Saturday, June 23, 2007

Pushing On Icebergs

Some weeks ago No Impact Man had a post succinctly titled Why Bother?.

He was looking for input and comment on the very basic question of whether all our little green activities actually make any difference. The responses got kinda rowdy, and some feelings were hurt before it settled down. Actually, I was glad to see the passion, though most of the hurt feelings were pretty unnecessary.

I commented, near the end, and this was part of my comment: "But yes, Greenpeople- we have an elephant in the room, and we DON'T like to think about it. What it boils down to is; what difference does it make if I sacrifice, and cut, and have one child- so that some jerk on the next block can continue to drive his SUV, using the gas I saved- and have 10 kids and 4 plasma televisions and a jetski?...Mostly what I can offer is- I've been doing it for 30 years- am still doing it- and the bottom line is; I'm an optimist. I think there are ways. But it takes what I call 'pushing on icebergs'."

I have come to understand why great teachers lean towards the extensive use of parables. Somehow, the human brain is just more receptive to a story with a good lesson to it than to plain logic. Stories, and metaphors, reach us better.

My metaphor here is that huge societal problems are very much like icebergs. They are huge; massive, with tremendous momentum and inertia. Walk up to an iceberg (standing on anything you can) and push on it, as hard as you can. You will not see ANY response from the iceberg; it's just too massive for you to affect, you and all your force are infinitesimally small in comparison to the berg.

Pretty discouraging.

And yet. Physics; good old physics, should bring you some realizations here- the outcome of which can be positive.

Icebergs - float. They are not attached to the land; and they DO move. Mostly, they move in response to other huge forces; winds and ocean currents. And they tend to go in what looks like random directions.

But like the rest of us, they ARE subject to the laws of physics; if you apply a force to the berg, it DOES have an effect. It has to.

So this big honking iceberg is edging towards you- and if it keeps going the way it is, it's going to crush your boat, which happens to have your family in it. Your boat is anchored fast; you can't just sail out of the way. Do you stand there and watch the berg come? Or do you push?

Granted, there are plenty of folks who would/will just stand there, and watch it come to squash them.

I can't. I'm gonna push on the damn berg for all I'm worth.

Obviously, one little shove IS useless. You have to buckle down; dig in with your feet, get used to the idea that you have to push, and push and push- and no, you won't see anything happening for a very long time. But- Physics is ON YOUR SIDE. If you keep applying force- the berg pretty much has to respond. At least a little.

Another thing that's on your side- humanity. If YOU are busting a gut, trying to turn this oncoming iceberg- SOME of the bystanders WILL join in. It's just human nature. Now- what are the chances you can deflect the berg- if there are 100 people pushing? Better. But most of them won't help- until they see someone already committed. Really committed- and not quitting. More human nature. And sure, there will always be the jackasses who stand by and jeer, and tell you you're crazy.

History- also - is on your side. Immense social icebergs HAVE been shifted out of their course, multiple times. The nicest example is Women's Suffrage. That iceberg had been floating in the male direction only, for THOUSANDS of years. Logic was not responsible for shifting it. It was the emotional commitment of many many people; over many many years. And it started with a few utterly committed women; who refused to quit.

Many of the other examples are not so nice. "Abolition" was bloody and horrific- and in case you haven't noticed, is not really over yet. "Temperance" was astonishing, and ultimately a proof that logic, in isolation from reality, is a disaster. The outcome was not just funny movies, and speakeasies; it was thriving gangsterism, supporting more bloodshed and misery. Gandhi's peaceful persistence also generated bloodshed in the end. Icebergs are dangerous- don't forget that.

I've actually DONE this. Pushing on icebergs. They do move. The main example I'll give you is widely familiar at the moment- good ol' Global Warming. I was a speaker at the 2nd North American Conference - in 1988. Essentially EVERY scary fact and possibility you've heard about recently - was discussed, in detail, at that meeting. Very few people listened to us, and the hot winds generated by the oil companies and capitalists continued to push the iceberg right down its disastrous path.

