Friday, August 29, 2014

Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming

I thought swashbuckling days were over. Guess I was wrong.

 In Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, author McKenzie Funk shows us how economic opportunities can be found in all negative aspects of climate change. He states “the climate is changing faster than we are [but]… Life will go on. Before it does, we should all make sure we understand the reality.” These are true statements. But when Funk states “…these pages reveal something important: In an unfair world, rational self-interest is not always what we wish it would be,” he’s not being clear which side of the dike he stands upon. He admits seeing the environmental movement as being misguided, employing “magical thinking” that will not produce results in the developed world. That also may be so. But does it mean that we give in, wholesale, to the altering of the world’s ecosystems just because the current approach is “naïve?”

Here’s a representative take on the issue, from the introduction:
 “'What are we going to do? We have to change the way we live!’ Instead of working for Greenpeace, which he’d considered after graduation, he [Mark Fulton, Deutsche Bank’s chief climate strategist] became a stockbroker, then an analyst, and he’d eventually helped Deutsche Bank identify global warming as a ‘megatrend’ that could generate profit for decades. ‘It’s always helped me, climate change, in my career,’ he joked.”

I’m not laughing, and to be honest, I know McKenzie Funk, for all his objectivity, is careful not to, as well.

A pirate is a plunderer, a strong-arm who takes from the defenseless for his own gain. A pirate is a man like American investor Phil Heilberg, who negotiates with General Paulino Matip of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army for farmland in war-torn Sudan. Matip is happy to lease the land, even though he does not have ownership of it, officially. And it’s all okay, politically; Heilberg tried negotiating with the Dinka leadership but when they tried to get him to bribe them, he switched to the Nuer faction.  Heilberg’s idol is Ayn Rand, who he says “believed pursuing profit was itself a moral act, a kind of enlightened selfishness: Place yourself above all else; get in no one’s way, and let no one get in yours; give no charity, and expect none.” 

Sounds a lot like what got us here in the first place.

Not all of Funk’s research lands us in such murky polluted waters. He also goes to the Netherlands, land of the medieval dikes, who are builders of the $7.5 billion Delta Works, “the world’s greatest coastal defense network”.  Potential clients include the Marshall Islands and Bangladesh as well as river delta cities like New Orleans, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and New York City.  Land reclamation innovation comes in all forms in the Netherlands; research into ‘smart soils’ with bacteria to create strong bonds to seal cracks in levees and dikes is one concept, another is floating cities.

This is a fascinating book, made more compelling by the thin line between economic innovation and moral indignation that Funk treads upon.  Being an environmentally-conscious consumer, I do mourn the damaged state of our world, wrought by our cumulative hands, just as many folks do. I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly support this shoulder-shrugging stance to embrace droughts, floods, and storm-damages as economic opportunities.  It’s giving in, offering credence to the sins; it’s a very pirate-like approach. But, to let Funk have the last word: “[t]he hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone…For the most part, we are not our own victims.”  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death at the Movies: Hollywood's Guide to the Hereafter

Among the many attributes of art is its instrumental value. Art can teach. It can educate. Not all art, of course, much of it is soggy crackers. But the good stuff can get you thinking and might even make you a better human. The book Death at the Movies by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli shines a spotlight on a particular genre of film called Film Blanc first identified in a 1978 article by Peter L. Valenti. This genre is characterised by several traits including but not limited to a character’s mortal death or lapse into dream; the subsequent encounter with otherworld beings, some kind some not; ultimate transcendence and a return home. All of this seems like deep water but the authors eschew obtuse philosophical and/or theological analysis and instead simply focus on movie examples. This is a fun book because it identifies what is implicit in some of the world’s best loved movies and makes it explicit.

Before continuing on to the movies it will be helpful for the remainder of this book review to elucidate one important technical term: transit. The word naturally conjures images of movement, of starting in one place and traveling to another. This isn’t necessarily how the word is used in the book, though movement is an aspect of it. The term transit is used mainly for its explanatory power to suggest a consciousness stage or state in the protagonist’s development. Characters enter, or pass through, the transit state and into what is essentially another world. Film Blanc can be understood almost by definition as transit movies.

