0320 – Dedicated to all the weary environmentalists out there

The New York Times had a fascinating piece on the toll of environmental activism on the people in the movement. The title? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It… And He Feels Fine.”

Do take a minute to at least skim it. It really is fascinating, and I know firsthand that it heartrendingly strikes many of our tender and overused chords.

The article follows the life of Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of a new movement called The Dark Mountain Project. The movement is said to be difficult to define even by its members, so I shall not attempt it. In general terms, the movement is said to be about “mourning, grief and despair.” While this seems just godawful and depressing at first (in fact, the whole article is kinda depressing), there really is a point to all this–an invigorating one for me at least. The main gist:

“On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.” [emphasis mine]”

Most, if not all, of us environmentalists experience multiple depressive episodes in our lives. Look, knowing what we know from science and seeing firsthand how powerless we can be when fighting big companies or encouraging behavior change, it’s hard for us not to feel hopeless. In fact, I personally have kind of given up. I just don’t care enough, because I feel like I’m not making any impact. My main rewards are mockery and arguments. Because of this, I sometimes feel ashamed to even label myself an environmentalist, but allow me to do so for the purpose of this article.

We care so much, but change so little. The science just sucks. At this point, we arguably are already doomed. And at some point, I think we need to accept this. BUT this doesn’t mean the movement is designed to be nihilistic or depressing. Instead, I found this to be incredibly inspiring:

“They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’ ”

I have a feeling that I’m not very wrong when I say that environmentalists find a lack of community to grapple the extent of our environmentalism-induced funks. But this piece validates what we have been feeling. This piece makes us believe it’s real–and it’s okay.  We have to be realistic. We have to face the possibilities. We have to deal with the probabilities.

What does this mean for me? Above all else, I hope this helps people to understand. We are misunderstood. We’re not crazy. We’re not just trying to annoy you. We’re not just hippies. We’re just crazy passionate. And also crazy frustrated. I hope this helps people understand that being a part of this movement is very very hard because of our passion. As the list of bad news grow and good news diminish, we will continue to feel more grief. So allow us to acknowledge what we feel. Allow us to grief. Allow us to mourn. Allow us to cry. Allow us to ask “Why, God?” and not get an answer. Give us understanding. Give us your shoulder. Give us your ears. Give us your empathy.

So, to all the environmentalists out there, it’s okay. I hear you. WE hear each other. There’s no need to be ashamed if you’ve stopped caring. Even though we couldn’t save the world no more, we still have a reason to fight. For the joy when we the small pockets of life that we yearn for.

Happy Earth Day!

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0303 – My conversation with Dr. Vandana Shiva

I was in New Delhi a couple weeks ago and took the opportunity to meet Dr. Vandana Shiva, truly one of the most inspirational environmental activists in India, if not the world. I first met Dr. Shiva at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in April 2012. She was a speaker in one of the plenary sessions, and I remembered being captivated by her passion and ability to carry the message. You can watch it here.

I really wanted to talk to her because I identify with so many things she said in that session, and also because she’s involved with Bhutan–a country that I just love–in an effort to turn it organic. Sadly, it shouldn’t be just a cool thing that some people do; it should be a common thing. Dr. Shiva also seems to… get it. She seems to have figured it out–what she’s here to do, what her role is, and what life is all about.

After almost an hour of searching and sweating in the 42-degrees heat of India’s capital, I arrived at Dr. Shiva’s humble office in the southern part of Delhi. Dr. Shiva was hard at work when I arrived, gave me a big smile and kindly asked me to wait a few minutes. The 30-minute conversation that transpired afterwards was definitely worth all the wait. She gave me many pointers to ponder. One of the things that stuck with me the most was her take on socialism. I asked her what her thought on socialism is, and here’s what she said (or what I recalled of it):

“If socialism is about equality, then I’m all for equality. If capitalism is all about maximizing our potential, I’m all about capitalism. But if socialism is about more power for fewer people, then I’m against it. Likewise, if capitalism is all about consumerism, I don’t agree with it.”

Dr. Shiva has a way with these things. I was surprised at how at ease she was about our world. She said that her quantum physics background shaped her philosophically as well, which perhaps has helped her to understand uncertainty and the constant flux that we exist in.

But it is her seeming happiness that pleasantly surprised me. Dr. Shiva greeted me with a big, genuine smile. Not one of those ones where you obligatorily force out for guests, but one that made me feel like she’s actually happy to help another soul. It was really nice to see. The world needs more happy people like her.

I kept asking her whether she felt angry or sad or depressed or confused–emotions that I’m feeling–about this whole thing called life. She served as a living example of how one need not feel negative about the mess that we’re in, and small steps can make a difference. With the work that I do, I hope that many generations to come will have a chance to smile, and a chance to be happy–a chance to live.

Soon, I’ll be doing some more soul searching to shift the attitude that has brought me much negativity. Dr. Shiva has shown me that there really is a way to work in a challenging and at times hostile environment and still be truly happy. I encourage you to check out her work. It’s really one of a kind.

0301 – My experience at Infosys

I haven’t talked about my work much. That’s partly because I really don’t know what I can and can’t say. I need to be careful with confidentiality, but I feel like I should at least say something about my experience. Most of Infosys’s data, policies and commitments are available online anyway–a demonstration of Infosys’s openness that I admire.

Someone told me that Infosys operates based on trust. It builds long, healthy partnerships with its customers and ensures that it provides the best for them. It’s interesting for an IT company (or a company in general really) to… have heart. It’s so refreshing to see. That Infosys cares about sustainability and its societal impact too is a plus in my book.

