Tag Archives: Living with the Consequences

Deja Vu

Conditions in the country we serve, Nicaragua, continue to hearken back to a generation ago, when the administration in power faced enormous protests and demands for a new government.  The confrontations continue today, just as they did all those years ago,  leading to violence and deaths, denials, accusations, reprisals and lots of pain.  It’s tough to watch in a country of such charm and character.

Two recent documents, written by The University of Central America and the Episcopal Church, provide both a news update as well as perspectives about how at least part of the population places its support.  The following is a statement provided by the UCA following a Wednesday night demonstration:

The University of Central America (UCA) reports that this Wednesday, May 30, at around 4:30 PM, there was an attack by the “shock troops” against the defenseless population participating in a civic march that had the UCA as its final destination.

The attacks took place in the vicinity of the gate closest to the National University of Engineering (UNI). In support of the people, the UCA security guards opened the gates so that the protesters could take refuge in the campus. Fleeing the attacks, more than 5,000 people managed to enter, while many fled in other directions. Countless injured people were treated by volunteers immediately on campus and ambulances took all of the injured to medical centers.

After 8:30 PM, volunteers and drivers from the UCA had managed to evacuate the majority of the refugees to different parts of the capital and, at the time of publication of this message, continue in this process. Despite the shooting, the refugees did not want to stay on campus because of threats received about attacks on the university.

The UCA, which stands on the side of the people in their struggle for justice, denounces this new criminal attack and demands from the authorities the immediate cessation of the repression that uses shock troops to assassinate with impunity, protected by the current misrule.

We urge human rights organizations, national and foreign, to take note of this situation that seriously affects the lives of citizens and to use mechanisms for the protection of human rights such as the Inter-American Human Rights System and the United Nations.

We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and to apply mechanisms which can help resolve this crisis, which has reached the level of a massacre against a defenseless population.”

The document quoted below was generated by the Bishops Conference of the Episcopal Church in Nicaragua:

PRESS RELEASE

To the People of God and men and women of good will:

  1. We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua have experienced with profound pain the violent events carried out last night by armed groups allied with the government against the civilian population. We energetically condemn all these violent acts against the exercise of peaceful free demonstrations and we absolutely reject this organized and systemic aggression against the people, which has left dozens of wounded and some people dead.
  2. We cannot continue allowig this inhumane violence “that destroys the lives of the innocent, that teaches to kill and equally disrupts the lives of those who kill, that leaves behind a trail of resentment and hate, and makes more difficult the just solution of the very problems that caused it” (Centesimus Annus, 52).
  3. We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference condemn these acts of repression on the part of groups close to the government, and we want to leave clear that the National Dialogue cannot be renewed as long as the people of Nicaragua continue being denied the right to freely demonstrate and continue being repressed and murdered.
  4. At this moment in which the history of our country continues being stained with blood, we cry out to Jesus Crucified, who on resurrecting from the dead conquered evil and death with the strength of his infinite love. “Oh, Cross of Christ, we teach that the dawn of the sun is stronger than the darkness of night. Oh Cross of Christ, we teach that the apparent victory of evil fades in the face of the empty tomb and in the face of the certainty of the Resurrection and the love of God, which nothing can defeat or darken or weaken” (Pope Francis, Holy Friday 2016). That Mary, the grieving Virgin, whose heart was pierced by a sword in the face of the pain of her Son on the Cross (Lk 2:35), consoles so many Nicaraguan mothers who suffer over the murder of their sons and watch over all our people with maternal love.

Issued in the city of Managua on the thirty first day of the month of May of the the two thousand eighteenth year of the Lord.

 Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua

This communique was signed by the ten bishops of the conference.

(For those interested in tracking developments in Nicaragua, one source is La Prensa.  The daily newspaper provides very current coverage of events in Nicaragua, as well as perspective on events elsewhere in the world.)

For those who know and love Nicaragua and the people there, this is a painful and sad time.  It’s made even more so by how little the U.S. news media writes about it.  Their lack of attention does not diminish the anguish and tragedy of what is occurring in the land of our neighbor to the south….

                                                   

 

 

 

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….

Step Lightly

I recently took the opportunity to travel to some places I had never been before.  Specifically, my wife and I visited for the first time the jewels of the Southwest United States:  Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Such an experience is many things: renewing, educational, inspiring, humbling, a privilege and even existential in nature.  Especially at this time of great upheaval within our country, the opportunity to “pull back,” even for a short time, provided a welcome relief.  And an important lesson.

