Progress Rumbles Through Your Yard

photo by photos lignes tht / flickr

The lower Normandy that I’ve come to know is an amazing world of deep green fields, breathtaking skies, and a silence I have never heard before. The few houses you pass are modest and functional. They can be found between the long stretches of corn and the grazing land where content cows and sheep seem to have all the time in the world to eat and relax.  One of the busiest metropoles in the world is 3 to 4 hours away, but out here it may as well be on another continent. Still,  people here are busy, building things, cleaning things, working the land in one form or another. Some grew up here and continue a family tradition of agricultural work. Others come from different parts of the country, even foreign countries, to live the healthy, calm, and satisfyingly simple life they always wished for.

Looking out over the mystifying landscape one night, a friend shows me with great disappointment, massive new structures on the otherwise beautiful horizon. With their feet planted firmly in concrete, towering high above the corn and fruit orchards, are massive high tension power lines.  “They just put them in, stretching from the power plant that isn’t online yet several hundred kilometers away,” my friend describes with an alarmed tone like someone talking about an oil slick or a forest fire swallowing up his neighbors. “The power company is planning to use these lines to sell electricity to Spain, all the nearby farmers protested, but the company built it anyway.”  He went on to describe the extensive campaign to fight the power company and how they are able to seize land for installing power cables and towers regardless of what the nearby community thinks.

I stepped back from the situation and thought about how often scenario’s like this take place. The massive dam projects in India that displaced thousands of people with little to no consultation. The coal power plant right next door to the city of Ulan Bataar in Mongolia, bringing electricity and horrific air pollution to hundreds of thousands nearby.  Throughout history and including today, projects are pursued for different reasons, some to improve lives, some just for the sake of profit or prestige.  And regardless of their purpose, sometimes those same projects wind up harming the very people they set out to benefit.

These same questions will still be asked about major decisions and risky initiatives long after all of us have left the planet, when is worth it and when is it not worth it? Innovation and development that improves quality of life for more people on this planet – who could argue with that? But innovation and development for the sake of profit for a tiny few while harming a larger part of the population – why should that be acceptable?

A different issue but yet somehow related, I’m reminded of Mario Savio’s speech in 1964: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The Backbone of our World

“Family farmers are the backbone of our nation’s economy,” – the words of the legendary Willie Nelson speaking on behalf of farm-aid not too long ago.  I thought about the words of Willie today as I walked through the mud, under the fences, past the sheep, next to the cows, over the stream and yes.. through the woods. Up here in Normandie, I’m not sure there has ever been a farm-aid organization, though we do know that farmers in France get their share of – often referred to as unfair- subsidies and market protection. Maybe it is unfair, but when you’re walking passed the old fashioned farm houses and over the majestic green hills, you can’t help but breath deep and feel… healthy.

Back in New Jersey, in the town where I spent much of my childhood, older people always told me about how my sprawling suburban hamlet used to be a farming town.  Yet by the 1990’s there was not a single farm left, and it looked more like a town made up of strip malls, big box stores, and cozy suburban homes. Whatever majestic green there may have once been was long paved over by several highways criss-crossing the town.  No one thought about what had been lost – too late now anyway.

Country life isn’t for everyone. It may not even be for me. But when you’re eating cheese or bread, and you can look across the street and wave to the sheep or baker who were responsible for the deliciousness on your plate – there is a satisfaction that anyone could and should get to enjoy (city or country dweller).  And my utmost compliments to the people of Northwest France who have managed to preserve their farms and their wonderful environment. Wandering around these sleepy forgotten places, it doesn’t just feel like the backbone of France, it feels like the backbone of a sustainable world.

Somewhere in Normandy today, looking towards the sea.

Restoring and Reconnecting: The Legacy of Sousa Mendes

Gerald Mendes was born in Canada and raised with the story of his grandfather Aristides de Sousa Mendes. As he grew up he came to learn not only about the history of his family, but also about those that the actions of his grandfather during WWII helped to save. At a restaurant in Paris we sat down recently to talk about his family, his life experiences, and his activities related to the legacy of his grandfather.

We mention:

The Sousa Mendes Committee in France

As well as the book: Aristides de Sousa Mendes, héros “rebelle”, juin 1940 – Souvenirs et témoignages by Manuel Dias Vaz

Good Postal Ideals

Ever notice all the overnight delivery-parcel company planes at the airport? They’re everywhere. Taking off, landing, filling the sky, spanning the globe.. to get your packages to you fast.

