Sep 7

by Miriam Garvi

There are many reasons these days to think about people who suffer from serious illnesses and how society handles people who are too weak and vulnerable to look out for themselves. For me, as another September 9th approaches, my thoughts go back to events that happened six years ago, events that taught me that for a system to be human-friendly it needs people who care.

That September 9th was my mom’s 55th birthday. In the weeks leading up to that day, I had been spending the mornings helping my dad finish a book project because he wanted her to see it come to fruition, and the afternoons visiting my mom in the palliative clinic where she had been hospitalized after a small surgical intervention had proven too much for her frail body. My mom’s breast cancer was particularly aggressive, and though she had been undergoing various rounds of post-surgery chemo and radiation, her long-time heart condition was making it very hard for her oncologist to find treatments that her body would tolerate.

Meanwhile, there she was, waiting for us at the clinic, while we picked up the cake, the flowers and the presents – determined to make it feel like a real birthday come what may.

But something was more than usually unsettling. A few days earlier, we had started to notice during our visits that she seemed less lucid, possibly hallucinating. This change took us completely by surprise, as my mom had always been a very sensible and clear-spoken person, even when struggling with intense pain. Now suddenly she was unable to sit up straight, hold a spoon or drink a glass of water. And from the sight that met us that afternoon, it was clear that she was being left by the staff to whatever she could manage on her own, as she mumbled something about having collapsed in the bathroom.

The scene that followed is forever etched in my mind. I found our assigned nurse in conversation with her colleagues as she was preparing some coffee to go with the cake. “So fifty-five will be her last birthday….” Startled by my appearance in the doorway, she fixed her eyes upon me and gave me the following speech: “Don’t you realize that this is it; that your mom is about to die? You need to stop coming here and disturb her, and let her pass away in peace.”

For the remainder of that day, I was unable to hold back the tears. My mom somehow opened her presents, but her mind was somewhere else - somewhere where there were burning fires and cats and dogs running back and forth, but certainly no cake or coffee or birthday celebration. And then visitation hours were up and we left her there for the night, fearing the worst but not knowing.

My mom did not die that night, nor that month for that matter; she did not even die that year. The nurse’s predictions were wrong. But then again, she might not have been aware that the senior doctor in charge at the clinic – an enthusiastic prescriber of morphine patches that had just come out on the market – was overdosing her patient, and that what we were seeing really were the effects of morphine-induced hallucination. My mom did collapse from lack of fluids and sodium/potassium imbalance that were immediately treated once we managed to get her to a real hospital. It came very close, but in that hospital she woke up, was brought home, and we had another five months together.

Five months is valuable time when you know that time is limited…

Doctors, nurses and caretakers – people who deal every day with the sufferings of others – are an invaluable resource to society. The woman who spoke to me at the palliative clinic may not have been a bad person at all; in fact someone who knows her is adamant she is not. But something is broken in society when its weaker members become a hospital bed that will soon be available – and we forget that every number is a person, a human being, who feels, thinks and breathes just like ourselves. I very much doubt that the responsible doctor will have included my mother’s story in her research on morphine treatments. And for a long time I wondered what other patients might have been withering away in clinics, their relatives having been scared off by staff protective of their ‘peace’. It won’t be happening at this particular one, though: its palliative unit was closed down last year, amidst allegations of malpractice that since seem forgotten.

Not everyone knows what it is like to feel utterly vulnerable, to be at the mercy of things that are completely outside of your own control. I am glad this is so. And yet… Vulnerability is a powerful changer of perspectives; things simply do not look the same for the one on the giving and the one on the receiving side. And it is how we deal with the vulnerable which, I believe, defines the character of our society at its very core: is it to be cold, expedient, and for the strong – or humane, empathetic, offering protection for the exposed and care for those who need it?

Aug 26

by Miriam Garvi

I’ve never been one to care much about costs as long as I think they are called for, but tonight’s attempt at clothes shopping made me think about the value of things, what I am prepared to pay and to whom. It made me realize that many times when I look at something I’m telling myself: “This might be acceptable”. As in: the fabric is not paper thin, it is one of the few items in the store that is not synthetic, the design is more than two square pieces of cloth sown together and the seams have been finished off. Acceptable quality at a decent price - though a closer look indicates it was assembled hastily and without much care.