Most of the sites we visited are well-known to those who have visited the Parks, and the trails leading to these vantage points are well-marked and well-trod by millions of visitors before us.  And at each of those trailheads, the Park Service feels obligated to post a message to its visitors, one which might seem unnecessary in the shadows of majestic peaks and rims of jaw-dropping chasms, but which is offered nonetheless.  It’s a small sign which reads, “Your Steps Matter.”                                                

The sign is simply a reminder of the transience of these landscapes and our impacts upon them.  They are fragile.  People too often have the desire to leave their own imprints on these monuments of creation, as if to satisfy a need to make a statement of existence, to leave their own modern-day petroglyphs about which future visitors might wonder.   Perhaps it was the reflective nature of our trip or my tendency to look for hidden meanings where none may be intended, but the words on the sign prompted other thoughts for me.

Our steps do matter, whether for the health of ground vegetation, rock formations or water quality in the parks.   Trees that have withstood the extremes of nature for more than 100 years are nonetheless dependent upon “breathing space” from the hordes of human visitors who come to these sites constantly to witness the immense majesty of the natural world.  It’s among the places where it’s not OK to take “the road less traveled,” as Frost suggested, and where we’re discouraged to blaze our own trails, in deference to the survival of other life.

In light of the signage, I felt a certain pride at keeping to the paths, as though I was contributing something good to the welfare and sustainability of the parks.  I know that the notion is ridiculous, but staying on the trails was perhaps the one act of preservation that I could make.  But that same sense of self-righteousness led me to consider other steps in my life.

Steps everywhere in our lives matter.  Every stride taken in our journey makes an imprint, leaves a trace, impacts our surroundings. Like the proverbial beating of butterfly wings that affects weather patterns on the other side of the world, we are part of a global tapestry wherein all of us are inextricably dependent upon and impacted by each other.  Choices we make in the U.S. have an impact in Nicaragua.  We might elect to trespass over someone else’s space, and might even be able to “get away with it,” and to do so without detection.  But the space will be changed forever, in ways that we may never know. How and where we walk are matters of choice: we can elect to tread lightly and with respect, or to trample according to our own narrow wills.  Either way, we leave a story for those who follow.  Like our children.  Or our grandchildren.  Or our children’s children’s children.

Our steps are our legacies, like those artifacts we covet from millennia past.  They are the messages we leave behind that attempt to declare our existence and portray the kinds of lives we led.  What a pity if, in our wakes, all that remains are traces of once-resplendent times and places….

 

All I Really Need to Know About Immigration I Learned in Kindergarten

With apologies to author Robert Fulgham, I couldn’t help but recall his enormously successful book as I’ve listened to the heating debate about immigration among Republican presidential candidates.  Insofar as every one of those leaders is a product of immigration to this country, I thought it might be of some value to recall at least some of the admonitions for wisdom that Fulgham offered in his classic book.

Share Everything-  We’re taught at an early age that it’s important to ensure everyone has enough: toys, cookies, rewards, being loved and respected.  By and large, we haven’t done very well with this as adults, especially with basic life necessities.  We’ve heard many times how something like 80 individuals in the world own as many resources as half (or more) of the rest of the people on the planet. That’s not a very convincing example of sharing, particularly when so many of the have-not’s are living day-to-day in sub-human conditions.   History and reality both suggest that a primary motivation for many immigrants is the need to improve their economic status.  Most don’t wish to leave their homeland for another spot in the world; they simply must go to where the opportunity is.  Sometimes it’s good to give up our place in the lunch line for somebody else.

Play Fair-  A corollary to the above, playing fair suggests that in a competitive world where people should expect to be rewarded according to their efforts, a rigged game signals to the players that there are no rules anymore, that everyone is subject only to what he/she can gain for him/herself and that creative sidestepping of the rules is not only permissible but oftentimes heavily rewarded.   If CEOs and investment bankers and even nations are immune from penalty for violating rules, the signal is clear for someone considering a cross of the nation’s border.  What is there to lose?  If the teacher is a cheater, the lesson to be learned is that fairness is for fools.

