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Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Two: The Existential Sustainabilista

Boiling water softens the potato but hardens the egg

By Dave Newport

Besides strapping yourself to the nose of the Shuttle at blastoff, what can provide better perspective than an Airbus A319 window seat looking across a cloudless Great American West? 

Past, meet Future.

How do you do?

Dang good, thank you.

Climbing out of Denver en route to Florida, Jimmy Buffett juking my ears, gratitude lifts me. For some reason, I just ducked the Reaper’s scythe by a scoach.  Got hundreds of well wishes, notes of advice, concern and kindness; plus scary but beautiful stories from others who also diverted death from its destiny far more courageously than me.

The wisdom in those notes painted their own perspective.

First up: a steepened respect for those folks we all know who suffer truly profound challenges. They live in fear-of while embracing a life-of remission, surgeries, chemo, loss of bodily controls, body parts etc--and all the excruciating moments that come with.  Their lives have become an ongoing near death experience (NDE). 

In comparison, my faux fatality shot past me like a Shuttle at 17,500 mph--and I returned safely to Earth.

Next overwhelming reaction: gratitude for all those kind thoughts and sincere concerns sent my way. If you ever wondered if reaching out to someone on the injured list made a difference, stop thinking about it. It counts huge when you are laid out taking comfort through a needle and oxygen from a hose.

Thank you all very, very much. Seriously. Y’all were life affirming amazing.

That’s who you are.

I must confess, I could use a rest, I can’t run at this pace very long...

Yet from this brief look around life’s last curve I am bowed by The Great Expectation: that clarity of life and purpose must come with every NDE. Certainly I have seen the secret truth behind the hidden veil—and can now report it back? Right?

Well, the Captain has turned off the seat belt sign so it is safe to walk around the cabin.

In the meantime, looking out of Frontier flight 292’s window I am reminded the Earth is beautiful, family is all that matters — and we are the flotsam and jetsam of the universe and have nothing to do with anything. We just think we do. Word: the Infinite Universe won’t even notice if we augur in.

That’s not exactly Next Big Thing stuff—or a very uplifting intro to Book Two of My Life.

Which leads me to Book Two’s Second Realization: The problem with a Near Death Experience is if you don’t perceive something poignant about your life, life in general, what comes next, how to deal, or death’s comfort calling you home, you must have had a frontal lobotomy.

OK, sure, I got Eternity’s ironic memo about lifestyle, diet, exercise, etc. Got it.  Doing some of it. Feeling better, much better.

I did get a serious sense of fun. Fun for no reason—and for good reason. Fun must accompany all things as best I can. And all those things must be seriously significant or I need to rethink them. I only want to blast the big rocks now. Make little ones outta big ones, and have lots of fun doing it.

Fun: The Final Frontier.

“If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane”

But we sustainabilistas face a singular systemic dilemma: fun can be a futile fantasy.

For instance, we all know and are in awe of people who chase, dedicate, and donate every millisecond of their lives to righting the world’s wrongs and saving life from death. I wish I were 1% as magnificent as these beautiful folks—but I wish they were even 1% happier. They suffer the world’s problems so hard.

This is a curse of sustainability. Our mission: make the world a wonderful place for present and future generations--all the while knowing, consciously or not, that the planet will get worse before it gets better, if it gets “better,” and that will take a very long while.

We can be buzz kills at parties.

And I’m not the only one. It’s an epidemic. Noted Buddhist/sustainabilista Joanna Macy writes in The Guardian:

“While the sustainability movement has already taken some giant strides towards understanding the pathways to change, there is one area in particular where a dualistic mindset has many remaining stuck on the horns of a dilemma.

[Sustainability] practitioners talk of experiencing severe mood swings, one day believing the "end is nigh", and the next believing we can find a way of avoiding environmental and social catastrophe.

This inability to integrate the seemingly opposite forces of despair and optimism is sapping the energy of many and creating confusion about how to encourage behavior change in others.”

Yup, we are not accountants, no offense to accountants. Unlike accountants, we are driven by passion for a task far outside our puny skills. Yet we charge the machine gun anyway; giving up our lives for the greater good.  

Some must die for others to live.

Fricking love you guys. Really love you.

But as a hospital nurse told me she’d “never heard anybody on their deathbed regret they hadn’t spent enough time at the office.” 

So how do we not lose this very moment—here right now looking down somewhere on the indescribable magnificence of the Gulf of Mexico--chasing a future that may never come, that we will never see, but that matters so very much?

I put my face up against the window again and thought about my favorite Boulder bumper sticker: “I’d rather be here, now.”

Sounds so easy…

I can’t help but wonder where I am bound, where I’m bound…

Flying to Tampa today. From there to visit family and friends for a long bike ride, swell into the Caribbean Soul I can barely control; then absorb Willie Nelson, Alison Kraus, Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas at the St Augustine Amphitheatre with the Atlantic surf beating in the background. Afterwards float through Old Florida’s sumptuous environment at Silver Springs State Park, the largest freshwater spring system in the world: gushes the equivalent of half the planet’s fresh water consumption every day.