I had almost made up my mind to purchase one such very cheap item at Zara, when the label “made in Bangladesh” jumped at me. Bangladesh, the apparel industry, and factory tragedies… And then of course value and cost take on a whole different meaning. How would I value the work of the pairs of hands that made this shirt? If I knew something about who had made my clothes for me, how much would they then be worth? And what kind of quality would I expect in return? Indeed, if setting the price were entirely up to me, what would I be willing to pay for good fabric, for nice design and for good handiwork? And if I could find exactly what I wanted, what kind of clothes - whose clothes - would I really want to wear?

I ended up buying a whole different shirt, in a whole different store, at a whole different price, simply because it looked better. But I wish I could know something about the human effort that went into making me that new shirt, and how many pieces of clothing the person behind the sowing machine would need to work on every day in order to achieve the same standard of living as myself. I feel it would help me put things into perspective. And perhaps next time when I open my closet I would feel somewhat differently about the contents, because they would not just be clothes, but something someone helped make for my benefit. And that would imbue something as mundane as clothes shopping with a little bit of deeper meaning…

Oct 18

by Miriam Garvi

The green revolution led to large-scale, resource-intensive, heavily subsidized industrial farming crowding out small-scale farming in most parts of the world, making it increasingly difficult for people anywhere on the globe to make a decent living from farming the land. A revolution that augmented yields of a selected handful of crops up to a certain point, whilst boosting sales of pesticides and fertilizers for agrochemical companies, the environmental and human costs of which are gradually coming to light. Now a biotech revolution for agriculture and food is taking its place, where scientists make customized plants and corporations tailor species characteristics to fit their business interests. Whilst pesticide plants may be falling out of grace with the environmentally aware, the promotion of GMO species is tuned towards the “feeding the planet” debate, with new seed products pushed onto the markets of developing countries under the label “feeding the poor”. What is to be left untouched?

Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus are examples of new seed products promoted to replace subsistence crops of developing countries. Sorts of supra-nutritional strands for those corners of the world where malnutrition remains a real issue (unlike more affluent parts of the world where we suffer the causes of over-nutrition). What’s the big deal, you may wonder? Well, it is manifold. Firstly, better solutions are out there, found in nature, and viably implemented. The rich diversity of existent genetically pristine species that can naturally grow in challenging environments and produce all the nutrients that are needed for people even in arid areas to have well-balanced and healthy diets is impressive, as shown for instance by decades of work and research by the Eden Foundation in Niger, West Africa. But to know more about this, one needs to be asking the right questions, questions that seek to understand how we can work with nature, rather than change nature to suit our dominant purpose. And of course there would be little money in it for big corporations, which might help explain why the Gates Foundation is actively supporting the opposite solution that leave Third World farmers at the mercy of “benefactors” rather than providing them with the means to sustain themselves independently. If we really wanted to think progressively about farming, then we would be looking into such options as perennial farming - which merits have long been known, but fail to gain wider support as it is a less lucrative business option for those controlling the resources upon which farmers are increasingly dependent. And we would be researching and debating the functional trade-offs of promoted products such as golden rice in terms of how gearing the plant to produce vitamin A hampers its production of other elements such as vitamin E, chlorophyll and giberellic acid that have important natural functions.

biocassava-plus

Research offers unique opportunities to better understand the function and purpose of various mechanisms in nature found at macro and micro levels. This fascinates me, but also instills a combined sense of awe and responsibility: marveling at the intricate beauty, at the combination of simplicity and complexity that I fail to see in anything man-made, whilst knowing that unless we learn to take care of this rich canvas of resources it will slip through our fingers, and we will be left with poor imitations of our own creation. For me, the choice is simple. I love the beauty of the uniquely diverse. I want people all over the world to have the means to support themselves. I want them to be able to lead dignified lives that are fulfilling to them and have constructive rather than destructive implications for other people, the nature on our planet and the generations who will inherit this earth after us. I wish some of these goals would move into the agendas of powerful corporations and foundations, though I have no illusions that they ever will. What I do know, however, is that there are more people out there who as myself find meaning in dedicating ourselves to causes that can provide good fulfillment for people, in a way that builds on and enhances purposes found in nature.

