Gentry then and now

Per my last blog post, i waltzed through Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion in a couple of weeks — pretty speedy by the standards of someone who does 95% of my reading on screen. But a chapter or two a day gets through the thing. At first it was like climbing a hill, frequently losing the sense of those long, wandering sentences, getting distracted, rereading. But as the story gathered momentum, and my literary perseverance developed, it became easier, and then a pleasure, to pick up the book. I even took to reading regularly in the evenings, something i rarely do.

It was also a vaguely disturbing book to read, in that pretty much the entire action is the British upper crust — landed gentry, with money and basically no useful function in society — struggling and scheming to occupy, amuse or advance themselves and their family, in fairly cut-throat fashion. Gossip and social machination are not just the order of the day, they’re all that’s available to fill the time … which makes for some dry reading, for those like me not much into the minutiae of human lives. Even the “good” characters, like Anne, the loose protagonist, spend much time and many, many pages thinking and rethinking everyone else’s intentions, motivations, affections, machinations, misapprehensions, malevolences.…

It’s like a multi-dimensional game of emotional chess, and it felt claustrophobic, even suffocating, just reading it, never mind imagining what it would be like to lead the life. That’s not a world i could live in … or so i thought.

But a week later i realized something: with the cresting demographic wave of retiring boomers now upon us, there’s a flood of people with money and free time and a generational sense of entitlement all around me (indeed, I’m one of them), that is a pretty close analogue to the British upper crust of the early 1800s.

Today’s gentry, many wealthy off lifelong careers and real estate booms, have more opportunities available to them in terms of travel, recreational pursuits and social freedoms, but they face the same yawning space of time as did the ladies and baronets of Austen’s day. Most of them are going to be retired for 10 or 20 or 30 years, and they have to fill that time with something. For now it seems to be playing out in self-indulgence. Hopefully some of the social activism that marked the generation’s youth will make a much-needed appearance too.

 

For the record: I’m not retired, though i am also not working at anything. After my four-year council term, immersed to the eyeballs in municipal politics and bureaucracy, ended last November, i’m taking what i call a sabbatical year, deliberately getting back into all those things that were pushed aside (or crushed) as a councillor: reading for pleasure, leisurely contemplation, a bit of unrushed, responsible travel, the occasional blog post.…

Youth followship

So i was waiting in line at Capers, on Robson Street in  Vancouver, grabbing a porridge breakfast en route to the Wild Salmon rally and an hour at the Cohen Commission (“into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River”) last Monday. There was a bulletin board, and among the for-sales and event announcements there was one that struck me: an announcement for a “youth leadership” program. It struck me i’ve seen many similar ads in recent years — youth leadership has become something of a trend among social progressives (apparently unsatisfied with the current state of “elder leadership”). Not having custody of any youths myself, i never paid them much attention before. But now i wondered how many young leaders there might be out there, fostered by all these youth leadership programs.

Then i thought, a leader is nothing without her/his followers. And suddenly i was wondering how many more wanna-be leaders we really need. It seemed to me that, given the necessary numbers split between leaders and followers, what we need is more is educated, thoughtful followers. Too many leaders is like too many cooks; everybody visioning and bossing, nobody actually doing anything. In a nutshell, isn’t that the trouble with the political left these days? Every “leader” with a cause in their bonnet these days gathers three like-minded friends, registers a nonprofit, throws up a website, applies for a grant, and by dint of furious effort, proceeds to make little or no difference in the world.

There are some giant-sized problems wracking our world right now, problems big enough that ten thousand fractious, scattered, isolated little groups can’t begin to grapple with them. Humanity needs a huge pulling-together if we are going to have a hope of making a dent. So a solid course in youth followship might be more desirable than yet another on leadership. Off the top of my head, such a course might address:

  • detecting duplicity, hypocrisy, dysfunction, dishonesty in leaders
  • detecting “big man syndrome” — ego-driven leaders, versus those who serve a cause and the people
  • how to tell when leaders are working for your interests, versus theirs (or their funders’)
  • distinguishing a movement from a cult
  • seeing through sound-bite politics and spin
  • telling short-term thinking from long-term

The program might also begin correcting the cultural bias that casts leaders as great/important/famous/sexy, whereas followers are seen as mere sheep.

