October 22, 2008
Dear Mira and Jesse:
Here’s what it felt like at the end of the world as we know it on one day in October.
This morning, I heard a wise man who knew everything that was possible to know about numbers, and how much energy it takes to run the whole world, describe exactly how much each American’s life would need to change to bring it into balance with what it will take for all 6.6 billion people on Earth today to avoid a climate catastrophe. If we don’t want more than a 5 degree increase in the average temperature of the world by 2030, we have to make big changes now in how much energy we use. I started looking at all the ways I and we use energy, using an amazing new tool this man helped build, and I wondered, could I cut my travel down to no more than three plane flights a year. Could we stop buying bottled drinks? Could we cut how much we drive in half? Could we convince our friends, relatives and coworkers to do the same?
Then another wise man showed me how much the ocean’s life was being depleted by how we over-fish it, and how we pollute it. He showed us a picture of an albatross, one of the world’s most beautiful birds, with a wingspan of up to 11 feet, soaring in the sky. And then he showed us another picture, of an albatross chick that died because its mother unknowingly filled its stomach with detritus from the ocean, like cigarette lighters. He told us that great fish like the bluefin tuna, were in danger of being over-fished out of existence, because humans loved them too much in sushi. I thought about whether we could give up eating sushi. I learned that there was much we could do to help the ocean heal.
Then I heard a third wise man (not sure why there weren’t more wise women speakers by the way) explain how so much human potential is thrown away, and not just because for many people, poverty closes off opportunities at a terribly young age. Sometimes it is human stupidity. Sometimes it is because we ourselves don’t work hard enough, and blame other causes for our own lack of achievement.
And then I heard a fourth wise man explain all the connections between working too hard, eating poorly, not getting enough exercise, being addicted to fast food and coffee, not getting enough sleep, and our out-of-balance economy. He showed how the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith predicted, in 1776, would balance individual self-interest with society’s common good, had broken down. He showed, how our own reptilian part of our brains, which governs our most instinctive actions, didn’t know how to deal with living in a world of abundant everything, and so we were getting fatter, more materialistic, and less healthy, and allowing the balance of our society to spin out of control. I decided I needed to read his book.
You might think by now that I was getting depressed, but I wasn’t. The morning ended with one of my favorite (and your favorite) new musical artists, coming on stage to play three of her songs live. It was magic. Here’s what it looked and sounded like:
I also heard another musician play, someone I had never heard of. He too made incredible music. It reminded me of how much beauty was possible in the world. I thought about maybe spending more time re-learning how to make music, and maybe less traveling.
Then I took a break, and looked at what was happening in the world. The stock market went down 400 points, and then up 500. The number of Americans newly applying for unemployment insurance rose to nearly 500,000. I wondered, yet again, about our house and retirement savings, and then decided not to think about it.
In Washington, one not so wise man, but a very powerful man, was admitting that he had been wrong, for a very long time, about the economy, but only realized it now, with the stock market’s meltdown. In New York City, another very powerful man, was getting his wish to extend his time as Mayor, without a real vote from the city’s voters saying they wanted to give him this chance.
I went back to paying attention to PopTech for the late afternoon sessions. I heard one wise woman (finally) describe how she had decided to change her life doing design work for corporate clients, saying “It’s really depressing spending your life creating landfill. So now I work for love.” Her artistry is amazing. She told us, “Please remember, always write your love letters by hand.” I thought about the letters your Mom and I have shared, and thought about writing her a new one.
I heard a self-styled “perfume critic” walk us through a tour of different manufactured smells. They were beautiful, but I wondered at the luxury and excess of it, especially in these times. $50,000 for a kilo of one of these perfumes?! And yet, the other 500 people listening alongside me seemed to love everything he was showing us.
And then I heard one more wise man, a symphony conductor, who taught us what it means to live in a time of possibility. He showed us how we could sing as if we really meant it, and then he brought a 15-year-old cellist out to play for us, and showed him and us why it’s great to make mistakes and learn from them.
As it always does after a day at a conference like PopTech, my head hurt. On the one hand, I was filled with ideas and hope. I saw, again, how much an individual or a small group of individuals can do, to make a difference. And at the same time, I saw how much we were still caught in forces much larger than us. We had just heard about how we needed to trim our consumption and curb our addictive impulses, but we were putty in the hands of the perfume critic. We had just been shown the power of community, but as soon as the last talk was over we went back to our separate spaces and lives.
I don’t know. We are facing huge challenges, and you deserve to live in a world as good as the one I and your Mom have grown up in. But to face these challenges, we have to make bigger changes in our lives than we imagine–and not just personal lifestyle changes, but big changes in how we, as part of larger communities, behave together.
I think we are living in a time of great change. I think that in less than two weeks, we may be living in a new world. I am looking forward to that future. I hope you are too.
October 22, 2008