TEDx Amazonia: Quality of Life for All Species, Part 1

Part 1: intro to TED, my speech at the conference
Part 2: Highlights of other TEDx Amazonia Talks, especially from Amazonians
Part 3: Critical look at the Entrepreneurially Minded TED speakers

I was so annoyed that I improvised an opening lament/complaint about it when I gave my Talk in the first of six blocs over two days. The audience cheered in support.

It’s quite difficult to summarize the just-completed TEDx Amazonia. Brazilian organizers (mostly from Sao Paulo themselves) staged the event Nov. 6-7 at the Amazon Jungle Palace Hotel which sits about 45 minutes up the Rio Negro River from Manaus in the heart of the forest (the enormous expense of flying in all the speakers and fancy hi-tech equipment was covered by corporate sponsors Santander Bank and a variety of Brazilian media and marketing companies). Normally it’s a floating hotel that can be reached directly by river ferries of all types. Here’s a photo of the place when the waters are running high (this was also taken before the conference center and dining hall we used were added).

Amazon Jungle Palace Hotel prior to some of its recent additions, and long before the drought left it aground in the forest.

But we had quite a different experience, as detailed in my previous post. We were on what felt like an ocean liner that had run aground in a lost corner of the jungle, and was slowly disappearing into the sun-baked mud as the river evaporated around it. By the time we left the rains had started again, but it wasn’t clear how long it would before this historic drought would end.

So having a gathering of 50 speakers and 250 hand-picked audience members in the heart of the jungle to address the official theme of “Quality of Life for All Species” took on a different hue once we were here, facing the impressive and unanticipated (for me at least) drought. My first stab at dividing up the presenters into thematic clusters or types produced this list: artists (including musicians and dancers), game makers, scientists (biologists, a chemist, a couple of permaculturists), residents of the Amazon involved in local business and ecological activism, and economists (which for lack of a better place, I’d put myself too), and some straight-up business people representing their companies. At least 60% of the speakers were Brazilian, but we were also from the U.S., Finland, Peru, Mexico, England, Ecuador, Colombia, and the audience made it broader still.

I should pause because it’s important to understand how we all became quite chummy and actually gained real affection for each other. We were hanging out with each other very intensely for three or four days. We were living a very privileged experience. We’d been flown across the planet to be here, we’d been met at the airport like corporate executives or rock stars and whisked to a fine modern hotel, where drinks and food were provided. Then we were taken by boat to the surreal luxury of the Amazon Jungle Palace Hotel, and each given a private room and treated like stars. We met each other in this euphoria of attention and wealth and very few speakers (myself included) can resist the temptation to feel like you’re one of the cool ones, that somehow you have earned this experience, and that your presentation along with the others is actually quite important. Why would they have spent so much money to have us there if it weren’t? An air of self-flattery inevitably clouded our judgment, and the wildly enthusiastic reception” including many standing ovations by the audience” confirmed this. While there were more than a dozen brilliant speakers, most of the presentations were not so remarkable that they deserved the adulation they received, in my (not so humble) opinion.

This atmosphere of self-importance is reinforced by our shared material experience in the lap of luxury, and it combines with a format that squelches public critical engagement. The TED format, with speakers grouped in blocs, each going for a set amount of time, leaves no room for audience Q&A or immediate feedback, and certainly no rebuttals or disagreements from the floor. You are expected to find the speakers you want to go further with during the break times, or as a speaker, you are expected to find your critics over coffee and cakes, or during one of the hurried meals when we all sit together in a huge dining hall. OK, that does happen a bit. But what is lost is any risk for the speakers or the event that actual conflict will erupt. It’s designed out of the experience. Private disagreements among “gentlemen” (whatever their actual gender) can be easily ignored or more likely, never encountered. I think there should be at least 2-3 questions of each speaker while the whole 300+ audience is assembled so a sharp listener can challenge assertions and assumptions that are, or should be, political issues for everyone. (To make time for that, there should be fewer total speakers, too.)