Many say the world is crying out for leadership. Yet so many of us are following the leaders we have — into wars, climate disaster, social decay and economic decline. I’m thinking the world needs a few million smart, discerning followers. Then, in the way of things, the right leaders will spring forth when the conditions are ripe.

Burnin’ Toff

I am continually amazed by the aplomb with which some Tofinoites burn fuel to satisfy their lifestyle urges. Aside from the evangelical bikers and the broke, bicycle use (and walking) are rare in town. The car — one person per, usually — is the mainstay of everything from food shopping to socializing. Almost anything seems to justify a trip cross-island — shopping, meetings, whims. As for the requisite winter trip … Cuba, Mexico, even Australia are not too far away.

I include myself in this coterie of earth-rapers, by the way. A quick blast down to Ukee to check the mail … an indulgent, flown-in piece of fruit at Green Soul … effortless to justify, even as i declaim my environmental enlightenment.

I’m all for Reduce when it comes to fossil fuel. But i have to acknowledge that, in this crazy existing world, going entirely without would be an act of madness. So to make it a little easier for folks to at least offset their fuel emissions, some resources.

  1. Each litre of gas you burn produces 2.34 kg of CO2. If your car does 25 mpg (9 km per litre), and you drove 15,000 km this year, you used 1,667 litres of gas and produced 3900 kg of CO2 — almost 4 tonnes. So take a look at your odometer, estimate your car’s fuel efficiency, and do the math. (From Guy Dauncey’s EcoNews, Mar. 2007)
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  2. Flying is highly fuel intensive. Here’s an on-line calculator to find out how much CO2 goes into the atmosphere from any flight. (Example: a round-trip flight from Vancouver to Acapulco emits about 270 kg of fuel, producing over 800 kg of CO2 — per passenger! Worse, because that CO2 is emitted high up in the atmosphere, it’s three times more effective as a warming gas. Yikes!)
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  3. I urge you to Reduce, but for that portion you can’t eliminate … offset! Various organizations will, for a fee, pull carbon out of the air (i.e. by planting trees) or see that it doesn’t get emitted in the first place (i.e. by replacing gas generators with solar in remote villages) in your name. But which ones can you trust? Luckily, we have a recent report from the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, rating 19 different carbon offset organizations as to their effectiveness. Download Carbon offset vendors (PDF, 196 k).

Note that an ideal emissions target to avoid catastrophic climate change is something like 4 tonnes of CO2 a year per person — pretty much what average car use produces, never mind the rest of our energy use. So you can see what kind of cutbacks are required.

Another tip: Cut down on the meat, since the livestock industry produces 18% of global carbon emissions. (Econews, Sept. 2007; also a UN figure)

Thanks to Tofino District CFO Edward Henley for bring this report to a Green Breakfast. If you really want to bone up on carbon offsets, there’s a lot of info on the  Suzuki Foundation site right here.

The Munk-eys debate

Hah! Did you watch the Munk debate on climate change last Tuesday (viewable online at the link, i think)?

George Monbiot, journalist, and the Green Party‘s Elizabeth May versus Bjorn Lomborg, environmental skeptic, and Lord Nigel Lawson, former financial journalist and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, two high-profile deniers. Most instructive.

I’d say Bjorn pretty much won, by cleverly steering its focus to the word “defining” in the (poorly framed) question under debate: “Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response“. He argued that there are other serious crises that deserve the world’s attention too, which the pro side could hardly disagree with. So the whole thing devolved into a wrangle about that.