Don’t Hit People-  Especially not with clubs or tasers or fists or bullets. Regardless of where any candidate might stand on the immigration issue, the matter resides at a level of importance somewhere far below the sanctity of human life.  As complex and persistent as the immigration problem has become, its solutions won’t be found in the  box of punitive punishment.  Not even death itself has proven to be a deterrent for the desperate.  Hitting just hurts, and not only the victims.

Clean Up Your Own Mess-  A push in kindergarten is almost always preceded by an instigating act by someone else, whether seen or not.  The push is merely the response that happens to be observed. Illegal immigration is most often motivated by untenable economic circumstances.  And those circumstances have been magnified by treaties, agreements and accords that favored our country and its own economic interests in exaggerated ways.  As a result, the option of remaining in Mexico or Nicaragua or Honduras evaporates in the wake of the social and economic consequences of messy agreements.  Our political candidates claim that illegal immigrants cross the U.S. borders knowing what the consequences are likely to be.  But those same candidates must also recognize the likely consequences of economic repression, one of which is desperation-fueled immigration.  It’s easier to serve as a model for international behavior if our own cubbyhole is clean.

Don’t Take Things That Aren’t Yours-  For every crayon pilfered in kindergarten, there are at least an equal number of excuses for the theft offered up by the filching felon: “it’s my turn, he doesn’t need it, she’s had it long enough,” or “I need it to finish my own work.” While any of them may be true, none excuse the behavior.  It’s no different in the competition for resources across the globe.  Whether oil, agriculture resources, water, geographic access or any other motive, taking what belongs to someone else is wrong, even when we’re the ones doing the taking.

Keep Your Hands (and arms) to Yourself-  If economic desperation is one of the prime motivations for immigration, then flight from the ravages of war is the other.  When physical danger from bombs and gunfire threatens life, then there is nothing to lose in trying to flee to a safer zone, even when such flight violates law.  Too often, the manufacturer’s label on those ammunitions contains the words “Made in U.S.A.”  Even when our nation is not engaged in confrontation with one of our national neighbors, our fingerprints are curiously omnipresent in the horrors of many homelands.

Say You’re Sorry When You Hurt Somebody-  Apology and forgiveness. They are the cornerstones of any relationship, because we live in an imperfect world with fellow humans who are as imperfect as we ourselves.  No individual, no nation, is without fault.  But the offering of forgiveness is a response to apology; it works best when the apology comes first.  The immigration conundrum might be less divisive, less of a political “cause celebre” and even less complex when our nation acknowledges a system that is misleading and unfair to all the kids on the playground.

Well, Fulgham’s treatise on living life well has been panned by many as being too simplistic for the sophisticated and complicated world of today.  It might be too simpleminded for immigration analysis, as well.   Perhaps.  But it also offers an alternative to the process in which we find ourselves today, where political rhetoric includes demonizing an entire ethnic class, building higher walls between nations, and minimizing the desperate realities of other human beings.  Maybe there’s one more Fulgham idea worth contemplating: hold hands and stick together….

 

 

Memorial Day 2015

Before Memorial Day week is history, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about remembering those who have fought and died for a cause.

Memorial Day in the U.S. is a day in which to remember those who have fought and died in military conflicts on behalf of the United States.  Like most of our holidays, the original meaning behind the day tends to become lost in the commercial aspects of the celebration.  But upon reflection, many experience- even if only briefly- a somber recognition of the debt that we owe to those who have perished defending our nation and fighting injustice.  Our military dead have not always been fighting for such altruistic reasons, but motivation is perhaps a reflection for another day.  On this occasion, we honor those who have sacrificed their lives believing the forfeit was as important as the cause.

I like the idea of remembering and honoring those who have sacrificed.  Not only is it owed behavior, but it also possesses a cathartic quality, as though we have somehow paid off a bit of an ongoing obligation.  It feels right and good to acknowledge the debt, particularly so when I was neither called nor conscripted to make such a commitment.

As I reflected about this on the holiday, I began to contemplate other groups of people who perished in the line of “duty.”  For surely, every nation has its own version of Memorial Day, a time set aside to recall those patriots who fought for the ideals of their homelands, whatever those ideals may have been, within whatever historical context existed at the time.  Loss of fearless young men and women is a universal experience, wherever one calls home.

In every case of military conflict, both sides of the battle honor the selfless martyrs who were willing to give everything for their cause.  It is the human condition.  We are compelled to remember  because such acts represent the final measure of what a man or woman can give.  It is a state of being that we honor, glorify and celebrate.  And as I reflect upon the reverence we express on our Memorial Day gatherings, I wonder about those who have died “on the other side,” the families left behind, the dreams unrealized and the opportunities lost forever.