Viable and constructive alternatives matter. They offer people a real choice. And that definitely makes the effort worthwhile.

Oct 13

by Miriam Garvi

I’m not someone who follows people, who looks for teachers or masters to guide the way. Few are those who live up to what they preach and no single person has a complete perspective. But what I find particularly inspiring are tales of a new kind of heroism for our times, one that involves independent thinking, a good portion of courage and integrity, and the yearning to express in action the true meaning of over(ab)used labels such as sustainable, meaningful or responsible. It is people who choose to walk a narrower way, less traveled by, at the initial cost of ridicule (at best) and sometimes outright harassment, whose actions remind us that sometimes all it takes to crush the power of the myth that justifies something as necessary or inevitable is to show how an alternative way is indeed possible. Opening up the space of what we see, of what we believe can and should be. Pioneering actions outside of mainstream, for those of us who want it.
That’s how I conceive of freedom.

Apr 24

by Miriam Garvi

Sometimes I find myself amazed at the flexibility by which issues that seemed to be on no one’s agenda only five years ago now find their way into everyone’s rhetoric. Only recently, it was the rally for growth. Now a favorite epithet embraced across ideologies is that of sustainable, as the earth’s dwindling resources put the high-consumption lifestyle of the “developed world” into question.

Indeed, it would seem that anyone can do the talk. Some advocate for an era of the “WE economy”, of multiple voices emerging at the grassroots level and interconnecting by way of Twitter and other Internet-based social networking tools. More and more networks are professing to be addressing “world urgent issues” or “the global challenges of our planet”, suggesting that the pooling together of people in dialogues across the globe will unleash a creative force arising from turning the costs incurred by industrialization and modernization into opportunities.

And yet what astonishes me in these (business) models is the invariably short time span they encompass, as if we have but a few moments to spare on building sustainably for the future. Solutions for our world remain, for the most part, instant remedies that come to mind through the kind of superficial dialoguing that is enabled by networking. It is as if the very mindset that made us pursue a narrow-minded path of development in the first place, oblivious to the implications of a greater context, is now expected to generate solutions (called creative) to these problems. Are we left gawking at the emperor’s new clothes?

2008_frog

History will tell us that it is easy to rally people with cries for freedom and revolution, picking to pieces the policies and institutions put in place by others who came before us. The real challenge, however, starts once we are the ones left to govern the land. We tend to forget that exercising the freedom we have been given entails a sense of responsibility that goes with knowing that somewhere down the line also we will be held accountable in the eyes of those who follow. Indeed, lest we forget, the eyes of history are already upon us, questioning our ambition.

Sustainable can be more than yet another umbrella concept allowing new interest groups to position themselves on the global arena where they may influence how problems are defined and label their solutions. Sustainability is not a commodity that can be produced through intellectual stimulation; it is the implication that comes from the diligent implementation of a long-standing vision that does justice both to man and nature. It can mean a return to the roots of what once was, finding one’s uniqueness in the interplay between man and nature where man is the caretaker and nature the provider.

Sustainable, pioneering commitment such as that which helped build our communities in the first place comes with a willingness to give up certain things in the present in order to sow the seeds that will allow the fruits of true transformation to be rooted in the future.

Is anyone willing to walk the talk?

Dec 21

by Josef Garvi

Recently, somebody asked me for advice on how to improve the productivity of run-down cocoa plantations on the Gold Coast. My contact displayed a lot of good intentions, laudable and politically correct in our times: fair trade, biological farming, enhanced agricultural output. His concern was how to make sustainable cultivation systems that would solve a global supply problem and benefit the Africans in the process. The group he represented was foreseeing a sharp rise in cocoa demand on the world markets in the coming years. Yet if production levels did not follow suit, this would set off a price hike, making chocolate delicacies less accessible to common people in the rich world. Whilst the systems for upscaling production were at hand, the main problem faced by this group was how to build the necessary motivation amongst the people in Ghana.

