A Bag of Mindful Tricks…

Welcome to our second installation of what we are calling Solidarity Thursdays.  Each week we will pick a topic and post from our own perspectives on Thursday.  Check out the links to Esther Emery and Jaysen Waller’s blogs at the bottom of this post to follow the conversation into other realms.  Please feel free to join the conversation yourself by posting a comment or linking to your own blog.  Thanks for reading.

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“Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” – Thich Nhat Hanh

We are living in uncertain times.  The very fabric of our world is unraveling transforming around us.  We face, as I see it, two major conundrums in these times, and the only thing that can be considered “clear” is the fact that the way we’ve addressed them to date will not be the solution.  These conundrums are the global shift in our economies and the threat of global climate change.  It is time that we begin to address these issues with regard to their effects globally (with solidarity) rather than from a nationalistic (or self-serving) perspective.

If you listen to or watch the news, or especially pay attention to the cable news programs, you will hear a nearly constant barrage of concern for economic growth and the increase or potential decrease in gross domestic product.  It is not unreasonable, from the perspective of the last couple of centuries, to focus on economic growth.  It was, throughout that entire period of history, and indeed even before, a measure of civility and progress.  Economic growth lifted huge portions of our population out of poverty (though we are still struggling to eradicate it), but the widening gap between our country’s rich and poor is a signal that the paradigm of perpetual growth has reached it’s zenith and is declining in it’s ability to produce meaningful change for the world as a whole.  As the global economic power shifts from our unipolar experience of the past century to a multipolar economic map, we are seeing the developing world increasingly concerned with their own economic growth, as they should to a certain extent.  Here in the United States we define absolute poverty as a household (of 3) which makes less than $19,090 per year, while in much of the developing world, many households make much less than $1,000 per year.  Clearly, raising those levels of income are important to produce a global economy of abundance, but the model that the developing world is emulating strives to bring incomes and consumption levels to par with the West.  Bill McKibben argues in his 2007 book Deep Economy that our model of growth in the United States is simply not making us any happier and is indeed leading to the opposite in many cases.  In other words “more” is no longer necessarily “better.”  Of course, in the developing world, there is still room to grow in order to provide basic necessities like nutritious food, shelter, and access to health and education, but what Mr. McKibben presents to us in this book shows us a way forward that can continue to provide sustenance that keeps us out of poverty and additionally provides us with the happiness and community that we so sorely lack.  While it is important to address the very serious threat of poverty as it is seen in much of the world today, shouldn’t we also strive to make those lives actually better – not just stand by as those developing nations and our own poverty stricken citizens strive for a model of personal economic growth that does not, in the end, make anyone happier and indeed contributes greatly to an unbalanced economic reality that widens the gap between rich and poor and commodifies our natural resources without regard for environmental degradation and the further marginalization of poor people that inherently comes with those effects?

One way I believe we can consciously reach for a world of abundance is through practicing mindfulness in our daily lives.  I came to the concept of mindfulness several years ago when I was fortunate enough to see the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh speak while he was visiting the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA.  He made a side trip to the University of San Diego where I was teaching at the time and led all who were interested in a walking meditation from one end of campus to the other where he was to speak in the University’s Jenny Craig Pavilion.  I had read some buddhist thought before, but the simplicity of the concept of mindfulness was new to me, at least in the words in which he described it.  I began to see the world around me very differently.  I should pause here to say that I am not Buddhist, though I have great reverence for those who practice.  I do however, try to incorporate mindfulness in much of what I do since attending that life-changing speech. I was already on a path of greater sustainability at that time.  I had become a vegetarian several years before.  I was adamant about organic food when I purchased from the grocery store.  I had joined the local food co-op.  I had dispensed all chemical cleaners and personal hygiene products from my home.  I was still, nonetheless, an average American consumer.   I still bought more than I needed at prices meant only to produce huge amounts of profit for a small group of multinational corporations.  It was only after hearing that speech that I began to slowly apply the concept of mindfulness to my purchasing and to my daily needs.

