My Sense of Place (II), Concluded

Jon Quitslund

This essay was composed in two separate time frames, beginning more than a month ago. I’ve revised the first part but some awkwardness remains.

In the bright and warm weather earlier in the month, I spent the best parts of my days outdoors – walking on the tide flats, catching up on yard work, splitting and stacking firewood, or carrying a heavy backpack up and over Baker Hill to get in shape for a long hike in the Olympics.

With my mind left free to sift through my convictions and impressions, I considered the place where we live from several points of view. What I most wanted to discuss in this essay were not our island’s natural advantages, important as they are (I celebrated some of them back in May, in Part I of this series).

No, I wanted to develop some thoughts about the people of Bainbridge Island – past, present, and future.  In tandem with the natural forces of time, tides, our long growing season, and the sun in its cycles, it is our human population, generation after generation, that has made (and occasionally unmade) the place we occupy in Puget Sound.

It’s useful to distinguish between ‘population’ and ‘community.’ Both entities are complicated here, and in flux, but over the course of decades, there are certain continuities in each. To my way of thinking, the ‘community’ of Bainbridge Island is rooted in a set of demographic facts, but on top of all the data and in addition to our day-to-day dealings with people, our hearts and minds construct around us an imagined community, rooted in our hopes and fears, that is no more than half real.

The imagined community of Bainbridge Island is, for most people most of the time, a good thing: a source of satisfaction, meaning, and value. And it’s natural to hold on tight to what we have – to fear loss, and to construe change as always likely to offer more loss than gain. So we strive, individually and in organized interest groups, to manage change to our own advantage.

I’ll bet you can see already where I’m going with this. What happens to the community when various interest groups are driven by a self-centered fear of loss – when there is no general agreement on what is to be gained through efforts to manage change?

Maybe we should set aside all talk of ‘the community,’ recognizing that there are, and have been ever since the pioneer days, several different communities here, sometimes separate and sometimes in conflict, rubbing shoulders pleasurably on special occasions, but seldom peaceably engaged with each other. We don’t have much experience, in either large or small community groups, dealing with divisive issues in search of satisfying compromises.

Several reasons for these unhappy circumstances can be identified. Some are embedded in our history; others can be traced to sources far from our shores – to ideological principles and agendas that can overpower the common sense that might otherwise prevail in our supposedly nonpartisan local politics.

These are generalizations, I know; they will have to do for now. I started writing this piece several weeks ago, and I got stuck, plagued with a debilitating case of writer’s block. I had brought a lot of mixed-up emotion to the subject, and an acute appreciation for its complexity, but it was all a muddle.

I couldn’t find a way to organize my thoughts so they would be appealing and useful to others. I wanted to write about a general loss of trust in our social / political arrangements here on Bainbridge, and I found that I couldn’t trust myself.

So I ended the incomplete first draft of this piece with this: “Some time away from the Island is bound to help, and in a few days I’ll be far away. Hiking in the high country of the Olympics, getting acquainted with a group of men whom I know only superficially, is bound to clear my mind and reorient my spirit. On my return, I’ll either pick up my thoughts about this place where I left off, or make a fresh start.”

II

Now here’s another essay, another run at the subject of our community and its discontents. (The word ‘essay’ means ‘attempt’ or ‘trial.’) I’ll try to be constructive, but I have to be honest.

I feel revived. The trip to the High Divide and the Seven Lakes Basin was strenuous, an occasion for nine men with different backgrounds to stretch out, going their own ways and then coming together, sharing stories and emotions at a level that men don’t often reach with each other.

On my first day back in Winslow I happened to meet a recent Bainbridge High School graduate, someone I greatly admire, who has already stepped into an activist’s conscience-driven life. We sat for a while outside the Blackbird, comparing notes on ‘what’s up.’ She’s ready for college, and she has the weeks before heading off to Bellingham planned too.

I thought: this is someone who really ‘gets it.’ I just wish more people twice her age were as clear about themselves and the world’s big issues as this young woman.

I’ve had other positive experiences lately. As a member of the Planning Commission I’ve been involved in a couple of public meetings where some good work got done: people aired their differences amicably, thought twice, and avoided both rash actions and an excess of caution.

In the middle of a sunny Saturday morning, my wife and I joined the crowd at the Farmers’ Market and then did some shopping along Winslow Way. It was just an ordinary day, and how could it have been any closer to perfection?

Then there’s the other side of the picture. The time available to citizens for sending comments on the Shoreline Master Program update came to an end a few days ago. Copies of several comments showed up in my inbox – most of them from the Bainbridge Defense Fund, a prolific generator of email that I sometimes take seriously but seldom find persuasive.

The comment on our SMP that most concerned me came not from a shoreline property owner on Bainbridge but from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a California-based organization that seems to be active wherever property rights are threatened, or (as with ‘Obamacare’) a case can be made that big government has, once again, gone too far. The 11-page brief was signed by an attorney named Brian T. Hodges, who works out of the PLF’s Bellevue office.

I was moved to write a comment of my own – a non-lawyer’s attempt to rebut, in a few pages, some claims that I found extreme, intellectually shabby, and at odds with a common-sense reading of the SMP regulations.

The ideological agenda of the PLF has carried a great deal of weight with the self-appointed leaders of our local shoreline property owners in their battle against the regulatory regime of the Shoreline Management Program. And those leaders worked persistently, with a simple message and some organizational skill, to gather and hold together a loyal following. How much they accomplished remains to be seen: we may have months to wait for the Department of Ecology’s response to our SMP. In the meantime, I believe, the program’s harshest critics have done a great deal of damage, arousing antagonisms that won’t settle down any time soon.

At the end of a long, frustrating process, many people are more convinced than ever that the SMP update was flawed from the start and made worse along the way. This is due in large measure to the uncompromising attitudes and exaggerations of property rights advocates: they have never acknowledged the many concessions to their interests that were either present in the SMP’s foundation or introduced in the course of its development and revision.

It has been difficult for me to articulate my objections to opinions held firmly by a significant number of Island residents.  I don’t want to impugn the interests of shoreline property owners: I’m sure that for the most part they are as reliable stewards of their property and the environment as the rest of us. So this is not about a lack of trust on my part, or a lack of respect for fundamental property rights. I think other proponents of the SMP’s regulations would say the same.

