March 2009 Archives

Cultivating New Ecological Habits

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After listening to this week's New Yorker comment podcast entitled "Economy vs. Environment" by David Owen, I was struck by three things. 

First, economic prosperity is dirty.  Owens says that "the principle source of [hu]man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity."  The advantage of the current economic downturn is that it has slowed the carbon clock a bit.

Second, new technologies won't solve our global warming problem.  As Owens suggests, getting increased miles to the gallon is no help if it encourages people to drive more; having electric cars will not help if the electricity is produced by fossil fueled power plants and if we continue, as he writes, "sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful."

Finally, the real solution to the energy and global warming crisis lies in the transformation of human habits.  Our habits must change. We must cultivate more sustainable ways of acting and thinking, habits that allow us to live in a more symbiotic way with the planet that sustains us.

To begin, let's figure out how to live closer to where we work.  Let's ride public transportation when we can, even if it is inconvenient.  Let's convince our political representatives that it is in our best interest to pay for and otherwise support things that cultivate habits that support a more symbiotic way of living in the world.

If economic flourishing is going to promote ecological prosperity, the new, green economy will have to serve a whole new set of human habits oriented toward a mutually sustaining relationship between the world and its human co-habitants.

Brave Hellos Turning All Goodbye

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Today is John Updike's birthday

Today a friend presented me with a little gift of one of Updike's poems. It reminded me again how important now is. I knew that, of course, but one must always be reminded of it; one counts on one's friends for that.  

So, here is the poem, retyped for the pleasure of it, but available also here:

Saying Goodbye to Very Young Children

They will not be the same next time. The sayings
so cute, just a little off, will be corrected.
Their eyes will be more skeptical, plugged in
the more securely to the worldly buzz
of television, alphabet, and street talk,
culture polluting their gazes' dawn blue.
It makes you see at last the value of 
those boring aunts and neighbors (their smells
of summer sweat and cigarettes, their faces
like shapes of sky between shade-giving leaves)
who knew you from the start, when you were zero,
cooing their nothings before you could be bored
or knew a name, not even your own, or how
this world brave with hellos turns all goodbye.

-- John Updike

Magnanimity

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I have just finished listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on the Lincoln Presidency, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Although the book takes a largely uncritical view of Lincoln's political wisdom, it was compellingly told and insightful.  What struck me most was the political power of magnanimity. Goodwin does not make this point explicitly, but it seems to me that the central friendship of the book, that between Lincoln and his political rival turned close friend, William Henry Seward, was rooted in the core virtue of magnanimity which both men embodied.

The magnanimity of Lincoln was revealed repeatedly throughout the story as Lincoln confounded rivals who under-estimated his ability to navigate the world of human politics.  It was what allowed him to tolerate General McClellan's repeated challenges to his judgment and authority during the early stages of the war.  It was what enabled him to draw on Salmon P. Chase's extraordinary ability to raise money for the war effort as Treasury Secretary even as Chase opposed him for the Republican nomination in the 1864 election.  In these and many other cases, Lincoln acted always in a thoughtful, even manner, never allowing his anger to cloud his judgment or his understanding of the forces that animated his opponents. 

William Henry Seward's magnanimity was of a slightly different sort: he seems to have been free of pretty resentfulness and vindictiveness. After losing the 1860 Republican nomination for President, which everyone expected him to win, Seward was able to find it within himself, despite this disappointment, to campaign vigorously on Lincoln's behalf in 1860.  Many credit speeches he gave on Lincoln's behalf for the ultimate Republican victory that year.  He then accepted Lincoln's nomination of him as Secretary of State (does this story sound familiar?) and became one of Lincoln's closest friends and most important political advisors.

Perhaps the strong friendship between these two men was rooted in the shard virtue of magnanimity.  What strikes me as worth holding always in mind is that magnanimity requires a great deal of ethical imagination: the ability to imagine one's way in the position of another in order to gain insight into what animates that person.  From this perspective, those initial impulses toward anger dissolve and new possibilities open for more productive modes of response.  I will recall Seward and Lincoln as I make my way through the politics of the academy and everyday life, remembering not to respond in anger, but with empathy and magnanimity, for it is at once ethically generous and politically, far more effective.
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