Trading the Eagle for a $ Sign

When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.

But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.

Monetizing the environment

Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.” 

Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.

Declaring war against ourselves

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.

Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course?  Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.

What is an eagle worth?

The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem?  Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money?  More environmentally sustainable alternatives.

As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation?  How does our eagle compare with a new resort?

There will be a reckoning

Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.

Stacks displaying LBJ’s presidential papers occupy one vast wall of the LBJ Presidential Library.
Photo: New York Times

Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.

The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.

Trying a New Approach to Collaboration, Large and Small

When I think of horrific meeting experiences, my mind rewinds to a hands-on seminar I led years ago for Apple. The objective was to introduce teachers to Apple’s desktop. It was a group presentation with auditorium-style seating and keyboards for participants to use in conjunction with the talk. About 10 minutes into my sch-peel, a tiny grandmotherly-looking woman stood up and said to the group: “We’re not idiots. Why do we have to listen to this person, let’s just do this!”  And away they went, clicking happily along in utter chaos. That was point my boss walked in. Needless to say it was an interesting debrief.

meeting
The 20th century approach to informing, educating and convincing a group of people. 

I thought about that woman this week during a Liberating Structures workshop led by Keith McCandless (who wrote the book) and Anna Jackson who spearheads an LS meetup group here in Austin. Is there a better way to inform, collaborate, teach and motivate a group of people?  I’m a newbie but I’d say the tools they introduced me to are the best I’ve seen so far. I can see how they could work in all kinds of organizations. The idea is to tweak the feng shui of group interactions – topic, space, pacing, participation – and deploy a set of tools that better focus and distribute the conversation among the people who matter.

liberated meeting
Are there more possibilities here? Bigger group, more leaders. See the 1-2-4-All tool.  

You can read more on the Liberating Structures website. It lists all the tools and gives you a menu of when/how to apply them.

Since I haven’t applied it yet, the results are theoretical. But hey, if it works for The World Bank and The Gates Foundation, I’m all in. I’m intrigued about seeing how the tools would work cross-culturally, in situations where some of the participants are remote (there’s a technology conversation) and when selling one’s ideas to executives.

More to come.  I only wish I, like Merlin, could live backwards: Just think how I could have helped and gained from that woman who was so frustrated and anxious to learn so long ago.  I hope she’s running a company somewhere.

 

 

Don’t Let Fear Be Your Excuse

I had lunch recently with my friends Jane and Larry Graham. Their granddaughter Caroline Richards died in January from osteocarcenoma, a rare form of bone cancer.  She was 12 years old. Caroline was a sunny day kind of child: She favored dancing over walking and singing over whispering.  She had over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She embraced her disease by giving people presents, making them laugh, and celebrating her favorite pop band One Direction. Caroline refused to forfeit her time to fear, self-pity or regret.

Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.
Caroline Richards faced a rare form of cancer by refusing to let fear and pain rob her of joy.

I’ve thought of Caroline many times since the Saturday afternoon I squeezed into her funeral, a standing-room only affair packed with people of all ages and walks of life, many of whom had big bows in their hair like the kind Caroline wore – when she had hair. There was dancing in the aisles and a great deal of singing to honor Caroline’s philosophy: If life throws you a bum rap, put a bow on it and throw a party.

Easier said than done, we say. Some of us are tragedians; we tend to look at the quieter, sad aspect of life. But the lesson Caroline leaves us is to not be undone by mere predisposition. No indeed. Do not let fear be the excuse.

Most of us are blessed. We don’t face major life-and-death situations.  But fear is an insidious life-stealer.  Ever since I can remember I’ve suffered from paralyzing stage fright. I have a vivid memory of standing in front of my eighth grade speech class and leaning on a chair because my knees were shaking so hard. Stints in community theater and Toastmasters have alleviated it, but I’m still terrified when I face an audience. My task is to prepare, open my mouth and say my piece. Telephone calls have always had the same effect on me, an odd twist for someone in my profession.

Caroline's Brave Bunny Foundation awards a children who show exceptional courage with this bunny.
Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation recognizes children who show courage.

Caroline’s mother, Lauren, gets it. Caroline didn’t live to do what she’d wanted to do, help raise money as an ambassador for research to help save other children from the cancer that caused her so much suffering.  So her mom has taken the bull by the horns in Caroline’s honor. Lauren is starting the Caroline’s Brave Bunny Foundation that, among other things, awards a (stuffed) bunny to children who show their own particular brand of courage.

The award — a bunny with “Brave” embroidered on one ear and the child’s name on the other — recognizes courage, not winning. The victory lies in moving through the fear, be it finishing school, or mastering a particular skill. Whatever it may be. Fear is a very personal crippler.

So remember Caroline and the Brave Bunny next time you pick up the phone to make that cold call. Or take a job you don’t think you can do. Scale your guts, and think about the time you have on this planet. Let’s not let fear be our excuse.