Archive for February, 2007

A Media World

I very often talk about how we work against our own best interests and the modern media industry definitely falls into that category. While its popular to blame media for various social problems, that is a simplistic way of looking at it. There are two factors we need to be concerned with – the factors that motivate media content and why modern media is intrinsic to our society. Hopefully, by understanding the underlying dynamics at play, we may come closer to identifying sustainable solutions.

To understand the dynamics at play its important to recognize that film and television corporations do not live in a vacuum – they produce product like any other corporation with the goal of earning profits for their shareholders. Now its wonderful when a movie comes out that tells a story of personal challenge and growth, but in a market largely driven by teenagers and young adults who are at the peek of peer pressure to conform, such stories don’t hold enough “cool” factor this critical demographic. No, what the youth market demands is exactly what corporations are providing – the least common denominators of drugs, sex and violence, the only factors this powerful demographic can socially come together on.

The fact that American media is guided by market demand can be seen across all its sectors including news. While the industry is aware of its pandering toward sensationalism, the all present need to sell advertising inevitably shows through with coverage of the car chase or Anna Nicole simply because that’s where we stop clicking. If the news outlets don’t provide attractive content, viewership falls, advertising falls and profits fall. The “dumbing down” of our news is not a great conspiracy, but the result of public market demand and corporate need to pay bills and show profit. In the meantime, our entertainment oriented news industry is no longer providing the public service we need now more than ever. The lines of fact, fiction and opinion have been blurred and a great deal of content on news channels is actually opinion.

But, why is content significant to society? To put it simplistically, we humans become the focus of our efforts. If we prize drug, sex and violence as we do today, that lesson is absorbed like a sponge by our children’s minds and will be actualized by them and their peers throughout their lifetime. Again, this isn’t a metaphysical declaration; it is simply how the human brain works. Everyone, especially children learn by example. And, in an economy that demands two incomes to survive, the television has become the default babysitter and parent and our modern media may not be the best role model.

In a monkey see, monkey do species such as ourselves, images not only trap individuals, but can trap our society by creating false definitions of happiness, health and success. Again, this observation is not rooted in esoteric ideals, but rather in every human’s basic desire to be wanted and loved by others. The furor over anorexic models is a good example. The images provide people with unreasonable and unhealthy goals that foster depression precisely because they are unattainable. In fact, the images are highly manipulated by lighting, highly paid hair, make-up and stylists as well as the magic only Photoshop can perform. The consumer, however, thinks it’s just a picture fueling the thoughts of “Why don’t I look like them?” The answer is even the models and actors don’t necessarily look like their images.

As another example, recently a CIA expert described Matt Damon as being too “short, fat, pretty and white” to portray the real life person on whom his movie “The Good Shepherd” is based. But, that typifies the nature of Hollywood to beautify and idealize a story. And, by watching these stories, audiences form false expectations of reality resulting in an overall depression from our failure to live up to what turn out to be unreasonable expectations! But don’t get mad at Matt, he’s just doing his job and in general seems to contribute more to the solutions than the problems.

We complain about the available content, but we also demand profits from the corporations that provide media content. Content is developed to sell advertising. Advertising is meant to sell products that feed the consumption economy that is nibbling away at our planet’s resources. All these problems are related and they share a common solution: first awareness, which is my motivation for writing this and then acting with conscious choices.

CIA expert says Damon is too ‘fat’ for spy film


February 26, 2007 at 8:01 am Leave a comment

Fire Renews the Forest

As we stand on the edge of disaster, and very much doubting humanity’s collective resolve to avert it, I find peace of mind in knowing that fire renews the forest. Since fire destroys trees people intuitively consider it as being something bad, but ecologists now understand that fire is a natural and essential part to forest ecology. It clears overgrowth and can release long dormant seeds buried in the ground waiting for their opportunity to flourish. So, while the forest is initially devastated as a result of the fire, with time a stronger and healthier forest is the result.

I think one generalization that can be made from my rantings thus far is that I am preoccupied with trends in our global society and where it will lead us. Specifically, I’ve mentioned that our continued environmental abuse will have repercussions lasting, not just generations, but centuries or millennia. I believe that our reliance on fossil fuels is only destructive and self-serving of the current paradigm and contributes to the social and economic imbalances that plague our world.