It’s the ideological objections to environmental regulations that cause problems for me. I hate seeing Bainbridge Island – this beautiful place, made more attractive by so many forms of generous civic activism – turned into a beachhead in the tedious cultural war being waged by the Pacific Legal Foundation and like-minded organizations against legitimate environmental regulations.

 

Posted in Activism, Community, Cooperation, Environment, People, Place, Property Rights, Shoreline Management Program, Shorelines, Stewardship | Tagged | Comments Off

My Sense of Place (II)

Jon Quitslund

In the bright and warm weather lately, I’ve spent the best parts of my days outdoors – walking on the tide flats, catching up on yard work, splitting and stacking firewood, or carrying a weighted backpack up and over Baker Hill to get in shape for a long hike in the Olympics.

With my mind left free to sift through my convictions and impressions, I’ve been considering the place where we live from several points of view. I find that what I most want to discuss in this essay are not our island’s natural advantages, important as they are (I celebrated some of them back in May, in Part I of this series).

No, I want to develop some thoughts about the people of Bainbridge Island – past, present, and future.  In tandem with the natural forces of time, tides, our long growing season, the sun in its cycles, it is our human population, generation after generation, that has made (and occasionally unmade) the place we occupy in Puget Sound.

It’s useful to distinguish between ‘population’ and ‘community.’ Both entities are complicated here, and in flux, but over the course of decades, there are certain continuities in each. To my way of thinking, the ‘community’ of Bainbridge Island is rooted in a set of demographic facts, but on top of all the data, and in addition to our day-to-day dealings with the people around us, our hearts and minds construct around us an imagined community, rooted in our hopes and fears, that is no more than half real.

The imagined community of Bainbridge Island is, for most people most of the time, a good thing: a source of satisfaction, meaning, and value. And it’s natural to hold on tight to what we have – to fear loss, and to construe change as likely to offer more loss than gain. So we strive, individually and in organized interest groups, to manage change to our own advantage.

I’ll bet you can see already where I’m going with this. What happens to the community of Bainbridge Island when various interest groups are driven by a self-centered fear of loss – when there is no general agreement on what is to be gained through efforts to manage change?

Maybe we should set aside all talk of ‘the community,’ recognizing that there are, and have been ever since the pioneer days, several different communities here, sometimes separate and sometimes in conflict, rubbing shoulders pleasurably on special occasions, but seldom peaceably engaged with each other, dealing with a divisive issue in the spirit of compromise.

Several reasons for these unhappy circumstances can be identified. Some are embedded in our history; others can be traced to sources far from our shores – to ideological principles and agendas that can overpower the common sense and compromise that might otherwise prevail in our supposedly nonpartisan local politics.

These are generalizations, I know; they will have to do for now. I started writing this piece more than two weeks ago, and I got stuck, with a debilitating case of writer’s block. I brought a lot of mixed-up emotion to the subject, and an acute appreciation for its complexity, but it was all a muddle.

I couldn’t find a way to organize my thoughts so they would be appealing and useful to others. I wanted to write about a general loss of trust in our social / political arrangements here on Bainbridge, and I found that I couldn’t trust myself.

Some time away from the Island is bound to help, and in a few days I’ll be far away. Hiking in the high country of the Olympics, getting acquainted with a group of men whom I know only superficially, is bound to clear my mind and reorient my spirit. On my return, I’ll either pick up my thoughts about this place where I left off, or make a fresh start.

Posted in Community, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Individuality, Place, Stewardship, Values | Comments Off

Bainbridge Island’s Green Power Challenge

Jon Quitslund

How much of the electricity used in your home comes from ‘green’ sources? A fair number of households on Bainbridge are now equipped with solar panels, generating for themselves some, if not all, of the power they use.  And a larger number of homes and businesses (1,125 customers as of mid-April of this year) pay a little extra each month on their PSE bills so the electricity they use comes from renewable energy sources.

The number of green energy customers here could be much larger – and should be, considering the amount of angst one hears expressed about increases in atmospheric carbon and the dangers posed, locally and globally, by runaway consumption of fossil fuels.

Did you know that 48% of the electricity PSE generates comes from fossil fuels? (You may have seen an even bigger number; 32% from coal and 16% from natural gas are the state-certified figures from 2011.) The company advertises these facts because they want to be less dependent on coal and gas. And PSE is making real progress: the company now owns and operates enough wind-powered generators to supply approximately 10% of the basic portfolio.

PSE is eager to reward communities in which increasing numbers of customers withdraw their support from polluters and choose to promote alternative energy production. Subscribing to green power takes the company beyond what I-937 (the Clean Energy initiative passed in 2006) requires.

In the local Green Power Challenge that was announced in April, adding 125 more customers on Bainbridge to the list of green power supporters will get the city a $20,000 grant to support a new solar energy project – at the High School, perhaps, or at Wilkes Middle School.

To make things more interesting, PSE has set up a competition: Bainbridge Island is involved with four other communities (Anacortes, Kirkland, Snoqualmie, and Tumwater) to see which can enroll the highest percentage of new customers for green power. Winning that contest will be worth another $20,000.

It ought to be easy to reach the goal of 125 new customers, but getting ahead of our competition and finishing the year in that position will be harder. Win or lose, I think the race will be worthwhile for all concerned. A clean energy future is the over-arching goal, the ‘real work.’

Who is ahead now in the competition? Tumwater! According to PSE’s records as of the end of May, enrollment is up on Bainbridge by .20% (that’s two-tenths of one percent), while Tumwater’s figure is 0.63%.  We’re at mid-year, and we haven’t really gotten started in response to the PSE challenge.

At this point you may want to stop reading and enroll in the Green Power program, which you can do online at PSE.com/GPChallenge, or by phone with a PSE energy advisor at 1-800-562-1482 (any weekday, 8 a. m. to 5 p. m.). You can purchase 100% green power, which at current rates increases your monthly bill by about 10%, or you can purchase specific amounts at the rate of $2 for 160 kWh, for a minimum of $4 per month, up to $14.

My wife and I have not been highly successful in our efforts to conserve electricity; our bills over the past twelve months have ranged between a low of $50.69 in August of last year and a high of $309.51 in February of 2013, for an average of $144.30.

Not having done much in support of the RePower Bainbridge goal of reducing demand for electricity, I decided that purchasing green power was the least I could do.  I signed up for 100% seven months ago, wondering why it had taken me so long.  The cost, between December 2012 and June of this year, has averaged $23.04 per month. This discretionary expense is something I can afford, and it has meaning and value for me. I am participating in a small way, just as I do in voting and with my support for political and non-profit organizations, in positive change and the development of something I believe in.

