meritocracy

Since I was young, I have been told by society, “work hard and you will succeed.” And, guess what, the prescription worked.

Ah, but not so fast. I know many others that have worked hard as well and they haven’t been as fortunate. Also, I have met many people who have “made it” largely based on luck (having wealthy parents/family or merely occupying a high-paid, paper-pushing job). Is this fair?

I realize that I was very lucky too. Both of my parents are intelligent and educated. And my aunts and uncles are too. Additionally, I lived most of my life in Northern Virginia, which has very strong school systems. A good education can go a long way.

I also realize that I have other fortunate assets that have made it a lot easier for me to “make it.” I am “White” (though I have endured some discrimination due to my ethnic last name), I am a male, and I am taller than average. In the U.S., in 2016, “Whites” make nearly twice as much as African-American’s do and men still make ~27% more than women (ref 1, ref 2). (Notice that the stat I provide is higher than the one in the article–this is due to how one reports the difference. If you say that women make 79 cents for every dollar men make, you can equivalently say that men make 27% percent more (as 100 is 27% larger than 79) or you can talk about the “21% wage gap,” as does the article; which one highlights the severity of the problem better?). Also, interestingly, in the history of the US, the taller candidate for president has won 67% of the time, suggesting that being tall is a significant advantage (ref 3).

So, I have been lucky too, and I can’t complain. But, I don’t like to think that my accomplishments have been based on luck alone; I suspect others feel the same way about their “fortune.” Having studied environmental justice for the past 20 years, I am aware of how pervasive economic injustice still is, both here in the United States as well as internationally. Thus, I am not comfortable telling people “less fortunate” than me to “just work harder.” I recognize it often takes a lot more than “work” to succeed. So rather than just brazenly telling people what to do from my ivory tower, I do what I can in my local/regional environment to “pay it forward.” One example of this is my co-creation of a Time Bank in my community earlier this year; you can find out about it here. I don’t make these contributions out of guilt. I do it because I firmly believe that we will all be better when we all have better opportunities. Our economic system, which has largely lives by the principle that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” is a deceptive failure to increasingly many (ref 4). We need to do what we can to truly develop economic justice and opportunity for all. Only then will we make real progress.

Grandpas on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a great day to reflect on history. Whether it was started by former slaves in Charleston, SC honoring a mass grave of Union soldiers in 1865 (ref 1, ref 2) or Southerners in other cities (ref 3) celebrating the sacrifices of loss Civil War soldiers a year later, we now have a tradition deeply embedded in our culture. Going back to the founding of the US, well over 1 million U.S. servicemen and servicewomen have died fighting wars. And, not to be overlooked, millions of others, many from foreign lands, have died or have sustained significant injuries, physical and mental, as a result of these conflicts.

Both my grandfathers fought in the “Great” wars of the 20th Century, Joseph (in WW I) and Max (in WW II). While Grandpa Joseph sadly passed when I was just a toddler, Grandpa Max and I got to spend ~30 years getting to know each other. Grandpa Max taught me many things, but probably the two most important were: (a) everyone matters and is worth your attention; and, (b) when something is important enough, you must be willing to sacrifice everything to obtain it (in 1945 that was freedom from fascism; he volunteered to serve, and, as a result, fought in France against the Nazis). Despite risking so much and contributing to the “Victory,” Grandpa Max was no fan of war. He openly protested against all other U.S. wars, which he thought were illegitimate on moral grounds (he deemed them imperialistic enterprises). He was a working man, whether it be in the Bowery of New York City, as a diamond setter, or a social worker with schizophrenics later in life. He never made much money but he quietly saved thousands, which he generously gave his five grandchildren at his passing. He was modest and definitely a bit cantankerous (what older men aren’t). I don’t know for sure, but I think his battlefield experiences connected him with humanity in a way few of us ever do. His two sons drew from these lessons as well–both have dedicated their lives to the betterment of humanity.