Now the fun part, examples of Film Blanc movies. I will briefly mention two: Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz.

Casablanca is a movie I have always enjoyed and it seems fresh even after multiple viewings. I will assume you have seen it. At the beginning of the movie we are told of the harrowing journey the cast of characters must take to reach Casablanca in Morocco. All of these characters are looking to move on to freedom, perhaps in America. Rick, the proprietor of the Café Americain, has left the U.S.A to run this transit place. The story involves many elements including a long lost love (Ilse), Nazis who act as the demons of this transit world, letters of transit (symbols for dogma, or truth—we all want letters of transit to get through life). Ultimately Rick achieves transcendence when he overcomes selfish desires to keep Ilse with him forever. He lets her go by stating they will always have Paris. He has come to recognize that love is eternal and that in some sense Ilse will always be with him. He helps Ilse leave for safety. Rick, transformed, will remain and fight the good fight against the evil forces of the world (i.e. the Nazis).

The Wizard of Oz is another great example of a transit movie. Dorothy lives a humdrum life. She dreams of going over the rainbow to another world of truth and beauty. Her house is caught in a tornado. She is magically transported to another world (she is lying in bed while this happens, is this her deathbed?). She meets the kindly Good Witch of the East who gives her a pair of magic shoes. She travels on a yellow brick road to meet the Wizard (God?). She must struggle against the wicked Witch of the West. She is aided in this quest by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Lion (who represent in their various ways her mind, heart and body). She ultimately faces her fears and in a moment of self-forgetting, or rather selfless concern for another, she saves her friend the Scarecrow from the flames by dousing him with water. The water also destroys the wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy does not fly home with the Wizard but is instructed by the Good Witch to tap her magical shoes together (this magic has been with her the whole time though its power went unrecognized). She returns home to an enriched home-life as is evidenced by the presence of the farmhands the Tin man, Lion and Scarecrow as well as the Wizard all in their everyday (earth-world) guise.

These aren’t the only movies mentioned that exhibit the transit and transformation characteristics of Film Blanc. The book also discusses Groundhog Day, Ghost, Interview with the Vampire, Sixth Sense and several others.

Death at the Movies is an intriguing read. Part of me thinks that over-analysing art will drain it of its experiential power, but the other part believes such analysis is helpful if it nurtures awareness of those implicit and eternal themes of love, self-sacrifice and hope that are a simple click of the TV remote away from full HD expression.   

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The YOU Factor: A Handbook for Powerful Living

Leslie Strong has written a book that I could certainly get my head around, or rather, my head into. The YOU Factor: A Handbook for Powerful Living may target women as its audience but it certainly can be used by all who feel that they have lost control in their lives. I can identify with Strong's message because she raises points on how I already live my life. Taking responsibility for your decisions, not blaming others for what has happened to you, and forgiving others are three rules, or tools that I live by. I am empowered by taking responsibility over my life. As Strong states at the beginning of The YOU Factor:

"My work and my personal experiences have led me to the conclusion that the prime cause of most of our current unhappiness can be boiled down to something I call 'The YOU Factor.' Or to be more exact, the absence of 'The YOU Factor' in our lives. If you are unhappy, it's likely because you have given up your personal power. You no longer feel in control of your life. You feel other people or outside circumstances are calling the shots. You have, in a sense, given up on you."

Strong uses the words "power" and "personal power" throughout The YOU Factor. It is a way to instil in her readers that they are capable of changing their lives. If the reader continues to read that she has the capacity to possess her own personal power enough times, she will believe it.

