Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Babies, shoes, climate change

I'm a long-time lover of philosophy. Yesterday, I was watching the philosopher Peter Singer in the film Examined Life (2008), which I am pleased to say is available instantly on Netflix and was distributed by my cousin's company Zeitgeist.

Singer was standing in front of a Manhattan shoe store, selling, I believe, Manolo Blahniks--Carrie Bradshaw's favorite shoes in Sex and the City. Singer said that the setting reminded him of a hypothetical that he developed early in his career.

Suppose you were walking along and saw an infant in a very shallow body of water. You quickly determine that the infant will drown unless you instantly rescue her, but you will destroy your shoes as you run into the water.

Singer reports that nearly everyone says that they will save the child and damn the shoes. Yet for the price of a pair of expensive shoes, several starving children might be saved.

I see some limitations to Singer's argument, but it did get me thinking: What would people do if they realized that our current activities will be condemning billions of children to horrible and unnecessary deaths by starvation and dehydration?

The answer isn't obvious. At the website "Global Issues," Anup Shah reports that around the world 25,000 children die everyday:
The silent killers are poverty, hunger, easily preventable diseases and illnesses, and other related causes. In spite of the scale of this daily/ongoing catastrophe, it rarely manages to achieve, much less sustain, prime-time, headline coverage.
The question that floats through my head is how do we present the risk of global catastrophe in a way that compels action. Normally reasonable people who would never have a second thought about ruining their shoes to save a baby will argue that we need to build more coal-burning power plants.

An optimistic friend of mine believes that we will develop the technology to mitigate the effects of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I sure hope he's right.

In the meantime, thank the Goddess for Annie Leonard, the creator of The Story of Stuff and this new video on cap and trade, who turns these complex issues into messages that are easy to understand and share.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Leaving Legacies

Yesterday I attended a program on "Faithful Generosity" sponsored by the Pacific Central District of the UUA and led by Laurel Amabile, Director of the UUA Annual Program Fund. It got me thinking once again about legacies, a subject that has been much on my mind of late.

Although UUism as measured by the average age of members isn't aging as quickly as I am, the last figure I saw on the former was that it was at 50-something and rising. My experience with the Berkeley Fellowship of UUs, where the average age was and remains much higher (it's coming down), made me more aware of the need for action if my generation -- the front spear of the Baby Boomers -- and the generation that preceded it are to leave a legacy of UUism to the generations that follow.

I've also been thinking about "legacy" in negative terms as well. I fear the environmental legacy we are leaving future generations.

I'm happy to report that I see a positive nexus between the two concerns. We can leave a legacy of UUism and a more positive environmental legacy by increasing UU focus on environmental issues. In our ranks, we have the scientists and engineers; the organizational specialists, community organizers, and therapists; and the ministers to create change. We also have the capacity to engage young adults and youth around these issues. Now is the time to face these challenges. Now is the time to rejuvenate UUism.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ambivalence & Ambiguity

"I hate to write."

"But you're blogging."

So went part of my quasi job interview earlier this week.

I absolutely hated writing as a child. I write left-handed, and started writing back in the days of fountain pens. I spend excruciating hours writing a simple thank you note because I didn't know what to say (beyond "thank you"), I couldn't spell, my hand would smudge the ink, and my father insisted that the product be perfect. I was, however, productive in filling the trashcan with failed efforts.

For years I struggled with pens, pencils, erasers, correction fluid, and typewriters. Thirty years ago, I bought an IBM Selectric with a memory for my then wife the writer (tho it was way outside our budget). It was one of those presents that was more like a loan because I was looking forward to using it myself.

When a word processor was installed in the office, I would sit next to the typist as she entered my work. Soon I was using the machine myself, despite the ridicule of my peers, e.g., "Finally found a job commensurate with your skills." Of course, in time, the shoe was on the other foot as my peers turned to me for guidance on using our first computers.