For, when it comes to grief, war favors no one.  Though one side of a conflict may emerge from battle having outlasted the other, both sides end up grieving for their losses.  One nation’s sorrow is not less than another’s.  The pain of loss is no less for one family than another.  Indeed, the loss of human potential is an affliction suffered by all of mankind, pieces of the grand puzzle that are gone forever.

From that perspective, I contemplated Memorial Day 2015 in a broader view.  It had less to do with remembering the issues that occasioned fighting, or which side might have fought a more justified war; every nation has been on both sides of that equation.  (Even the U.S. has history of now-indefensible initiatives, such as against Native Americans, African slaves and incursions into places like Viet Nam and Nicaragua.  And around the U.S., memorials are held for both Union and Confederate soldiers from its own Civil War.)  My thoughts this week had more to do with trying to comprehend the nearly-unfathomable costs that humankind has paid for its military ventures, whatever the motivations.

I am not naive nor even a pacifist; my intention here is not to suggest those circumstances which might define “a good war” nor to lessen the importance of the sacrifices that men and women have made in the name of justice.  But for this year, at least, my understanding of just who deserves remembering has expanded significantly, and it extends beyond the colors of any one flag and the borders of any one state or nation….                            images

 

Energy, Environment and an Economy of Words

I’ve been reading about the global economy, energy and the environment.

The U.S.- and much of the world’s- economy is built upon a model of continuing, compounding growth.

Growth is dependent on availability and use of energy.  Currently, availability is declining and use is increasing.

As a result, our efforts to extract ever-more energy from our finite earth is despoiling the environment, diminishing resource availability and even destroying certain forms of life.

Exponential growth is unsustainable.

To illustrate, I quote an interesting analogy from Chris Martenson’s book, Crash Course:

Suppose I had a magic eyedropper and I placed a single drop of water in the middle of your left hand.  The magic part is that this drop of water will double in size every minute.  At first, nothing seems to be happening, but by the end of a minute, that tiny drop is now the size of two tiny drops.  After another minute, you now have a little pool of water sitting in your hand that is slightly smaller in diameter than a dime.  After six minutes, you have a blob of water that would fill a thimble.  

Now imagine that you’re in the largest stadium you’ve ever seen or been in- perhaps Fenway Park, the Astrodome or Wembley Stadium.  Suppose we take our magic eyedropper to that enormous structure, and right at 12:00 PM in the afternoon, we place a magic drop way down in the middle of the field.

To make this even more interesting, suppose that the park is watertight and that you’re handcuffed to one of the very highest bleacher seats.  My question to you is this: How long do you have to escape from the handcuffs?  When would the park be completely filled?  Do you have days?  Weeks?  Months?  Years?  How long before the park is overflowing?

The answer is this: you have until exactly 12:50 PM on that same day- just fifty minutes- to figure out how you’re going to escape from your handcuffs…

Now let me ask you a far more important question: At what time of the day would your stadium still be 97% empty space (and how many of you would realize the severity of your predicament)?  Take a guess.

The answer is that at 12:45 PM- only five minutes earlier- your park is only 3% full of water and 97% remains free of water.  If at 12:45 you were still handcuffed to your bleacher seat patiently waiting for help to arrive, confident that plenty of time remained because the field was only covered with about five feet of water, you would actually have been in a very dire situation…

With exponential growth in a fixed container, events progress much more rapidly toward the end than they do at the beginning.  We sat in our seats for 45 minutes and nothing much seemed to be happening.  But then, over the course of five minutes- whoosh!- the whole place was full of water.  Forty-five minutes to fill 3%; only five more minutes to fill the remaining 97%.  

With this understanding, you will begin to understand the urgency I feel….

I understand the urgency.  Do you?….

 

 

Losing Your Nose to Spite Your Face

I’m puzzled.   As a fellow of reasonable intelligence (despite the claims of a few irrational friends), I do the best I can to understand the motivations that drive people to think and do as they do, but occasionally I encounter actions that make no sense to my need for sensibility.  One such item occurred this past week in the strange case of Donald Sterling, current owner of the National Basketball Association L.A. Clippers.  Now, before you quit reading this as another Sterling-bash, consider staying with me.  Much has already been shared about the Sterling recording that should be insulting to every one of us, and I have little more to add to such perspectives about racism in the United States.  But in addition to and beyond his racist tripe, Sterling has also managed to reveal something puzzling, something that should be uncomfortable for us for other reasons.

