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May 30, 2009

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The Earth Is Hiring

Commencement season continues! Nice one from Paul Hawken:

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didnít bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldnít afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

I like this bit, too:

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true.

If his speech has a failing, it’s that is goes too big, too fast. You gotta ground yourself, earn the graduating class’s trust, before you reach for the “CAN YOU FEEL THE VERY STARS THEMSELVES IN YOUR CELLS?” lines, but Hawken sorta jumps right in.

He keeps it pretty abstract, too, and I can imagine an aspiring financial analyst in the crowd going, “Uh… does this apply to me?” And of course it does, but Hawken doesn’t connect the dots.

That said, it’s got enough stirring lines to reward a reading.

Posted May 30, 2009 at 10:56 | Comments (11) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted


Sorry, but the last time that *I* was seven years old, lemon juice IS the invisible ink; you decode it by applying heat (like from an incandescent light bulb).

I have never been able to warm to an argument that posits "the Earth" as a central player. The earth is not hiring.

Rather, each graduate will help build a world from the materials left to them from past generations of humans and other living creatures. Their challenge is to work together to build a good world for themselves and for the next generations that will come.

A smart way to do that is to keep options open: build a world that has a wide variety of species and a host of distinct ecosystems. Any option is a bad option that forecloses possibilities,as would widespread climate change and the mass extinctions and instability that would most likely come with that.

Posted by: Dan on May 30, 2009 at 02:19 PM

@Dan: Well-put. I agree. I will invite you, not Hawken, to speak to the Snarkmarket Class of 2009.

Ooh, Dan, tough stance, coming out against mass extinctions!

(Seriously, though, I like the reframing here -- not merely preserving the status quo for the next generation, but maintaining a space of possibility for many generations of multiple species. A bigger and more humble goal all at once. )

PS: if Dan were a movie director, his primary instructions to actors would be "that was great! Now do it bigger, and more humble." ;)

Dan, I read your reframing as a scoffing at the the abstraction and fantastical metaphor of invoking "The Earth" rather than invoking the large and dreadful set of possible futures we'd like to avoid. It seemed that you wanted to stick to the perfectly concrete, and get away from the mystical note--goofily though Hawkens hums it--where The Earth is considered as some being larger than the sum of its parts and future. It is, essentially, carrying the discussion from one that is vaguely religious (Wicca meets b-school?) to one that is concretely moral and utilitarian. I think there is value in that, but I also think the reason why that too big/more humble canvas doesn't work for many people is their brains are not widescreen enough to properly count disappearing possibilities; and their engines are not rational enough to abstain from some large source of affection, approval and courtship. By Deifying the Earth and ennumerating Her gifts, Hawken provides that external motivator and waves away the necessity for rationally understanding the dangers of failure. So I understand your critique, but I can see why Hawken's metaphorical fancy makes more sense for a large class of college graduates.

@Tim: "next time do it bigger and more humble" will be my new motto. Makes "Solvitor Ambulado"(?) sound pretty lame, eh Sloan?

Posted by: Dan on May 31, 2009 at 06:44 PM

@Saheli: I think you've hit on something very important. The Deifying of Earth does an awful lot of work. It appeals to many people straight out. There is a simplicity to it, as you say, and I think that even the most sophisticated thinkers often need a little bit of that kind of simplicity just to get out of bed in the morning. Religious-ish language also facilitates useful alliances, as with E.O. Wilson's plea to American evangelicals in _The Creation_. I'm wary of losing those advantages.

My main objection runs orthogonal to the deification: it is ridiculous to talk about saving the earth. In one form or another---deified or not---the earth promises to outlast humanity by quite a bit. And with humans gone, species diversification would likely take care of itself---given enough time. Those concerned with saving the earth should really be investing in technologies that prevent supernovae.

What we are really concerned with is saving *our* Earth: an Earth that works for us.

That brings me to the other problem: who is us? That's where much of the real intellectual work needs to be done. Whose earth should be preserved? Whose earth can be sacrificed? I'm afraid talk about saving the earth makes it harder to think about environmental justice. Putting the earth first, makes it harder to remember that its people (or maybe even other species) who are really in danger.

