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Jul. 27 2009 — 3:56 pm | 10 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Get Happy

Dannebrog in flight.

Image via Wikipedia

Year in year out, some new study confirms that the world’s happiest people live in cold, wind-swept Denmark.

Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner offers a compelling theory why: expectations. It isn’t  really that the Danes have low expectations; it’s just that they do not, as we Americans tend to do, attach their personal well-being to to things they want. As Weiner wrote last week on his Happy Days blog:

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment….

The hedonic treadmill insinuates itself into our lives, in ways large and small. As a budding audiophile, I recently purchased a headphone amplifier — a tiny black box that attaches to my iPod. Wow, I thought, this sounds incredible. At least that’s what I thought for about one week. Then my ears grew accustomed to the enhanced fidelity and craved something better. Before long, I was back on line, credit card in hand. Intellectually, I knew that my next audio fix would be just as fleeting, but I couldn’t resist the seductive pull of the hedonic treadmill.

Denmark represents what some sociologists call a “post-consumer society.” Danes have nice things, but they value quality over quantity. Instead of time spent shopping alone, Danes engage in hygge (pronounced “hoogey”). It’s a kind of spontaneous get-together with friends. Add to that the fact that Danes are compulsive joiners. Ninety-two percent of the population belongs to a social club. Almost all of the recent research into Happiness Studies comes to the same conclusion: we are social animals, and nothing makes us happy as consistently as strong social bonds.

A University of Cambridge study also found that trust in government, the police and other people is a remarkable determinant of individual happiness. All of the Scandinavian countries seem to bear this out. Transparency International gives Finland a 9.9 out of 10 in terms of political transparency and lack of corruption. Sixty-four percent of Norwegians agree with the statement, “Most people can be trusted.” In Brazil, the number plunges to five percent. What’s more, researchers have dropped wallets all around the world. The result? If you have to lose your wallet, do it in a Nordic country; the chances are good you’ll get it back.

While travelling through Scandinavia last year, I noticed something else. Train conductors and house painters are not looked down upon, or looked past. Scandinavians don’t seem to accept the rigid class divide of the U.S., and they don’t tie so much of their identity or their happiness to their jobs. What the American philosopher William James called “that bitch-goddess status” does not seem to hold as much sway over the Scandinavians as it does with us.

What’s going on here? How did the land of the obstreperous Vikings turn into the land of milk and honey? About 1,100 years ago, King Olaf discovered Christianity and converted his pagan country to the teachings of peace and brotherhood. The Scandinavians never seemed to take too seriously all the piety of Christianity, but they did start handing out an annual award for peace called the Nobel Prize.

The late, great American writer Guy Davenport spent several summers in Copenhagen. Many of his brilliant, utopian fictions are set there. He observed in his “Danish Journal,”

The Danes are a highly moral people who are unembarrassed by the facts of life. They sunbathe naked in their parks. They have decriminalized every affection they can think of.

I think it was Davenport’s profound disillusionment with his own country that led him to revere Danish culture above all others. The Danes adopted the right parts of Christianity–that whole brotherhood of man thing–and rejected piety and prejudice. They replaced consumerism with conviviality. As one of Davenport’s characters writes in his own journal, the Danes made their two greatest goods, “freedom of spirit for the individual, and social justice for the community.”

I could be happy with that.





Jul. 21 2009 — 1:22 pm | 15 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Seriously, why bother?

WH Garden

Image by UrbanReviewSTL via Flickr

So over the weekend, the Secretary of State gets an ear-full from India’s environmental and forests minister, Jairam Ramesh, that goes something like this: one American consumes as much as twenty-five people living in India, and you are going to lecture me on carbon dioxide? Please.

Then today the Times reports that India has agreed to let U.S. companies build and profit from two nuclear power plants in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, but the U.S. companies won’t get started until India agrees to shield them from $450 million of liability in the event of nuclear meltdown.

Such hypocricies remind one how hard it is, as Americans, to talk about the climate crisis,when we are largely responsible for it. It can drive you to ask the question Michael Pollan posed in The New York Times Magazine, “Why bother?” Pollan asked it in terms of China’s population, not India’s, but it is the same question: Why grow a garden, and buy local, and stop eating beef when

I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelganger in Shanghai or Chongping who has just bought his first care (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for my troubles.