I am, by no stretch of the mind, achieving complete mindfulness in my life today, and I think it is important to stop here to recognize a key ingredient to the application of mindfulness in your purchasing and daily activities.  It’s a process.  A long one.  And it should be.  We learn incrementally what mindfulness is, and in my experience, what it isn’t.  For example, as I began to apply this logic to my consumption, I was often deeply frustrated with myself after having made a purchase that I didn’t need to, or after purchasing a product that I later found out was causing more harm than I intended.  In some instances I would even throw that product away, which would in turn become a source of personal frustration having wasted something that had already caused harm to me or the world in some way.  Each of these experiences for me, as I face new revelations, should be a source of inspiration and opportunity rather than disgrace or self-loathing.  Each time I learn something new about how I can affect the world with my purchasing, it is an opportunity to bank that knowledge and apply it the next time I am forced with that decision, therefore expanding my capacity for mindfulness.  As Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book The World We Have, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

So How does one apply mindfulness to their consumption?  We are doing it more and more as a society, and there are a number of stores that have capitalized on this trend.  The most notable being Whole Foods, which we are all aware of, but we should be cautious and truly mindful as we employ any filter to our purchasing.  It is easy to stop short of true mindfulness in these endeavors.  Companies like Whole Foods have made this easier still.  Yes, you can find some wonderful products that are indeed conscious of many of the world’s problems in a store of this sort.  These stores came about as vehicles for delivering alternative products.  Many of the products you will find in a store like this carry labels that promise that they are organic and fair trade.  Those labels are important, but often they don’t tell the whole story.  Additionally, it is easy to make the gigantic leap while in a store of this kind and assume that everything they offer follows a similar set of principles.  It is important that we take mindfulness in our purchasing personally and shield ourselves from the co-opting of those ideals by marketing and false promises.  We must continually educate ourselves and apply that new knowledge each time we find it necessary to make a purchase.  I have certainly come a long way from my first mindful purchase.  The first purchases I made like this, though it was well before the speech by Thich Nhat Hanh, and well before I called it mindfulness, was a natural cleaning product to spray my kitchen floors and counters with.  I didn’t make the purchase for my own safety, I made it for my cat.  It became clear to me that since my cat ate on the floor in the kitchen, and liked to hang out in the kitchen window to watch the beach traffic go by, that I was imposing poisonous chemicals on him every day.  I knew I had sprayed the floors and the counters with bleach.  I could choose to avoid being in the kitchen after having done so, but my cat didn’t know there was poison on the counter and floor.  He was dependent on me and I couldn’t bare the thought of slowly poisoning him over the course of his life.  Having made that decision prompted me to go a step further and change the quality of the food I gave him, which prompted me to feed myself better, because if I’m gonna feed the cat well, I should probably care for myself in the same way right?  This was my strange experience, but it started a process that has been continuous since that day.  13 years later, I call it mindfulness and my bank of knowledge is much bigger, but it does not stop.

My personal process of mindful consumption now goes much further than the label I read. I now think beyond the information that is available as I stand in an aisle ready to make a purchase.  My process begins much earlier now.  It begins at home.  We have been employing some practices that I didn’t have a name for until my partner Amy and I were discussing this post last night.  She pointed me toward a phrase she read in Lorilee Cracker’s book Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving. She uses an acronym to describe her use of goods and decision to buy more.  UWMW or Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make Do, Or Do Without.  We have been slowly moving toward this ideal and I think it’s a great place to start.  Think first… This thing I think I need…  Do I need it?  Do I have something that does that already?  Can I repair what I have?  Can I make something out of materials I have on hand that will serve the purpose?  This is the first step in mindful consumption.  Discerning the real need.