The best predictor of our future is our current behavior and as such it indicates more of the same: more people, more traffic, more tax codes, more laws, more stuff, more stress, more needs for energy, more, more, and more! The breaking point for our society will be where a majority of people’s realities do not meet the advertised expectations. And, this is not a phenomenon of the distant future, but symptoms of which are happening now. Terrorism is the most obvious manifestation of the disenfranchised.

While death and destruction resulting from climate change, food shortages, pandemics, terrorism and possible nuclear warfare are depressing to think about, the bright side to such scenarios comes afterward when having taken our just desserts into consideration, we will consolidate our resources in order to rebuild a society fundamentally different from the one we hold so dear today. So whether we take action now to address our problems or not, we will end up somewhere and continue our evolution as a species.

Having said that, I prefer proactive choice as it demonstrates responsibility, a decidedly adult trait, whereas our failure to act demonstrates reluctant and imposed change, a decidedly childlike trait. Choice is always the more powerful and enduring option. However, without conscious choices, something else will emerge. What exactly it will be, we don’t know. I prefer to choose the society we become, rather than accept what emerges on the other side. While it could be a beautiful forest, it could also easily be a militaristic or dictatorial society – a natural reaction of people to create order from social chaos.

My lowered expectations as to whether we will meet our global challenges come from the understanding that people learn from their mistakes. But, my peace of mind comes from a deeply held opinion that in the end, only sustainable systems will endure. Other solutions will eventually fall to the wayside to be replaced by something else, over and over again, until we figure out environmental and social solutions that work with our needs and desires rather than against them. Like I always say, prepare for the worst, hope for the best ;-)

February 19, 2007 at 8:01 am Leave a comment

What’s the Big Hurry?

Is the world in a hurry? Because we seem to be barreling full speed toward something and I’m wondering what it is. Construction is everywhere, traffic is clogged and rude, people are urgently speaking on cell phones and there’s certainly a lot of stress out there. In fact, I feel like we are throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater! It better be good because we’re risking the environment and the resources that sustain us as well as our future survival. I have a feeling that the collective answer is “we don’t know, we hadn’t thought about it.” Can I suggest that we slow down a bit and put some thought into how we’re investing and what returns we’re getting.

What are we racing toward and why? These are significant questions since we become the focus of our efforts. Like the Meyers Briggs test, the best way to qualify who we are is by looking at how we actually behave or how we allocate our society’s resources today: the budget for the United States. The most glaring trend is that resources dedicated toward the military and security only grow. In general, important issues such as the environment, education and health care do not receive the attention and resources required to address those matters. So, if one of the benchmarks of our ideal society will be when the President of our country can walk in public without security — we are headed in a direction opposite our ideals.

It would be one thing to speed somewhere if there was a purpose, but the economic activity seems to be self-serving as wealth continues to concentrate among a few while population growth adds to poverty. Its been argued that this fury of economic activity is to raise people out of poverty; but America’s economic history teaches us that there are limits to what such an engine can achieve. And more importantly, our economy is the source of our environmental problems — it is based on oil and the consumption of goods. Such an economy might be sustainable for a population of one billion, but at 6 plus billion we are taxing the environment’s ability to renew itself. The question isn’t if business is good for an economy, the problem is that consumption of the Earth’s resources on such a massive scale is bad for us! And, any economy that continues its reliance on fossil fuels also faces an uphill battle.

Then, what should we be aiming for? I’m not sure what the answer is, but there is a number out there that describes the maximum ecological footprint each person on the planet can produce in a sustainable economic system. And, such a system should incorporate efficiencies of new technology. For example, the central market that a city used to provide is easily replaced virtually on the internet. Perhaps a more useful question is in a system how is that ideal different from where we are today and what steps do we need to take to get there? Unfortunately, Americans already out-consume the rest of the planet! By identifying our prosperity with our consumption, we enable societal dysfunction by thinking that to decrease our consumption is also a decrease in our quality of life. Well, I would suggest that we will actually be increasing our quality of life, but that doesn’t make a counter-intuitive choice easier to make. Once we have a definition of the ideal we will have a basis by which to compare ourselves and make conscious choices.

Many obstacles to proactive reforms exist. After economic momentum, our biggest obstacle to real change relates to how much the United States has invested in the current paradigm. Specifically, our society is built on and the presumption of the car that carries with it two assumptions fatal to sustainability: plenty of oil and individual ownership of an automobile. In addition to facilitating isolation and depression, our car culture has also had a profound effect on city planning and consequently American health. Whereas most European cities were founded on walking, American cities don’t have human-friendly efficiencies built into them such as pleasant parks to rest in on your walk home. Walking is essential to who we are as an animal and insufficient activity, which our urban design has built into it, is having repercussions in both health issues and increasing system failures. This is what is commonly referred to as working against yourself. Are we adult enough as a community to recognize basic systemic failures and address them without bias.

