Thursday, October 16, 2008

Iowa Writing Coach: Has Mother Nature Caused the Crash?

Could it be that Mother Earth has somehow willed the economic crash? Maybe this ground zero financial disaster is nature’s offering – a golden, just-before-the-tipping-point opportunity for us to align our consumption toward preserving nature more and despoiling her less. We all know that Nature needs fewer plasma screens and more vegetables grown without chemicals, but now maybe we’re going to have to really listen. Maybe she’s asking us to simplify a la the Voluntary Simplicity movement even if it’s not quite voluntary, and embrace the Slow Movement even though we love the Fast Track.

Maybe Creation wants us to reconnect with our creative selves (write a song, draw a picture, dust off the guitar) more often and rely on adrenaline rushes and shiny new toys less often for that sense of being alive.

Okay, maybe it’s naïve to suggest that the earth is metaphysically causing us to base our existence on creativity over material consumption. Still, trusting in the earth’s wisdom to right itself shines a little hope on the situation.

I heard Sandra Steingraber speak last week at the University of Iowa. Steingraber holds a Ph.D. in biology and a master’s in English and is the author of a book of poetry (Post-Diagnosis) and two acclaimed books on the environment (Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood). She told the audience that when she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1980s, she made a bet with a graduate student in economics on which system would crash first – the economic system or the environment. Each chose his/her own area of study, the economist because of the deregulation going on, and Steingraber because of the lack of teeth in environmental regulations.

They were both wrong, she told us: it turns out the systems are crashing at the same time.

Steingraber went on to explore some of the elements common to both systems. Both are large and complex, with far-reaching causes and effects. (An example in the ecosystem is the proliferation of large plasma TVs that require as much electricity as an average fridge. More electricity means more coal being burned, which causes more ocean acidification, which causes the collapse of coral systems.) Another element common to both systems is that with less diversity comes more danger. (Mergers in financing mean more catastrophic losses; agricultural monocultures mean potentially larger outbreaks of pests.) Both systems have an underlying addiction to oil. Both tend to be dominated by positive feedback loops. (Economic panic and fear create more panic and fear. Melting permafrost releases methane, which causes more melting permafrost.) Finally, in both systems, regulatory apparatuses have been dismantled – or never existed in the first place.

One difference between the two crashes, Steingraber asserted, was that business writers have “made the economy visible” in a way that environmental writers still have not made as environmental issues visible. “We don’t have a steady stream of data like the Wall Street ticker,” she lamented. She wondered who would become the ecological equivalents of Paulson and Bernanke. Who will rally the world into an integrated set of policies that will help decrease pollution and the use of fossil fuels that are clearly warming the planet? (She was too humble to name herself but did mention Bill McKibben and Paul Ehrlich – names familiar to environmentalists but still unknown in many households.)

I don’t have the credentials to rally the world about the environment, but I do hope that the silver lining in the economic uncertainty is that as a society we’ll shift away from currency to creativity as our raison d’etre.

And in the spirit of making the environment visible on this day in Eastern Iowa, I offer these observations of Mother Nature: Okra plants are still blooming even though the leaves are beginning to yellow. There may be a few more of these lovely little vegetables to pick and eat. Purple ashes are not native to Iowa but they’re everywhere in the towns and cities and they’re at their peak in the southern tier of Iowa, all luminescent yellow, peach, orange, and plum. Some of the early-turning maples are beginning to fire yellow, orange, and red. Geese can be seen flying overhead and on the ground, combing harvested soybean fields that look like tightly woven, grey and brown sweaters.

And big blue stem grasses are waving purple arms in prairie patches across the state, unbothered by the Dow Industrial Average.

As a writing coach, writer, editor, and visual artist from Eastern Iowa, Suzanne Kelsey tries to inspire people to live their passions and to find miracles even in the mundane. She blogs about the freelancing life, Midwest Bohemia, nature, creativity, visual journaling, and living large in a small town. Visit her web site at Email her at

1 comment:

Morgan Mandel said...

Think Green from the plant POV?

Morgan Mandel