We definitely have a lot to learn from our soldiers and the experiences they have had; I wish I had had more opportunities to learn from Grandpa Joseph. But given that face-to-face combat is becoming less common (at least among U.S. soldiers) as drones and airstrikes become more popular (both further dehumanizing combat), we must be vigilant not to let war become something that we participate in casually or without exhausting all diplomatic options first. I am sure Grandpa Max and Grandpa Joseph would agree with this.

money lost (part I)

Thinking about the political scene right now elicits anxiety. My state of Illinois is in major gridlock. This is having profound effects locally. Case in point, in Galesburg, summer school for elementary children has been eliminated as has the breakfast and lunch program that children depend on for nourishment. At the federal level, the US government has been in gridlock for most of President Obama’s tenure and arguably for most of the Bush (#2) era. Amidst all of this governmental logjam, it is understandable that many are becoming frustrated, particularly those that understand that government, when functioning well, can do wonderful things–such as, providing care for the downtrodden, a high level of education to its people, and efficient and accessible transportation for all. With all of these programs hemorrhaging, many people are hurting unnecessarily.

Those of us that live in the United States are told repeatedly that we live in the freest and most prosperous nation in the world. Some statistics compel us to believe this. Among nations with more than 25 million people, of which there are 49 (in 2015), the USA has the highest GDP (gross national product) per capita. Yet, other figures clearly demonstrate it as wishful thinking. Consider, the US, home to less than 5% of the world’s people, houses ~25% of the world’s prisoners (ref 1). Additionally, childhood poverty in the US is among the highest (if not the highest) among industrialized nations (ref 2, ref 3). How could this be?

Let me inject a new law of conservation to shed light on this. The Law of the Conservation of Money (LCM), an idea that I hereby make up (but apparently has esoteric roots elsewhere), says that money always goes somewhere, it doesn’t disappear. So, if “America’s wealth grew by 60 percent in the past six years, by over $30 trillion [… and,] in approximately the same time, the number of homeless children has also grown by 60 percent” (ref 2), we can see the source of the problem–the continued misdistribution of money. In Illinois, we hear powerful leaders talk about how we don’t have money for X or Y (where X and Y are often critical programs that keep the underclass alive). But the answer to where our money went doesn’t take “rocket science” to determine. Among key drivers, look no further than IL’s extremely regressive tax structure (5th worst in the U.S., see ref 4). Yet, is there a state leader (who receives any media attention) who points to this obvious source of our economic woes? I don’t know of one. We will not make much progress until we identify where our riches went.

(to be continued)

growing up

I know a lot of you grow food. It is an amazing thing to do, isn’t it, especially if you do it from seed! A seed is one of the most incredible things on the planet that we can visibly see; notice that “see” and “seed” are so close in spelling. Consider an okra seed, about the size of a small pea. Visibly it looks like a tiny pebble, seemingly inanimate. However, if you plant this “pebble” about 1 inch below the Earth’s surface and water it regularly, an amazing plant will emerge. About 7 years ago, that is exactly what I did and the result was unimaginable. Three months into the watering, I stood next to a plant twice my height with a “waist” of at least 7″. I had to grab it and bend it over so that I could reach its upper fruits. Somehow, in merely 90 days, a speckle of a dark-green “pebble” had grown to be a gigantic organism replete with beautiful yellow flowers and delicious lantern shaped pods rich in Vitamin C!

This plant, just one of ~400,000 plant species on the Earth, taught me so much. It clarified for me how spectacular and intelligent life forms are. It reminded me that all life serves other life; the okra through its flowers (for pollinators), and its oxygen and fruits (for 200-lb primates and other animals). It challenged me to grow “13-feet” in three months using only light, water and soil. Two-thousand days later, I still think about this okra plant and all that it taught me. It is no wonder though, as I still have some of it inside of me.

about me

I, a 40-something environmentalist, who loves to provoke a discussion about important issues, started this blog as a means to: (1) get stuff off my chest and out of my head; (2) share ideas that are often intentionally avoided/ignored by mainstream media; and, (3) learn from others and give them voice at well (so please comment). One never knows where a first step leads, so let’s find out…