You see, even in vaycay mode we fixate on the global challenges… Doh!

Anyway, a few days hanging out and, give me the strength to say this: having fun!

All the while musing how a sustainabilista can also be an existentialist. Can we adequately enjoy, experience and wonder in this moment while working to defeat a dour future?

Lester Brown says he’s still an optimist --wrapped in pessimist clothing. I don’t know what that means—but he’s a very smart guy. Me, not so much.

How do us mortal souls balance a life-saving dose of Ram Dassian’ “being here now” with our life-preserving futurist mission? How do we avoid becoming intellectually and emotionally despondent today because of tomorrow’s inauspicious forecast?

One approach is called mindfulness, the ability to “bring one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.” Nice, but do we just flip a switch to gain that ‘tude?

Joanna Macy co-wrote Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy that redeploys mindfulness around an attitude some of us may find difficult to embrace: gratitude.

Gratitude for what? The book answers:

“When we come from gratitude, we become more present to the wonder of being alive in this amazing living world.

“Yet the very act of looking at what we love and value in our world brings with it an awareness of the vast violation under way, the despoliation and unravelling. From gratitude we naturally flow to honouring our pain for the world.

“Admitting the depths of our anguish, even to ourselves, takes us into culturally forbidden territory. From an early age we had to pull ourselves together, to cheer up or shut up.

“By honouring our pain for the world, we break through the taboos that silence our distress. When the activating siren of inner alarm is no longer muffled or shut out, something gets switched on inside us. It is our survival response.”

So, we must be strong enough to be weak.

Sounds so easy….

Boiling water softens the potato but hardens the egg.

I did not have a full-on clinical Near Death Experience. I was not declared dead and then came back to life—as many have. Mine was a fleeting flirt with fate. More profound tales have been well chronicled and are fascinating. 

If you like mysteries, NDEs provide numerous and intriguing unknowns—and a lot of knowns including that NDEs are characterized by:
  1. Intense emotions: commonly of profound peace, well-being, love; others marked by fear, horror, loss
  2. A perception of seeing one's body from above (called an out-of-body experience, or OBE), sometimes watching medical resuscitation efforts or moving instantaneously to other places
  3. Rapid movement through darkness, often toward an indescribable light
  4. A sense of being "somewhere else," in a landscape that may seem like a spiritual realm or world
  5. Incredibly rapid, sharp thinking and observations
  6. Encounter with deceased loved ones, possibly sacred figures (the Judges, Jesus, a saint) or unrecognized beings, with whom communication is mind-to-mind; these figures may seem consoling, loving, or terrifying
  7. A life review, reliving actions and feeling their emotional impact on others
  8. In some cases, a flood of knowledge about life and the nature of the universe

I got some of number one and number seven. Number eight fuels The Great Expectation. I didn’t get number eight—and I am not capable of experiencing number five. But I am self absorbed enough to think you will still be reading this ramble through the ethers.  

Hey, everybody is good at something.

And everybody reacts to similar experiences in dissimilar ways, according to NDE research. 

In fact, stories from NDEers (people who have gone through NDEs) about their post-life experiences are colored by who they are, what race, religion, nation, age and so forth. NDEers from Christian backgrounds meet Jesus. Buddhists meet Buddha. Muslims meet Mohammad. You get it.

So it follows that any Great Wisdom gleaned by NDEers is also relative to their context. Indeed, one NDE researcher found that, “accounts of Western NDEs would seem to be useless, say, in helping Thais know what to expect at their deaths.” Another NDE researcher concluded that “One of the near-death experience truths is that each person integrates their near-death experience into their own pre-existing belief system.”

This revelation eases my angst about The Great Expectation because my Great Wisdom may not be your Great Wisdom.

Indeed, my take-home is likely fueled by my quasi-spiritual paradigm and being raised in a Western white and materialistic culture. In fact, among white Westerners it is common to hear the “have fun now” mantra that comes in the wake of dodging the barrier at the end of the road.  You read mine above. For many Western whites, an NDE means accelerate the checkoffs on your Bucket List—and don’t feel guilty about it. Party!

But from many African Americans a different response seems to emerge. For them, the good life begins in the Promised Land. Check out the lyrics in traditional Black spirituals like Soon and Very Soon, Going Up Yonder, and We'll Understand It Better By and By

They all signal a cultural and spiritual orientation that says reward, understanding and redemption all come in the next world. Things definitely haven’t been so good for African Americans on this plane of existence. Duh. But eternity holds promise.

Last year, a black friend survived a serious heart attack. When he spoke of it, he said “I was so close to the Promised Land, but my time will come.”

So even in NDEs, white people grab the front row seats at the ballpark because in extra innings you play harder. Black folk are content to wait for the next game.

My favorite tongue in cheek bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

What a long strange trip it’s been…

The big jet slowly banked into its final approach over beautiful Tampa Bay. Fittingly, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” is running through my ears. 

My personal deadline to download The Great Wisdom is up.

