Heroes of Sustainability: Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn with wife Rennie and a bronze statue of Ishmael

Although writer Daniel Quinn is a well-known environmentalist, he wouldn’t categorize himself that way.

“I don’t consider myself an environmentalist,” he told EcoGeek.org. “I feel that the category itself is badly conceived, dividing the world into people who are ‘for the environment’ and people who are ‘for people,’ which is nonsense. Thus it came to be seen that ‘environmentalists’ were ‘for’ the spotted owl, while non-environmentalists were seen to be ‘for’ forestry jobs that would be lost by saving the spotted owl. The term ‘environmentalism’ emphasizes a false division between ‘us’ and ‘it’ — ‘it’ being the environment. There is no ‘it’ out there. We are all in this together. There are no two sides. We cannot survive as a species somehow separate from the rest of the living community.”

Humankind as a Global Tyrant
Quinn’s view on environmentalism is just one example of his unique way of thinking. His most famous display of thought is in his book Ishmael, a novel that delves into the problem of how humankind can stop destroying the earth. In it, the narrator answers a personals ad from a teacher seeking a pupil with a desire to save the world, and meets Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla.

According to Quinn’s site, Ishmael.org, “Ishmael’s paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren’t born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”

Becoming a Thinker
Quinn wrote the book in order to submit it to the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, which was created by Ted Turner to recognize an unpublished work of fiction that offered creative and positive solutions to global problems. Ishmael won the award in 1991, and with it, $500,000. When the book was published the next year, it was met with critical acclaim, called “a thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel” by The New York Times Book Review, “wonderfully engaging,” by The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and “suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent” by The Austin Chronicle.

The book was not without its controversies, though. Quinn touches on the argument that providing food aid to impoverished countries only exacerbates overpopulation and environmental issues, as population growth is a function of food supply. This idea is explored more in some of his other books, as well as in the DVD Food Production and Population Growth.

Whether or not you agree with all his ideas, Quinn has a way of thinking that brings a fresh perspective to long-held beliefs, challenging people to throw out what they think they know and approach problems in a new way.

In My Ishmael (a follow-up to Ishmael), Quinn wrote: “Thinkers aren’t limited by what they know, because they can always increase what they know. Rather they’re limited by what puzzles them, because there’s no way to become curious about something that doesn’t puzzle you.”


Kindness Advocate Urges Grads to Walk, Not Fly

It’s graduation time, which means students across the country are being showered with words of wisdom from commencement speakers. “Stay hungry, stay foolish” was Steve Jobs’ famous advice to Stanford grads in 2005, and at Grinnell College this year, Jamaica Kincaid said: “You must bite the hand that feeds you. You are perhaps always told the opposite of this. The opposite of this is often said to you, ‘Do not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But from time to time I tell you, you must.”

At the University of Pennsylvania’s baccalaureate ceremony this year, the grads heard from Nipun Mehta, who doesn’t work for pay but instead devotes his life to the “gift-economy,” a system predicated on trust, small acts of kindness, and compassion. For ambitious Ivy League students — and most people, for that matter — his ideas are somewhat outside the box. Instead of pushing the students to take their considerable talents and run with them, he started with this:

“You are some of the world’s most gifted, elite, and driven college graduates — and you are undeniably ready to fly. So what I’m about to say next may sound a bit crazy. I want to urge you, not to fly, but to — walk.”

Walking, the crowd found out, was something near and dear to Mehta’s heart. When he and his wife had been married for six months, they set out on a walking pilgrimage, letting go of everything they owned and buying a one-way ticket to India. Their budget was about $1 a day.

“Our goal was simply to be in a space larger than our egos, and to allow that compassion to guide us in unscripted acts of service along the way,” Mehta said.

The lessons learned during their journey were innumerable, and Mehta divided them into four categories, derived from the word WALK: Witness, Accept, Love, and Know Thyself. By slowing down, taking in his surroundings, and truly connecting with other people, Mehta was able to gain an entirely new perspective on life, one that continues to drive him today, long after the 1,000-kilometer walk ended.