Actually, there’s probably not a great deal of similarity between Donald Sterling and the rest of us.  He’s a billionaire,  a high-profile owner of a professional sports team, a man who openly flaunts  mistresses of his granddaughter’s age and who does so in full view of his wife.   He’s not the first high-profile person to shoot himself in the foot, nor even the biggest.  But when those infamous recordings were made public, Sterling also revealed himself to be a sadly myopic creature, one who is ironically unable to comprehend and capitalize on his own good fortunes.  And this is where we might have something in common.

In just one recorded tantrum, Sterling managed to disparage an entire race of people, but also: insult the fan base that has fed his basketball investment, betray the human assets on whom he relies to conduct that business, cheat financial sponsors who have supported the team and enflame an entire nation which loves to feed upon the missteps and awkward utterances of those who should know better.  In short, Sterling tore apart the foundation of his own well-being.

For the rest of us, our consequences may be less dramatic and immediate, but our stumbles are no less inscrutable.  We humans possess the innate ability and curse to ignore our self-devised catastrophes despite the wealth of history, science, self-awareness and technologies available to us.  We too easily look away from impending consequences of widening poverty, climate change, loss of liberties and other looming realities in the same way that Sterling dismissed the importance of a personal moral standard.  Our blind tendencies are even endemic within the conduct and pronouncements of our nations.

For instance, the United States.  It’s clear that our government is either oblivious to or content with the inexorable erosion of a middle class which has been the bedrock of the nation’s growth and strength for decades.  As the disparity between the super-rich and the lower economic class continues to widen,  only the wealthiest citizens will be capable of buying goods and services to fuel economic prosperity.  That’s something which this small portion of the population is incapable of expanding, simply due to their limited number.  It’s the death-knell to coveted growth.  But like Donald Sterling, we seem to be unmindful of the very strengths that got us to this unprecedented level of national economic wealth. Like Sterling, we take for granted that such standing will always be there for us.  Yet the illusion foreshadows a very Sterling-like destruction of our own well-being.

It’s no less true in a place like Nicaragua, where our human propensities play out in the very same ways.  The powerful and elite systematically marginalize the powerless and peasantry, to the detriment of sustainable development.  Meanwhile, this second-poorest country of the Western Hemisphere has been attempting for decades to build upon its foundational strengths- agriculture, natural resources, social and cultural heritage- while at the same time ignoring the reality that most Nicaraguan children aren’t even graduating from grade school.  It’s like trying to lay a building foundation on wet sand, and it’s self-defeating.  As in the case of Mr. Sterling, somehow it’s easier to ignore the truth rather than acknowledge the very elements necessary for survival.

Condemnation of Donald Sterling has been swift and nearly unanimous, even among those of us who do not follow the NBA or NFL, MLB or NHL.   And I remain puzzled over this, not because I would in any way condone the boorish behavior of a clueless narcissist, but because I wonder whether we are not all guilty of the same kind of shallow, short-term and self-inflicting pain that Sterling has created for himself.  Maybe we are galvanized in our collective emotions around all of this because deep down we fear that we see something of ourselves in the guise of an 81 year-old who surely, finally comprehends his own hubris, albeit too late….

 

The Closed Intersection

And you thought you had a tough commute!

Last month’s visit to Nicaragua was memorable for any number of reasons, not the least of which was an encounter we experienced on our way north for some meetings.  Near the community of Ciudad Dario, traffic started to slow down significantly.  Within a few miles it had crawled to a halt.  Protesters at a major intersection had taken over the highway some miles ahead in a well-planned protest of high bus fares.  They made their point by making everything stop.    Buses, trucks, cars, all stationary .  And there we sat, wedged in from behind and in front, traffic halted both north and southbound, a complete gridlock in the countryside.

The impassability of the highway turned out to be significant enough to make the news around the country, including the front page photograph of one of the daily newspapers, shown above.  The protesters were successful in making their unhappiness known, if not corrected.  They were upset over the increases in bus fares which they had recently experienced and were essentially demonstrating that if they were unable to travel by bus, no one else would travel, either.  I’ve thought about those protesters and their bottleneck and wondered about the both the genesis of their actions and whether it portends anything for the future at large.