I recognize that this does not fulfill the desire to purchase something new.  We live in a culture that tempts us with consumerism all the time.  We don’t even have a TV in our house to be exposed to the continuous onslaught of commercials, but we are nonetheless tempted by radio, internet, magazines or simply walking down the street and seeing what our neighbors have the we don’t.   There are several times in my life I can point to where I had the feeling that I just wanted to go get something new.  I couldn’t explain it really, but I just wanted to go buy something.  I came across an article this morning that helped put some of that into perspective.  Rick Heller, a journalist and author, wrote, in a November 2011 article at steadystate.org called A Mindful Path to a Steady State Economy that, “Our appetites go through a cycle of wanting and liking — which reinforces further wanting. When we desire something, the brain transmits a chemical called dopamine. When we get what we want and like it, the brain releases internal opioids. The latter are chemically similar to morphine and heroin, which helps explain how desires can become addictive.”  If you see this through the Buddhist lens of mindfulness, you can see that you are inviting joys that are ultimately not helpful.  To again quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “There are types of joy that can be nourishing and healing, bringing us calm, comfort, making us peaceful and fresh, and helping us to remain clear and lucid.  That is the kind of joy that we need.  There are other kinds of joy that may bring us a lot of suffering later on…  We have to distinguish between the two kinds of joy.  One is healing and nourishing and the other is destructive.”  As Rick Heller continues in his article, “Mindfulness addresses this challenge by showing how to find novelty in the smallest details of daily life… Mindfulness generates novelty and excites the dopamine neurons not by covering a lot of ground fast, but by delving deeper into familiar turf.”  When we mindfully consume and ask the increasingly deep questions as we are aware of them, we begin to reap the benefits of this sustained joy, as well as leaving more for others in the developing world and thus inviting increased abundance for all.

There are a number of other issues to be considered beyond that first question of whether or not we need anything at all.  Once we have decided that it is indeed time to make a purchase, what should we be considering beyond what we can read on the label while standing in the aisle?  I like to look at it through several different lenses at that point.  I consider the environment, workers rights, safety & health, and personal well-being.  To address several of these, we must look intently at the supply chain.  We live in a world that gathers and assembles goods from a variety of sources.  To consider your shoes, you must take in to account that the rubber may have come from South America, the leather from Europe, the fibers and metal eyelets from Asia.  These pieces may be assembled in Europe or Asia and then shipped to the United States to distribution warehouses, then to the store.  What about the packaging?  What about how you get to the store to purchase the shoes?  All of this uses energy in the form of oil.  All of this affects workers rights at some point in the chain.  All of this concerns my safety and health, if not immediately (though it could be if you consider any off-gassing from components in those shoes), certainly globally with regards to the stability of international relations.  When looking at all of the different ways the shoes I purchase may affect the world as a whole and my place and peace in it, I may be tempted to simply go barefoot, or as I often choose, to purchase my shoes at a thrift store.  In fact, this is my favorite solution if I can find a pair that fits and the soles are still in decent shape.  All of the destruction that these shoes have created in the world has already taken place.  I am not, if I purchase shoes here, contributing to any increased demand, and am additionally extending the life of those resources already used.

Another way I personally choose to address mindfulness in my consumption is by adopting a vegan lifestyle.  It should be noted that I do not consider myself a militant vegan and do not expect the world to become vegan in order to save itself or any other such rhetoric, but I do think that if the world looked seriously at the amount of meat and animal products that they consume, we could certainly make a dent in the cost of our consumption.  Raising meat is incredibly energy and resource dependent, and if everyone removed meat from their diet for just 5 or 10 days out of each month it would do much to reduce the threats we face from global climate change and world hunger.  In a study dating back to 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that according to the National Corn Growers Association, 80 percent of corn grown in the United States is consumed by foreign and domestic livestock, poultry, and farmed fish.  Additionally, the transport of the grain, transport of livestock to commercial feed lots, energy used to process, store and ship the meat produced and the increased methane from those concentrated feed lots contributes greatly to concerns about the environment.

I also mentioned personal well-being as a consideration when employing mindfulness in consumption and by that I mean well-being in the home.  How does what we purchase affect our daily routines in the home.  This is an element of mindfulness that I need a lot of help with.  It does not come naturally to me, nor does it come naturally I think to many people these days.  What I’m getting at here is consideration for how what we consume and purchase affects how we interact with our families.  I said earlier that we don’t have a TV in our house.  This, I think, was a step in the right direction for me when I made the decision to get rid of my TV about 5 years ago.  But I’m not even close to honoring the time I have with my family at the level I think would truly transform us into a house of real abundance.  We still have a computer that is, more often than not, open and dialed in to some sort of media outlet, be it a social networking site, streaming videos and news, the radio, or just a simple web-search.  We still get DVDs at the library and my son watches more Reading Rainbow, Sesame Street, and Nemo than I would care to admit.  We don’t spend as much time playing games or simply sitting and talking as I would like, and a lot of it is due to poorly-formed habits that date back decades for me personally.  This is a new horizon for me that I am continuously feeding the knowledge bank with in order to inform my choices going forward, and the impetus came from having a child and wanting the best for him and his development.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m not perfect here, but there is something to strive for, and most certainly, my purchasing will affect it, thus, I add it to my bag of tricks.

