Thursday, January 5, 2017

Selfish Decisions

"Beauty in the Wilderness"
- first signs of spring -

Yesterday my wife and I returned to our desert home after having spent the past several days visiting our family on the East Coast.  As we drove back home from the airport in Los Angeles, I was specially struck by the incredible volume of traffic on the overly-crowded highways in and around the city. We had lived in L.A. for many years but I just hadn’t remembered the traffic as being that bad. Yesterday afternoon as we drove out of the city there was an ocean of automobiles for as far as the eye could see, bumper to bumper traffic on an 8-lane highway,  so congested that the cars were barely crawling along.  The amount of fuel consumption and engine emission alone was so staggering that I couldn’t even imagine it.

As I drove my car I was also struck by the fact that it didn’t have to be this way - all those many cars on those many highways, poisoning and polluting the air.  In fact the uncontrolled traffic in a city like Los Angeles is a direct result of decisions made 100 years ago by big business and industry, oil companies and automobile manufacturers.

One hundred years ago, people got around the newly expanding City of Los Angeles by making wide use of pubic transit, electric streetcars and cable cars were the primary mode of transportation. In fact Los Angeles streetcars were the “talk of the country,” touted as a new model of transportation for the growing population in the nation’s big cities - safe, energy efficient, easily accessible for everyone, economical.

But the captains of industry saw streetcars as being a serious hindrance to the “profit margin.” There is way more money in making and selling cars to every individual and forcing them to buy the gas you are selling. And so the oil magnates exercised their influence, used their political power and made a series of selfish decisions to promote cars over public transportation.

To this day there is very little in the way of good public transportation available in the city of Angeles; instead there are thousands and thousands (maybe millions) of individual automobiles, polluting the air, clogging the highways and systematically destroying Mother Earth.

Of course, all of this might have been avoided if 100 years ago less selfish decisions were made – decisions not driven by bloated egos in the worship of the almighty profit margin,  but decisions driven by respect not only for Mother Earth but respect for our fellow human beings?

In her book, Minding the Earth, Mending the World: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis, Buddhist author and teacher Susan Murphy takes a lesson from the Hopi Tribe of the North American Indians who believed that the “Great Spirit” intimately abided in and flowed throughout all creation. They believed that we all belong to Mother Earth, all joined together in the flow of the abiding spirit, and so what we do to the earth we do to one another.

I was especially interested to read about the decision-making process employed by these native peoples when it came to how to treat the natural environment:

The Hopi way of approaching any big communal decision about
how to treat Mother Earth is one that may seem strange
to ears like ours so attuned to the urgent din of ‘growth at all costs.’
They would gather together and ask the question,
‘What will this mean for the next seven generations?’

The people would close their eyes and reach deep inside to visualize the faces
of those downstream in time from themselves –
the next seven generations of
those unknown stewards of the earth yet to be born.

I just spent the last two weeks holding and playing with my two little grand-babies, and so the idea of making decisions with a concern for what those decisions might mean for the generations yet to come is a very powerful image for me. I think about my children’s children and the children who will come after them and wonder what Planet Earth might be like in the days to come? Will there even be a Planet Earth for them to inhabit? Will the decisions we all make today reap a bitter harvest in the next seven generations or will our decisions yield wholesome fruit?

It seems to me that you don’t have to be a corporate executive or oil tycoon to be making seven-generation decisions when it comes to how each of us treats one another and how we treat Planet Earth. Simple acts like recycling, saving water, concern for how much fuel and electricity we consume - these are far more than politically correct acts performed by liberal-minded “tree huggers.”  These are decisions that not only affect us in our own time but will affect all who will come after us in the generations yet to come.

The philosopher William James once said:

Act as if what you do makes a difference.
It does!

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