How does the small amount extra that I am charged on my monthly bill finance the purchase of my electricity from alternative energy producers? I’ll try to explain that, but first let me provide a few facts about the ‘product content’ for PSE basic service and for the green power program.

Cathie Currie, a Sustainable Bainbridge board member who works for PSE, has provided me with information on the green power program and connected me with Heather Mulligan, a colleague in the Bellevue office: Heather has furnished the best available figures on the sources of PSE’s power.

In the 2011 portfolio (2012 figures won’t be state-certified until later this summer), 50% comes from ‘large hydro,’ 32% is generated from coal, and 16% from natural gas. The chart is completed by 1% from nuclear power, and 1% from ‘other’ sources.

On the chart describing the green energy mix as delivered in 2012, 27% came from ‘low-impact hydro,’ 58% from wind, 5% from landfill gas, 9% from livestock methane, and 1% from solar sources. The amount of energy available from wind farms in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho is increasing: it’s estimated to be 74% of the mix in 2013. Solar energy may be up to 4% for this year, while new hydro power declines.

The percentages on these two charts tell one story about dramatic differences in the currently available sources of electric power. There’s another story in the huge differences in scale between the basic program, which produced 24,517,042 megawatt hours of electric power in 2012, and the green power program, which sold 365,796 megawatt hours that year. So green power is 1.5% of the whole PSE picture: the new Jerusalem is still a long way off.

PSE is required by Washington’s public utility commission to provide electricity to its customers at the lowest possible rates. PSE customers who support green energy production can change the demand and supply calculus, so that over time more energy, at lower prices, will come from clean and renewable sources. That’s going to involve continuing investment and innovation.

Let’s hope that the big old power plants burning coal and polluting the air are on the way out, and let’s work toward that goal, but there’s a collateral goal: PSE customers will need other reliable and cost-effective sources for any power that doesn’t come from dirty coal and natural gas obtained by fracking.

You may wonder how the market for green power works. It’s complicated, and I don’t understand all the transactions, but I can tell part of the story, and maybe you’ll agree with me that an appealing story about economic relationships provides value added for customers and investors.

Obviously, when you opt into the green power program the electricity you consume isn’t separate from the mix that serves everyone else.  Whatever you pay, however, finances the purchase of power from regional companies that would otherwise not be participants in PSE’s market.  And PSE doesn’t make a profit from these transactions: state law prohibits that.

PSE contracts with an innovative energy provider (e. g., Qualco Energy in Monroe, WA, a nonprofit that turns pollution from dairy farms into electric power and compost); the provider has a reliable customer and a predictable income. Part of PSE’s cost, borne by green power customers like me, is in the form of ‘renewable energy credits,’ also known as ‘Green Tags,’ which can be sold or traded in the energy marketplace: they assign a dollar value to the environmental benefits of renewable energy.

The benefits of the Green Tag system to a host of small- and large-scale producers, distributors, and consumers of energy are explained well on various websites. Also, you can learn a lot from the websites maintained by several of PSE’s providers of green power: Qualco Energy, Stateline Wind Energy (Umatilla County, OR, and Walla Walla County, WA), and the Nine Canyon Wind Project (Benton County, WA) are three that I picked from the list of ‘Program Resources’ on the PSE Green Power website.

Along with Cathie Currie and others who are promoting the Green Power Challenge on Bainbridge Island, I will be keeping track of the numbers of households and businesses that sign up for PSE’s green power between now and the end of the year.

Why can’t we achieve a 100% increase in enrollments before the snow flies?

Posted in Activism, Altruism, Climate Change, Cultural Change, Energy, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Green Power, Values | Comments Off

What is Ecopoetry (Reviewing a New Anthology)

Jon Quitslund

The Ecopoetry Anthology, ed. Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2013), $24.95.

The term ‘ecopoetry’ has achieved currency among writers and readers only within the last ten years, but the kind of poetry to which that label refers has been around much longer.  (It emerged at the end of the 1950s as part of the ‘beat’ counter-culture.)

This new anthology contributes grandly to an understanding of several phases in a historical development; it also documents, in fascinating detail, the awakening of conscience and imagination in our present moment.

The book’s contents are grouped in two sections, Historical (pp. 3-130) and Contemporary (pp. 133-576).  In the Historical section, poets are arranged in order of their dates of birth, from Walt Whitman (b. 1819) to James Dickey, Denise Levertov, and James Schuyler (each born in 1923): this section forms a backdrop for developments that began around 1960 and are flourishing today.

The Contemporary section arranges its selections from the work of 177 poets in alphabetical order, from A. R. Ammons to Robert Wrigley.  In “American Ecopoetry: An Introduction,” Robert Hass provides historical contexts and explains the principles that guided the anthology’s creation.

Paging through the book, opening it at random, or taking it in doses (a dozen or two dozen pages at a sitting), you are apt to encounter familiar poems.  Yes, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” is there, and Gary Snyder’s “For the Children,” and Wendell Berry’s “Peace of Wild Things.”  There are also many eye-opening surprises: I wasn’t acquainted with Lorine Niedecker (to mention just one discovery), and I knew a little of Stanley Kunitz’s poetry but had never read “The Wellfleet Whale” – an astonishing poem.  There are others just as good.

You may not know A. R. Ammons’ “Corsons Inlet,” which alphabetical ordering makes the first poem in the Contemporary section: its symphonic music provides a splendid overture to the many voices, and many kinds of poetry, that come after it.  Some poems may strike you as riddles or empty words and leave you cold, but then there’s a brilliant gem on the next page, or the beginning of something that draws you in and takes your breath away.

So many fine poets, emerging or already established, have been caught in this book’s wide net – some whose names I knew, and many new to me!

One of my discoveries was Brenda Hillman’s “Practical Water.”  The first line of the poem grabbed me: “What does it mean to live a moral life”  The second line takes a step back: “It is nearly impossible to think about this”  The poem proceeds by fits and starts; it’s a series of prompts and insights, single lines or short sequences left hanging, unpunctuated.

“An ethics occurs at the edge / of what we know // The creek goes underground about here”  Hillman’s reference to ethics calls to mind Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic”; she suggests a corollary “water ethic.”  And “the edge / of what we know” invokes the precautionary principle: “An action should not be undertaken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.”