So what can mindfulness bring us with regards to our consumption?  Personally, I believe, we can bring more of the nourishing joy that we need in our lives.  I think if we have more of this joy, we will greatly affect the lives of those whom we come in contact with.  That’s what we can do for ourselves.  That’s the self-serving effect.  Much further beyond that, though, is the good we can do for the world.  By employing mindfulness in this way, we see ourselves as part of a larger community.  We take what we need and leave more for others.  We concentrate our purchasing power on manifesting positive change in the world, and we help create a shining example of abundance for the world.  There is enough, if we simply choose that it be so.

For more thoughts and viewpoints, please continue reading with Esther Emery at Church in The Canyon Blog and Jaysen Waller at The Metta Garden Blog.  Both have coordinated posts with me today on the topic of “Mindful Living” as a part of our Solidarity Thursdays.  If you like what you see there or here, please consider following their posts and mine to see where this whole thing goes.  It’s very exciting to be writing with others and exploring all these topics have to offer through a variety of lenses.  Thanks so much for reading.

Finding Abundance in a World of Scarcity

As a result of years of conversation, Esther Emery and I have decided to coordinate at least one post per week on the topics that have come to dominate those conversations.  As Esther and her beautiful family embark on a new family adventure and seek to engage these ideas head-on as modern homesteaders, my family has found ourselves drawn back to the city.  With these two divergent paths, we will blog from our own experiences and environments on a given topic.  You will find a link to Esther’s blog at the bottom of this post.  Please continue reading and join the conversation.

This week’s topic:  Abundance Vs. Scarcity

We live in a world of scarcity.  At least that’s what has been sold to us.  Scarcity is what makes our current economic model work.  Scarcity is what persuades you to “stock up”.  It is what encourages rising prices.  Scarcity is cemented into the entire framework of a free-market capitalist paradigm.  Supply and demand… That’s scarcity.  That’s less supply equals more demand equals higher prices and bigger profits.  The notion of scarcity is used across the board by each side of a capitalist argument.  It is used by the oil companies to justify higher prices when supply is down or when they need to invest in new drilling infrastructure, yet it is also used by environmentalists to justify the need to move away from oil and toward renewables due to peak oil and rising carbon emissions – an idea I happen to agree with and often spout myself.  Scarcity is used by the market when the price of corn is driven up after a bad crop like the one we saw this year due to nearly unprecedented drought.  It is used by large agri-business companies to justify genetic alteration to our food supply with the explanation that that genetic modification will help to feed the world because hunger is due to a lack or scarcity of food.  We use scarcity in our home and family life when we wall off our home from our neighbors to keep what’s ours inside the bounds of our property.

There are myriad examples in our daily life of the permeating effect that scarcity has on our psyche.  Scarcity employs fear.  Because this notion that we live in a world of scarce resources, money, happiness, food and sustenance is so deeply rooted in our collective view of the world, and because we humans are still endowed with some natural instincts, we are virtually incapable of seeing anything other than the dangers that life presents.  It’s true.  Our fight or flight instincts take control and we find it physically difficult to concentrate on anything other than the dangers to our well-being.  That’s biology.  Sure, we are no longer concerned day in and day out that a large feline will pounce from a tree and make a meal out of us, but we are no less susceptible to fear.  We all have a big cat hiding in a tree.  Perhaps it’s a looming rent payment.  Maybe it’s a doctor’s appointment.  It’s possible that you fear getting into a car accident, or climate change, or global war?  These instincts are strong in us, and for millennia, we needed them to make it through the day.  We are, however, at the dawning of a new consciousness or understanding of the world and I believe that if we act deliberately and collectively, we can put that instinct in our pocket and save it for the truly big cats.