Derrick Jensen, in his column in the current issue of Orion magazine, offers this answer: nothing. Or next to nothing. Both Pollan and Jensen have problems with the consumer-oriented “solutions” offered at the end of Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.Even if we did all that Gore asks, U.S. carbon emissions would only drop 22 percent, not the 80 percent that is needed to stave off real global problems. Jensen, who makes a kind of art out of the inflammatory, puts it this way:

Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery…. Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions?”

The point is well-taken. If individual consumption accounts for only 25 percent of all U.S. energy consumption, then something else has to give. Namely, industry, commerce, agribusiness and the military. Personal changes, however virtuous, are not enough: we have to change the system.

I like Derrick Jensen. I like that the way he tells the choir, within the context of an environmental magazine, that they suck. Or that they need to change their tune, or at least sing with a little more passion.

 And he’s right that we need to think of citizenship as a much more active duty, a way of redefining democracy against the forces of industrial-capitalism. But personal change has to be a part of that. For one, if you buy less, and buy local, you are changing the market culture–shifting it away from petroleum-based fertilizers and transportation. You are also changing yourself at the most fundamental level–the level of conscience and character. No real environmental movement can sustain itself without that kind of change on the part of the individual.

What’s more, changes on the individual level are acts, however small, of self-reliance, of taking control of one’s life back from Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Agra.

Not only that, as Pollan writes in “Why Bother?”

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand.

But beyond all that, if you are someone who is calling for the end of, say, mountaintop removal strip mining, and you are doing nothing to reduce your own consumption of coal, why should anyone listen to you? You’re a goddamn hypocrite.  You have no moral high ground.

China and India have to see that not only the Obama family, with its White House vegetable garden, are advocating personal change, but that many, many more Americans are ready and willing to make fundamental changes to reduce the size of this country’s carbon footprint.



Jul. 10 2009 — 1:33 pm | 2 views | 2 recommendations | 2 comments

What the World Needs Now …

The rocky shoreline of Newport, Rhode Island s...

Image via Wikipedia

This week, while President Obama and the G-8 were trying to get serious out the climate crisis, I was sitting on a very hot beach that could soon be under water, reading John Hay’s neglected classic, In Defense of Nature.

The book comes out of Hay’s rich experiences wandering the northeastern coasts of North America. I took In Defense of Nature with me because this is its 40th anniversary, because Hay was a great writer, and because he was writing–40 years ago–with the same urgency we must now bring to the issue of “defending nature.” I put the idea in scare quotes because it has become increasingly problematic. It still suggests some kind of dualism wherein nature is a helpless, silent thing out there that needs us to save it from ourselves. And while that is partly true, it must also be said that we need saving from ourselves, and we must stop thinking about ourselves as standing above and apart from the natural world.

Now our most urgent business is to recognize that we exist within larger ecosystems that sustain us, or do not, depending on how we understand our relation to them, and that the ultimate ecosystem is the planet, whose atmosphere we are altering. (A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows a familiar and disturbing disconnect between the scientific community and the American public on global warming; but climate change call be boiled down to this–the molecular structure of carbon-dioxide traps heat, and that can be proven in any high school chemistry class.)

Hay asked the fundamental question four decades ago: “Why this scarring business of playing God? Is this not our last chance to play at being man?” To see the scarring business of extracting coal, the leading cause of climate change, check out this video:

Nobody plays God like the strip miners, believe me, and it is vastly encouraging to see that one of the country’s most respected climate scientists, James Hansen, is now making a direct link between the climate crisis and mountaintop removal strip mining. And Hansen is right now, as sadly Hay was in 1969, that we are running out of time. It is a frustratingly American phenomenon that, as Hay wrote, “Crisis and disaster may be our only educators.” But that’s where we find ourselves now–at our last chance of being men and women, members of a larger land community.

We are the clever animal; there’s no doubt. We did, after all, invent language–words with which to construct a beautiful book like In Defense of Nature, and words with which to deny things like torture and climate change. George Orwell pointed out in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” that political thinking suffers when language suffers. When language becomes too abstract, it becomes a “defense of the indefensible,” a rhetoric calculated to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” I don’t think any evidence need be marshaled here to show how right Orwell was.

