Friday, March 20, 2020

Love explosion

My grandmother once told me that she saw Adolf Hitler giving a speech in a big stadium. Sometime in the 1930's, a few years before the war. She had been totally fascinated by him, how he had managed to unite the huge crowd and made everyone cheer. She said she just couldn't have imagined that it all might go horribly wrong. And then it did.

My mother has always lived in a healthy way. Good food, exercise, very few drugs and lots of compassion. Life hasn't always been easy and she hasn't done everything perfectly right, but things seemed to be going well. She never imagined that something could go seriously wrong. And then, two months ago, she was diagnosed with a severe cancer.

In January of this year, around the time my mother heard the bad diagnosis, I read about a virus spreading in China. It seemed far away and I felt it had nothing to do with me. In February I went with my girlfriend to Madrid when the first case of the new coronavirus was detected in the Spanish capital. Still, it seemed pretty irrelevant to my life. I didn't think that it could affect me. A few weeks later, Madrid and the rest of Europe are in lockdown, my Mom is in the high risk group and the world has turned upside down.

Can it get any worse? Oh yes! Just like with the Covid19 situation, the climate crisis is seen by many as unnecessary panic-making too. It's far away, climate activists are called hysterical alarmists and many think it won't really cause them any problems. But just as the virus is growing exponentially right now, the climate problems are growing exponentially as well. And their possible consequences are far worse than what we are experiencing at present with Covid19. That's right, far worse!

I think the real crisis we are facing is a crisis of imagination. It's really difficult to understand exponential growth, what it means when suddenly everything accelerates and spins out of control. Perhaps this current virus crisis can provide some learning. If not, here's a great video by Chris Martenson explaining it: Compounding is the problem 

But the crisis of imagination isn't only about our failure of reading early alarm signs and acting accordingly in order to prevent an apocalypse. There's also a lack of being able to imagine something better. How can we create a healthier world if we don't have any vision of a bright future?

Watching TV and Netflix, warming up precooked food and consuming the art of others are all pleasant pastimes, but none of them really help to develop our imagination. They make us ever more passive and don't lead to creative action. So how can we train our imagination? The answer is simple: by using it.

Read a book. Cook a meal. Paint a picture. Play a song. Invent a game. Write a story. Sit in silence.

All of these things allow your mind to expand, instead of keeping it imprisoned. Opening up to new possibilities, instead of holding on to something that is old and broken and won't last anyway. You don't even need to leave the house to do all this, so maybe right now is a good time to start.

And yes, it's a difficult situation. When you're locked up at home, unable to hug or even see your loved ones, watching the collapse of the economy and feeling the threat of uncertainty, what hope is there? Even worse, you see that we continue talking about money the whole time, and as we're sitting in safe houses with enough food and good internet, we let 20,000 refugees rot on a Greek island. No, not because of Covid19 – we've been already doing this all those years when everything seemed fine. We deserve this crisis. We actually deserve much worse.

In the end, the only hope that is left is the very thing that got us into this mess: exponential growth. Racism, cancer, the virus; greed, selfishness and stupidity – they all exploded. But perhaps love can explode too. Perhaps wisdom and solidarity can also grow exponentially. A utopian dream, but a dream nevertheless.

If not now, when?
If not us, who?

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The relationship between frog eggs and happiness

My 17 year-old daughter showed me her maths homework the other day. It was an A4 sheet with lots of derivations. When I was her age, I did my A-levels in maths and understood all this quite well. Now I look at it and I might as well try and read a Chinese shopping list.

My daughter spends vast amounts of time learning these strange calculations, just as I have done many years ago. Here's the sad thing about it: Seeing her efforts on paper, I told her that I have never ever used any of it since I left school. Not once in 25 years! If I had become an engineer or astrophysicist, it would have been different of course, but how many end up becoming engineers and astrophysicists? In other words: A class of 20 students has to suffer, only because one or two of them might need that stuff for their future careers. Maybe we'd be better off learning things that are actually useful to us, because isn't school supposed to prepare us for life?

