Capitalism

Are capitalism and environmentalism compatible? If we can’t accept it, do we have to pick a side? And if you’re on the side of environmentalism, what’s the alternative to capitalism? If it’s socialism, why hasn’t that worked yet? Do its failures give the capitalists good reason to doubt that it ever will?

 

Can we incorporate the realities of climate change into our capitalist system?

 

Is this really a good way to bring the powers that be to your cause?

Flow

Have you ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that someone had to interrupt you to stop? You looked up from your project as if being woken from a dream. It was slightly disorienting as if you had forgotten where you were. You’d forgotten the world outside of that task existed.

I hope you’ve experienced that because it’s an amazing feeling. People often find similar experiences in performing arts, in athletics, or in artistic expression. I’ve found it in things as diverse as the final minutes of a lacrosse game or the home stretch of a race to the deepest states of meditation I have achieved. It’s the point when you’re perfectly balanced on the edge of chaos, at the limit of your ability, when your mind is so focused on one thing that it doesn’t even have the capacity to keep track of its own existence. It’s the feeling of being exactly where you belong.

The question becomes, how do we produce this feeling more often? Why do we enter this state only on those few euphoric moments of our lives? Why can’t this be a daily occurrence? Sure, we probably can’t live there perpetually, but getting there for a few hours a day should be possible. Hell, that would only get us through a fraction of the workday, which practically demands that we have such focus!

I’ve learned some practices that have helped me get there more often, but like with anything worth having, it’s not easy. I used to be much better at it, but I’m cultivating those habits again, and today I started to see the fruits of my labour.

On Chickens

The title should say it all.

Not really.

Here are some valuable links:

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation

A great podcast from the BBC’s The Inquiry about meat consumption and climate change entitled “Can we eat our way out of climate change?

And for those of you who still aren’t sure how I managed to convince a random Norwegian family to pay me in food and housing for three months, here’s a link to the WWOOF website.

Onto the vlogging!

 

 

Alone on the Road

The almost full moon hangs like gold dollar, fixed just above a horizon of rolling evergreen forests dusted by the first snow. Behind is a backdrop of faded purple, pink, peach, and powder blue gleaming in the fading rays of the arctic sun settled just below the southwestern edge of the sky. As we roll past a half frozen lake, the moon’s reflected light shimmers off its fissure-streaked blue surface. On the near shore, a mill pumps out horizontal streams of grey smoke from his tall, narrow stacks. The translucent clouds appear motionless, held fixed in the frozen air as we pass under them. Everything about the scene – the sky, the lake, the colorful collection of Scandinavian homes clustered along the shore – seems fixed; everything except me.

The train whistles past the small town in seconds, the blackness of a tunnel swallowing the stunning scene. When we emerge, only the blurred brown of hibernating flora and amber of exposed rock fill my large window. It pulls me away from each picturesque scene, leaving me longing for a moment to stop, appreciate it, and perhaps capture it in the memory of my camera. I need just a moment. The light will last. The Earth turns slowly up here. Just a …. the scene is gone.

It has been nearly five weeks since I set off from my temporary home in Korea. I could have easily been home in less than a day, but I chose this path intending to take it slow. The world is far more interesting when we take the time to interact with it instead of merely flying over it. That has been even truer than I originally believed. Even this pace – trains at 200km/h, cars at 100km/h, and boats at 10km/h – pulls the world past me at blurring speeds, my eyes and my mind unable to focus on all that each beautiful place has to offer.

Not only does the pace of travel determine what I get to experience, but it determines how I experience it. After catching the 5:55 train out of Luleå, a cozy little town on the northwestern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, I found myself in Umeå with about an hour before my connecting train to Sundsvall.

Finding no sense in spending the hour in the barren little train terminal, I shouldered my pack and went for a walk. The frozen little town was sleepy even late Monday morning. The main walking strip connecting the train station and what appeared to be a municipal building was almost empty except for a handful of elderly browsing the clothing shops and a pair of beggars seated pitifully outside food shops. Behind the municipal building I found the shore of a wide freezing river, along which ran a walking path of packed snow. I crunched along the path, grateful for the warmth of the rising sun still low in the sky even well past ten. The river crunched along as well, the chips of ice on its surface slushing past each other as it flowed around anchored buoys and rocks.

Taking note of the time, I started my return. I took a circuitous route past the town’s classic Lutheran church and through the bus depot. Attempting to cut through an alleyway that I knew pointed toward the train station, I got stuck. The passages that cut through the building were gated, and I had to double back. My alarm, which I had set to warn me of fifteen minutes until departure, sounded, and I picked up my pace.