But; look where we are, after only 20 years of constant, steady pushing, by a very small community. All of a sudden, a whole bunch of folks - thousands of times more than the original pushers- are starting to push too. Frankly, I still haven't seen the berg move- but things are looking up, quite a bit. Boy, though, we wish folks had started to push sooner. Ah, well.

There will never be a sudden huge shift in the iceberg. It's not possible, and we shouldn't expect it. But the direction, and the trends, can be shifted.

Does your one compact fluorescent lightbulb make a difference? Physics says it does. Physics is a good ally.

So. Find a good place to set your feet. Dig in. And push. Don't quit. And don't waste your time yelling at the jackasses to come help- they won't, and the yelling just encourages them.

Just keep pushing. And watch and see- somebody from the crowd will come and start pushing too- right beside you.

I've seen it happen; and I'm still pushing.


Anonymous said...

One of your best posts. But it does help if the government does something too, like gas mileage standards. I'm an anarchist, not really a fan of big government, but if the damn thing is there, at least some of the time it might do something useful. The SEER thing is really not adequate, but it has been recently raised, and if it could get raised again, that would be better. So, if each of us vote for people who will back these measures, we actually move beyond the voluntary and will be mandating societally beneficial activities and consumer practices.
Remember the nineteen fifties? No litter laws, no seat belts, no clean air acts, no pesticide controls, no voter rights act? There has been some progress.
As for that guy that has the SUV and the kids to fill it, make the tax situation unfavorable for that dynamic.
Until individuals, almost all individuals in society, can see the merit to commonly beneficial behavior, the government and the religions will have to continue to instill order.
Elections are on the horizon-- Register to vote and vote for candidates who will do something about the icebergs. Everything is, for better or worse, politics.

Greenpa said...

rc - well, sure! You'll notice that all my example social bergs had government getting involved eventually. Pushing on the Gummint is one of the ways to push. I guarantee my Congressman knows my name, and face. The reality is also that- the Gummint rarely pitches in to push- until a whole bunch of citizens are already pushing. Sure, yes, you betcha. :-)

Anonymous said...

Attention to your personal impact and habits builds a direct awareness of what is happening and what might be needed. It begs for more knowledge and tries new solutions. It is what makes a person more able to speak to their representatives and to others about what the best, most workable solutions might be. It motivates and engages a person. Too many people say to me that the whole climate change thing is too abstract and too complicated for them to deal with. Nothing makes it more concrete than taking a good hard look at how living your life, making your everyday choices impacts the soil water, air, people, ecosystem, and economic dynamics in the world. It is not an exercise in futility. It is research so that we may have a well grounded clue as to what the deepest and most trivial problems are and how best to solve them. It connects us. It inspires action. It is the zen counterpoint to all the thinking and talk talk talk. Sorry to get so strident and I'm always too damn preachy. It's late, I'm tired, and like many people I'm pretty wound up about all this as of late. I just want you to know that it is a path worth checking out and not just whistling in the wind. I'm with you that the governments will be huge forces for change. But we have to let them know that oil from algae makes more sense than alcohol from corn, and that building codes that adopt passive solar principles will not cost anything much to the building trade and will greatly reduce power usage, and that clean burning masonry stoves make burning copiced wood a sane choice in many areas for home heating. And on and on and on. They won't help unless we can let them know what help really means. And we won't know without intensive self education and practice. Point made repeatedly I guess. Help me somebody! Thanks for putting up with my blather. Greenpa, I'm always interested in reading what you have to say. Many thanks to you and your commenteers.

Anonymous said...

thanks so much for posting this! People (ahem, my family) tell me I'm not making a difference, and that i shouldn't care quite so much as I do, but they're the reason I do. I care SO MUCH because they don't.
And I'm hoping that one day, they'll put two and two together, and start caring to.

Mary said...