Over Christmas I went with my girlfriend to the mountains. When we checked in to our little apartment, the woman of the local holiday flat agency showed us around before asking us to pay. 180 Euros. They had kindly organized some firewood for the chimney, so that was another 7 Euros. She took her phone, opened the calculator app and typed in 180+7. I glanced at my girlfriend, wondering whether it was a joke. “187 please”, the woman said. As we had forgotten the money in the car, the three of us went back to the place where we had left it. We got the money out and were about to pay, when she said that they could also rent us a parking place in a garage. Another 15 Euros. “Fine”, we said and gave her 202 Euros. She started to panic and searched for her phone. Only after checking with her calculator, we were free to go.

Maybe it would be an idea that all students learn to properly calculate 180+7 before they fill their brains with derivations. You know, stuff that everyone needs in life.

Maybe another idea would be to reduce the time spent studying the anatomy of tiny frog eggs and instead start teaching young people about happiness. Because I don't know about you, but to me it seems that the one thing every single person tries to find in life is happiness. Interestingly, at school nobody learns how to do that. Is it surprising then that only few people lead truly happy lives?

Kids study derivations = adults can't count.
Kids study frog eggs = adults are depressed.

In summary: Life is pretty simple. We are the ones who make it complicated.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Learning to dance again

Earlier this month we hosted a 20's Swing party to welcome and celebrate the new decade. Everyone came dressed up in suits and feathers, there were old newspaper articles on the wall and uplifting swing tunes made everybody move. Fun times!

In preparation of the party I had watched some videos of people dancing the Lindy Hop and the Charleston. People from 100 years ago and the people of today. And what struck me most was that they all looked so incredibly happy!

Change of subject (but don't worry, we'll get back to the dancing). One year ago, I wrote a blog post about how evil Amazon is and how I wanted to change my shopping habits. Back then, I promised to reflect on this process one year later, so...

I failed. Not completely and utterly, but there's no point in denying that I bought far too much stuff on Amazon in 2019. Some purchases I can kind of justify (music – so far, I haven't found a good alternative for buying MP3s), others are simply wrong (books!). I used Amazon less often than in 2018, but I haven't reduced it anywhere near as much as I would have liked to. Hence, I still contributed far too much money to a world I don't agree with. My actions have helped to close more independent shops and give more power to an already scary giant. Why didn't I do more?

The main reason is comfort. Yes, it's ridiculously comfortable to shop on Amazon. The same is true for other things – flying is less of a hassle than organizing a long train ride; ready-made-meals are less time-consuming than a home-cooked diet that is healthy for us and our planet. Maybe comfort is what's going to kill us in the end?

I could easily get depressed over my lacking action. I could give up and surrender to the darkness unfolding in front of us – a world with chaotic weather, no fish and artificial trees, and no shops except Amazon. Depressing indeed! What can I do to stop myself from entering this futuristic void?

The answer is 'something'. Ideally, we'd change all of our bad habits right now, but for some strange reason, that's not happening. However, there is a lot of space between 'perfect change' and 'no change'. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

There's this phrase I've heard my Dad say many times, almost like a mantra: “You will never fail as long as you keep trying.” Falling and getting up again. That goes for learning to walk as much as for learning to change bad habits. One step at a time, on and on.

So, I guess my Amazon lesson continues. And in case you’re facing a similar challenge, here's some more inspiration from Kurt Vonnegut:

I tell my wife I'm going out to buy an envelope. “Oh,” she says, “you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet?” And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And see some great looking babes. And a fire-engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And I'll ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is: We're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, computers will do us out of that. And what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And it's like we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.
(Kurt Vonnegut – 'A Man Without a Country')

Monday, December 16, 2019

See the beauty

Have you noticed that most climate change deniers are from the right political spectrum? And how is it that musicians, writers and filmmakers, are usually from the left? I have no idea about the artist’s conundrum, but I've found a good explanation for the first observation.

It isn't a coincidence that scepticism about climate change tends to be the preserve of the nationalist right. You rarely see left-wing socialists tweet that climate change is a Chinese hoax. When there is no national answer, but only a global answer to the problem of global warming, some nationalist politicians prefer to believe the problem doesn't exist. (Yuval Noah Harari)

I'm not really a patriotic person myself, never have been, don't know why. I don't mind if others are – as long as a little bit of patriotism doesn't turn into full blown nationalism, with made-up countries becoming more important than everybody's planet.