He closed with this: “And today, at this momentous milestone of your life, you came in walking and you will go out walking. As you walk on into a world that is increasingly aiming to move beyond the speed of thought, I hope you will each remember the importance of traveling at the speed of thoughtfulness. I hope that you will take time to witness our magnificent interconnections. That you will accept the beautiful gifts of life even when they aren’t pretty, that you will practice loving selflessly and strive to know your deepest nature.”

It’s a wonderful lesson for graduates — but one that can resonate with anyone, regardless of whether they put on a cap and gown this year.

To read the full text of Mehta’s speech, click here.


Heroes of Sustainability: Howard Zinn

ImageLike many people who’ve served in the military during wartime, historian, playwright, and activist Howard Zinn was irrevocably changed by his experiences in the armed forces.

The Brooklyn native flew bomber missions during World War II, during which he bombed targets in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, and Hungary. Partly because of his experiences, he became vehemently anti-war and passionately interested in history. He later attended New York University courtesy of the GI Bill, and then went on to get a master’s and a PhD in history from Columbia University.

Civilly Disobedient
Upon graduating, he began teaching at Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. There — where he said he learned more from his students than they from him — he became active in the civil rights movement. When he supported student protesters (like Alice Walker, who went on to write The Color Purple, and Marian Wright Edelman, who would later found the Children’s Defense Fund), he was fired and moved on to Boston University, where he taught political science until he retired in 1988.

In his book Failure to Quit, Zinn wrote: “Civil disobedience … is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that numbers of people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Taking a Different Perspective
While Zinn — who died in 2010 at the age of 87 — wrote more than 20 books, lectured at countless universities, and was influential in the civil rights movement and anti-war efforts, he is perhaps best known for his textbook A People’s History of the United States. Instead of espousing the traditional view from the people in power throughout history, this book tackles a range of perspectives, from the Native Americans who struggled as men from other continents came and took over their land to unionists standing up against their employers to women and African-Americans fighting for equal rights. The textbook was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1981 and is still widely used in high schools and colleges to provide an alternative point of view compared with so many other history textbooks.

Novelist Howard Fast called A People’s History of the United States “one of the most important books I have ever read in a long life of reading. … It’s a wonderful, splendid book — a book that should be read by every American, student or otherwise, who wants to understand his country, its true history, and its hope for the future.”

For more on Zinn, visit www.howardzinn.org.


Heroes of Sustainability: Harvey Lacey

Harvey Lacey. Photo by Beccalyn Photography.

Harvey Lacey, a grandfatherly looking Texas inventor in his 60s, has found a simple and elegant solution to a problem that others have found to be completely unsolvable — housing the most desperately poor people on earth. Lacey teaches Haitians how to build dry, well-insulated, and sturdy dwellings made from trash. The basic element of construction is what Lacey calls Ubuntu-Blox. (“Ubuntu” means “humanity to others.”)

Trash to Treasure
Ubuntu-Blox are building blocks made from recycled plastic and Styrofoam. The plastic and Styrofoam are cleaned and then compressed. Later, dwellings arise when the blocks are layered and reinforced with wire and rebar to form walls. Roofing can be done with scrap lumber. Finally, the walls are sealed with a coating of mud or stucco.

Surprisingly, dwellings constructed from Ubuntu-Blox have been shown in tests to be capable of withstanding hurricane-speed winds and a level of shaking found during strong earthquakes.

More about building with Ubuntu-Blox can be seen in a video from the Memnosyne Foundation and a recent article by Gail Bennison published in the Collin County Business Press.

In Haiti, Lacey teaches Haitians (generally women) how to make Ubuntu-Blox and how to use them in construction. One woman described her motivation to become a student of Lacey by saying that she simply did not want to have to stand in water when it rained. Lacey’s students can use the skills they learn in constructing a dwelling for themselves to earn income that will take them out of extreme poverty. They can make and sell Ubuntu-Blox and sell their labor to construct buildings for others.