Surprisingly, neither “denier” actually tried to deny that climate change is upon us; rather, they (Bjorn in particular) openly acknowledged that the climate is changing. So apparently that point is now conceded, and we now need a different word for that camp. In their eyes the wrangle is now about where we direct our effort — meaning, of course, money, which seems now to have entirely eclipsed principle, moral duty or anything else not readily summed up in billions, as the basis for our decision-making.

They say we should spend our money and effort (and money, did i mention money? They sure did, over and over) not on retooling our energy system to keep CO2 levels from increasing in the atmosphere. Instead, we should spend it in ways that will save lives now — on things like HIV/AIDS and malaria and making starving, isolated African tribes wealthy. (Bjorn’s example, not mine.) Because that will save more lives in the short run. And besides, it’s evident that we here in the West will not suffer too badly from climate change, insulated as we are by our wealth (and geography). So the same reasoning (except maybe for the geography part) should apply to the tropical world that will bear the brunt of climate change effects in the next century.

Exactly how this applies to the Maldives, for example — which are forecast to be entirely underwater sometime during this century — was not clear. Maybe everybody there will be rich enough to own a yacht. As for the millions we save now from disease, well, let’s hope they can all eat “the sand which is there” when their agricultural lands desertify. Ha ha, i kill me.

Pundits to the left of them,
Zealots to the right of them …
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six billion.

(With apologies to Alfred Tennyson.
And the whole ecosphere.)

Maggie says

Here are a few nuggets from the celebrated Margaret Atwood, who read in Tofino last Saturday from her new dystopic book, Year of the Flood. Still a lively and witty lady, and it was a good West Coast crowd that gathered to see her.

What most impressed me, though, was the co-reading given by her partner Graeme Gibson from his book, The Bedside Book of Beasts. What sounds from the title like a whimsical tour of the animal kingdom (real or imaginary) — and looks, at first blush, like a picture book of animals through the ages — is actually a meaty read, full of surprising thoughts and connections. There’s some deep thinking in it about the human characterizations of animals, and what that says about us. I came away wanting to buy a copy.

From my random, chicken-scratch notes of the evening:

Graeme:

Tree-hugger? Why not a tree-lover?!

Quoting someone: “The whole of Nature is a conjugation of the verb ‘to eat,’ in the active and the passive.”

“Forest bathing” (a.k.a. walking in the woods) … Nature Deficit Disorder…. Some interesting revelations about how time spent in wilderness eases behavioural disorders. People heal faster when they have a scenic view — even just a painting — as opposed to a relentless cityscape.

If you don’t have predators, you don’t have a forest. The predator-prey relationship informs everything about the forest.

Humans domesticate any number of other species, but we ourselves are the only evolved domesticate.

Some of Graeme’s recommended books: Thinking Like a Mountain (Otto Leopold); Last Child in the Woods (author?); Rogue Primate (John Livingston)

Maggs:

This is a book, and these are its covers. The advantage of a book is that you can close the covers and what’s in the book stays in the book. The job of everyone here today is to make sure what’s in the book doesn’t get out of the book.

Ecology as potential religion…? It’s here. Check out The Green Bible.

Once everything is owned by governments and corporations, there will be no neutral third party left to say “No, you aren’t allowed to do that.”

Do I have hope? Hope is built-in. Back in the paleolithic, if you were too bummed out to get out of bed in the morning to find something to eat, you weren’t around for long. We are evolved to hope.

Writing a book is a hopeful thing to do, in and of itself. You hope that you’ll finish it. You hope someone will publish it. You hope it will find readers, and you hope they’ll like it.

I want everyone here to make a pledge today. Coffee is the second most traded commodity worldwide, after oil. It has a huge impact. If you’re only going to do one thing, I want you to pledge that you’ll only drink shade-grown, organic, fair trade coffee from now on.

I’m about a third of the way through Year of the Flood. Tain’t timeless lit’ra’chure, but it’s interesting.