Thursday, March 29, 2007

People Power

One of the members of my Elderwoman Discussion Group reminded us all, this morning, about a wonderful organization called Kiva.

It is a way in which ordinary people in the so- called 'first world' can help ordinary people in the 'third world' to get themselves out of poverty by means of 'micro-loans'. A man or woman in, say, Africa, wants to start a very small business, selling vegetables for example, or keeping chickens or weaving cloth. But he or she has no money for the first lot of seeds or the chickens or the loom or the yarn. All that is needed is a tiny loan, just to get the project going. That's where we come in.

The Grameen Bank, in Bangla Desh, pioneered these 'micro-loans' as they are called, by lending small sums to women. It worked really well and was so successful that the Bank and its Director, Prof. Muhammad Yunus, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Kiva provides a way in which we can all do this same thing and help thousands of people move out of the trap of poverty.

How much better this is than the World Bank and other monster organizations that repress and enslave the very people they are supposed to be helping!

It makes me realize, yet again, that this is how we need to heal and rebuild our world. People thinking globally and acting locally. Ordinary people reaching out to other ordinary people across the dividing lines of language, politics and power. Working together. Building local structures. Re-empowering ourselves and revitalizing our own neighbourhoods. Let's face it, Government and Big Business will never do it for us. Politicians are focused only on staying in power and Big Business has its eye only on the money.

If we want to clean up the mess that our planet has gotten into, and survive the perils of climate change and the bottoming-out of the oil supply on which our system currently depends, we have to roll our sleeves up and do it ourselves, tiny piece by tiny piece. Shopping locally, simplifying our lives, opting out of the consumer ratrace, riding a bicycle, growing our own food, farmers' markets, veg. box schemes, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), learning to make do and mend, sew and darn and patch, cook from scratch -- there are a million ways in which we can, each one of us, take charge of the situation instead of waiting for politicians or technology to rescue us. And a million ways in which we can help each other along the way. Kiva is just one of them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Children and Nature

As a child I roamed free in the woods and fields and ranged around for miles on my bicycle. My friends and I hid secret messages in hollow sticks, cut willow to make bows and arrows, climbed trees, and swam in the river unsupervised. Most people my age have similar memories. Even those who spent their whole childhood in the city remember playing outside, walking to school etc.

My own offspring, though they grew up in the suburbs, still made mudpies, climbed the huge tree at the end of our garden, played for hours outside, biked around the neighbourhood and walked unaccompanied to school, shops and municipal swimming pool.

Sadly, many youngsters in our modern, Western cultures now live indoor lives. Nature is something on TV. Grass stains, daisy chains, muddy knees and frogs in your pocket have been replaced by consoles, joysticks, mobile phones and virtual reality. Imagination has been hijacked by the Disney Corporation and most playthings come in plastic.

There also appears to be an 'epidemic' of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition little-known before the 1980s. An estimated six million children in the USA are now being given amphetamine-like drugs to control their unruly behaviour and unfocused attention.

Are these two phenomena – children's loss of contact with Nature and the alarming rise of ADHD – connected? Since human beings co-evolved for millions of years in deep, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, could it be that moving out of that relationship into artificially-created, urban environments has negative consequences for our wellbeing as a species and for the healthy development of our young?

This is not mere conjecture. Author Richard Louv has researched the connection very thoroughly and in his book Last Child in the Woods he presents sufficient evidence, both experimental and anecdotal, to suggest that by keeping our children indoors we are creating something he calls 'nature deficit disorder'. It is not a clinical diagnosis – not yet anyway. But it is a wonderfully apt name for the condition we our producing.

Why do we do it? Why do we keep our children inside when they should be out playing in the countryside, the park or even just in the backyard or the street?
Louv explores all the reasons. They range from the fear created by media focus on the (small and actually not increasing) number of children harmed by strangers or in accidents, to the officious attitudes of planners and local government officials for whom parks are neat and tidy places and to whom ten-year-old fort-builders appear a menace.

As a grandparent now, I am thrilled to see the delight my grandsons are taking in being outdoors, in the woods, in the park, even splashing in puddles. I've noticed they even spontaneously hug trees. (Must be genetic!!) And I'm thrilled that their parents give them plenty of opportunities to do all those things.

The latest edition of Orion Magazine has a splendid article by Richard Louv entitled "Leave No Child Inside". If you are as interested in this subject as I am, click here to read the article.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Unsung Heroes

Spring is coming in fast, where I live. The daffodils are nodding brightly, primroses are appearing everywhere and celandines too. The fist butterflies are venturing out. And I noticed several bumblebees yesterday. No honeybees yet. But they will be around soon.

Or will they?

I live in England. And so far, according to what I have heard from beekeeping friends, everything seems normal here as regards honeybees.

But across the pond, it is not normal at all any more. For millions upon millions of honeybees have suddenly disappeared, all over the USA. Vanished without trace.

Since bees are so crucial to the pollination of crops, especially fruit trees, a lot of people are very, very worried right now. Livelihoods are threatened.

And everybody is perplexed. Why is this happening? It is not that the bees are necessarily dying. Beekeepers opening their hives are not finding piles of dead bees. In fact they are not finding any dead bees at all. They are finding totally empty hives. The bees have simply vanished, leaving no sign, no clue, no note on the mantelpiece.

They are calling it Colony Collapse Disorder. But merely giving it a name gets us no nearer to understanding what is going on.