I’m fairly certain that the reason for the rise in bus fares would be blamed on the cost of fuel, and that as fuel prices rise, bus fares must follow suit.  It’s the same formula the world over, but the bite taken out of the personal budgets of poor people is felt sooner and more deeply than for many of the rest of us.  Additionally, rural Nicaraguans have no practical alternatives to the overcrowded buses that comb the countrysides; they are truly hostage to both the circuitous routes and the fares charged.  When fuel prices rise in the United States, drivers grumble and pay the increase.  When fuel prices rise in  rural Nicaragua, the resulting fare increases change the ebb and flow of life dramatically, and very quickly.  Hence, the protests.

There was no point in cursing the jam and no real inconvenience to us.  The delay provided a welcome opportunity, in fact, to get out and stretch along the highway, a diversion which was actually appreciated.    In each direction, the highway was filled with vehicles for as far as one could see.  On several occasions during the wait, vehicles moved ahead, ever so slightly, causing all other drivers to scamper back into their vehicles in the expectation of an end to the gridlock.  But each time, the short movement proved to be nothing more than the wishful thinking of impatient drivers trying to fill every available space in the hopes of moving ahead.  (In one particularly “urgent” case, the sudden lurch forward interrupted one truck passenger whose need to relieve himself could wait no longer, but whose cover was suddenly “blown” when his driver unexpectedly lurched the truck forward .)

The traffic jam made for some interesting people-watching and it raised some curiosities.  Seeing the tremendous impact that this one relatively small protest was having upon the daily lives of many Nicaraguans got me to thinking about what kinds of scenarios might be playing out across the world in the months and years immediately ahead.  Of course, some scenarios are already unfolding, as in Greece and Spain.  The immediate situation here represented but one small portion of Nicaraguan society in the face of one or several fare hikes, but what will the consequences look like when the increases are even larger and more frequent?  What will the landscape look like when these impacts begin to be felt more deeply within the U.S. and other large economies?  Witnessing the extensive backup of vehicles on a Nicaraguan roadway is one thing; what does a similar effect bring to the major cities and the very rural locations elsewhere in the world?  Quite suddenly, the jam before me shrunk in its dimensions as I contemplated energy shortages and higher prices making themselves felt the world over.  Imagine no traffic in and around Los Angeles, for example.

Futurist Chris Martenson has managed to synchronize a great deal of this thinking in his work, Crash Course.  In it, he articulates with great clarity the looming intersections of overpopulation, increasing energy demands in a finite energy world, energy-dependent economies and the costs of degrading environments.  A scientist by training, Martenson offers his work not as a futuristic dreamer, but as one who has data at his disposal to support the vision of what these intersections will mean to all of us in the years immediately ahead.  The picture is not necessarily one of doom and gloom, but it is a vision of a very different existence for most of us.  And the lineup of vehicles on a rural stretch of highway in central Nicaragua is but a small and early manifestation of what we might well experience in the near-term.

On this day, some drivers lounged in the grass by the side of the road, surrendered to the reality that they were not going anywhere very soon.  I heard only a few frustrated blasts from car horns.  Passengers who were headed north climbed down from their buses and began walking to where the southbound buses were stopped; the southbound passengers did the same in reverse.  The strategy was to turn the respective buses around, exchange passengers and resume their journeys north and south.  I don’t know whether it worked, given the way the vehicles were tightly wedged together, but it seemed a good plan.  The shared dilemma created an almost festive atmosphere among the drivers and passengers stuck there along the road, giving credence to the adage that misery really does love company.  For us, the delay didn’t interfere with anything except our arrival at the hotel for the night, a slight inconvenience at worst.

But for many, the long halt in traffic flow created great inconvenience or worse.  In seeing the massive backup stretch for as far as I could see, I felt as though witnessing a preview of a world soon to come, an intersection of realities with the potential to bring much of the world to a halt, a blockage in the flow of economic, energy and environmental life that will demand extraordinary patience, a strong sense of community and an increased acknowledgement of those who possess far fewer resources than the rest of us.  For ultimately, none of us can ever be as well as we might as long as others around us are unwell; it’s the limitation of the weakest link.

Perhaps we all need to be halted in our tracks for long enough to look for that closed intersection and what it will do to our respective journeys….