I also find it quite annoying and sad when people become so obsessed with their national identity they end up insulting everyone who threatens their view of the world. Everything should stay as it is: borders, religion, language, food and cheap flights. Ironically, those who stand behind conservative values are the ones who keep attacking a sixteen-year old girl from Sweden because she's fighting for the conservation of the Earth.

Greta Thunberg is one day younger than my own daughter. When I read some of the comments about her, the jokes about her illness, the mockery about her angry face, the hateful rants – honestly, I'm lost for words. A teenager who cares for the world and all living beings, who understands that we're destroying our home – I mean, how fucked-up must you be to ridicule her? Manipulated by the Elite? We are all manipulated by the Elite, every day! What matters is that there's someone who loves life enough to defend it.

I was recently at the COP25, the climate summit in Madrid. There were over 500,000 people marching during the main demonstration – many of them were there because, only one year ago, Greta decided to do something about the climate emergency. One fifteen-year-old girl with a sign. If you can't see the beauty and the power in this story, and the hope within, then try harder. Because it's all there.

I walked amongst friends and those 500,000 people, and one day later we joined Extinction Rebellion who had blocked the Gran Vía, one of the main shopping streets in Madrid, in an act of disco disobedience. Combining climate action with a celebration of life.

I always promote and work on personal change – keeping money in an ethical bank, buying more local and organic products, less meat, less flights, etc. And while this is super important, political activism is needed too. If we don't demand change, hardly anything will happen. Hence, it's vital that more and more people join the different movements campaigning for climate justice. If not now – when? If not you – who?

The recent experience in Madrid has also shown me how much fun activism can be, how it connects you to others, making you feel less alone in all this mess we've created. Being surrounded by people who believe in solutions, who complain less and act more, has a deeply healing effect. To me, it felt like a big injection of hope!

Here's a video of our trip, including the demonstration and disco disobedience:

Monday, November 11, 2019

Blessed be the climate crisis

Do you ever get tired of the human drama? I do. All the conflicts over resources, over money, borders and power. A never-ending soap opera, sadistic and silly, loud and utterly unnecessary. It can be frustrating and depressing to watch, sometimes it makes me angry, other times sad and only very rarely it makes me laugh. Probably the only thing I should do more of. Laughing. A comedy, disguised as tragedy.

Here we are, floating in space on a beautiful planet. We have enough land to feed everyone, enough shelter to protect everyone, and enough talent to entertain everyone. But do we have enough love to care for everyone?

According to historians, we live in the most peaceful times ever. While this may be true, it's kind of irrelevant. Just because we went from 'extremely violent' to 'very violent', does that justify the status quo? No. it doesn't. The global ecosystem is sick. People, plants and the planet are suffering, from illness and madness. And it seems to be getting worse.

Wherever you look, people are divided. It's left against right, rich against poor, white against black. Like in sports, an endless competition. Barcelona vs Madrid, Tories vs Labour, Christianity vs Islam, Europe vs Africa. We're all different, yes, and some want to compete, fine. That's why there's football. Watch a game, raise your flag and enjoy the fight, great! But if children are starving, it's not a game anymore. If people don't feel safe because of their skin colour, their god or their passport, it's not a competition anymore. It's an attack on humanity!

So let's play God for a moment. You look down on your creation and see the messy state of the world, bursting with selfishness, ignorance and destruction. What would you do? Perhaps something which forces all humans to come together. They won't do it voluntarily, so there needs to be certain pressure to get them into action. A threat. An emergency. Something to shake them up.

Something like crazy weather for example. Caused by their own reckless consumption. The whole climate out of control, with floods and droughts, hurricanes and heat waves, rising sea levels and hundreds of millions of migrants. It will be all or nothing – genocide and extinction, or peace and love.

Maybe it's our only chance to become truly human. One species, friendly, kind and generous, celebrating the gift we were given. Cooperation instead of competition, helping hands and no division, a utopian paradise.