The big question when I came to the company was whether all this is a sham. Many companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts are there just because it’s fashionable to do CSR, which defeats the purpose of CSR. As far as I can tell, Infosys seems to be an exception.

I work in the Green Initiatives Team at Infosys. The team is responsible for almost all things sustainability: energy efficiency, building planning, waste management, renewable energy, environmental mediation, etc. I’ve been here for almost a month, and I’m really blown away by the amount of work that this team does. I only have good things to say. The team comprises of so many different professionals specializing in different aspects of sustainability, united under a common goal. Each person is responsible for a piece of the puzzle, and they all come together at the end to make Infosys more sustainable. I’m just amazed by how diverse this work really is.

What’s really interesting too is how different this unit is from all the other ones at Infosys, who offers services in hardware/software/consulting/supply chain/etc. The Green Initiatives seems like a little red dot–a unique one–on the map of Infosys–kinda like how Singapore is the little red dot on the world’s map. Unfortunately, just being a little red dot also means that most of Infosys doesn’t know about this team. One of the big challenges this team has is how to communicate with the rest of the Infosys employees, and also how to present its vision and accomplishments to the world. It’s definitely a challenge to communicate something different to the IT world, but they’re trying hard.

Anyway, it’s been a huge learning journey working on my projects here. I’m getting a feel for the corporate system, the way companies choose their vendors, the self-motivation required to work well, and the rapid pace of technological change in the renewable energy industry. It’s been hectic to say the least. But I am really glad I got to be here, in a different environment than the one I’m used to, and to see the work that this company is doing. To see a company make a serious commitment to sustainability and follow up on it gives me hope that the world can be right.

0290 – Illegal Immigrants Stealing Your Jobs?

That must be rough:

It’s probably no surprise to most of you that I am deeply moved by this meme.  Looks like I haven’t written about this before, but I’m also very touched by Chief Seattle’s letter to the American Government in the 1800s. There is so much that I resonate with in this letter that I find it hard to choose something to quote, but here’s the highlight (do take a read though):

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.”

“If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”

“We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.

As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.

One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.”

Well, I quoted more than half the letter. Oops. But in all seriousness, think about what we have done to this land, to this planet.

This is by no means an ignorance of the complexity and sensitivity of the immigration debate in the US. It is a worthwhile one to have. My intention of writing this post is to recall the past–a tainted one at best. It’s one that many would like to forget, and one that–lamentably–many has forgotten or never even heard about.

I’m not going to get too far into the debate about the rights of citizens vs non-citizens, but I would just point out that while that we once were unwelcome immigrants too–at a time when the concept of “illegal”, along with other things man-made, were of lesser importance than the respect, love and gratitude for the planet and fellow-beings.

0284 – What sustainable design means to me

I’m shifting gears a little bit today and will be talking about sustainable design. My friend Matt Grocoff, who blogs at Sustainable Design Update, asked me to share my thoughts on what sustainable design means.

So to the drawing board I went. My academic background is in engineering, so I’ve heard a little bit about sustainable design from the engineering side. The standard definition is something like making decisions that are economically viable, ecologically harmless, and leads to social equity. But what does this really mean?

Most engineers have been trained to think about cost when they design equipment. A small number knows how to evaluate the environmental cost/benefit through life cycle assessment and other tools. An even smaller number strives to understand the impact on the society.

Most of us have heard about the triple bottom line. Sustainable design is the intersection between the environment, economic and social considerations.

Still… what does this really mean in practical terms?

This is not an engineering problem. It’s about how we make decisions in general. When we make decisions, we tend to revert to our default criterion: money – the economic circle. We think about how much a product or device is going to cost us in monetary terms, and evaluate it from there. If we believe it’s going to give us more satisfaction than the amount we’re paying for it, then the deal is made. But that is hardly sensible if you think about it.

Take free food for example. Everyone loves free food, right? It doesn’t cost us anything, but what do we have to lose? My friend Tracy injected a dose of reality into me when she told me this: Nothing in the world is free. Nothing. There is a cost to the environment. There is the labor cost. There is the energy needed to produce the food. There are the animals being killed or plants being harvested. There are also others who may have nowhere near as much to eat as us.

The framework of sustainable design is difficult to embrace in our everyday decisions. So I propose another way of thinking about it: a simplified but practical (I hope) model of sustainable design: me and us.

In general, when we make decisions, this is how it works:

Everything is based on the ME circle. It’s all about the costs and benefits to the individuals. The individual sees everything else as separate and insignificant.

What I strongly believe is needed:

It’s that simple. We live in an interconnected world, where our actions will have consequences–most of the time unintended and unknown–on our surroundings, including other beings and the environment.

That’s what sustainable design is about–how we can come up with services and goods that are not just beneficial to the designer/provider, but to the society overall. Forget the complex math of life cycle analysis if you’re uncomfortable with it. Each day, every moment, feel your connection to the world at large. Remind yourself that you’re not here for just you. You’re here for a larger purpose, be it God, spiritual awakening, mankind, all beings, or understanding.

The shift from the ‘me vs others’ to the ‘me within us’ framework requires a monumental shift in the way we operate; The egocentricity that has imprisoned so many of us has to be replaced by the compassion and love that are inherent in all of us, but somehow have been suppressed and laying dormant in the depths of our souls for a long time. That’s why I blog. That’s why I do the work I do.

There really isn’t a place for ‘ME’ separate from ‘US.’ We are one.