Our society’s failure to answer the questions we have raised satisfactorily means the blind is leading the blind. The road we are on is not towards increasing happiness, but rather the opposite – it is a road built upon fear of the unknown. Some may say that it is immoral for our generation to pass our problems onto the next, but the longer we wait to address them, the more we continue to invest in the current paradigm that is fundamentally flawed. We each feel an emptiness that we are trying to fill with things we can buy. But maybe the hunger that we feel can only be satisfied by the most basic of human desires – to be needed. Maybe that hunger can be filled by serving the greater good that our reality presents to us today. And, by acting individually toward the common interest through the way we live our daily lives, life gains a new meaning all unto itself.

February 12, 2007 at 4:41 pm Leave a comment

Ubuntu: Little Word, Big Idea

This traditional African philosophy is difficult to translate in any concise way into English. While President Clinton’s translation of I am because you are probably captures the essence of Ubuntu, western culture clouds the deep implications of it. In America we fiercely pride ourselves on independence and this concept seems to contradict that underlying value which has fueled our economic system and prosperity for so long. The reality is that Ubuntu merely gives light to some underlying truths of capitalism, but in highlighting these truths, it also tugs at the humanity we all feel towards each other.

I am because you are. How does this explain the underpinnings capitalism? Adam Smith knew that selfish behavior would drive capitalism, but Ubuntu explains the intricate web of both prosperity and problems created by this behavior. Any person’s prosperity is through the actions and support of others. So Ubuntu raises the uncomfortable question: To the extent that you are responsible for my prosperity, how am I responsible for you? It seems to me that our response so far has been that we are not responsible, but maybe a closer look at this relationship may be more persuasive.

Consider the recent housing boom in America. It created a great amount of wealth but was in large part dependant on cheap labor from Mexico. If the American immigration system had been working and enforced, housing prices would have been higher because of a closed labor market that traditionally paid higher wages. The American hospitality industry continues to be propped up by the “affordable” labor from south of the American border. As another example, in a global marketplace our prosperity is also supported by a Chinese labor force that pumps out electronic and household “goodies” and makes our consumer dollars stretch further. This prosperity is also being supported at the cost of their environment.

If we take to heart the intricate web of support that Ubuntu suggests, we cannot see our prosperity as being isolated from others. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but in acknowledging these relationships I also feel a sense of responsibility — and, I think this is a normal human response. However, in today’s market dominated by corporate entities, it is difficult if not impossible to demonstrate this sense of responsibility. In fact the corporate structure is legally bound not to acknowledge this dependency in its pursuit to deliver a profit. Perhaps this is one of our relationships that I refer to as dysfunctional. On one level we feel responsibility toward others, but we have also constructed our world around institutions that say we should not behave in that way. Un-reconciled conflicts such as these create dysfunction and only our conscious choices will set us free from them. If we want to create a world that empowers humans, we certainly are not creating institutions to support that effort. In fact, government is charged with that oversight and it has deemed the consumption of our planet to be the most effective system and empowered corporations to be our engines of prosperity. If it actually was effective, I’d be all for it, but it is only effective for a certain percentage and only in a material sense. And more fundamentally, the system in place institutionally denies our humanity – our sense of Ubuntu.

Everyone has principals by which they live their lives. To the extent that there is a purpose to life, perhaps Ubuntu expresses it as well as any. It’s undeniable that no man is an island because in such a scenario there would be no life. So maybe this is about how we choose to get along on this big, blue, mud ball called Earth. And, in the wake of the latest UN report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global perspective of Ubuntu offers America quite a challenge. Having pioneered Global Warming through our industrial revolution, the only thing that will redeem America’s place in history can be its leadership in ending it.

I’m reminded again of the waves breaking on Descanso Beach, and realize that as countless are drops unto the ocean, so too are we unto God. Perhaps I recognized Ubuntu in the water — we each are intrinsic to the well being of everyone around us. For Humanity to acknowledge that truth will yield the best of what motivates us. And, I wonder, what great benefit do we gain by denying it? With that thought I toss yet another into the ocean of ideas that form the internet.

In The News

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Website

All You Need Is Ubuntu


February 5, 2007 at 8:01 am 1 comment

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