I'm tired of dreaming. If it's really our only chance, then blessed be the climate crisis.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

An old friend

Netflix, Youtube, Instagram – never before has there been so much competition for books. Not surprisingly, the number of readers is constantly falling. 6 million less since 2012, just in Germany! So to be in the book business in the year 2019, you have to be either very courageous or very stupid.

Courage is knowing it might hurt, but doing it anyway.
Stupidity is the same.
And that's why life is hard.
(Jeremy Goldberg)

In 2005, I decided to write a book. For no other reason but wanting to write a book. Why not? I finished it, and it was pretty crap. The following year I wrote another one, didn't finish it. Then, in 2007, I wrote another one. I liked it and decided to publish it, despite being called a stupid time-waster. I don't know if it was a courageous act, but at least to me, it didn't seem stupid. I just did it anyway, why not?

Today, this book (including its three sequels) has sold over 200,000 copies and has been published in six countries. The book is called THE LITTLE BUDDHA. Not about the Buddha, nor about Buddhism, it tells stories about life, viewed through the eyes of a young traveller. In Germany and Austria, it's been a bestseller for the last six years, there are editions in India and Korea, and Russia is knocking on the door too. Furthermore, the first two parts were just released in the UK by Ammonite press, with amazing new illustrations by Kate Chesterton.

Looking at the current success, two things are easily overlooked. 1) I didn't just jump from 'stupid-guy-trying-to-write-a-book' to 'global-bestselling-author'. It was a difficult journey. And it still is. 2) Just because I wrote a bestseller, doesn't mean I can relax and drink champagne all day. With each new book, I still have to work hard and hope to find a merciful publisher. And not only that. If you buy one of my books for ten Euros, I get about fifty cents on average. Industry standard. I feel very privileged and grateful that I can make a living as a writer, but if you think I'm rich, well, do your own maths.

'Money is not everything' – a ridiculously simplified and totally overused phrase! And yet, there's a lot of truth in it. But this truth is so simple that we often fail to give it its deserved attention. Like many of those simple truths. Living in the moment, accepting change, sharing love.

One of my favourite reviews of The Little Buddha came from a good friend of mine. His summary: “It's basically spirituality for dummies.” It was a very honest and authentic comment, and it is true. The only question is, who isn't a dummy? Because really, we are all dumb sometimes. Thinking stupid things, doing stupid things and making the same stupid mistakes again and again. We often assume we know all life wisdom, but we don't. Or least we don't apply it.

Over the years, I received lots of messages from readers. Many told me that the books helped them during hard times; depressions were lifted, families healed and souls inspired. Some found new meaning in life, others were happy to find old answers. All of these messages mean a lot to me, because they are proof that the payment for my work doesn't only consist of money. Apart from hard cash, I'm also being paid with gratitude, love and the priceless feeling of making a difference.

The Little Buddha has become a really good friend. Every two years or so, I sit down with him, decide on a trip and set off. We travel to mountains and deserts, past rivers and through woods; we meet people on our way, beautiful ones and strange ones, like the generous chef, the blind witch or the crazy clairvoyant. We ask questions and sometimes we find answers. The first journey was all about FINDING HAPPINESS, then we were LOOKING FOR LOVE and learned about EMBRACING CHANGE. This year we were EXPLORING TIME, and the next trip will take us to...we'll see.

The first part of The Little Buddha is dedicated to friendship. I wrote it for my friends, not knowing at the time that the act of writing would create a new friend. A very special friend who keeps reminding me of the little life treasures that I keep forgetting. Someone who shows me with kind and simple words how vast my stupidity is, each time I don't learn my lesson, or each time I treat the beautiful gift of existence like an annoying ordeal. Life ain't that difficult. We make it difficult.

Long story short: Thank you, dear old friend aka THE LITTLE BUDDHA.