However it is rather strange that it is only happening in the USA, isn't it? Are the bees trying to tell us something?

Yesterday, I read a possible explanation for this phenomenon. A certain kind of electro-magnetic signal that has a disorienting effect could be preventing the bees from finding their way home. Hmmm. It sounds very plausible to me. See what you think. I'd like to bet, though, that there will be a chorus of denials from everyone with a vested interest in these transmission systems. Specially the military. You watch. They will say the so-called 'war on terror' (an oxymoron if ever there was one) is far more important than a few bees.

The trouble is, it is those millions of little, seemingly insignificant creatures like bees and ants and earthworms -- and the even smaller ones, like bacteria -- that keep everything going. It is on them that our whole wellbeing depends. They are the unsung heroes. Without them, we starve. Without them, we die. It's that simple.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Media Consumption Diet Meme

How do you live a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, many, many miles away from the city and yet feel totally connected to the rest of the world?

How do you keep a sense of what is happening in the world-at-large when your own interests and activities diverge widely from the mainstream of your own culture?

How do you keep tabs on world – and national – events yet not become swamped by despair at much of what you read? Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh warns that we should avoid over-consumption of ‘bad news’ and stories of war, violence and environmental destruction because it tends to weaken and disempower us. We know the bad stuff is happening; no need to wallow in the details. Better to save our energy for working on the solutions than to keep reading more and more about the problems.

How do you stay au fait with mainstream culture when your favourite magazines etc. are all ‘alternative’ ones?

These are questions that are important to me. So when Ronni, at 'Time Goes By' suggested on Monday morning that we all follow her lead and talk about how we get our info, I thought it would be interesting to join in the discussion.

I really related to Ronni’s comment that she reads a lot of news because "It’s not just information about what goes on the world I’m after, but a sense of the zeitgeist, of what the culture concerns itself with." That’s important to me too. Not just because I am a writer but because I remain really interested in all of that stuff. And it is becoming increasingly important as I get older and less 'out there' in the world in a physical way.

The older one gets, the more longitudinal is one’s view. I find it fascinating to be able to look back as far as the 1940s and track all the various changes that have taken place in my own liefetime. Also, the more parlous our planetary situation becomes, and the closer we come to the edge of the cliff, the more I feel the need to tune in – usually in the hope that I’ll discern signs of positive change.

So what are our preferred ways of getting all this information? Here’s my own list:

Web:I have Google Alerts on topics that are of special interest to me, particularly aging and simple living. It is fascinating to see where these take me to each day – blogs I would never have discovered otherwise, articles I would never have read in newspapers and journals I’ve never even heard of.
For mainstream media, I subscribe to the headline service for the New York Times and The Independent (UK) and I also check the main news stories on the BBC and The Guardian each day.
For alternative media I subscribe to Alternet and Grist. (Plus Dahr Jamail’s 'Iraq Despatches' though I can’t always face reading them).
Then there’s a whole bunch of e-zines and newsletters that come via e-mail, particularly writing-related and environmental ones.

Music: I love to dwell amidst silence and birdsong so I only listen to music when I go to a concert. Or very occasionally – about once every couple of months – I play a CD. If I listen to music I do just that and only that. I like to sing and drum though, so most of the music I hear is DIY.

As for TV, we haven’t had TV in our house for over twenty years and don’t ever plan on getting one. I hate TV. It trivialises important things, sensationalises unimportant things and turns people into zombies. No, I don’t even want to watch the wildlife programs. I like to go out into the woods and fields each day and be with the wildlife here, now, in real time.

Communications:I read e-mail on my Web host’s mail server and only download whatever needs answering. I have a Gmail account too, but rarely use it. Have a landline phone but no mobile. Yes, cell phones are useful gadgets (and my beloved son-in-law owes his life to one) but I detest the thought that people can interrupt me wherever I am. (And I suspect the radiation is unhealthy).
I subscribe to a Swiss phone company that gives me the ability to make calls to the US from England at a mere half a penny per minute. Rather than being tied to my computer, as I would be with Skype, it means I can take the phone all over the house (important when one is sharing a small space with a partner who may be trying to work or read a book).

Movies:Since we live in the depths of the countryside and don’t have a car, I rarely see movies. And movie theatres are uncomfortable places for me nowadays because I’ve noticed that they turn the sound up much louder than they used to. But when I visit my daughter, she rents DVDs or videos of movies I have said I’d like to watch and we watch them together. (I could watch them on my computer, but I figure that I spend quite enough time sitting there already).

Magazines:I subscribe to The Ecologist, New Internationalist, Vegetarian Times, Writers News and Mslexia and all the myriad organizations I belong to have their own magazines also so there’s always a huge pile of magazines and journals next to my armchair.

Newspapers I never buy, and even the local freebie doesn’t get read. It goes straight into the compost. Printers’ ink makes my eyes itch.

Books:I get a lot of books to review and I also borrow books from the library so there’s always a ‘to-be-read’ pile. There’s also a ‘part-read’ pile. I like having several books on the go at once – usually one novel and several non-fiction books about different subjects – so that my reading can suit my mood and energy level.

So that is how I live a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, many, many miles away from the city and yet feel connected to the rest of the world. Well … perhaps not totally connected. Without TV, there is another whole layer of the world that I don’t tap into. But that’s a layer I prefer to live without. And maybe it’s as well that some of us remain outside that layer. On a ship full of sleeping passengers it's good to have a few people on watch.