The precautionary principle is fundamental to any practice of sustainability, even to any moral life.  It implies acute awareness, not disengagement.  Hillman’s poem ends, “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it // Go to the world / Where is it / Go there”.

Ecopoetry is informed by science as well as ethical concerns, and some of the poets have scientists’ credentials and experience.  They are sharply observant, skeptical, mockers of certainty and complacency.  “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams’ maxim, is implicit in their practice, and sometimes explicit.  Their emphasis on observation usually entails a very scrupulous, economical use of language, creating poems that can be cryptic, low in affect, cool if not downright cold.

More than any other poet, Gary Snyder deserves recognition as the founding figure in development of an ecologically oriented poetry.  The anthology offers a fair sampling from the beginning, at the end of the Fifties, of a career that hasn’t ended yet, and that remains true to the style in his first book, Riprap (published in 1959 and reprinted many times).

The title poem in Riprap begins, “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks.”  The poem is a manifesto, making out of experience on a trail-building crew in Yosemite a way to see and represent the connections of consciousness with all manner of things.

In an Afterword to a reprinting of Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems in 1990, Snyder said, “The title Riprap celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.”

That grand statement about “the whole universe” is not what we find in the imagery of Snyder’s poems, or elsewhere in The Ecopoetry Anthology: poetry offers first glimpses, parts of the whole, anecdotes, “a new walk” (Ammons at the end of “Corsons Inlet”), and (in Robert Hass’s “State of the Planet”), “What is to be done with our species?”

Both in their declarative statements, showing and telling, and in the questions they raise, the poets gathered in this book are concerned to overcome – and prompt their readers to overcome – the estrangements that afflict our culture and darken our future.

At the end of his Introduction, Robert Hass speaks of “the necessity of imagining a livable earth.”  That the earth as we find it is, and will remain, livable is not a given: to think so is to participate in a mass delusion.  So imagining a livable future is only the beginning of the real work, but necessary, and we need all the help we can get.

 

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Citizen Involvement in Planning for Waterfront Park

Jon Quitslund

Citizens with many different interests and talents will soon have an opportunity to work together on a major project for the benefit of our community.

The City has begun to plan for significant improvements in the Waterfront Park and the City Dock in Winslow. Two public meetings have been scheduled, using the renovated Community Center on Brien Drive. The first will take place on Saturday, June 1st, and the second on Sunday, June 30th. Both meetings will be in the afternoon, 1:30 to 4:30.

The first meeting will consider the full range of activities that the park and dock might accommodate, and possibilities for connection with other places and activities on the water and elsewhere in downtown Winslow.  It will be a free-for-all brainstorming session, exploring a wide range of ideas and letting them clash and combine.

The second meeting will develop a strategy for designing the park and dock. It will set in motion a team effort that will, I trust, be robust and practical enough to make its way through all the stages of design, review, funding, and implementation.

This is a tall order, and we won’t see results on the ground any time soon, but there’s a sense of urgency – a belief that “Now’s the time!” – surrounding this project.  Participation on the part of many people, representing a wide range of interests, is crucial to success in the first phase of planning, and citizens will also be called upon to maintain some involvement in the process over time.

Without broad public support, the project’s integrity is apt to be subverted. (We’ve seen this happen before.)

Participants in the first meeting will have the benefit of inspirational leadership. Dan Burden, co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute in Port Townsend, will join us for the day to preside over the meeting.

Board members of Sustainable Bainbridge have stepped forward to work with the City on this project. This is a new venture, both for the City, with its depleted Planning staff, and for the nonprofit organization, which aims to channel the talents and generosity not only of its board members, but of an engaged citizenry.

As things stand now, after years of neglect and piecemeal fixes, the park and the Eagle Harbor waterfront present challenges – and opportunities – big enough to engage dozens of visionary problem-solvers.

In its present shape, Waterfront Park is a space, not a place. Except in the brightest part of a summer’s day, it is dark and unappealing. Nothing in the space itself invites people to gather there, and although the ground slopes down toward the water, nothing is visible on the waterfront to draw people in that direction.

The next time you’re shopping downtown, take a break and walk down to Brien Drive. Stand on the porch of the Community Center, then walk through the park down to the dock. If you have time, walk out on the dock: imagine being a visitor, coming by water to the Island for the first time.

The dock, the shoreline, the forested areas and the open slope all constitute a liminal space.  Potentially, it’s a place for gradual transitions, for discoveries, for serious play.

Thinking and acting creatively in response to the raw opportunities presented by the Eagle Harbor shoreline and Waterfront Park, we would do well to put aside our usual habits of thought.  We all tend to think in either/or categories, but the challenges presented by this project call for both/and thinking: ideas that bring people together and promote the common good.

At the shoreline and up the slope, on paths through the trees and in open spaces, we need to accommodate all sorts of outdoor activities for people of all ages, both visitors and Island residents. Some activities will be strenuous and purpose-driven, and some will be relaxed, unplanned, purely for pleasure. Maybe the park should include a gathering place that offers refreshments, and shelter in rough weather; maybe some facilities can be set into the slope and made less obtrusive.

Planning for improvements in the park and dock will proceed within constraints, too many to be listed here, but they can be a matrix for creativity.

Please consider this an invitation to participate in an important planning process, and come to the meeting on Saturday, June 1, in the Community Center (1:30 to 4:30 p. m.). Come early if possible, and take some time to walk around the park and along the shoreline.

Posted in Community, Cooperation, Parks, Place, Shorelines, Stewardship | Tagged | Comments Off

My Sense of Place (I)

Jon Quitslund

I’ve written before about a ‘sense of place’ as something of value, both in the inner lives of individuals, and as an element in the social contract that brings people with different backgrounds and interests together in a settled and stable community.  Your own way of making sense of Bainbridge Island and your place in the community will be different from mine, but the distinctive place where we live gives us something in common.

We all know, perhaps from our own experiences someplace else, that many people don’t enjoy the connections with an authentic place that we (and the people who came before us) have formed here on Bainbridge.  The word ‘conurbation’ was invented, it seems, to describe the drab predicament in which masses of people find themselves, when the basis for a sense of place has been lost and nothing has been created to replace it.  Many places – urban, rural, and suburban – have lost the coherence and vitality that they once had; that trend, inexorable as a glacier, has been working its will around the world for decades.