As we strive to understand the world in which we live and how it is changing, I think it is imperative that we take a long hard look at how we live – in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in harmony with our environment.  When you begin to look at the systems we have in place with a severely critical eye, you will, I think, recognize redundancies, waste, inefficiencies, and… well…  abundance.

Take, for example, the way in which we deal with storm water.  Water is a contentious issue.  In some regions of this country we are worried about perennial floods, in others, droughts, yet we deal with storm water pretty much the same way, across the country – at least at the point of contact with an individual home.  The rain falls on the roof, collects in the gutters (if we’ve cleaned them out), travels to the downspout and is directed away from the house towards the city’s storm drainage system, which in most cases, is directed toward local tributaries, which in turn flow to rivers and then the sea, all the while siphoned off where rights permit to irrigate commodity crops.  Then, when we need to water our garden, we pay the city to pump fresh water back on to our property.  As I said before, water is contentious, for a variety of reasons including pest control, the spread of disease, structural integrity of neighboring properties, and often hidden behind these and other reasons, water rights, or profit.  For instance, in the last two places I have lived (San Diego, CA and Boulder County, CO) it is illegal to collect rain water with cited reasons being control of mosquito populations and water rights.  In Boulder County, all the water that falls on my roof belongs to Denver and steep fines are levied if you are found to be collecting that water, yet I must pay to have water pumped back to my house if I want to water the food I grow on site.  A quick calculation shows that over 25,000 gallons of water fall on the roofs of the house we live in and the garage, yet that water is pushed toward the street.  This is ill-used abundance.

As another example, local apples recently came into season, and I can buy them at any grocery store in town for around $3.00/lb.  As I have walked about our neighborhood over the previous couple of months I have counted 10 or more apple trees within a five block radius of my house. All of them weighed down with fruit that has eventually fallen to the ground creating a mess of applesauce on the sidewalks and in the yards of my neighbors. Literally hundreds of bushels of apples within walking distance and nearly all of them wasted and rotting on the ground. We collected about 40 or 50 of these apples from trees that were on public lands.  We made baked apples, apple juice, and apple pie, but could have started a production line had we the means to harvest them all, and that’s not including the wasted fruit from the trees we saw on private property.  This is ill-used abundance.

To look at an example beyond my own neighborhood, we can return to the agri-business companies that currently tout genetically modified seed as the solution to hunger around the globe.  This, in my opinion, is an insidious example of scarcity used to produce profit.  Large companies like these assume when they make their arguments about world hunger that the only way to feed the world is with the industrialized food system.  The arguments assume that we must grow massive crops of corn, rice, wheat and soybeans in order to provide baseline nutrition for starving communities.  They assume that the only way to feed starving nations is through delivered food aid in the form of charity.  If you take a closer look at aid of this sort, you will see just how much of the money spent to deliver that aid is eaten up in profit by the companies that deliver it.  You will see that much of it goes to the companies that provide the seed (they’re not giving it away).  Then the farmers, many of whom amount to sharecroppers for large conglomerates rather than family owned farms due to the exorbitant cost of running a farm of the scale that can produce single crops in the quantity “needed.”  Then it’s the companies that process and package the food for delivery.  And finally, the global shipping companies that deliver the food to the actual people that need it.

This is a dependent system.  There is money to be made by this scarcity, and this type of aid does nothing to remove the need of the people, thereby shackling them to a scarcity paradigm.  When the food aid runs out, they will need more because food is still scarce in that region.   The food is commodified, and without the money to purchase it, those communities will remain in need of that aid which further feeds the profits of the companies involved in delivering the aid.  Another common misconception about this type of aid is that these are regions where food just won’t grow so the food must come from outside.  That can’t be possible or people would never have settled in those regions to begin with.  There was a time when these communities produced all they needed, but through a scarcity model that says they are in need and an overwhelming lack of education, they have become dependent on outside help to sustain their communities.  This comes about differently for each of these communities.  For some it is a free-market coming to an area that had no experience or need for capitalism or commodification of their resources.  For others it’s depletion of fresh water due to contamination by industry.  For others still it is desertification due to clear-cutting and soil erosion.  Each dependent community has it’s own unique story.  So where’s the abundance here?  It comes about when those communities are empowered to take their fate into their own hands.

