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Give the gift of going offline

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We've all been there: At the dinner table with family, grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend, when, in an instant, your companion's attention is diverted to their device of choice. "How many times has it happened to you," asks Eric Yaverbaum, "when you're in a conversation with someone and suddenly you want to ask, 'How many of us are there here? Me, you, and who else?"

Yaverbaum and his business partner, Mark DiMassimo, are the founders of Offlining, a site devoted to getting people to unplug at least once in a while in favor of interacting with the world right in front of them. The duo uses clever ad campaigns and online pledges to encourage people to put devices and screens aside.

Are we hardwired for extinction?

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Are our brains -- specifically our physiological fear responses -- wired in ways that will lead to our extinction as a species? Natural Resources Defense Council columnist George Black explores this question, looking at the reasons why Americans aren't more alarmed about the climate change news. His column is titled "Humans with Antlers."

"Our evolutionary development," Black writes, "has not yet caught up with the change in our circumstances. More specifically, the problem is our brain’s fear triggers. Our instincts are still paleolithic; our fear reflexes respond to all the wrong things. They lie dormant in the face of climate change, no matter how ominously scientists predict its probable consequences. But we’re programmed to pump adrenalin at the sight of spiders, snakes, and other mortal threats slithering into our caves."

More about the 'holy fool'

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Iurodstvo is the Russian word for the idea of “holy foolishness” for Christ’s sake. It’s a form of asceticism that has been practiced within the Russian Orthodox church for centuries.

Its practitioners feign madness in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance. The aim too is to avoid praise and acclaim for perceived holiness. It’s a radical form of humility as well.

According to Russian Orthodox scholar Svetlana Kobets: “The holy fool’s exploit is that of secret sanctity, which above all promotes the non-ontological understanding that all of God’s created world is a sacred place. By his feigned madness the holy fool opts to say that the lowliest of the low can be not the poor wretch he appears to be, but a holy one and God’s prophet. He shares his power and authority with all the weak, mocked and despised thus symbolically destroying clear-cut distinctions between the profane and the sacred.”

In the Russian church it is regarded as the most difficult and controversial of all spiritual practices. Thirty-six holy fools have been canonized by the Orthodox church.

Storms of My Grandchildren, by James Hansen

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STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE COMING CLIMATE CATASTROPHE
AND OUR LAST CHANCE TO SAVE HUMANITY
By James Hansen
Published by Bloomsbury Books, $16

Several years ago I volunteered my Honda Civic Hybrid for a local EPA project that measured the exhaust gasses from its tailpipe. A team of technicians installed a measuring device in the trunk with a tube leading out to the exhaust pipe. I drove the car for a week with this gizmo in place as it qualified and quantified the emissions.

The statistic you most often hear from reputable sources is that, for the average car, every mile driven produces about a pound of carbon dioxide through engine combustion processes. I’ve got 79,000 miles on my car, so I’ve contributed that many pounds to the atmosphere – almost 400 tons -- in the last 7 years. Muliply me by millions and millions. The science -- at least at the tailpipe -- is pretty straightforward.

Nasruddin and his donkey: Tales of the holy fool

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The holy fool, or the fool as wise soul, is a figure in many wisdom traditions, including the Russian Orthodox spirituality tradition, the Sufis of Islam, Zen Buddhism, Christianity and the inheritors of the Hasidic movement of Judaism. Such fools amuse, confuse, sometimes speak in simile or circuitous riddles, are often ridiculed. They are trickster figures. They are, after all, intentionally ridiculous but can succeed by that very character in breaking through a crust of resistance or disbelief. Holy fools turn our spiritual traditions upside down and inside out -- just as Jesus' parables do -- so that we can more readily see the truth within them.

“There is an enigmatic quality to the fool’s cloak of madness or nonsense that provokes attention, response, reflection, as well as laughter. The fool's inherent humility, too, may loosen the defensive, ego-inflated character of those who make too much of themselves and thus lose touch with a deeper reality,” writes John Boettinger.

The great holy fool from the Sufis is Mullah Nasruddin. Here are some of the tales told about him:

Opt out of animal cruelty in factory farms -- Go vegan!

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I doubt if any of you readers are inherently cruel or approve of cruelty. I’m sure you would intervene if you saw someone being cruel to another person or to an animal. And if you did nothing out of cowardice, indifference, or selfishness—and you easily could have—I’m sure you would consider this wrong, a sin of omission. What if I were to tell you that you have just such a choice right now?

As I write this, billions of animals on U.S. factory farms are suffering physical and mental pain. Considered mere commodities and “things” to satisfy the palate of meat-loving Americans, they receive no humane treatment (no matter how much smooth-talking PR agents of the industry deny this). Never mind that they too are created in the image and likeness of God, that they feel pain just as much as we do, or that they suffer mental anguish over separation from their offspring or never being able to romp freely.

Tasty and Earth-friendly eating

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Being a vegetarian or a vegan is no longer a “fringe” concept, but fast becoming mainstream. As people learn more about it and how it can help the planet, it is becoming more common. However, I find it is still difficult to get even the most avid environmentalists to switch to this kind of diet. They can learn that it is the single most effective eco-action they can take, and yet not be willing to do it.

White House announces $53 billion, 6-year plan for nationwide light rail

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The White House has announced a "comprehensive plan" that dedicates $53 billion over the next six years to achieving the president's newly-minted goal of providing 80 percent of America with access to high speed rail within a generation. Details and an outline of the plan, announced by Vice President Biden, are available on the Treehugger blog.

Nine ecological virtues (continued)

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Biodiversity: No one has the whole answer – not even the entire human race. We need each other, with our diverse and even conflicting, points of view. And we need the other life on the planet – her plants, animals, seas and mountains. Rachel Carson, who began the environmental movement 60 years ago by penning a protest against widespread, indiscriminate use of DDT, called her book Silent Spring. That two-word title offered a vision of the world with greatly diminished biodiversity – and it scared the daylights out of us.

Since the universe and the Earth itself are living webs of relationship, it follows that a respect for diversity and an attentive listening to others’ point of view is the only way we will find our way out of the mess we’re in, as our human-centered worldview gives way to one that recognizes we are a strand in a complex living weave.

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July 18-31, 2014

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