The concept of ‘place’ has been celebrated and investigated for more than thirty years now in Orion magazine: the keywords “Nature / Culture / Place” appear on each issue as a subtitle.  And in another place on the cultural spectrum, the Front Porch Republic website (my favorite source for authentically conservative opinions) carries the watchwords “Place. Limits. Liberty” just below its masthead.  (If you aren’t already acquainted with the Front Porch folks, take some time to eavesdrop on their conversations: they’re not from around here, but we on the left coast can learn from them.)

I mentioned in another post that in the book group I’m part of, ‘sense of place’ has guided our readings for the year.  Jerry Young, one of my closest friends in the group, has compiled an extensive bibliography on the subject, and I have my own long-standing interest in it.  An acute awareness of local landscape, country houses, villages, farms and gardens is present throughout English literature, and I once organized the readings in a seminar for English majors around the ‘sense of place’ theme.

Long before that, I grew up on Bainbridge Island, and that experience predetermined many of my interests and choices later in life.

Having relocated here after many years when I lived in other places and grew somewhat attached to them, I often recall my experiences growing up here in the late 1940s and the ‘50s.  Although I have gone through many changes and the Island has changed too, some things remain the same, and my deepest sense is of continuities in my impressions, although the continuity is fragile.

Much of what’s new is not unwelcome; I have no interest in living in the past.  But the spirit of the place as I experience it inheres in things that have been here a long time: in our geography, our weather, the woods, open spaces, beaches, and Puget Sound.

That spirit of the place is present both in transient moments and in stretches of time.  The other day, driving along Sportsmans Club Road toward the head of the bay, I flushed a pheasant from the field on my left.  My heart leapt up!  Pheasants were seldom seen here in my early days, and I was startled to see that they aren’t gone for good.

Walking along Sunrise Drive or on the tide flats around the middle of the day in spring or summer weather, when the sky is cloudless and bright blue, I can still marvel at the contrasting colors and textures where the topmost branches of tall Douglas fir stand out against the sky.

I have one extraordinary experience etched in my memory from a Sunday morning one summer.  I think I was around sixteen at the time.  We had a 16-foot canoe, made in Old Town, Maine, that my father had bought second-hand.  I loved to go out in it by myself, sometimes with a book and sometimes just to be on the water and feel the breeze or the heat of the sun.

On this morning, still quite early, the tide had already exposed some of the sand bars.  I half-carried, half-dragged the canoe out to the water’s edge.  It was very still, hardly a ripple in the water.  The sun was low in the sky, a mist was rising off the water.  I paddled out slowly, steadily.  Everything around me was at peace.  The mist and the glassy surface of the water created a perfect equilibrium.  Nothing was bright, everything was illuminated equally.  I felt perfectly at ease, in the moment, and the moment went on and on.

I plan to continue thinking about my sense of place, reflecting on memories and relating my experience to things that I’ve been reading.  Through Eagle Harbor Books, I have ordered a new book, The Ecopoetry Anthology, and I’ll review it here, perhaps before the end of May.  (My wife is in Massachusetts on a meditation retreat for the month, so I’m on my own spiritual journey.)

 

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Earth Day Here, Now, Always

Jon Quitslund

“On its anniversary, Earth Day is worth not just celebrating but also studying – as a story with political lessons.”

This is the last sentence in a thought-provoking essay by Nicholas Lemann, “When the Earth Moved,” in The New Yorker for April 15, 2013.  The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970, and Lemann identifies, as the impetus for what has become a traditional part of our springtime, a speech that Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc) gave in Seattle on September 20, 1969.

Lemann notes the broad and bi-partisan support that made the first Earth Day “teach-ins” a success, and the stellar legislative consequences of its consciousness-raising: creation of the E. P. A. (1970), and passage of the Clean Air Act (1970), then the Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973).  “Throughout the nineteen-seventies, mostly during the Republican Administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Congress passed one environmental bill after another, establishing national controls on air and water pollution.”

So where are we now?  “Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?”

For many years, the environmental movement has had trouble making headway.  Lemann singles out one “humiliating defeat” in the summer of 2010, with the collapse of efforts to bring a bill addressing greenhouse gases and climate change forward for debate in the Senate.

In his account of what went wrong, Lemann finds fault first and foremost with environmentalists themselves, for not staying true to the spirit of the original Earth Day organizers and participants.  I disagree with this assessment.  Lemann leaves out of the picture some monumental changes – demographic shifts, economic turmoil and reorganization, nothing short of a revolution in politics, and several distracting wars – that have conspired to keep environmental issues out of their rightful place in our national consciousness and our political agenda.

I’ll discuss, too briefly, a few of the problems faced by the environmental movement, after giving a little attention to what it has going for it.

First, I think environmentalists still possess the spirit and the organizational ability that they had at the end of the sixties.  They aren’t strong in every community: in many places, for all sorts of reasons, grassroots organizers are apt to find that there’s no ‘there’ there.  But communities of all sorts – urban, rural, suburban – are coming back, organizing to face problems (some of them environmental) and improve the quality of local life.

The best efforts in pursuit of a positive future, both for the environment and for people, are still local, spontaneous and decentralized, in keeping with Senator Nelson’s vision.

Many environmentalists have learned that their old legislative agendas were too narrow: that (for example) income inequality, food security, public transportation, zoning policies, and affordable housing are issues with environmental implications.   So environmentalists are apt to wear new hats, have new agendas, and need new skills and new alliances.

The places that environmental concerns and pro-environment activities occupy within Sustainable Bainbridge offer a case in point.  Many members of the Board and participants in our activities may not think of themselves as environmentalists first and foremost, and that seems to me a good sign, a positive response to many interconnected opportunities.

Now let’s look at some of the problems environmentalists face – problems beyond their ability to solve, or to work around, in the near future.

One is the roller-coaster evolution of our economy and its impact on opportunities to gain ground through education and hard work.  It was upwardly mobile middle-class citizens and their young adult children who formed the crowds at Earth Day events back in the seventies, and politicians competed for their support.  Their ranks are thinner today; they are disillusioned, and many have lost faith in the political process.  In the minds of all but a few, environmental concerns will always be trumped by economic worries, money-saving strategies, and anxieties about the near future.

People opposed to environmental regulations, and in general to the regulatory role of government – ordinary citizens, small business owners, CEOs, pundits and other shapers of political behavior – are much more numerous, better organized, and wealthier than they used to be.  Their money talks, and its message is unequivocal.

On a host of environmental issues – greenhouse gases and the impacts of climate change chief among them – far too many people are confused, and more frightened than enlightened by the little they know.

