources is an essential requirement of social order and well-being.

Even with adequate regulation to minimize social and environmental abuse, the health of a market system also requires public intervention to recycle financial capital continuously from winners to losers. In the absence of such recycling, financial wealth and power accumulate in perpetuity, increasing the fortunes of a few family dynasties at the expense of democracy, justice, and social stability.

Recycling financial wealth to maintain a democratic allocation of access to real resources is, of course, totally contrary to the self-serving logic of corporate capitalism. Yet it is essential to democracy and social health, both of which depend on an equitable distribution of power, and an essential function of democratic government.

Community-based Economics

From a system-design perspective, a healthy society must either eliminate profit, interest, and for-profit corporations altogether, or use the taxing and regulatory powers of publicly accountable democratic governments to strictly limit concentrations of economic power and prevent the winners from passing the costs of their success onto the losers. This creates yet another system design issue. As government becomes larger and more powerful, it almost inevitably becomes less accountable and more prone to corruption.

Paul Hawken has correctly observed that big business creates the need for big government to constrain excesses and clean up the messes. To maintain equity and secure the internalization of costs, democratically accountable government power must exceed the power of exclusive private economic interests. The smaller the concentrations of economic power, the smaller government can be and still maintain essential balance and integrity in the society.

There will be less need for a strong governmental hand to the extent that we are successful in eliminating sociopathic institutional forms, making community-based economies the norm, and creating a public consensus that predatory economic behavior now taken for granted as “just human nature” is actually aberrant and immoral. Responsible citizenship may then become the expected business norm. There will always be a need, however, for rules and governmental oversight to deal with what hopefully will be a declining number of sociopathic individuals and institutions who seek to profit at public expense.

Equalizing economic power and rooting it locally shifts power to people and community from distant financial markets, global corporations, and national governments. It serves to shift rewards from economic predators to economic producers, strengthens community, encourages individual responsibility, and allows for greater expression of individual choice and creativity.

The Essential Choice

The human species has reached a defining moment of choice between moving ahead on a path to collective self-destruction or joining together in a cooperative effort to navigate a dramatic turn to a new human era. The profound cultural and institutional transformation that is needed goes up against the short-term interests of the world’s most powerful people and institutions. The barriers to what we humans must now achieve are daunting. By any rational calculation, the needed transformation is not politically feasible. Yet it is essential to human survival and prosperity, which means we must set ourselves to the task of figuring out how to make the impossible into the inevitable.

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of YES! His latest book is The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.

© 2007 YES! Magazine, http://www.yesmagazine.org/

The “throwaway society”


In 1955, Life magazine announced the advent of the “throwaway society”. Since then, Americans have generated tons of trash in landfills[1]. Americans produced 245 million tons of trash (also known as municipal solid waste) in 2005. Some of this garbage eventually makes its way to sea, where it has created a floating mass of plastic and garbage the size of Texas[2].

To do the math, the tons of trash divided by the total number of Americans equals a contribution of about 4 1/2 pounds of garbage per person daily. Although Americans do recycle, it simply isn’t enough to stem the tide of the overwhelmingly large amounts of trash overflowing our landfills and spilling into the ocean.

What’s the average person to do? How can one overcome this vicious cycle of consumerism that is so inherently ground into our psyche? Awareness is definitely the first step.

Americans use 2 times the amount of resources as Germans, 5 times the amount of Mexicans, 9 times as much as the Chinese and 15 times the amount of the average Indian[3]. It would require 4 additional planet Earths in order for humanity to live the way Americans do.

California leads other states in recycling. We divert about 1/2 the amount of trash we generate away from landfills, which sounds pretty good, but according to Jon Myers, director of the state Integrated Waste Management Board, it isn’t enough1. Our current population of 36 million people will reach 60 million by the year 2050.

With awareness comes responsibility. I recently wrote an article about bottled water and how it impacts the environment. Not purchasing this item is one way of preventing it from reaching the landfill. Canteens and more permanent bottles are a great way to keep water handy.

Being prepared is another way to avoid purchasing unneeded items. The Center for a New American Dream has a neat shopping card called the “wallet buddy” that can be downloaded from www.newdream.org. It asks questions like “Is this something I need? Do I already own something that could serve the same purpose? Could I borrow this or find it used?” It also advises taking at least a month to decide before making a big purchase decision.

Carefully shop when buying food or other products. Avoid anything that has extra packaging. Individually wrapped packages produce unneeded waste. When buying needed items that come in plastic, look on the bottom of the product for the label # of 1 or 2. These are the numbers that Modesto recycles. Plastics with a higher number are not recycled but are incinerated for energy. 

Companies in the United States spend a lot of money marketing their products. Television advertisements are catchy and often have a sense of urgency. As humans, we may have times when we feel lonely or unfulfilled, and these marketers prepare their advertisements with this in mind. Purchasing something new may fill a void for a short period, but if the only thing left to do when that void reappears is to go shopping again, we are just participating in the vicious cycle of over consumption.

Life has so much beauty and depth to it, and there are many ways to fill that empty void without filling the landfill. Try doing more activities that use less, such as visiting museums and farmer’s markets, having a picnic in a park or playing a sport. Visit friends and relatives you haven’t seen in a while, or take your child/niece/grandson to a park. Actively look for ways to spend time, and send your ideas in to Connections!

To learn more about what Modesto recycles, visit this site: http://www.ci.modesto.ca.us/prnd/recycling/default.asp

To read about the challenging project of a family that is trying to have zero impact on the environment go to www.noimpactman.com

[1] David Lazarus, “Talking Trash Disposal,” San Francisco Chronicle, 13 July 2007, sec. 1C, p.1.

2Living On Earth. “Trash Vortex”. Retrieved on August 3, 2007 from http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=06-P13-00046&segmentID=4

3Ellis Jones, Ross Haenfler and Brett Johnson, The Better World Handbook (Canada: British Columbia, New Society Publishers, 2007), 28.