Posted by: Dan on May 31, 2009 at 06:58 PM

Those concerned with saving the earth should really be investing in technologies that prevent supernovae.

This is probably the safest forum to admit that I have, in fact, lain awake at night wishing I could do just that.

What we are really concerned with is saving *our* Earth: an Earth that works for us.

That brings me to the other problem: who is us? That's where much of the real intellectual work needs to be done. Whose earth should be preserved?

What I liked about your previous formulation was the acknowledgement that summing up over possible futures accurately might yield a very different answer from tackling the question only in the present. I often ponder this when considering the idea of protecting great works of art. Why do museum guards have guns? Is that Picasso really more important than the thief's life? Than the guard's life? (Let's ignore the quandaries of allowing property owners to shoot trespassers.) Well, obviously there are lots of other things going on, but when we just allow people to vandalize great art--or a canyon or a Sequoia--we say we have failed our children. Our descendents. The future. There's this idea that sum of all the little bits of enjoyment that Giraffes give people over all future generations is worth something more than the cost or protecting the giraffe today.

I'm not sure if that's a realistic calculus to perform for everything; I'm not sure if the people with the resources to compute these things ought to be the ones doing the computation. But more than that, I worry that it is too explicitly anthropocentric; the "our" too narrowly defined. And yet, how can we possibly define it beyond that in any meaningful way?

And how do we make sure we don't do all this intellectual work in order to procrastinate?

Those are all good questions. The ethics of conservation that you invoke by pointing to guards at art museums do pose real problems. The armed guards at wild-life reserves in Kenya provide a natural complement.

But complexity need not be a barrier to action, and action need not be attainable only in the absence of complexity. We should be able to accept that these questions are complex and then do our best, accepting the inevitable bad choices we'll make.

But in some cases, acting more slowly might be a good thing anyway: do no harm, and all that.

Posted by: Dan on June 1, 2009 at 04:42 PM

Also, Saheli: fear of supernova strikes me as not too, too far out.

The more important question is: have lost any sleep over the heat death of the universe? That's where pathology starts.

Posted by: Dan on June 1, 2009 at 04:44 PM

lost any sleep over the heat death of the universe? That's where pathology starts.

Er, um, right. Yes, I never worry about that. Never!

But in some cases, acting more slowly might be a good thing anyway: do no harm, and all that.

Since I've just been steeping myself in Gawande I'm tempted to try and make some sort of crazy cross metaphor, but I'll leave well-enough alone.

I agree that complexity shouldn't be a barrier to action. The questions I asked were not meant to be rhetorical show-stoppers.

I asked,"And yet, how can we possibly define [the "our good" we're optimizing for] beyond that in any meaningful way?" I do intuitively believe we "we" can come up with a usable answer--or a closely related set of answers, good enough to optimize around. I intuitively feel that there is an answer betwen "the equitably distributed good of humanity, present and future" (too anthropocentric) to "the good of all living species and geographical features as we know them" (too ignorant of evolution and geology). We need an answer that forestalls disaster, preserves possibility, and is morally strict enough for most people, most societies, most classes, most cultures, most communities. (Multiple partitions = multiple checks.)

But I lack the chops to formulate potential answers myself, let alone check them. What are the required chops? I'm guessing evolutionary biology, geology, geography, sociology, economics, mathematics, statistics, probability theory, computation (yes, I'm separating those four out on purpose), philosophy, area and cultural studies, and then experts in literature, design and visualization to articulate and communicate between them. Also, many brains. So, clearly a task for a large number of educated, enthusiastic, communciative people. I'm sure we could find those. . .

The painful moral problem is making sure these collaborating experts are deeply commited too spreading, not exploiting, their elite status and abilities and participation.

The painful logistical problem is keeping them dedicated, focused, cooperative, and organized. This also gets to the working vs. procrastination bit.

There is one well-documented thing that does succeed, sometimes, though it very frequently also fails, at getting people to fiercely and cooperatively labor for a cause with discipline, focus, and self-regulation. While I am all too familiar with its low success rate, the success stories I have seen are unsurpassed (in my experience) in terms of consistency, longevity, and sheer output. Hawken might have been trying to invoke this thing. It's called religion.

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