A Humanitarian
Lacey is supported in his travels by a small grant from Memnosyne Foundation. Lacey’s reward for his work is helping people who desperately need help. He does not want royalties from those who choose to build with Ubuntu-Blox. He conceives of what he is doing as going beyond the familiar parable about teaching a hungry man to fish. He teaches a more advanced technology — a technology that is more like teaching a hungry man how to use a fishing net, not just a fishing pole.

Lacey is now getting calls from all over the world from people who want to find out more about how trash can be used to provide well-constructed dwellings for almost no money. He is very happy to take those calls and to offer his help and encouragement.

Lacey’s work is beginning to have a worldwide impact. That is important in light of a struggle that more and more poor people now have to stay out of extreme poverty. Turning recycled trash into decent housing is an exceptional advance in both humanitarian action and sustainability. If you like what Lacey is doing, you can let him know by sending a message to ubuntublox(at)gmail.com. You could also send a contribution to Memnosyne Foundation, 2902 Maple Avenue, Dallas, TX 75201, and let them know you appreciate their support of Harvey Lacey.


Heroes of Sustainability: Amy Goodman

While the United States typically prides itself on being a country where free speech reigns and journalists are able to chase down stories without government interference, Amy Goodman doesn’t see it that way.

“In the old Soviet Union, people knew that they had to read between the lines of state-sponsored news to get to the truth,” Goodman said at an event in Philadelphia. “But in this country there is the illusion that…”

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Green Blowback in Six Steps

Blowback is a concept that usually refers to a negative consequence that occurs because of implementing a particular national policy.

However, blowback can be positive; and we should set our sights on facilitating positive blowback that furthers a green agenda. Below are steps we could take to facilitate blowback that…

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Update: Energy Island, a Solution to Global Warming

Huge amounts of “free,” renewable energy are found in, on, and above the oceans of this world. Inevitably, that energy will be tapped as fossil fuels become scarcer and their use is seen to be incompatible with a sustainable environment for humans and other species of life. Even now, offshore wind farms are…

To continue reading this article, please visit http://www.dolphinblue.com/pg-Update–Energy-Island-a-Solution-to-Global-Warming.html


Building it Green: “Holy” Wood

1-heaven's gate countertops

The Kemper Tiny House is continuing to build character, as some of the final touches to its interior are almost complete.

Brad Kittel, the owner of Tiny Texas Houses, found and salvaged some beautiful Long Leaf Pine from a Methodist Church in East Austin dating back to the 1890s. The wood was previously used as a church pew, and was originally 16 feet long without a single knot in the entire plank.

2-heaven's gate countertops close-up 3-sink side cabinets

The wood will be used to build the counter tops inside our home, and Brad has just finished cutting the wood down to size. Brad said he could hear the prayers and feel the passion of heaven’s gates while slicing through the wood. A hole will also need to be placed for our kitchen sick, which is only appropriate, since the wood is already holy.

To view more pictures of our Tiny House, please see our Facebook album


Heroes of Sustainability: Philippe Cousteau Jr.

Philippe Cousteau Jr. once told Elle magazine that “it takes more than a birth certificate to be a Cousteau.” The 30-something certainly isn’t resting on his famous name, but he is living up to it, carrying on the work of his father, Philippe Cousteau, and grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

To continue reading this article, please visit http://www.dolphinblue.com/pg-Heroes-of-Sustainability-Philippe-Cousteau-Jr.html


Building it Green: A Very Unique Bed

1-5-drawer bed frame

Our Tiny House will have a very unique bed, a “Captain’s bed”, which has five drawers to increase storage for linens, bedding, and clothes.  Like the rest of the house, the bed is made of 100+ year-old wood, and…

2-beautiful old wood drawers 3-bed frame nearing completion 2 4-view of bed finished from bathroom

The uniqueness of this bed begins with the way it functions. It will be “dropped” from the ceiling beams by a hand winch and pulley system, lowered by cables to the floor when needed. When not needed, the bed will be raised to the ceiling beams, out of the way during non-sleeping times.

Brad and his crew at Texas Tiny Houses are an amazing bunch. It is a delight watching our Tiny House coming together so beautifully.

To view more pictures of our Tiny House, please see our Facebook album.