Scientists such as James Hansen and environmentalists such as Bill McKibben have reached large audiences with very clear messages, and responsible steps are being taken at state and local levels, but in Washington, D C, too many legislators do the bidding of nay-sayers and industry lobbyists, blocking movement toward more sustainable policies on energy and the environment.

As on gun control, so with the causes and far-reaching consequences of climate change: obstruction rules, and destruction continues.  It is legitimate to doubt that clear thinking and democratic processes can prevail before it’s too late to prevent a collapse.

I think we have to shift the focus from “What went wrong?” to “What can be done?”  And here on Bainbridge Island, a lot is being done.  Sustainable Bainbridge is in the middle of it, and in a position to do more, with more help.

Here on Bainbridge, Earth Day is observed, actively, for more than one day.  Let’s extend its impact indefinitely, and make “sustainability” more than a slogan.

Posted in Activism, Climate Change, Community, Cooperation, Cultural Change, Economy, Environment, Evolution, income inequality, Middle class, Mobiity, People, Transportation | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

The Importance of PLACE, and a “Sense of Place”

Jon Quitslund

T. S. Eliot, the ‘old possum,’ was being ironic and provocative when he called April “the cruellest month,” but that remark, along with Chaucer’s accolades to April in the opening lines of his Canterbury Tales, must have something to do with the designation of April as National Poetry Month.

In the spirit of this time of year (for me a time of return and renewal, of discovery and new beginnings), I’ve composed a review of a fine book of poems: Jorie Graham’s Place; New Poems (New York: HarperCollins / Ecco, 2012).  I’ve had my eye out for this book since I first saw it reviewed almost a year ago, and a few days ago I happened upon a copy at Powell’s Books in Portland.

I know from experience that contemporary poetry is of interest to a good number of people here on Bainbridge.  In my book group, for example, we set aside dreary nonfiction for a month and devote a long summer day to a ‘retreat’ at the home of Marie and John Marrs on Lake Sutherland.  Each member of the group reads one or two poems, sometimes of their own composition.

In addition to our meeting at the lake, this year’s readings, all addressing the theme of ‘Sense of Place,’ will include a small, seminal volume of poems, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.  (It’s a prescient, even a prophetic book, more true and beautiful today than when it was first published.)

Jorie Graham has her own Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, awarded in 1996 for The Dream of the Unified Field.  Her excellence has been recognized with many other prizes and awards.  As a poet she is not as accessible as Billy Collins, or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver.  She’s ‘brainy,’ and ambitious; she has a distinctive voice, and it’s unpredictable, always pushing against the limits of language and form.  I think she’s brilliant, and not with the common brilliance of a self-absorbed mind or a dazzling vocabulary.

Graham’s poems aren’t short, and they don’t lend themselves to quick appreciation or tweet-length quotation.  They are meant to be lived with, visited time and again.  The stretched-out sentences, lightly punctuated and spread on the page in sequences of long and short lines, make startling moves like birds or fish: they develop a narrative, then drop back in time, move to another place, or stop with an arresting image.

The first sentence in “The Bird on My Railing” goes like this: “From the still wet iron of my fire escape’s top railing a truth is making this instant on our clock open with a taut unchirping unbreaking note – a perfectly released vowel traveling the high branches across the way, between us and the others, in their apartments, and fog lifting for sun before evaporation begins.”

On the page, that sinuous quicksilver sentence, loaded with images but weightless in its movement out and upward from a bedroom window, is distributed through fourteen lines.  Some contain only a few syllables (“From” and “my fire,” for example); others (“lifting for sun before evaporation”) are like several steps in an intricate dance.

The next sentence changes the pace and the focus: “Someone is born somewhere now.”  And the poem expands, over several pages, into a delicate meditation on mortality, and the disembodied song of “the breath-bird / free to / rise away into the young day and / not be—“

So what, or where, is the place to which Jorie Graham directs our attention?  It varies from poem to poem, and within each poem.  Ms. Graham doesn’t write, as Wendell Berry does, out of a sense of ownership or ‘membership’ in a certain locale.  She’s a traveler, her eye is restless, her mind captures things as they happen and are gone.

Several poems are set in specific places.  The first, “Sundown,” occurs on Omaha beach in Normandy, on a specific date, June 5, 2009, which another reviewer noted is an anniversary of the day before the D-Day landings.  The line where waves meet the sand is “a place where no one / again is suddenly / killed”; rather, it’s the scene of a casual, momentary encounter, as a man on a galloping horse comes from behind the poet and passes her with a smile, leaving her with a heightened awareness of herself, “putting her feet down / one at a time / on the earth.”

Another poem, “Treadmill,” involves a bleak and generic setting: “The road keeps accepting us. It wants us to learn ‘nowhere,’ its shiny / emptiness, its smile of wide days.”  This road, I think, is the nightmare traveled in Cormac McCarthy’s best-known novel, and Graham’s poem is a passionate protest against all the forces in our distressed culture and a degraded environment that herd us together toward a dance with death.

If this review piques your interest, you may want to learn more about Jorie Graham and the convictions that motivate her imaginative writing.  Visit her personal website, which contains links to interviews and reviews of her work.  I strongly recommend the interview with Sharon Blackie in the online journal EarthLines, published in August 2012 (www.joriegraham.com/earthlines-interview).

In her exchanges with Sharon Blackie, Ms. Graham offers deep insights on the subject of ‘ecopoetry,’ having been asked, “How do you feel about the term? Do you think it really does represent new possibilities in poetry, or is it just another term for what we used to call ‘nature poetry’?”

From the discussion it becomes clear that there’s a movement, among poets and their readers, worthy of the label ‘ecopoetry,’ and Jorie Graham is among its most passionate and intelligent participants.  It’s a movement of conscience, committed to awakening and empowering imagination, in cultural and environmental conditions that endanger its survival – our survival.

“We really need to imagine the as-yet-unimaginable racing towards us, in order to have a prayer of survival. And right now, the imagination, on that front, shuts down into denial. It has grown weak, and we have a generation or two of humans who cannot see, or feel trust or desire, beyond the world their screen provides.”  Poetry as subtle and ambitious as Graham’s turns us toward the larger world, and the ‘real work’ we have to do in it.

Early in the interview, Graham mentions Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods, and its account of ‘nature-deficit disorder.’  It struck a deep chord with me when she said that it’s no longer common for children to play outdoors until nightfall – something I remember fondly from my childhood here, through seasons of short days and long.