Finding my way around the building and just across the street from the train depot, I saw a lone train parked on the tracks. That must be my train, I thought to myself, relieved that I had timed my walk well. Then the train began to move. That couldn’t have been my train. My train isn’t supposed to leave until 11:10. By the time I pulled open the heavy door to the waiting area, my gut was already full of anxious adrenaline. I looked at the departure screen, where the current time read 10:52, expecting to see my train at the very top. It wasn’t. The next train to Sundsvall was to depart at 12:45. What? How is that possible? I pulled out my phone to check my schedule. Journey from Umeå to Sundsvall, read my calendar, departs – 11:51.

HOW DID I FUCK THAT UP?! I wanted to scream. I tossed down my pack on an empty chair and cursed in anger. The dark-skinned man sitting in the corner looked at me silently. I paced the small room trying to regain my composure. If only I hadn’t tried to take that shortcut, I would have gotten here in time to realize that that was my train. If I had set a reminder earlier, I would have come back sooner. If I had’t been so stupid, I wouldn’t make stupid fucking mistakes!

When we make mistakes, it’s easy to fall into self pity. It’s easy to overlook the fact that making mistakes is merely a part of life, and it hurts the most when there’s no one to blame but ourselves. I have constantly reiterated the idea that we are never truly alone when traveling. I must make an amendment to that idea. We may not be truly alone in the sense that there is no one to turn to when we need help, but in many cases we are completely and totally responsible for our own fate. Of course, we always have control over our decisions, but in our everyday lives, there is often someone to offer advice in a pinch or correct us when we are deceived. Sometimes we don’t have someone looking out for us though, and when traveling alone, this happens at the most crucial times.

Today was the first time I felt entirely alone on this whole journey. It’s also the first time that I’ve made a mistake of any real consequence. Because of my carelessness, I needed to change plans with my host to something much less favorable, I lost the better part of a day in Trondheim, I lost a day on my rail pass, and I’ll probably be spending the night in a railway station in the middle of nowhere.

This is certainly part of the journey, but I believe that I could alleviate some of the stress had this journey moved at a slower pace. My attempts to cover great distances in short times have increased the complexity of my travel. With added complexity comes increased probability of error. Our minds struggle with the concept of time on scales longer than hours or days. It seemed perfectly reasonable to believe that covering in eight weeks the distance an aircraft covers in less than a day would be slow travel. In fact, this is about as fast as travel gets.

The pace of travel is not determined by the time it takes to cover a given distance. It depends upon the amount of time the traveler has to connect with the next mode of transportation. More than once have I been forced to run to a bus or a train station because there was absolutely zero room for error if I was to stay on schedule and avoid extra costs. My election for short stays and early morning departures have forced many of these stressful moments. Compounding the issue is that I often have no knowledge of the place I need to be or the occasional peculiar details. Staying a few extra days, being able to rehearse the journey, and leaving at a time when I’m more cognitively sharp would all reduce the risk of making mistakes like the one I made today.

Risk attenuation aside, this pace of travel has simply been too fast for the simple fact that one or two nights in a place is in no way enough to gain a true understanding of it. When I first left the United States, I had a strong attraction to Finland because of their apparent proper order of social priorities. Because of this schedule, I ended up spending just a few hours alone in the capital and seeing only one small northern city for a couple days before passing right on through to Sweden. It’s quite sad that I have effectively rejected an incredible opportunity to truly experience a country that I think so highly of. Norway will be the same, and my time is now even shorter. I will have a total of almost two weeks in Sweden and over a week in Iceland, but I feel that my priorities have been skewed on this journey.

In the future, my plans will include simpler travel and longer stops. Couchsurfing continues to provide the perfect opportunity to interact with locals, but to capitalize fully on the opportunity, I would be well served by finding multiple hosts in each city that I plan to visit. Getting multiple perspectives and a wider variety of experience would offer a better understanding of the places I visit. Even after eight months in Korea, I can’t say that I really understand the culture, but I can say that I know a significant amount about it. Even a couple weeks in Moscow or Tallinn or Helsinki would have given me a better understanding of those cities and their people, which is what traveling is really all about.

I have no regrets about this journey. Just over half way through, the excitement has yet to fade, and I continue to learn and grow at a rate not realized in a long time. The stories I have shared so far are only a small fraction of the stories I have made, and the book will only grow thicker.

Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

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