Case in point: one of the lectures somewhat lost in the blur of Saturday afternoon was by Brazilian geneticist Paulo Arruda. I’m sure he’s a good guy. But he was uncritical and utterly lacking in nuance as he gave a speech declaring that genetic science had already solved so many problems and that with further research (he’s one of the three protagonists of the Brazilian Genome Project which has been good for agribusiness in Brazil) there’s nothing that genetic science can’t solve! That’s just patently ridiculous! But there was no way to engage these wild assertions as part of the event. It would have to be in private later.

A funnier example happened later when Dr. Michael Braumgart, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, gave his talk. His slides and original talk had failed to arrive, so he improvised. He went up on stage with one of the audience chairs, our plastic-encased ID badge and the program booklet, and sat there very deadpan, announcing that he can’t sing, dance, or entertain like so many of the others had done. Then he stood up and said we were in deep shit, because we are afraid of shit. (Andres Soares, a Brazilian permaculturist, brought this up at the beginning of his talk on Sunday too, talking about “fecophobia.”) Then he asked who likes to eat organic food? And a bunch of us raised our hands. He was dismayed. “If we romanticize nature, we always feel guilty,” he admonished. He gestured to the fake leather chair, the plasticized badge holders we were all wearing, and the multicolored program guide printed on fresh paper as examples of design catastrophes. He suggested if you want to save the planet and conserve energy, you should always take the elevator because the electricity used in moving a human up was far less than the calories you’d burn if you walked up the stairs. Midway he threw out a random statistic, that 35 million flip-flops are thrown or lost into the world’s oceans every year, along with a half million tons of plastic. This was after Paul Bennett of IDEO had used his client’s success (Havaiana) with the flip-flop design as an example in his Talk titled something like “The River of Design.” Paul was aggravated at that stat and assured me later that it was completely preposterous, but I’d sort of gathered that anyway”¦ 35 million?? That’s an insane number, but of course it’s true that many thousands, along with untold tons of plastic, DO make their way into the ocean every year and contribute to plunging fish and marine life. Braumgart wasn’t afraid to go out on a limb in the Amazon, though given the audience it wasn’t too risky. He urged us to become native to this planet, and wondered why we delegate “nativeness” to aboriginals? “WE are natives to this planet!” the German chemist declared. (There were only a few actual indigenous in the audience, along with a somewhat larger number of local mestizos, with no way to answer this somewhat insulting assertion in the moment.)

Funny misanthropic joke from Braumgart that I hadn’t heard before: “Two planets run into each other. Planet #1 says to the other, “˜you look terrible!’ #2 says, “Yeah, I have homo sapiens.” #1 says, “Oh I had that. Don’t worry, they go away.”

So here is the speech I gave at Tedx Amazonia:

Me on stage, November 6, 2010, at Tedx Amazonia. Photo by Zach Lieberman

I am happy to be in the Amazon to talk about “quality of life for all species.” What a simple and direct concept! And yet, so much of our life activity, our work is dedicated to other purposes, to other goals both abstract and practical, that impede the quality of life for countless species, including humans! To put it bluntly, as a global society we’re doing a ridiculous amount of stupid work.

Most of us think and talk about work in terms of our jobs, the things we do in exchange for money to survive. We are living through one of the greatest speed-ups in human history, which has both lengthened and intensified our working hours. Many people have two or three jobs to make enough money to meet their needs. Meanwhile, the hours of work are ever more intense and closely monitored. Sometimes our home lives and our familes can feel like yet another “job.” Most of us are so busy that we often don’t have time for the most simple human interactions. What does it take now? Four or 5 phone calls, a half dozen emails and twenty text messages, all to find a time three weeks in the future to see a good friend for a half hour over coffee!?! What happened?

