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The Self-Motivation Cycle

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Benjamin Sibelman
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Living Worlds Productions

The Self-Motivation Cycle

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I've blogged before about the so-called Issue Attention Cycle and its possible consequences for the current era of nearly universal interest in environmental issues.  I experience something similar when it comes to my interest level in writing and other creative pursuits.  A big part of it is mental stimulation; both the summer when I started my first job, and this past summer when I transitioned up here to Microsoft, have been very productive periods.  (There might also be a Seasonal Affective Disorder angle, which would be unfortunate considering how little sunlight I'll be getting here in Seattle.)

As an example of the current downswing, I got motivated enough to sign up for Seattle Bioneers, a two-year-old satellite to the nineteen-year-old annual Bioneers event held in San Rafael, CA last weekend.  I learned lots of awesome stuff there, such as:

  • According to Janine Benyus, Biomimicry (technology imitating nature) is being applied to fields as diverse as Olympic swimsuits, display screens, thin-film solar cells (actually based on the process of photosynthesis) and hybrid car engines (using a thermoelectric effect inspired by an electric reef shark to recapture waste heat and recharge the battery).  And at least some of the companies whose innovations are derived from a specific creature are donating the royalties from the use of these inventions to conservation of that species's habitat.
  • Instead of reservations, Alaskan natives were forced to form corporations which would become the legal owners of their land.  When one such corporation wanted to do a bunch of clearcutting while the eyes of the world were focused on the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, a native named Dune Lankard sued them and eventually won enough support from the tribe to preserve 700,000 acres of forest.
  • A study by McKinsey & Company projects that the U.S. can reduce its carbon footprint by about 30% at no net cost.  David Orr says he's talked with the people responsible for the report, who explained that its estimate is probably conservative given the lack of accounting for the costs of allowing the climate crisis to keep getting worse, so the number is probably more like 40-60%.
  • Not so awesome: According to Cecile Andrews, founder of Phinney EcoVillage, Americans have a third fewer friends than we did twenty years ago, and 40% of us didn't take a single solid week of vacation last year.  Our expanding gap between rich and poor actually means both ends of the spectrum are experiencing shorter life expectancies due to the stress of "keeping up with the Joneses."  As a palliative, Andrews recommends talking to strangers as much as possible and crossing things off your to-do list even if you haven't actually done them.
  • The Environment News Service, an independent newswire that operates like a small, issue-focused (but very carefully unbiased) version of Reuters, is run by a couple working out of their house but has reporters all over the world, and its stories are featured on ten local NBC News websites, among other places.
  • According to author and educator Joe McHugh, TV and movies really are the new equivalent to religion as the opiate of the masses.  Embedding reporters in war zones is our update on the tradition of sending priests along with the conquistadors.  Rich folks used to have their own private chapels; now they have home theaters instead.  Obama's supporters include a number of media "saints," Oprah being the most powerful example; meanwhile, McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate is an attempt to create a new "saint."
  • In Florida, tomato pickers earn just 40-45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes.  Now, at the behest of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, big tomato buyers like Taco Bell are agreeing to pay one extra cent per pound, which could nearly double farmworkers' pay.  (Oddly, well-known "good corporate citizen" Chipotle has not yet jumped on board with this.)
  • Well, up until today this made sense: Judging by the stock market, the market rejected the original Paulson Plan in favor of the one spearheaded by the UK's Gordon Brown, a partial nationalization of the investment banks.  Unfortunately, according to Naomi Klein, our version of the plan gives us only a 5% share and no voting rights.  Given how poorly these banks have been doing at keeping our financial system healthy, that seems like a bad idea.
  • Google Earth is now a tool for activism, allowing opponents of logging to show policymakers a stark annotated visualization of the area to be logged with nearby schools and habitat, and giving an Amazon tribe (which has been in contact with modern civilization for less than 40 years) the ability to tell their own deforestation story to the world.
  • Grantmaking foundations and the organizations that apply for their funds have traditionally been isolated from one another, but the Garfield Foundation has spearheaded an effort in six midwestern states to work together with six other foundations and twelve NGOs on a coordinated plan to replace coal-fired power plants with renewable energy.  So far, fifteen of the thirty coal plants that were in planning stages when the project was kicked off have been cancelled, while only one has broken ground and the rest are tied up in red tape.
  • The partially-funded freeway expansion project on the I-90 through the Snoqualmie Pass (a ways east of Seattle) will include several long bridges allowing wildlife to move easily beneath the freeway, as well as three overcrossings built specifically for wildlife (if the funding goes through).

...and I thought it would motivate me to change my life somehow, or at least follow up to learn more about the several interesting organizations I discovered.  But so far it hasn't worked out that way.  Today and Monday, I was able to talk myself into eating vegetarian meals at the Microsoft cafeteria (after having met someone wearing a "Real Environmentalists Don't Eat Meat" T-shirt at the conference), but Tuesday I met a chicken wrap I just couldn't resist.  Also, I felt like I should have been pumped enough about the event to post about it on Monday, but obviously that didn't work out either.

But!  I now have a plan to force myself into being more motivated.  In the past, the first thing I've done when logging onto my home computer in the evening is read the comics.  No more!  Henceforth, I will both read my email and do something else constructive before allowing myself to slack off for the rest of the evening.  That may go against Cecile Andrews's concept of unrushed living and real appreciation for leisure (she says Americans have forgotten how to just do nothing)...or then again it may not.  But I think I'll at least feel more like I'm getting somewhere with my life.

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