Rarely does anyone talk about the world of express delivery and the ever-growing fleets of planes in that industry, and their effect on our planet.  Why even within distances between cities only a few hours away from each other, the fastest way is said to be by plane…  so naturally there is yet another plane flying from one city to another, adding some more pollution to an earth that is begging for some relief.

As I think about this, I read the news out of France; TGV trains handling mail! Yes indeed, they called person who proposed this idea crazy at first, but in a country where high speed trains make long distances seem like nothing, with modernized and plentiful connections, France has the right circumstances to provide fast mail transport without having to fill the skies with more planes. And they’re really doing it!

Of course they have their share of problems once they want to go beyond France. Der Spiegel talks about problems that connecting German rail lines aren’t prepared for this plan. I know here in the Netherlands, the high speed rail lines are still few and just barely completed.

However, the point is that here we have a great solution for a problem that few nations are willing to talk about or seriously try to solve.  Cut down on unecessary flights, including those dedicated to postal delivery.  France wasn’t just born with this infrastructure… they planned rail transport properly some 50+ years ago .. and now not only can their businesses benefit, but so can our environment, with less emissions coming from rail transport.  With the new AGV trains, we’re talking EVEN less emissions.

Just because some countries, be it here in Europe, or anywhere in the world, don’t currently have the infrastructure to do this.. doesn’t mean this is the time to simply give up.  Investments should be made, elected officials should be working for such innovations, and citizens should demand this kind of solution.

Memories and Photos

As part of coming home to New Jersey for the holidays, I spend lots of time going through old photos.  Scanning most of them and putting them up my flickr site. 

In these photos I see faces and I see places that are sometimes overwhelming.. times when I was so happy, or unhappy as the case may be. People who meant alot to me, some of whom have disappeared from my life.  I also spend time reading old letters.  Letters from friends to me when I was living in France.  Letters from myself that I never sent.  Love letters that almost seem silly or naive all these years later.

It makes me appreciate what an amazing life I’ve lived up to now and all that I’ve done and admittedly, frequently take for granted or forget.  That is one reason I blog and I post so much of my life online.  I don’t want to forget and I have a hard time remembering all these adventures and all these people.. they seem to spill out of my memory and get lost in boxes and envelopes.

Naturally when I’m done looking at these photos and reading these words, I’ll put them away again, and get back to my life and my work that are so interesting and important to me.  In the mean time… here are just a few places and faces that I’ve been remembering.

Inspiring versus Annoying

First of all welcome to all the new people who have probably met me at this conference here in Paris. Many of you probably aren’t into the world of blogs and podcasts, so the fact that you clicked over to my website is a major milestone… maybe.

It was day two of the transport strikes, and officially day 1 of the TBLI conference. I did my best not to go around handing people cards to explain who I am, I also avoided explaining myself too often. I’ve worked too dam hard and have too many issues on my mind to take the constant trouble of explaining what I do to strangers at conferences.

At one point I ran into some very laid back new friends who work in the world of press releases. They liked my flickr cards, the ones that I made purposely almost too small to read, with photos of my adventures on the back. In their case, I described what I do on this site, and the topic came up of what would I say if I were having a drink with one of the big corporate representatives at this conference. The thought was fairly disturbing.. to have a drink with the likes of Suez, Shell, Coca-Cola (ha!).. they’re all here.

As much as I might want to challenge them with questions about their human rights records and the human suffering their actions have caused in the world, I must admit I don’t think – in the moment – I would have the nerve. I bet they would even be polite, or charming in some way, so that I’d almost forget who they worked for. Thats the worst part, potentially, of attending too many of these events… you rub elbows with individuals working for some of the most notoriously inhumane companies in the world, and you might find – as if probably often the case- they are actually nice people. But then what happens to everything you know about their companies actions? You put it to the side maybe.. separate the person from the corporation, perhaps.

For my part I’ve steered clear of them. Instead I’ve enjoyed the company of people who work for organizations dedicated to making real change in the world, respecting the rights and health of humans everywhere. And let me tell you, there are some very inspiring individuals here.  In the coming days I will feature some of these stories in both text and podcasts, so stay tuned.