Monumental Irony

Monuments_Men_Places-068a3My 12-year-old son and I recently saw George Clooney’s film, “The Monuments Men.” What’s not to like about a gang of aging art curators and conservators snatching Europe’s cultural treasures from the evil Nazis? It’s based on Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name.

Edsel’s research and writing project was a labor of love, funded by a $37 million nest egg from selling his Texas-based oil-and-gas exploration business in 1997.  He became fascinated with the story of the men and women from thirteen nations who stopped Hitler and his cronies from pillaging cultural capital at the expense of present and future generations. Ironically, Edsel’s work in the fossil fuel industry was similar: pillaging natural capital at the expense of present and future generations, human and otherwise.

It’s a potent illustration of how anthropocentric we are. We think the human story is all there is. World War 2 is a great illustration of our myopia. War is an enactment on a grand scale of the Story of Separation, the belief that we are the Chosen, the superior, the more deserving. Who “we” are depends on your perspective. For the Nazis, it was the Aryan race, but the Allies saw it differently, and thankfully, our side won.

Winning the war didn’t change our unconscious allegiance to the Story of Separation. Industries quickly retooled from bomb-making to pumping out fertilizer and pesticides using the same ingredients. An undeclared war was waged on the natural fertility of the land during the so-called “green revolution” that boosted agricultural productivity at the expense of soil, water, and the small family farmer.

The Story of Separation also drives our use of fossil fuels, starting with how they are found and extracted. Our belief that humans are the superior animal in the great web of life allows us to justify our actions, no matter the cost to the living planet or to present and future generations.

Wouldn’t it be something if we had a posse of Monuments Men working on behalf of natural capital? The heroes of Edsel’s story knew that winning the war would be diminished by every piece of art and sculpture lost, every church destroyed by bombing. These treasures stood for something far greater than their physical, material reality. Our planetary Monuments Men would have the same passion and zeal, the knowledge of true connoisseurs. Even the backing of their countries’ leaders, who, while admittedly focused on human lives, sense there is an even greater purpose at stake.

Can’t you just see George Clooney and Matt Damon, riding herd on the Koch Brothers, seizing their propaganda and influence promoting oil and gas drilling and spreading lies about renewable energy? What’s the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna” or the Ghent Altarpiece? The Great Barrier Reef? The Chesapeake Bay? The receding glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro? There are too many to contemplate.



Are you an Apprentice or a Controller?

The recent post, Shifting from Control to Apprenticeship, suggested one of those “hot – not” lists. See if you can recognize yourself here.

Apprentices (new story)Masters (old story)
Backcountry skiHelicopter ski
Approach with humilityLead with hubris
Seek understandingAcquire knowledge
Value imaginationValue intelligence
Eat at farmer’s marketsEat Powerbars
VisionVideo game

Shifting from Control to Apprenticeship

I had a great conversation last evening with creativity consultant / Renaissance man Jack Ricchiuto, who asked why the old energy barons – who have considerable money and resources at their disposal – have mostly stayed out of the renewable energy game. Tom Friedman, in “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” made a compelling case for the enormous potential for innovation and profitability of these emerging industries – and a persuasive argument for America to seize competitive advantage on the world stage.

Having thought long about this, I see it as more a question of who-we-are rather than what-we-do. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about humanity’s purpose and role on this planet. Jack’s insight was this: “Old energy can be dominated and new energy cannot. No one can conquer and control the sun, wind, and waves. If you live by a domination narrative, the old energy of oil and coal serve your story.”

It may be an oversimplification, but sometimes that’s what it takes to rise above the entanglements that keep us stuck in an old exploitative system. I have heard many critiques of renewable energy’s unreliability — wind is intermittent and the sun doesn’t always shine — that make a difficult fit with old energy’s infrastructure. That doesn’t mean renewable is a bad option – it’s simply a different design problem.

Good design always begins with an examination of assumptions and possibilities. What if we challenge the assumption that we are masters of the natural world and instead apprentice ourselves to these great, mysterious forces? Our days of extracting, refining and burning fossil fuels are numbered – and good riddance. Let the downslope of peak oil also be the waning of our determination to dominate.

A new story of apprenticeship opens up an abundance of design possibilities that make a transition from fossils to sun and wind ripe with possibility, innovation and creativity. One man who has apprenticed himself to renewable energy is Craig Shields, author of “Is Renewable Really Doable?” and other books. He is always learning and shares his insights here.

A great image of this is surfing. Surfers master their technique, but would laugh at the sheer absurdity of mastery over the medium. They know that a wave must be met with humility, awe, respect, daring, courage and crazy love. Maybe that’s why so many surfers are spiritual mystics. They get knocked down at least as many times as they ride waves, so they know both sides of it. They can feel the mysterious power that drives a wave, even become one with it momentarily. Guess what? That power is the sun. It can be borrowed and ridden, harnessed, but never controlled.

PS – Check out the addendum to this post – Are you an apprentice or a controller?