Dear Green Pa,

Thank you so much for this excellent post! I'll copy it to my own blogs (with appropriate referencing of course) - specifically "" and ""

Yesterday, my husband and I drove (in our lowest milage car - sorry not a hybrid) up to my mother's house in the North Georgia mountains yesterday. We are having a bad drought here, and as we watched the parched landscape slide by, it put us into our circular deb ateof "will people really change and do something to protect the environment, and what will it take?"

As a (recovering) academic and a (current) international environmental consultant, I have to keep thinking people will change. I've been studying this stuff for 20+ years, and all over the world, I'm seeing governments, industries, and people waking up and saying "YES! We have to do something, let's get to work NOW!"

Yet, I'm in the process of trying to figure out how to build a minimum impact office in my back yard. It's startling to me how difficult this is to do, and while working under a tarp is managable at the moment, I need something with a bit more storage space and a tad fewer bugs. (Your suggestions are most welcome!)

The quick fix - buy a prefabbed out building from Lowes or Home Depot could be appealing if it weren't a bit stomach wrenching environmentally. Do we need more of these things littering the landscape? Plus, isn't there something else out there that would be BETTER? I had some idealistic plans, but those are beginning to look less and less practical. But I'm not ready to give in to the consumerism easy fix yet either.

So, all in all, thanks for reminding me of the laws of physics and importance of keeping up the pressure on the iceberg!

Very best,

Greenpa said...

Flick- I think rc is actually on the same page you are- he was just reacting to the relatively short coverage I gave "official" action in that post. :-) And you reacted to his short coverage on individual stuff. You gotta remember, guys, that a "blog post" is generally supposed to be "short" - otherwise you do start to lose readers, mostly. Inevitably, short can mean some aspects get short shrift. But then, part of the power of the blog phenomenon is the discussion afterwards- like yours. I like your points, they're not blather; and I like the passion, too. Passion is one of our most convincing arguments.

Anonymous said...

Mary -

I don't know what you're looking for, but don't forget that buying a used prefab would have a much smaller impact than buying new. Still not the best choice, I'm sure, but something to keep in mind.

Greenpa said...

Mary- I took a quick look at your building plans. Looks like you're on track, really; I'm hugely in favor of earth sheltered construction; makes sense from all perspectives. The one thing you do have to worry about is water- do plan for heavy rainfalls; big snow melts. Keep the water away.

Yup, it's expensive to build this way. BUT - your HEATING, and cooling, bills; forever; are included up front. Try putting that into the equation for the bank. They won't think of it for themselves; but really; it looks much better if you put "Costs of construction AND operation AND maintenance for 30 years" Often, total cost at even 20 years will favor the more careful, more expensive, construction.

Most of our construction habits in North America seem to assume that a) we just got here, and b) we're not staying. Short term thinking, always. Yeah, yeah, the engineers say, "no, we're planning for the 50 year time frame!" Argh. That IS short term, if you're a human. Less than one life span. We need to be building for the 10-lifespan area. Not that hard; just different, and always: more expensive up front. And always: VASTLY cheaper in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Thank you SO much for this incredibly timely post. Yesterday was a bad day - I was overwhelmed thinking about all the big corporate obstacles to making these changes mean anything. My dear husband was wonderful and encouraging as always, but I was stuck, feeling like there was no point to any of the changes we have been making.

Talking to my congresswoman is an idea that did not strike me as useful, given her position on things (I have a stack of "thanks for your input, but we will agree to disagree" letters), but as RC points out - elections are coming.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. I am trying my best, pushing beside you. My actions are only small but at least it is a start. Folks like yourself and Colin Bevan are inspiring me to at least do something. I'm trying. Thanks

Anonymous said...
DEAR GREENPA, here's something that actually gives one reason to hope.It's the Home Depot green story from the Times, see URL at top.
Since you still don't have the email thing going, I am using this means to reach you instead. I do very much encourage individual action despite some reader's doubts as to my point {I am about as green as you can get and have been for many decades, like yourself} and that point is REGISTER TO VOTE: IT IS THE MOST MEANINGFUL PERSONAL ACTION YOU CAN TAKE and harrass the hell out of your state and federal elected officials, in person if possible.