Aid is terribly important here, but not the kind described above. By using the massive amount of aid (in the form of dollars) the world is capable of delivering for farming education and community building, we can bring these communities back and produce abundance for everyone.  Heifer International, whose mission can be viewed here, is a prime example of how aid can empower communities to bring about change and abundance.  Permaculture India is working with rural communities to develop permaculture farms that find all they need within those farms rather than depending on external inputs.  And here in the United States, Will Allen, through his organization, Growing Power, is “Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.”  All of these organizations are committed to bringing abundance to poverty stricken communities through education and empowerment by way of self-actualized food security.

These have all been concrete examples of how the world in which we live produces scarcity, when in fact, abundance is present, but let’s consider the abstract.  Let’s go back to that instinct and the perpetual barrage of scarcity the surrounds us in our communities.  If we are pre-conditioned to accept that there is something to be fearful of around every corner, how do we change our thinking?  How do we put that fear aside and focus on inviting abundance in to our own lives and families and communities?

As it turns out, this shift in thinking is already beginning.  It is happening incrementally at the ultra-local level.  All around the world, small groups of people are working hard to protect their communities from destruction.  That destruction comes about in a number of ways as mentioned above, though climate change, or resource exploitation, or by the overlaying of social structures on top of cultures that are not interested in shifting their way of life.  Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, estimates that there could be as many as one million of these small civic and cultural groups around the world that focus their efforts on self-healing and community preservation.  People are beginning to take matters in to their own hands and ignore the common wisdom of patriarchal systems that have passed judgement on the worth of their communities based mostly on their ability to contribute to economic growth.  As Grace Lee Boggs points out in her recent book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For the Twenty-First Century, “Many of these groups are inspired by a philosophy that replaces the scientific and reductive rationalism of seventeenth-century Western male philosophers (such as Descartes and Bacon) with the ways of knowing of Indigenous Peoples (which include the perceptions of trees and animals) and women, based on intimate connections with Nature and ideas of healing and caring that were part of European village culture prior to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch hunts.”

We are coming to the end of an age.  This age brought us much prosperity and brought much of the world out of poverty, but we have reached the limits of it’s ability to create real abundance.  It is an age that will collapse on itself if we do not turn the page and move forward.  More than 10,000 years ago, we roamed the earth with no society outside of those with whom we hunted and gathered with.  The age of agriculture brought us closer together and allowed us to put down roots and explore our capacity for compassion and shared sacrifice.  The Axial age laid the foundation for our spirituality as we settled down in those communities that the agricultural age allowed.  The industrial age further centralized us and grew our communities as we built the great cities of the world.  The information age has filled us to the brim with knowledge of our ancestors, our brothers and sisters across the world, our faults, our triumphs, and our possibilities.  Boggs points us to Karen Armstrong, the 2008 TED prize winner, author, and spiritual scholar noting that “Armstrong is convinced that as a result of urbanization, globalization, and rapidly changing technology the whole world is now in the midst of a social crisis as profound as that of the Axial Age.  We are therefore called on to make a similar leap in faith, to practice a similar compassion.  Native People’s view of the Earth as a sacred entity rather than only as a resource, she believes, provides us with a model.”

In my personal experience, I have noticed over the last couple of years how important the notion of abundance is for me.  I have ebbed and flowed with the tides of my thoughts for how to remake myself.  I’ve struggled with how to be more true to my belief that abundance is the reality of our world rather than the model of scarcity that penetrates our social fabric and can so quickly discourage us from our path.  I have seen great abundance in support from my friends and family.  I have also seen how scarcity and my fear of it can absolutely paralyze me and close me off from opportunities that are staring me in the face.  I want to live from a place of abundance.  My world is more full, my heart is happy, and my mind at ease when I do.  When I succumb to scarcity as my reality, I feel empty, heavy, hopeless and afraid.

Abundance is a state of mind. It is not food or water or resources of any kind.  It is not sunlight and wind or gas and coal providing all the energy we need.  It is not money.  It is not capitalism or socialism or communism.  Abundance is the heart with which we strive compassionately to end poverty and hunger.  It is the wealth of community and friendship and family we need to feel safe and loved in the world.  It is the collective will of the people to provide for one another.  It is the reverence and awe of our environment that we must have in order to preserve life.  It is the nourishment of our bodies and minds with the fruit of our hope for peace.  It is our recognition of all peoples as one humanity.  We are each other’s keepers.