This motivational concern highlights a question that is so easily taken for granted: is such a business ultimately in the best interest of the Ghanaian people themselves? Or is it simply projecting the wishes of a «developed» world looking for the necessary input to sustain its high-consumption lifestyle?

Ghana in 1977

Cocoa, like most widely exploited crops in sub-Saharan Africa, is not originally native. In the early 20th century, large cocoa plantations were set up on the Gold Coast by the British as a means to cash in on their colony, and an export crop it has remained ever since. As with most Third World exports, its price on world markets has been unstable, and its cultivation for a long time unprofitable. When Ghanaians grow such crops, be it biologically and under fairer trade agreements, they are subject to the whims of the world economy and forced to import that other, life-sustaining commodity: food, which price is volatile as well. They are not trading from a surplus, but using their best lands that could otherwise provide for the fundamental needs of their people. Thus they are ensuring that richer people throughout the world can buy a luxury at a decent price - not that their own children and brothers eat well.

Ever since the Portuguese fathomed the immensity of the riches of the Congo, and the Arabs set up their trading cities along Africa’s East coast, the outside world’s view of Africa can be summed up in a single, enthralling word: resources. Be it human beings, precious minerals or agricultural output, focus has been on what those outside can obtain from her.

Today, the world’s approach towards Africa may be less brutal, but the fact that a politer tone is being used has not erased its fundamental aim. It is still about what the world can obtain from the continent, not about what is best for the Africans themselves. In the eyes of the world, Africa’s primordial duty remains to supply the outside world with resources, instead of ensuring that her own children may enjoy the benefits of their birthright.

As Henning Melber put it: «The plundering continues».

Jul 13

by Staffan Göranson

In Greek mythology, there was once a king named Midas. By Dionysos, god of fertility, wine and growth, he was offered the granting of a wish of his choosing. Greedy as he was, he cried out: Gold! Gold! Gold! And this was granted. Anything he touched became gold. He congratulated himself on all the riches within his touch. Everything around him - trees, bushes, palaces, servants - became gold. Never before had anyone had so much gold in their possession.

King Midas’ happiness was complete until he realized that he was hungry and thirsty. But as the cup touched his lips the wine turned into gold. When he put a grape into his mouth, his teeth cracked from biting into a grape of gold. Soon, the hunger and thirst became unbearable. His daughter reached out to help him get some food into his body. Foreseeing the danger, he tried pushing her away in order to save her. But also she was transformed into a golden statue. King Midas was distraught. He regretted his foolishness, begging Dionysos to make his wish undone.

In the last two centuries of industrialism, most of what we have touched has become gold. The generation of my parents bore in mind the poor, the oppressed - people in their immediate vicinity who had no social security when they fell ill or out of work. I was raised in a family business. My father’s greatest satisfaction was accomplishing good things together with his co-workers, where everyone contributed with their piece of a greater whole. In this way, the company grew into a larger organism. These are good memories that I carry with me still.

However, in the last 20-30 years, the flip side of industrialism has become all the more visible, as the drive for economies of scale leads to a mechanism of growth independent of the actual needs of people - a machinery driving man rather than the other way around.

In ancient times, there was another king who was offered a corresponding wish from his god; namely to wish for anything he liked and it would be granted to him. The king was Solomon and he was succeeding his father king David who had been a legend already in his own lifetime. Solomon wished for the ability to discern between good and evil so that he would be able to lead his people in a just way. Like king Midas, Solomon’s wish was granted. But unlike Midas, Solomon never had any reason to regret what he had wished for. He became the most powerful and the wealthiest man in his lifetime and his nation prospered in every possible way. And the legacy of his wisdom has outlived him.

There is an old truth that says that we will have what our hearts desire. My generation was born during the peak of industrialism, but we are now facing the need for a deeper assessment of its consequences. We are not doomed to follow the flow. We have the opportunity to think our own destiny through. Why not learn from history and start thinking about the kind of society that we really want to see? About what will give a good and meaningful life - for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.

May we be granted the wisdom that is needed to move in the right direction.

Jul 10

by Miriam Garvi

In When progress equals devolution, I wrote about how easily wisdom is lost in our pursuit of knowledge, as we discard the natural in favor of the artificially modified that will allow for production and consumption en masse.