“What neurologists call ‘unstructured outdoor play’ – hide-and-seek, catch – all the play that moves towards dusk, which activates a more ancient part of the brain, a different memory storage and retrieval, a capacity for imagination, intuition and empathy – has almost disappeared from our world.”

So ‘place,’ and an emotion-laden ‘sense of place,’ are not ready-made but hidden, and must be sought out.  The obscurities of hinted meaning and the difficult, fractured sentences of Jorie Graham’s poems serve a purpose: they invite us into a “play that moves towards dusk.”

It’s no accident that the first poem in Place is “Sundown.”  And the collection ends with two poems, specific in time and place.  “Lapse,” set in Iowa City, 1983, in the evening at the summer solstice, is addressed to her daughter (Emily, to whom the book is dedicated), then nine months old.  It’s a retrospective stream of consciousness as, for the first time, she puts her baby in the bucket of a swing set, pushing it higher and higher.

The last poem, “Message from Armagh Cathedral 2011,” also moves towards dusk.  It carries a double message.  As a tourist, the poet’s attention is focused on a Bronze Age stone carving displayed in a corner of the cathedral, thought to represent the legendary Irish king Nuadha, who lost his arm in battle and, no longer ‘whole in body,’ was forced to quit his kingship.  Then, fitted with a new arm made of silver, he replaced the bad king who had succeeded him.  (Google ‘Tandragee man’ for an arresting image of the king, holding his prosthetic arm in place.)

The poet’s responses to this “piece of / stone, large as an infant, / hundreds of / pounds,” are interrupted by awareness of a wedding rehearsal nearby in the nave of the church, and again by thoughts of many limbs lost, and the borders of nations redrawn, in modern wars: violence and loss, no other future.  But the poem ends with an exchange between the poet and the bride-to-be: “May your wishes / come true I say, / guidebook in hand. Tomorrow, she says. I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

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Stewardship and Regulations

Jon Quitslund

                                                      The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people.

– Robert Frost, ‘The Gift Outright’

We are near the end of the tedious road leading to an updated Shoreline Management Program – a complicated regulatory regime governing new and existing development of properties all along our island community’s interface with Puget Sound.

If the management of development (‘uses’ and ‘structures’ in municipal code language) were all that the SMP had to deal with, it would be a tall order, but there is more: the omnibus ordinance also deals with the public’s interest in visual and physical access to the waters surrounding us, and with a host of environmental concerns and natural processes that may be impacted by development.

As the City Council completes its review of the draft SMP, some of my thoughts turn upon stewardship.  When you come to think about it, stewardship is, ultimately, what land use regulations are all about.  And in a place such as ours, stewardship – a caretaking attitude toward our place in Puget Sound – is  a large part of citizenship.

The attitude I’m concerned with here isn’t applicable only to our surroundings – the land, waters, air, vegetation and wildlife that nobody owns.  As I see it, we are stewards of our private property too, especially in the many parts of the Island where property lines are indistinct.

Ideally, stewardship is the spirit animating the body of land use ordinances, but in practice, regulatory language often obfuscates its own purposes, and since human nature tends to resist regulation, even believers in good government may end up wondering “What’s the use?”  A generous exercise of imagination is called for if, as a community, we are pro-actively committed to stewardship of our natural resources and the sense of place that is so much a part of our local culture.

Everything pertaining to the common good depends, crucially, on a multitude of individual actions, some of them habitual and some the result of deliberate choices, effort, and the investment of time and money.  Our community is blessed with great wealth in the natural resources that surround us, but only a fraction of those resources are publicly owned.  The beauty and health of our community, for present-day and future generations, depends in large measure on the attitudes and actions of people on their own property.

Fortunately, our local culture favors stewardship rather than selfish and reckless behavior, and most of us see that our own interests are best served by caring for our private property, preserving its value over the long term in a way that serves the public interest.

Still, regulations are necessary, and they need to be revisited from time to time in an open and thorough public process: if they are vague, out of date, inconsistent, or unenforceable, we have no solid basis for community values. Smart and well-intentioned people may do dumb things, and only a few of us are consistently careful of our impacts on all the things of the world that don’t belong to us.  In addition, we all need some protection from the mischief made by knaves and fools.

Who likes regulations?  Don’t we tend to think that it’s other people — ‘those people’ — who need them, not ourselves?  I consider myself law-abiding, but I still resist any nannying voice that tells me, “You must do this – you mustn’t do that!”  Such an attitude is childish, though: I can’t see myself arguing against a regulatory policy as an illegitimate imposition on my freedom or my property.

There’s some tension between stewardship and regulations, but no basic conflict.  One has to know the letter of the law in order to be true to its spirit.  The good steward cares for his or her own property, and perhaps works as a volunteer on public projects, doing the right thing out of love, not because it’s required.  The whole point is not to evade regulations but to go beyond what they require.

As I have tried in this essay to articulate my personal views, believing that they are aligned with basic community values, I have been acutely aware that a fair number of Islanders will vehemently disagree – if not with what I’ve said, then with where I seem to be heading.  This makes me hesitant to speak my mind, but I’ve made my peace with differences of opinion: I wouldn’t be happy in a community where disagreements are hushed up and nonconformists aren’t welcome.

The long process of updating our Shoreline Management Program has accomplished a lot, but it has also stirred up dissatisfaction, deepening divisions that I suppose are inevitable in our diverse and clannish community.  It’s been clear for some time that many owners of shoreline properties are unhappy with several provisions in the new SMP.

I don’t find fault with shoreline property owners as a group: they are not all of one mind, and most of them, I believe, understand as well as anyone else that they are stewards in a tenuous boundary zone, where private property interests must be protected but do not trump local and state interests in protection of the nearshore environment.

I must also say that I find myself at odds with the self-appointed leaders of an organized group of property owners: from the beginning of the SMP update process, they have conducted a stubborn, high-pitched, and sometimes devious campaign of protest, playing on fears and prejudice, ignoring evidence and arguments contrary to their views, misrepresenting the intent of regulations, and condemning decision-makers who disagreed with them.

Bringing this to an end, I’ll quote from a letter that I sent to members of the City Council earlier this month, after a 4 to 3 vote on the contentious issue of ‘nonconforming’ status.