For another take on the issues of Abundance Vs. Scarcity please visit Esther Emery’s Blog here.  We have made a point to coordinate these posts so that the conversation can grow among our community and any who choose to engage in the discussion.  Together we grow.  

Defining “Local” in the Twenty-First Century

lo·cal   adjective   \ˈlō-kəl\

1   : characterized by or relating to position in space : having a definite spatial form or location
2a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a particular place : not general or widespread
2b : of, relating to, or applicable to part of a whole
3a : primarily serving the needs of a particular limited district
3b : of a public conveyance : making all the stops on a route
4   : involving or affecting only a restricted part of the organism: topical <a local anesthetic>
5   : of or relating to telephone communication within a specified area

This is how Merriam-Webster defines the word “Local.”  But I think it is time that we expand this definition as we tackle “local” issues.  Yes, most of the time, a local issue will be very specifically anchored to place, but when we consider the term with regards to community, things get a little hairy.  If I am to focus my efforts on incremental change within my local community, what does that mean for my broader community.  I am very fortunate to have friends and loved ones spread out across the world.

 If I am to address issues at home – read “locally” – does that mean specifically that I should not concern myself with others whom I share a common interest with in regards to engaging in these large paradigm-shift questions?  I think not.  I recognize that the definition of “Community” does not absolutely prescribe place, and would seemingly solve the quandary by simply ignoring the word “local.”

com·mu·ni·ty    nounoften attributive    \kə-ˈmyü-nə-tē\

1   : a unified body of individuals: as
1a : statecommonwealth
1b : the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself        <the problems of a large community>
1c : an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location
1d : a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society <a communityof retired persons>
1e : a group linked by a common policy
1f  : a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests <the international community>
1g : a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society <the academiccommunity>
2   : society at large
3a : joint ownership or participation <community of goods>
3b : common character : likeness <community of interests>
3c : social activity : fellowship
3d : a social state or condition

As you can see, many of these definitions clarify that your community need not be “local.”  But my question here is one of the scale in which we exist today.  Yes, if I want to talk about water and irrigation, the problems are going to be extremely different here in Colorado than they will be for my friends in the Pacific Northwest, but as we begin to examine the issue closely, can we not both bring serious points to the table and do we not both learn and think critically about the issue and how exactly it applies to our physical locality?
Perhaps more aptly, if we are discussing institutional racism, surely my experiences in San Diego are relevant to my friends in Chicago.  True, they are not “the same,” but they do inform and help steer a conversation.  This quandary about the term local came to me after considering a group that I belong to called Open Hearts & Minds.  We are a very small, as of now, and ragtag group of similarly minded people around the country brought together by a friend of mine. The purpose of the group is to engage in critical discourse about the very serious and challenging issues of our times without succumbing to the polarizing rhetoric that is hurled about through social networking.  We endeavor to discuss these myriad issues with a focus on listening to one another and steering clear of inflammatory language and untruths.  As we discuss those issues, our hope is to take those discussions back to our “local communities” to further the discussions as they pertain to our experiences at the local level.  As I sat down to consider my “local community”, it occurred to me, that I am displaced from that which I consider to be that community.  We are living in Colorado for a couple of years, and have admittedly not engaged as fully in our present community as we might have wished.  After further thought, though, it became clear that my community knows no physical place.  Sure, we call San Diego County our “home”, and Louisville, CO our “residence”, but our “community” knows no locality.  So how do I bring the conversation “home” to a community and disregard friends who I feel are instrumental to my experience of the world, simply because they do not live within a prescribed distance of my residence?
The distance between us has narrowed.  We are not so far apart.  Physical distance is transcended by our utilization of modern technology.  As a result, what I say here is read in New York and Portland simultaneously and is therefore, just as timely, if not relevant to those who choose to read it.  Does that not then redefine “Local?”  If my definition of local is expanded to include everyone with whom I am in regular contact with, then “thinking globally” and “thinking locally” can equate.  I said in my previous post that we must forget the cliched bumper sticker and instead “Think Locally, Act Locally.”  I think that is true, but we must redefine “Locally” on both sides of that phrase.  Yes, what I am capable of doing physically is only relevant to my physical space, but that project, in abstract, is of real relevance to my expanded sense of “local community.”  Similarly, as I consider new ideas to implement in my physical space, I must consider the ideas produced by that same expanded sense of “local community.”  Thus, in considering what ideas to employ, I must be thinking about problems presented to me by my physical place and solutions offered by those in close proximity as well as those in my expanded sense of “local community.”  In addition, as I happen upon solutions to problems posed by my physical place, I must share those solutions with my neighbors near and far.

