Sunday, July 19, 2009

What Matters the Gain When Life is the Cost?

Chicago hosted the American Library Association conference last week and I had a really great time there. I attended some good sessions and had some productive meetings in our booth with the right people for my sales role. It's satisfying to feel that you're making progress, even when sales cycles are so long that the end always seems a little out of reach.

On the flight home I saw an awesome film on beluga whales and the arctic people that depend on them to survive. One woman who was interviewed had a beautiful smile that never left her face. She said they go to college but come back to the village. They prefer their lifestyle. It's subsistence living. Nothing is extra or superfluous. Everything has a purpose and nothing is wasted. The whole village lives all year from the food they gain in one beluga whale hunt. They'll bring in something like 15 or 20 of them and prepare them however they do so that the food lasts all winter. There's no vegetation, no livestock, no other food for them in the winter.

What struck me most about her, though, was the community aspect of their lives. She said they have to learn to be happy. Period. They have to respect their elders, because they won't survive without their wisdom. They have to be patient with one another, because they are stuck together in the same village all of their lives. They have their traditions - we saw them singing and dancing - and their crafts and talents that contribute to their existence - but in all of it they maintain this happy, easy going demeanor that so many of us in "high society" lack. It humbled me.

The main point of the film was the effect that the environment was having on sea life. The whales are in danger. They are dying of cancer - something they never had before - because of pollution heading up to the arctic from the great lakes. They live about 80 years and they found toxic chemicals in their blubber from pesticides that were outlawed in the 70's. But these poisons are in the world - once we create them they are there - and continue to do harm for years.

Global warming was another important issue - there are many animals that depend on the ice to survive. I never knew why ice was such a big deal, but I learned that polar bears, for example, need to be out a certain distance from land on the ice to get to the fish they eat - because those fish feed on plant life and small fish that live under the ice. They can't live without ice. And seals only nurse their young until the ice starts to melt in the summer - which is their signal that the seasons are changing and the babies are old enough to be on their own. Now, the ice melts sooner and faster, and the babies are being weaned too soon - they're thinner than they should be and not as strong as they should be as they start trying to find their own food.

I'm sure many of you know all of these little facts - but I was ignorant of them and it impacted me deeply.

At the hotel, even before I saw the film, I couldn't help dwelling on the thousands of little hotel rooms across Chicago and the thousands of people taking their showers and brushing their teeth and all of that water. Questions burn in my mind as I consider the greed that led to the economic crash... exposed so well in films like "The Corporation," and "Food, Inc." ... Will we be like the near-sighted folks who cut down all the trees on their island before they realized, too late, that they had unwittingly committed a kind of environmental suicide with their own actions? Are too many long, hot showers and plastic water bottles and gas guzzlers killing us?

I don't think that corporations that make profit their only mission will ever acknowledge the changes they need to make in order to stop our world from being poisoned and heated to death. I just hope the activists that are working to stop our senseless headlong run into environmental bankruptcy are smart enough, strong enough, and persistent enough to change the laws and force those who will never take initiative to correct their course and actually change their behavior before everything is lost, including us.

So much has already been lost that we can never, ever get back again. Those who feel nothing for the extinction of species are blind in a way that may not be curable. They have to be forced to comply with laws that protect our shared world.

E.O. Wilson said it perfectly at the National Science Festival in New York a few weeks ago. When asked about the sophistication of ants - who were around for a hundred million years before they became colonized - compared to humans, he replied that ants are much more sophisticated than humans. They have evolved a hundred million years more than we have. We have cities and communities - but we aren't colonized in a smoothly functioning society like the ants. We don't cooperate instinctively. He said we are still, evolutionarily speaking, cavemen - each driven by our personal urges and whims. I think this is why we destroy just as readily as we create.

I wonder if we will ever have the opportunity to evolve, to "grow up" into our potential. I wonder what we could become if we loved and regarded all of the animals that share our world as preciously as we regard money and profit. Let's all hold that dream. Maybe it can inspire us to work harder than ever to - not profit, but - survive, one generation at a time.

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