I tried and failed with speech recognition software. Then when David Pogue, the NYTs tech columnist, announced that Dragon was greatly improved, I tried it again and fell in love. (How appropriate to retell this tale on Valentine's Day.) I have been a Dragon evangelist ever since.

Yet with all these improvements in the process of writing that have removed so much of the frustration and drudgery, I still found myself not writing as much as I thought I should. It then occurred to me that some of the reluctance had more to do with potential outcomes than with process.

When I speak to you to person, I get to watch your reactions and to clarify and correct and even apologize when necessary. When I speak to you over the phone, there is a wealth of information in the timing and the tone of your replies. Writing is much more iffy. It lacks immediate feedback.

The man who was my main mentor in strategic planning was fond of saying that high tolerance for ambiguity is a key competency of creative and effective leaders. (There's a good intro to the topic at this Wikipedia article.) It's also critical for creative planning.

The science on climate change is clear: it's happening and human actions are contributing to it. What will happen 20 years from now, much less 50 or 100, is more ambiguous.

Woody Allen once noted that life is full of opportunities and obstacles. He wrote that the purpose of life was to seize the opportunities, avoid the obstacles, and still catch the 5:30 train to Long Island. May we seize the opportunities to go green, avoid the obstacles of ambivalence and ambiguity, and catch the movement to reverse the damage we've done.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Climate Change

The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I've added "Climate Change" to the subtitle of this blog. It is not from a lost of interest in ministerial interviewing and examining, but from being drawn to a ministry of climate change. I am becoming increasingly convinced that we are headed toward an avoidable disaster if we do not address the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere.

The topics of ministerial examining and climate change are related. If we do not form and develop ministers ready to address this issue, we do a disservice to humanity and to all life on this planet.

Over at the blog 10 Minutes or Less, Mike Durall recently posted the following quote from Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the 21st Century: Reflections on the Challenges Ahead:
Liberalism should be a counterculture to secularism, not a reaction to fundamentalism. It needs to present itself as a third way.
Though I'm not a Christian, I am a liberal. gives 13 definitions of the adjective form of "liberal." Some that are relevant here are the following:
1. favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
4. favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5. favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
6. of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
7. free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
8. open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.
11. not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.
With some hyperbole, Tom Brokaw referred to my parent's generation as The Greatest Generation. I do not want our children or our grandchildren to refer to us as "The Infamous Generation" or "The Inept Generation," the generation that failed to act even though we knew we were undermining the conditions that sustain life on this planet.

Working in strategic planning for many years, I learned that my (and your) crystal ball is cloudy. In The Art of the Long View, Peter Schwartz persuasively argues that we can't predict the future and provides useful "scenaric" approaches for developing strategic vision.

We cannot "know" the outcomes of current environmental damage the way we can know the history of environmental damage and our contributions to current and historical damage. Caution in making predictions is warranted. However, such caution does not argue against prudence and action. It's time for change.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Enemies List

During the Nixon Administration, some of his staffers complied a list of enemies (political opponents) with the intent to harass them. More info about it is here. Though it was complied nearly 40 years ago, last year I heard Daniel Schorr, then of CBS, now of NPR, speak w/ quiet pride of having been on the list.

Before I matriculated at Starr King School for the Ministry, I thought of Walmart as a great place to get reasonable quality at excellent prices. I loved the greeters and the courtesy of the staff. On one of my early visits, I had trouble locating cleaning supplies. A staffer walked me half way across the store and pointed to the right shelf. Reading The Discipline of Market Leaders, helped me understand its business model and sources of its success.

At Starr King, I learned that Walmart was the enemy. It didn't treat its workers fairly. It had had a devastating impact on small local businesses.

Now Walmart is making headlines for its sustainability efforts. According to their website, their sustainability goals are "to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain people and the environment. " This Fast Company article concludes that there will be some challenges along the way.

The future of UU ministry will be about conflict and collaboration. It's easy to identify mistakes and problems. It's harder to identify strengths and opportunities to collaborate. UU ministers should be prepared to do both.