I was charmed by Strong's list of fill-me-ups. According to Strong, a fill-me-up is "an experience that leaves you with a positive feeling for an extended period of time, like a day. It leaves you with a sense of power and strength to take on the work in your life and to give to others, with patience, support, understanding, love, kindness, and generosity.". The first item Strong listed on her chart of fill-me-ups was "Reading non-fiction books". Not just any books, you see. She too takes great pleasure in reading the wide range of Dewey.

In order to gain personal power, one must possess the situation at hand. Own it. Do not shrug it off onto others. Do not blame anyone else for where you are. I truly live by these rules. Strong says succinctly:

"When you start blaming, always look at yourself first. What role did you play?"

She elaborates:

"As you work on regaining your power, it's always a good idea to check your progress--to see if you are indeed moving from victim to power player. The process starts inside your head. The power player always begins with a simple premise: It's up to me. As a power player, you have the ability to choose what happens in your life, and how you react to a situation. You do not blame other people for what happens to you. You know you always have a very significant power--the ability to choose how you view a situation. You gain considerable leeway by separating fact from fiction, so that you are reacting to the bare facts, not to the story you have fabricated about the facts, a story that may be based on your personal truths and assumptions and the stories rooted in your personal history. You then scope out plenty of options, not just two uninspiring ones."

Strong is a personal and executive leadership coach and she provided plenty of examples from her client base to put a face to her power tools. In some cases, the change can be gained by simply adopting a different perspective. Placing oneself outside the situation and looking at it from a much wider perspective has the power to change one's point of view. A narrow view gives you tunnel vision, whereas a wider view gives you choices. And with choices, you always have additional power. From my own personal experience, I can be "trapped" in a loathsome situation because I do not give myself any choices. It can be so easy to be stuck in a regular routine that you lose the perspective of choice. I will assess a situation, and then make a personal vow that I will not put up with it anymore. I can see myself actually doing this. Yes, I do stop everything and have this talk to myself. Yet how many of us don't even take ourselves outside of the situation and think this way? How many of us accept the predicament and then unhappily trudge through it? I have had many lightbulbs appear above my head as I come to realize that I can do something about this. I refuse to be unhappy or tied down in a miserable situation. This different perspective, that of embracing the power to change because you want to be happy, opens up the floodgates of choices.

The YOU Factor was filled with many nuggets like this, and for those who have difficulty even seeing the possibility of choices or who avoid making decisions, Strong's got you covered:

"Avoiding a Decision:

"Let's be really straight here. Not making a choice is making a choice. It's making a choice to leave your fate up to the universe, God, the other person, your circumstances, or destiny. We often cover up our choice avoidance by saying, I don't know what to do; what if I make the wrong choice? You sit in limbo and tell yourself, It's not my fault. You may even be waiting for someone or something to make the decision for you, or for circumstances to change so that you no longer have to make a decision or you can make one that is less uncomfortable. Sound familiar? How much power do you feel you have when you are in limbo? None. When you are in one place, you are thinking perhaps the other side would be better. And when you are in the other place, you are thinking of the opposite side again. You don't have any power. All you're doing is waiting."

I have found that one of the greatest stresses in my life is holding a grudge. The most poisonous occupant of my brain is a grudge. There is so much that I want to stuff into my brain, such is the love Strong and I share for nonfiction books, that I don't want to give one square millimetre of grey matter to holding a grudge. I live to forgive. With forgiveness, there is empowerment:

"I used to think that forgiveness meant condoning the bad behaviour, but now I see it differently. When you forgive, you are not saying, That was good behaviour, good for you.
"Instead, I say this:
"What you did was not okay by me. Yet holding on to that anger only affects me, no one else. In fact, by staying angry, I'm only handing over my power to the person who hurt me. So I may not agree with the behaviour, the actions, the words, but I need to forgive so that I can move on in a powerful way."


"It's not easy to forgive someone, but it's mandatory to move on. It's the only way to loosen the grip of anger that is choking you."

Leslie Strong will be appearing at the Mississauga Central Library on Tuesday, September 30 to give an inspirational talk on the YOU Factor. Click on the link for program details.