This is not an accident. This is the outcome of a social logic over which we exercise no control, and yet our lives are strongly shaped by it. Somehow the system under which we live keeps expanding, keeps using the energy and goodwill we bring to our work lives, to make a world quite different than any of would choose freely. How is it that so many of us start to work with the best of intentions, and yet find ourselves contributing to a world that is brutalizing so many? How is it that the frantic pursuit of growth and profit has produced a world with billions of people living in abject poverty?

In fact, we are living in the midst of a Planetary Work Machine that has steadily expanded the amount of work humans do along with the consumption of earth’s natural resources over the past 250 years. This Planetary Work Machine is not improving the quality of life for all species, but instead is a machine that is out of control, and increasingly, threatens the survival of life itself.

In spite of how everyone is working all the time, where I live there is no working class. At least no one thinks there is! Instead, nearly everyone thinks of themselves as being in the American Middle Class. If you’re not so poor that you’re pushing a shopping cart down the street looking for discarded aluminum cans and bottles, or so rich that you’re riding in private jet to your next golf course, you’re considered Middle Class. This is important because as the self-identity of “middle class” fully took over, people’s sense of where politics happens shifted too. Instead of organizing at work, and challenging the structure and purpose of what we do all day, we are expected to act politically when we’re finished with work, mostly when we’re shopping.

So in the U.S. most political campaigns (outside of elections) are designed to make you feel guilty or proud about buying one product or another. Don’t eat meat! Don’t buy sweatshop garments or unfairly traded coffee! Do buy local organic vegetables! Do support small businesses in your neighborhood. And so on. But this is the perfect capitalist paradigm. You are an isolated consumer who votes with your money. At no point should you imagine you have the right to decide what work is worth doing, nor how it should be organized. And it’s no concern of the employees at a company how resources are used, what poisons are dumped in waterways on the other side of the planet, or how much carbon dioxide is produced by the corporation’s normal business practices.

Let’s face it. There’s a great deal of work to do to make an ecologically sane, healthy and comfortable life for everyone. But mostly we’re not doing that work. Instead we’re working at jobs and in industries that are perpetuating the destruction of habitats, species, and human communities, while plundering natural resources and threatening the stability of planetary ecology.

As individuals we have no easy way to address this drama. Growing up, I lived in San Francisco where there was a big downtown financial district and I was soon employed temporarily at Bank of America. I didn’t expect to stay there long and as it turns out, neither did most of my co-workers. When I looked around I saw people who looked a lot like me. We were young, college educated, smart, talented, and we were doing simple, repetitive jobs in the banking bureaucracy. When I asked my coworkers about themselves, nearly everyone would say they were just at the bank for a few months to make enough money to go on with their “real lives.” We weren’t bankworkers! As someone cleverly put it, “What you see me doing, isn’t what I do!” We were photographers, dancers, historians, philosophers, political activists, musicians, and many others things, but no one would pay us money to pursue those creative choices.

We were already living the typical modern experience of a bifurcated life. We do one thing for money, something we don’t really care about and have little respect for. And we do something else entirely that emerges from our creative capacities, the fullest sense of our humanity and our possibilities. The need to engage in useful work instead of useless toil is growing.

In other words, when we’re not at our job, we’re often working quite hard on projects and activities of our own choice, and without money as the purpose. Across the planet people are taking their time and their technological know-how OUT of the market, out of the business world, and in small invisible ways, are making life better right now” but also setting the foundation, technically AND socially, for a genuine movement of liberation from market life. I call these people Nowtopians!

These initiatives are a mostly invisible challenge to the Planetary Work Machine. Acting locally in the face of unfolding global catastrophes, friends and neighbors are beginning to redesign many of the crucial technological foundations of modern life. These redesigns are being worked out through garage and backyard Research & Development programs among friends, using the detritus of modern life. Our contemporary Commons takes the shape of discarded bicycles and leftover deep fryer vegetable oil, of vacant lots and open bandwidth. Ecological restoration work, usually done by volunteers, is reviving shorelines, riversides, urban creeks, and expanding remnant habitats on hills and in canyons, on behalf of thousands of plants, bugs, birds, and animals. Festivals, free services, restored natural areas, and anti-commodities are imaginative products of an anti-economy, provisionally under construction by freely cooperative and inventive people. They aren’t waiting for an institutional change from government or business, but are getting on with building the new world in the shell of the old.