Mary said...

Dear Green Pa and all,

Thanks so much for the thoughts and feedback! It's great to have some inputs...I do love the idea of building into the ground, though evidently need to be concerned about ground water in these here hills. I think we're okay, but it's something to consider.

I like the idea of the long term heating and cooling up front!! That's a great way to think of it.

This will be self financed. I don't like being in debt to banks who charge interest at predatory rates. But I think it's doable still... I'll keep you posted and again, thanks for the feed back!

Very best,

Trina said...

Great post! Thank you for this.

Greenpa said...

rc- sorry about the no email thing- but I'm already swamped. At the moment, my regular email address has over 200 unanswered messages in it; not spam- some 80 of them unread (many because I basically know what they're going to say.) I just don't dare put my address out there. This method of contact does work ok. I agree the Home Depot thing is hopeful- some of the pushing is paying off.

Greenpa said...

Mary - groundwater, eh? So you COULD - put in a good drainage system under your office, and run the output through a ... springhouse; lower down the slope. Drainage and cooling, at the same time... There are ways that water could be used to cool the office, too.

Anonymous said...

I will no longer pester you about the email.

Creative Life Studio said...

I love this. I really do. We all need to hear this from time to time. Especially in my neck of the woods - er - golf-course laden, upper-middle class, we're-going-to-drive-around-in-Hummers-even though-the-state-is-as-flat-as-a-pancake, Florida.

I have pushed and continue to push no matter what. I just can't live with myself otherwise. My husband gets frustrated with what he sees and my children don't really understand, because of what they *don't* see - namely any real effects of climate change or a problem at all in this adult playground of a town we live in. It's hard for them to understand why Mama is making her own peanut butter, so that we don't need to buy a plastic jar when friends still have Skippy on their sandwiches, etc.

But there will be no oranges on our tree this year, because of a two-year-long drought of which we are in the midst. An effect of global warming? Others will tell me no, but it's an eerie omen close to home. I'd love to have my oranges, but I'll take the omen if it means others can begin to read the signs.

Anonymous said...

This was a really inspiring post, Greenpa. I love your mix of crankiness and optimism - it really makes me smile.

Mary said...

Hi Green Pa!

I like the idea of the cooling and the drainage.... I've just taken a bunch of pictures of the site that show the terrain. It is hilly and slopes off rather suddenly. I'll post them on my web page today or tomorrow.

In the meantime, I'm pondering some other questions that you may have some insights into:

1. If I do the sheltered construction, it will require a lot of cement and labor and energy for it to happen. The cement is from materials largely drawn from river beds, which creates a lot of environmental problems and the amount of energy is an issue as well. (Yes, I'd love to dig it out myself, but the time is an issue too) Does the long term energy savings of earth sheltered structure counter the more immediate impacts in terms of water, concrete and energy expenditures?

2. Also builder Steve recommended a spray on gel to create the water barrier if underground. It's all the rage in the building industry, but what is it and do I want it seeping into the ground around me?

3. Since I've completely ruled out airconditioning, and our winters here are tolerable (rarely below 0 at night, and lately rarely below freezing during the days) could a south facing building make more sense, with good ventilation and a lot of passive solar?

4. Does building something very small (less than 100 sq ft.) that doesn't require felling any trees more accurately reflect the mission of reducing environmental impacts?

Since you have a lot more experience with this, perhaps you have some insights that I'm missing.

There are some good converting calculators on the web for figuring out things like miles to kilometres, or dollar to rands, but why isn't there something that could do these impact conversions for us?

(Such as how many units of eco-impact for cement versus how many units of eco-impact for wood?)

If anyone knows, please tell me!!

p.s. good luck with all those e-mail! I feel for you on that one too!