Mercifully, the captain comes on the PA and speaks directly to me, “Dave,” he says:

“Live fully in today while working for tomorrow as though the Universe’s fate depends on it, even though it doesn’t. “

“Be grateful for your pain, so you can be grateful for life.”

“Love people with real problems more than you love yourself…(OK, I know this is asking a lot).”

“And by the way, your Great Wisdom is everybody else’s Great Crap; get over yourself.”

“Flight attendants please take your seats for landing.”

The wheels touch down on Tampa’s tarmac. The Captain mumbles “wherever you go, there you are,” as we stumble off the plane.  “But where am I,” came out of my mouth.

No answer.

Don’t worry, be happy

And then I groked the obvious: Human beings just shot a huge cylinder full of people 1,500 miles across America, executed a precision landing, and stopped exactly at the gate. As my legs reconnected with terra firma and I groped for my smart phone I marveled at the power and control we have over the world. We can do great things. We can fix things. We take for granted the daily miracles we invented that inform our lives. Flight. Medicine. Computers. Modern agriculture. We are the master specie to ever live on the Earth.

We can order pizza at 40,000 feet.

Then I recall the Army Corps of Engineers general admiring how they’d “fixed” the meandering bends in Florida’s Kissimmee River by straightening it all the way to Lake Okeechobee: “That’s the way God would have done it, if he had the money.”

And Nuke plants, for instance. What were we thinking?

David Ehrenfield calls our hard-wired God gene “The Arrogance of Humanism.” He defines it as:

“Our irrational faith in the limitless power of human reason – its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper.

“Thus the idea of using a Nature created for us, the idea of control, and the idea of human superiority became associated early in our history… It only remained to diminish the idea of God, and we arrived at full-fledged humanism. This form of humanism is at the heart of our present world culture; we share its unseen assumptions of control, and this bond makes mockery of more superficial differences (among us).”

Wow. OK. Got it. We suck.

Walking out of the airport to rent a car, I turned up “Cheeseburger in Paradise” in my headset.

So how do we opt out of our seemingly inbred humanist hubris?

Wondering that just as humans’ technological and cultural narcissism has evolved an “unseen assumption of control” that is strip-mining this planet, have I also unwittingly subscribed to the same fable that I can fix things too? Have sustainabilistas been bred to believe the same myth; that if we get this right, all that is wrong will be righted? And are we sick of having guilt hangovers when we sober up and confront the facts: we’re toast.

So in my infinitesimally short overtime appearance on this spinning rock that’s floating somewhere in an infinite and expanding universe(s), I want to not guilt/stress myself that I/we can’t fix everything. That does not mean I can’t make a difference—or that I should stop trying. Naga. But big rocks only. Working with others and infusing sustainability principles into malleable young college students can have great collective impact. Transitioning all the campuses on this collection of ancient atoms to a sustainable future (the term itself now bugs me) will have great collective impact on peoples' lives today. But we can’t fix everything so we should stop cutting ourselves over it.

Therefore, Book Two of My Life will start with a divorce from human hubris—and guilt. It will no doubt be a messy divorce.  I will make mistakes, good at that. And a lifetime of guilt and abject self-loathing disguised as a massive ego won’t be defeated gently, if at all. But now at least I have an intellectual rebuttal to guilt’s incessant badgering.

Mother-mother ocean.

Late in the day now and I slowly drove to my son’s Florida home in Gainesville.  It’s a beautiful drive up the Florida peninsula through bucolic panoramas, Cypress wetlands, Live Oak savannas and rolling hills. Thought about the Florida peninsula, surrounded on three sides by Mother-mother ocean. "Never meant to last, never meant to last."

Robert Frost observed of the ocean that "we cannot look out far, we cannot look in deep. But when was that a bar to any watch we keep." 


Then the best bumper sticker ever blew by me on the back of a Buick: “Smell those shrimp; there’re beginning to boil.

Follow that car!

As I sped up, I scribbled my translation of that bumper sticker into sustainablese: 

     “Be the Existential Sustainabilista you want to see in the world.”

Sounds so easy...


Postscript: If you are still sifting through this philosophical plane crash, a note that my blog, “The Department of Change” is itself going to change. First up, a new name. Suggestions welcome.  And instead of blogging about how to do campus sustainability, I want to write about ways to be happy while moving big rocks. Would love your thoughts—or Three Little Birds.

Post-postscript: Many apologies to Robert Frost, Jimmy Buffett, the Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Tom Paxton, Willie Nelson, Alison Kraus, Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas; and philosophical heavyweights Joanna Macy, Lester Brown, Ram Dass and David Ehrenfield for defiling their otherwise peerless careers by referencing various of their songs, lyrics and writings above. I listened to a lot of music and read/thought a lot on that flight. If only it helped me think.


  1. How about "Sustainably Happy"?

  2. Thanks Dave for sharing your views, insights, and very personal experiences. I think we all could benefit from your reflections. Thank you for all that you give back to society and the sustainability sphere. My you live long.... and prosper.