“I want to emphasize that I respect the opinions and the actions of the three Council members who were in the minority in the recent vote, and in other previous votes.  Close votes reflect real divisions in our community, and the difficult choices that have to be made in spite of differences of opinion.

“I hope that in the discussions that remain before final action on the SMP update, one or more members of the Council will point out to the dissatisfied shoreline property owners that many changes were made in the draft SMP to accommodate their rights and their concerns.

“During the Planning Commission’s many meetings devoted to the SMP, property owners’ interests were protected and strenuously advocated, not by citizens alone but within the P C itself, and many changes were made.  Still, the party line is that the Council should fix the wrongs that were done by the Planning Commission.

“Maybe there will be more 4 to 3 votes before the Council completes its work on the SMP.  At the end, however, I fervently hope that the Council will vote unanimously to endorse the whole document, in spite of its inevitable imperfections and what may be deep dissatisfaction with this or that provision. 

“In my view, the final vote will not have as much to do with the ordinance itself, as with the process to which so many people, in their various capacities, have contributed.  As messy and unsatisfying as it may be at times, the process of self-governance here is open and fair, and deserves our long-suffering support.”

 

Posted in Community, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Place, Property Rights, Shoreline Management Program, Shorelines, Stewardship | Comments Off

Our National Defense: Sustainable?

Jon Quitslund

While I ate a simple breakfast and drank my coffee yesterday morning, I read an article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker for January 28: “The Force.”  My breakfast went down easily enough, but the article was unsettling, and I haven’t been able to let go of the emotions it stirred up.

A subheading describes Lepore’s subject with a question: “How much military is enough?”  As we enter protracted negotiations over deficit reduction and the federal budget, the question could not be more timely.  Considering the amount of human effort and sacrifice that goes into our military establishment, and the money and other resources committed to its maintenance while other priorities are given short shrift, the question – just how much military is enough? – should concern us all.

“The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined. Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year.”  Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard, and she puts these figures in a perspective that reaches back to the early years of our republic, when the presence of a ‘standing army’ in peacetime was regarded as tyranny: instead, a ‘well regulated militia’ was to be desired.

The two World Wars and the long, amorphous Cold War (leading, of course, to hot wars in Korea and Vietnam) transformed Americans’ thinking about the necessity of a military establishment, and transformed our economy as well, with many adverse consequences.

I have had no experience of military service, nor did my father, who was 4-F and a civilian employee of the federal government during World War II.  I was ‘on the left’ and a protester against the war in Vietnam; I didn’t have to evade the draft, but my age and employment helped me avoid it.

Subsequently, I’ve been uninvolved in most of the public protests against American military adventures and the costs of our enormous military establishment.  One groans and grumbles against the vested interests of the ‘military-industrial complex’ and one is shocked by the ordinary cruelties and sensational atrocities that occur in wars, especially when there are no front lines and civilians are exposed to the worst that can happen to them.  But such unhappiness as mine goes nowhere; it accomplishes nothing.

While I paid close attention to the (mis)conduct of retaliatory and preemptive wars during the eight years of the second Bush administration, I regret to say that I’ve given the Obama administration carte blanche.  Much has been accomplished and remarkable changes in policy have been effected, in spite of risks and opposition, but deeper changes are called for.

The hero in Jill Lepore’s article is Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich, whose military career included fighting in Vietnam in 1970 and ’71; after leaving the army he earned a Ph. D. in history and international relations at Princeton.  He is now a professor at Boston University, and the author of several books, including The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005).  Lepore says of him, “A Catholic and a conservative, Bacevich is viscerally pained by Americans’ ‘infatuation with military power’.”

The most poignant and profound passage in Lepore’s article concerns Bacevich’s testimony on April 23, 2009, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concerning the protracted war in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan.  (I dimly remember the stir made by that hearing at the time; I believe it had much to do with the still-controversial decision to withdraw American soldiers from the fighting there by 2014.)

Bacevich made good use of the fact that Senator John Kerry was chairing the meeting.  He recalled that thirty-eight years earlier, the same man, much younger, testified before the same Senate committee “against the then seemingly endless war in Vietnam.”  And he observed that between 1971 and 2009, the predominant American attitude toward involvement in a long war had shifted profoundly.

“When the young John Kerry spoke, many of his contemporaries had angrily turned against their generation’s war. Today, most of the contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have simply tuned out the Long War.”  Bacevich observed that there were many reasons for the change in American attitudes toward war, the most important being the end of the “citizen-soldier tradition” after Vietnam and the creation of a “professional” military consisting, in theory at least, of volunteers.

The trouble is, he said, this military “exists at some remove from American society. Americans today profess to ‘support the troops’ but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious public concern for whether the troops are being used wisely or well” (emphasis added).

Near the end of his testimony, Bacevich again quoted what John Kerry had said as an angry young man: “we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.”  Then Bacevich added: “The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”  To see things as they are is to recognize that the grand goals of the long war on terrorism are unattainable by military means.

(Jill Lepore provides a brief, dramatic account of Bacevich’s testimony and its impact on Senator Kerry.  I have quoted from the complete transcript of it, which is readily available online.)

There are indications that the Obama administration knows very well that current U. S. military expenditures are unsustainable.  The trend in recent years is downward, but still incredibly high.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which publishes annually a list of the world’s top 15 military spenders, in 2012 the U. S. accounted for 41% of the world’s total, at $711billion (4.7% of GDP).  Our closest competitor is China, with $143billion, which is 8.2% of the world’s share (2% of China’s GDP).

Apparently, our military leaders regard 4% of GDP as the absolute minimum for their share of the pie.  Let’s see if negotiations get close to that in the coming months, and let’s see what course the Obama administration pursues in foreign affairs with John Kerry as Secretary of State (hopefully with Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense).

We need a strong military, and strong defenses against real enemies at home and abroad, but “power projection,” which preoccupies the adamant defenders of our military establishment, is not the only sign of American strength, and in some circumstances (such as Afghanistan and Pakistan) it may be dangerous and counter-productive.

I’ll end by harking back to some words of Paul Kingsnorth, as quoted in an earlier post, my “Dialogue of Hope with Doubt.”  He said, “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side.”  On such new paths we will certainly need courage; we will also need a questioning and imaginative approach to old certainties and unfamiliar circumstances.

Such a reorientation will take a long time and a great effort, which is why I’m writing about it now.  To some, I know, I’m sounding like Chicken Little, or perhaps like Don Quixote.  If so, help me find a new story.

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