But language can also move in the other direction, toward the concrete. This, said John Hay, would mean a move in the direction of conservation and responsibility. “To conserve and have it stick,” he wrote, “needs more education in particularity and in close attention to the precious elements of life than we have yet had.” We need more public education in the particular, such as Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard movement, whereby children grow, learn about and eat food from their own particular schoolyard.

The attention we pay to the natural world need not come at the beach or in the Adirondacks. In fact, it must be nurtured in cities. The particular stories we tell ourselves must include many more like Elizabeth Royte’s profile in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine of urban farmer Will Allen, whose Growing Power farm in downtown Milwaukee feeds 10,000 city dwellers. There, truly, resides a partial solution to the problems of climate change (the food is grown and consumed without petroleum fertilizers or transportation), health care (no diabetes here), and education (Allen is a 6-foot-7 ex-pro basketball player; children listen to him).

Allen and Alice Waters are showing us how to turn away from our scarring attitude toward the natural world, back toward one that will make us more fully human and more wholly accountable. It is at once a great step forward and a necessary return to what John Hay called first principles.

“Perhaps,” he wrote, “if it takes ruin to right us, we are closer than ever to first principles.”

Jul. 8 2009 — 4:50 pm | 24 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Bring Back the Watchdogs

Miners take a shuttle car that transports them to work in the mine (NIOSH)

Miners take a shuttle car that transports them to work in the mine (NIOSH)

Yesterday, President Barack Obama named Joseph Main,  a retired longtime safety and health administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, to head the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

I don’t know much about the man, but I know this: the coal industry is unhappy. “It’s going to be frustrating having somebody with an agenda that is pro-union,” said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’re not looking forward to it.” Excellent. I like him already.

As has been well-documented, George W. Bush had a habit–he made it a habit–to appoint as industry regulators men and women who had worked in, and benefited from, the very industries they were named to regulate. What happened next usually wasn’t pretty.

When Bush made David Lauriski, a general manager for Energy West Mining, the head of MSHA, Lauriski immediately set about to systematically weaken safety laws for underground miners–men and women who already had one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In the 1990s, MSHA proposed installing more “self-rescuers” (cashes of oxygen) in deep mines, but Lauriski said it was cost-prohibitive. Next thing you knew, poorly inspected mines were collapsing, and miners were dying because they didn’t have enough oxygen. Lauriski’s response? “The [coal] industry has always been good to me,” he told the Oklahoma City Journal Record. “I just hope that I’ve given back as mush as I’ve received.” He did, and that gift was paid for in blood money.

In 2000, a coal impoundment pond broke in Inez, Kentucky and 300 million gallons of toxic sludge flooded the communities below. When Jack Spadaro, the director of the Mine Safety and Health Academy, tried to hold Massey Energy criminally responsible for lying about the strength of the impoundment pond, Lauriski responded by changing the locks on Spararo’s office. The one watchdog for the people of Inez gets locked out of his office by the director of the country’s mine safety! The mind reels.

Robert Salyer made a great documentary about the whole affair called Sludge. It was produced by the heroic grassroots arts organization, Appalshop, out of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Take a look at Sludge now. Among other things, it’s a lesson in how tenuous democracy becomes when its custodians lack the moral compass to correct the greed and abuse of industry.

Jul. 2 2009 — 1:13 pm | 15 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The Fathers Fight Back

PF Flyers

As I was visiting my 70-year-old father on Father’s Day last week, we fell into a discussion of how I developed my love of reading. When I was growing up, we had few books in our house that were not bibles. One summer, when I was nine or ten, I discovered that the public library’s Bookmobile made a weekly stop at the strip mall about a mile from my house. The Bookmobile was a blue and white bus, dark and cavernous on the inside. The shelves were set at at 45% angle so none of the books would fly off in transit. For me, it was a kind of portal into a new world of storytelling.