Lately, there seems to be a common understanding that in order for our post-industrial knowledge society to become environmentally, economically as well as morally sustainable, we need to see some kind of change occur. How deep this change should go, however, is not clear: whilst some are talking about replastering the capitalistic system to make it more palatable, other voices are calling for a more profound and complete transformation of our way of living.

miriam-garvi-1978

Through the eyes of a child, what beauty would we be able to see?

As we start out, life is rewarding in its simplicity and beautiful in all that it promises. But the precious innocence and playfulness of the young child is lost as we are socialized into the imperatives of modern society. So many of those treasures that are so easily discerned through the eyes of a child, become impossible to see once viewed through the lenses of what is socially correct and normatively acceptable.

People working with strategic change know that achieving transformation includes allowing the taken-for-granted to be shaken at its core. Yet unless there is truly a renewed mindset, any such «unfreezing» technique will only serve to build new walls on the same foundation. And, like the leaning tower of Pisa, it will matter little what we do above ground, if we do not concern ourselves with the fundamentals underground that will hold it all together.

More than change, vision pioneering is about reclaiming that childlike eagerness where life is yet an open book waiting to be filled and where what we make of our lives truly matters. And with the playful why we can rediscover the freedom that is ours to envision what is beautiful, useful, and helpful to mankind.

Let us be young again!

Jun 29

by Miriam Garvi

In this age of technological advancement, so much that was once unheard of has come within our reach. Old barriers are broken as we venture into space or create clones of the living. The enormity of resources that are poured into making scientific progress and creating markets for technology is a testament to how strongly the world holds on to its belief in the power of knowledge.

This last decade is favoring growth-oriented strategies that rely on innovation, entrepreneurship and venture capital to generate such growth that will be valued on financial markets. Little is said, however, about what kind of ideas are brought about and whether we believe that they are actually doing good, not just promoting a strategic agenda. The questions that we do not raise are fundamental in their simplicity: what is the purpose, and whom is it all for?

Our belief in knowledge springs from the assumption that any added building block brings the world enlightenment. In our efforts to exploit and manipulate nature so as to satisfy the growth agendas of our times, the natural is no longer good enough. Instead, we welcome industrially-processed substitutes that are labeled «improvements». And so we put ourselves at the mercy of streamlining profiteers, buying frozen chicken that has been «neutrally marinated» in water and food conservatives simply because someone just realized that the artificial replacing the genuine was a profitable strategy. Less of the genuine; more of the artificial, even as more people around us suffer from cancer and we see our nature going down the drain.

Implications of knowledge, but what of wisdom?

Red mountains of Colorado

The source of wisdom?

What good is technological advancement, unless it allows for meaningful progress and prosperity for mankind? Can we claim to be enlightened, if we consume what is at our disposal, with no concern for the legacy that we will be leaving behind?

Devolution tells us that everything started from a high and has been slowly deteriorating ever since. In this light, the need is imminent to move away from a foundation that is flawed, looking to discover a different source, one that will give rise to meaningful richness in all its diversity.

Jun 8

by Miriam Garvi

Ten years ago, as I was busy interailing across Europe, interviewing Scandinavians abroad for my master’s thesis, I was fascinated by how the Internet was providing new opportunities for people to settle down and work from a location of their own choosing. In my business studies, I had seen little or no room for the individual, and I embraced the idea of «quality of life» as something that would acknowledge the diversity of people’s driving forces.

One common notion these days is that quality in life equals work-life balance, translating into expectations of success on all arenas including the professional, private/family, private/social and private/hobby spheres. And there are many consultants and life coaches out there offering their recipes for successful self-realization.

Juggling career and family, life for most really seems to be about give and take rather than balance. About choosing between the quality moment with the kids or the important meeting at work. About taking time for oneself, or investing in one’s closest relationships. Amidst all these internal and external expectations, we prioritize and we compromise.

Success has a funny way sometimes of leaving an unsettling aftertaste.

The driveway

There is little life quality in conforming to the funky mold of successful being, when its achievement comes at the price of what may actually matter most. Finding a purpose that makes it all worthwhile will reveal a pathway that, though much less traveled-by, brings a meaningful dimension to life as we know it.

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