 

Our world is more closely linked than ever before.  We are witnessing what Thomas Friedman calls the flattening of the world.  As communications and rural off-grid power supplies bring us nearer to our global communities, we have an obligation to engage with them as neighbors.  We must treat the entire earth as our backyard.  It is all “local.”

Talking the talk…

I don’t protest.  I don’t demonstrate.  I rarely “participate.”  I observe.  Only now, entering my late 30s, am I able to see how being one that observes IS a form of participation.  As i read, watch, investigate, research and experiment I am, in essence, engaging in the changing world.  I am trying new ideas on for size.  I am scrutinizing my daily routines and making subtle shifts in habit.  I am becoming more aware of myself and my place in a new paradigm.  This, I think, must count as walking the walk.  One need not have given several years of service to community organizations, or work full-time for a non-profit, or have been awarded a grant for innovative new thinking to be a part of the world as we discover what comes next.  One must only possess a recognition of the change that is beginning, and a determination to learn more, however incrementally, about what they can bring to the table.

We are living at the cusp of something new.  It it undefined.  It exists only as vision and a few experiments throughout the world.  It is not widespread in action, though clearly in need.  It does not have limits.  It is, however, most certainly, new.  Even as our new world paradigm seeks to incorporate past truths and models of life, it does so with a new understanding.  This new understanding comes on the heels of great turmoil that is decades old.  This turmoil, in conjunction with our unprecedented connection to the global community, lays a marker for us to strive from.  We must gather our strength, knowledge, and resources and work with unrivaled cooperation to bring about the change we hope to see.  We are, as Grace Lee Boggs says, the change we’ve been looking for.

As we embark on a quest for collaborative community, we must recognize where we are.  We must recognize that we live in a world with seemingly insurmountable challenges. We live in a polarized world of conflicting ideologies.  Extremists at all peripheries  command the spotlight, giving no room for negotiation and tolerance.  Our populations are exploding worldwide, and as they explode, the gap between those that are rich and those that are poor is widening exponentially.  We have commodified our natural resources and our worth as human beings.  We have privatized profits and socialized the costs.  Our environment is suffering from man-made climate change.  Children are neglected by outdated and incompetent education systems.  Racism and Sexism run rampant.  And our food and water supplies are poisoned.  Most, if not all of this, is due to the pursuit of profit and economic growth, which fails to recognize the basic physics of a perpetual growth model with finite resources.

Similarly, as this quest begins, we must also recognize that there are people adjusting.  There are new models to explore.  Detroit offers cogent examples of people taking change in to their own hands and ignoring the status quo.  Brasil has implemented new transportation systems to deal with the environment and social inequality.  Co-ops and farmers markets are springing up all around us.  European style worker-owned factories are taking root in the United States.  Energy Think-Tanks are breaking the mold as we try to adapt to Peak Oil.  And alternative education models are becoming increasingly popular.

We can no longer look to government, though it plays a role.  We can no longer simply give money to our particular causes, as the organizations and non-profits lack the breadth of understanding to tackle something so large as a paradigm shift.  We must do this in our neighborhoods and communities.  We must listen to each other; inquire as to each other’s needs; seek opportunities to mend the fabric of our society.  As we search, armed with the knowledge and resources of those that are already conducting experiments around the world, we must forget the cliched bumper sticker and instead, “Think Locally, Act Locally.”

As I endeavor to answer these questions in my own community, I aim to share my findings, thereby expanding the wealth of knowledge.  As the walls of our current paradigm begin to decay, we all have a seed to plant in the rubble.  I believe that a garden of abundance is taking root and will blossom in the Spring.