On my weekly pilgrimage to the Bookmobile, I discovered authors like John D. Fitzgerald, whose semi-autobiographical books about growing up reflected so many of my own boyhood fears and ambitions. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was reading about real people, not biblical characters in some far-out place and time. I spend a lot of my time now writing about this country’s environmental problems. But I think the Bookmobile still lurks in the background, both a literal and metaphorical vehicle for the power of story to communicate the complex realism of this country.
That’s what I was telling my father last Sunday.

“Why didn’t I ever know any of that?” he said, looking at me and then my mother. “Why didn’t I know about the Bookmobile?

“Well,” I said, “you know, you were at work.”

“Someone could have told me when I got home,” he replied. “That’s something I would have liked to have known about.”

My father was a mechanical engineer. I guess it never occurred to me that he would have cared about such things. So I didn’t tell him. Now I see that there might have been hundreds of things we could have talked about, other ways we might have communicated outside the realm of sports.

A few days after our conversation, I picked up The Best American Poetry of 2008, edited by Charles Wright. I came across this fine poem by Bob Hicok, and the silence that has so much defined my space between my and my father came back to me with a new intensity and resonance:

“O my pa-pa”

Our fathers have formed a poetry workshop.
They sit in a circle of disappointment over our fastballs
and wives. We thought they didn’t read our stuff,
whole anthologies of poems that begin, My father never,
or those that end, and he was silent as a carp,
or those with middles which, if you think
of the right side as a sketch, look like a paunch
of beer and worry, but secretly, with flashlights
in the woods, they’ve read every word and noticed
that our nine happy poems have balloons and sex
and giraffes inside, but not one dad waving hello
from the top of a hill at dusk. Theirs
is the revenge school of poetry, with titles like
“My Yellow Sheet Lad” and “Given Your Mother’s Taste
for Vodka, I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Mine.”
They’re not trying to make the poems better
so much as sharper or louder, more like a fishhook
or electrocution, as a group
they overcome their individual senilities,
their complete distaste for language, how cloying
it is, how like tears it can be, and remember
every mention of their long hours at the office
or how tired they were when they came home,
when they were dragged through the door
by their shadows. I don’t know why it’s so hard
to write a simple and kind poem to my father, who worked,
not like a dog, dogs sleep most of the day in a ball
of wanting to chase something, but like a man, a man
with seven kids and a house to feed, whose absence
was his presence, his present, the Cheerios,
the PF Flyers, who taught me things about trees,
that they’re the most intricate version of standing up,
who built a grandfather clock with me so I would know
that time is a constructed thing, a passing, ticking fancy.
A bomb. A bomb that’ll go off soon for him, for me,
and I notice in our fathers’ poems a reciprocal dwelling
on absence, that they wonder why we disappeared
as soon as we got our licenses, why we wanted
the rocket cars, as if running away from them
to kiss girls who looked like mirrors of our mothers
wasn’t fast enough, and it turns out they did
start to say something, to form the words hey
or stay, but we’d turned into a door full of sun,
into the burning leave, and were gone
before it came to them that it was all right
to shout, that they should have knocked us down
with a hand on our shoulders, that they too are mystified
by the distance men need in their love.

Source: Poetry (May 2007).

I love Hicok’s idea of a poetry workshop for the fathers of poets, wherein they get back at their ungrateful sons for writing poems beginning, “My father never …,” but never poems that said, “My father waved at me from the top of a hill at dusk ….” And I like his idea that our fathers’ absence–the times we were at the Bookmobile, developing our conflicted inner lives–was actually a kind of presence. Who, after all, bought me the tennis shoes with which I walked down to the Bookmobile?

I guess what I’m saying is that, for those of us who traffic in the autobiographical, we should learn to tread lightly at times, be not so quick to judge. Especially our fathers, who may have seemed “silent as a carp,” but in reality, might have been struggling fiercely to overcome “the distance men need in their love.”

And to the persistent question, “What is poetry for?” I offer up Bob Hicok’s poem as one answer.

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    About Me

    Erik Reece is the author of LOST MOUNTAIN: A YEAR IN THE VANISHING WILDERNESS and AN AMERICAN GOSPEL: ON FAMILY, HISTORY AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD. He won Columbia University's John B. Oakes Award for distinguished environmental journalism, along with the Sierra Club's David R. Brower Award. He is a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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    Contributor Since: April 2009
    Location:Lexington, KY