March 13, 2012

Our topic tonight is–optimisim–what we can do to build a better world. Our guest will be Bryan Welch, author of a book called Beautiful and Abundant, which is not only optimistic about the human future, but also outlines some strategies for imagining and implementing the world we want to live in.

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Our Discussion with Bryan Welch

As listeners know, one of the questions we often ask on the program is about optimism. We want to know the level of hope our guests have about solving the monumental environmental and social problems that the planet faces.

Our guest tonight, Bryan Welch, definitely logs in on the optimistic side. He’s the author of a book with the title Beautiful and Abundant, and he argues that we can create the kind of world we want.

Bryan comes to this conclusion through two avenues: He’s the publisher of Ogden Publications, which owns Mother Earth News, Home and Garden, Natural Home, and Utne Reader. But he’s also a small farmer and rancher: His family’s 50-acre Rancho Cappuccino homestead sits a few miles outside of Lawrence, Kansas

–Let’s start with the ranch, where you practice what you preach. How long have you been a farmer/rancher? At what point in your life did you and your wife begin Rancho Cappuccino? What do you grow and raise? Is this for personal use or for sale or perhaps both? [One of your meditations in the book describes The Farm as Mandala. Please explain that metaphor.]

–In Chapter 8 [we'll get to earlier chapters shortly], you quote pessimist/activist Derrick Jensen, who has said that it’s basically all over for the planet: “We’re [and here we'll substitute the FCC acceptable word] screwed.” However, you argue, “pessimism seldom motivates change” (168). Please tell us about the source of your optimism. How do we know you’re not just falsely, polly-anna-ish optimistic?

–You also say, “We don’t need a disaster to motivate change” (5). What combination of circumstances prior to disaster might bring about change? government mandates? the economic engine? people’s good will or common sense? [You argue persuasively for human imagination and inventiveness.]

–Your book offers both a process for change and a set of criteria to create and evaluate that change. Two of the criteria are in your title: “Is it beautiful?” “Does it create abundance?”

…Let’s start with beauty. Tell us why/how you think that functions as a criterion (including the role of art and beauty in people’s lives). And who gets to decide what’s beautiful, us or our neighbor? [Please give us an example of changes that are both functional and lovely.]

…And then there is abundance. Doesn’t much of the planet already have abundance? two cars in every garage? a choice of dozens of cereals–sweet or healthy–at the supermarket? plenty of oil and coal and uranium to get us through the energy crisis?

–Could tell us about the process of change. You begin with the recommendation that we “idealize the destination” and you urge us “don’t be realistic.” How “realistic” is that? Please explain how this relates to step two, “acknowledge the challenges.” How does this lead to first steps?

–We’ve been a little abstract so far. Could you give us an example or two of change that you see as positive? Maybe the Prius or the Pickens Plan or (what?!) Google?

–In your chapter on Acknowledging Challenges, you describe three mountains that we’ll need to cross to create a better, even livable world, and you rank them in order of difficulty:

…Conservation (“least imposing”)

…Population control (“perfectly unavoidable”)

…Economics dependent on growth (“brand new economic tools”).

Let’s talk about any/all–you choose: highest mountain? lower?

–Please explain your idea that population and the economy are “a Ponzi scheme.” How do you answer your own counter-argument that “Bluntly, we have no examples of economic growth occurring in the absence of population growth” (159).

–A great many of the examples in your book come from “developed” countries, and you acknowledge that we in the West have the advantage of sitting in a “luxury box.” How do your recommendations for change operate in “underdeveloped” or “third-world” countries? Do criteria such as “beauty” apply in conditions of poverty?

–You write that you deliberately did not include your own vision of a better possible world in the book because you don’t want to impose that vision. Nevertheless, in the epilogue you do, in fact, hint at some of your own priorities. Please tell us about your own greatest passions for change.

–And finally, since you obviously do practice what you preach on the farm, please tell us: What are your next projects at Rancho Cappuccino, and how will they make it more beautiful and abundant?

Lear more at www.beautifulandabundant.com

And Here’s a Little Info About Optimism

Given our broad topic of optimism tonight, we did some web browsing on the topic and came up with two stories leading to some goodnews/badnews conclusions:

A story by Sara Kliff in the Daily Beast called “This Is Your Brain on Optimism” reportes on research that::

We humans tend to be an optimistic bunch. In fact, it’s long been established by psychologists that most people tend to be irrationally positive. The optimism bias, as it’s called, accounts for the fact that we expect to live longer and be more successful than the average and we tend to underestimate the likelihood of getting a serious disease or a divorce. This tendency is adaptive—many researchers have claimed that a positive outlook motivates us to plan for our future and may even have an effect on our long-term physical health….

Optimism may be so necessary to our survival that it’s hardwired in our brains.  A study published in the journal Nature further confirms the idea that having a rosy outlook is a personality trait with deep, neurological roots. Researchers found that the brains of optimistic people actually light up differently on a scan than those who tend to be more pessimistic when they think about future events.

The disparity between positive and pessimistic minds is especially prominent in areas of the brain that have been linked to depression. ‘The same areas that malfunction in depression are very active when people think about positive events,” says Tali Sharot, a post-doctorate fellow at University College London, who conducted the research at New York University.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2007/10/23/this-is-your-brain-on-optimism.html

On the Bad News Side, this optimism can also get us into trouble.  Also in the Daily Beast. Writer Sharon Begley asks, “Are Optimists Dumber?” She cites a study by the same researcher, Tali Sharot, suggesting that “unrealistic optimists” shut out information they don’t want to hear.

The teenager who thinks she can have unprotected sex without suffering any consequences. The alcoholic who thinks he can have one little drink without falling off the wagon. The politician who keeps compromising even though his opponents roll him every time. It’s called unrealistic optimism. (President Obama, whose base sometimes cringes at his readiness to compromise with opponents, is on record as an “eternal optimist.”)

In contrast to plain optimism, the unrealistic kind characterizes people who continue to believe there will be a rosy outcome despite clear evidence and even personal experience to the contrary. While reasonable optimism serves us well—it lowers stress and anxiety, and can even reduce the risk of developing various diseases and help us recover faster, according to studies like this one—the unrealistic kind can backfire badly….

The good news is that people were not completely incapable of learning: they revised their estimates of the probability that they would suffer life’s various pitfalls—but only if they had overestimated that probability. In other words, if they had predicted that their likelihood of developing cancer was 40 percent, but learned that the lifetime risk is in fact 30 percent, they adjusted their estimate to a more reasonable 32 percent. But if they had underestimated the chance of falling victim to one of these incidents—saying they had a 10 percent risk of being robbed when in fact the chance is 20 percent—they basically stuck with their original guess. The scientists ruled out the possibility that people simply forgot the probabilities they were shown. “They remembered the data equally well regardless if it was better or worse than expected,” says neuroscientist Tali Sharot of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, who led the study. “The difference was in whether they used the information to update their beliefs regarding their own likelihood of experiencing the negative events.”

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/10/09/optimism-science-study-shows-optimists-block-out-information.html

Playlist for Ecotopia #179: Beautiful and Abundant

1. Sacred Breath 5:39 MaMuse All The Way Folk

2. Anthem 6:00 Leonard Cohen The Essential Leonard

3. Life Uncommon 4:57 Jewel Spirit Rock

4. Blinuet 4:35 Zoot Sims

5. Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28 Peter, Paul And Mary The Very Best of Peter, Paul and

6. Talking Optimist Blues (Good Day Today) 2:55 Neil Diamond

7. Can’t Keep It In 3:05 Cat Stevens Greatest Hits Rock