Many people are now engaged in new ways of working, precisely to gain some control over the purpose and structure of their own activities in ways that wage-labor prevents, and a politics of consumption ignores. Most of these activities get the acronym in English DIY, or do-it-yourself (better to say DIT, or do-it-together!). Sometimes these DIY efforts are reclaiming ancient practices that have been lost to us in the modern urban environment, like growing our own food, while other times they involve a prefigurative reinhabitation of the urban environment, as in Critical Mass bike rides, or in the efforts to restore native habitats for other species, or in aquifer and water management projects.

In the community gardening movement, for example, the first impulse is often to grow some tomatoes or zucchini for oneself. It goes much further though. By putting your hands into the soil in your own city, learning about the cycles of weather and seasons, where the water comes from, what grows well and what doesn’t in that particular soil, a whole ecological sensibility is born. Moreover, it’s not an isolated activity. You meet your fellow gardeners, you learn the lessons they’ve already digested. A social exchange takes place outside of the market, where surplus produce and technical and ecological knowledge are all freely shared.

In San Francisco other efforts are also underway to restore habitat for native plants, butterflies, and birds, and some people are agitating to “daylight” creeks that have been long buried underground. On one San Francisco shoreline, restoration efforts have led to the sighting of over 80 bird species as well as seals, sea lions, and bay porpoises! We’re increasingly aware of nature in the city, and that the city IS in nature, and are working to integrate urban life with the natural systems on which it depends.

An ecological transportation alternative emerged in the new bicycling culture that has exploded across the world’s cities, often beginning with Critical Mass rides. Critical Mass is an “organized coincidence” in which dozens or thousands of cyclists meet and “ride home together” in large enough groups to displace cars. In this new public space, transforming the urban environment while rolling through it, people meet and new initiatives are hatched. Learning to rely on self-propulsion quickly leads to a simple desire to fix one’s own flat tire, or adjust one’s own brakes. From that impulse is born the DIY bike shop (in Italy they call them Ciclofficine or cycle garages). In these bike shops though, something rather different takes shape. Starting with discarded and broken bicycles and parts, a new social space emerges too. If someone like me goes to one of these shops with my broken bike, asking them to fix it for me, they look at me and just say “no, we don’t fix bikes here. But we will show YOU how to fix YOUR OWN bike!” Instead of purchasing a service, I’m being given new skills and new relationships, the kind of meaningful and practical connections that have been lost to us during the speed-up and social fragmentation that have accompanied globalization.

We want to be more self-sufficient, more locally resilient, more artistic and creative, and less dependent on large complex systems. We want to shape science democratically, and embed technologies in an ecological sanity that is often opposed by business and profitability. We want to reinvent urban life based on ecologically sound natural systems. A movement of exodus from destructive, stupid work is well underway, though still small compared to the dominance of the Planetary Work Machine. Global climate change, war, crashing biodiversity, waste and industrial pollution, mass starvation, and epidemic disease are just the top of a long list of pressing reasons to radically change how we live on earth. We work together but don’t often decide about it together. Work is shaped and driven by invisible hands and uncontrollable forces when it should be directed by us. Getting from the disparate experiments in work and technology, and early stages of new social communities that we see in these Nowtopian initiatives, to the big political challenges ahead, is an open and unknowable process of politics-to-come.

But in that effort lays the hope of a true quality of life for all species. Our shared fate is bound up in our ability to consciously redirect our collaborative energies to a world of our own design. Life could be far more wonderful than it is now. Shouldn’t that be the work we do everyday?

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