Facebook @ thelittlebuddha
Instagram @ the.little.buddha

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Between hopelessness and hope

A few million activists demonstrated for more climate action last week; the vast majority of scientists agree that, while the climate is changing naturally, human action accelerates this change, making it much more difficult, perhaps even impossible for us to adapt to the new living conditions. And no, the Earth doesn't care about a few degrees more or less – it's all about us (and thousands of other species, but hey, let's ignore these for now, otherwise it will get too depressing).

Facts are clear, consciousness is rising. But there are still far too many who think this is all exaggerated, or that it's some kind of master plan of the evil elite. The climate is fine, we are fine, let's just keep going and burn everything to the ground. Worst of all, our governments seem to think in similar ways. How else can you explain their complete failure of adequate action? In England they are busy with Brexit, in Spain they'll soon have the fourth general election in four years, and in Germany the coalition government just announced a new climate deal which is, quite frankly, a joke.

So what to do? Surrendering? Trying to be happy as long as possible, choosing some nice drugs and closing the eyes? It's definitely a possibility. But as a friend pointed out recently, if you give up on hope, what's the point in living?

But if we don't want to surrender, then what? Is it enough to change the plastic bag for a cotton one? To like a few posts on Facebook and get angry about the status quo? Surely not. As George Monbiot said in a short but very appropriate statement, we have to “stop pissing around at the margins of the problem”.

At this point, everyone who doesn't want to change usually blames China and India. "If they don't do anything, why should I bother?" This is one of the most ridiculous arguments ever! I think it's fairly obvious that the 'West' was the first to benefit greatly from resource exploitation and the consumerist growth madness which has become the new religion. If we were the ones who set the bad example, we should be the ones who now set a good example.

Who knows, we might be screwed already, but if you are not ready to give up hope just yet, here are three things which are said to really make a difference:

  1. Meat and dairy – changing to a plant based diet is a big one. Not only in terms of slowing down climate change and stopping unnecessary torture and killing, but also in terms of effort. It's hard to change your diet. Like smoking, it's a habit. No more burgers? No more cheese, juicy chicken and coffee with real milk? I'm not pointing the finger here, I still consume all of these things myself. But it's just not good enough to not do anything. So if you can't jump into the crystal clear but very cold water of veganism, why not starting with a few small steps? If everybody reduced their meat and dairy intake, the joint effort would result in a huge reduction. Not enough, but much better than nothing. If you eat meat every day, try a few meat-free days each week; if you eat meat three times each week, change to once a week. Try different milk (oat, almond, rice), buy less cheese and learn to make good humus. And don't try to be perfect, just better.

  2. Flights – there are about 200,000 flights in the world, each day! That's pure poison for the atmosphere, period. Do we really need to fly across the continent for a weekend trip? Do we need to have monthly business meetings in London or New York, when video conferences work brilliantly? Do we need to celebrate weddings in Bali?
    Admittedly, sometimes it's not easy to avoid flying in a hyper-connected world full of possibilities. If my daughter wants to travel the world one day, would I tell her she shouldn't do that? If you live in Europe and have family in Australia, should you go by boat each time you want to see your loved ones? What if you only have one week off work and don't have time to travel by train? Or the occasional business meeting which is really necessary, what to do?
    As with meat and dairy, the focus should be on reducing as much as possible. It's better to fly less, than not changing at all. And for those times when it can't be avoided, offsetting your CO2 output is also better than not doing anything. If you don't know about it, check out sites like ATMOSFAIR where you can compensate for your air pollution by paying a bit extra and thus contributing to reforestation and other ecological projects. Basically, you pay trees to clean up your mess.

  3. Activism – every single action is important, but without political change on a big scale, we won't save us. We're probably simply too selfish and too stupid to do it all voluntarily as individuals. And in order for big political change to happen, politicians need to be put under pressure. They have to be guided by the people. A critical mass has to be reached, enough people who say we need a drastic change of direction if we don't want to crash into the wall. One has to start, many have to join – Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for future movement is a great example. Extinction rebellion is another, and there are many more. As one banner on last week's demonstration read: 'The oceans are rising, so are we!'

And no, it's not all about the climate. It's about nature, our home. Most actions which slow down climate change also reduce the destruction and pollution of this planet. In other words, even if you don't believe in human-induced climate change – do you really want to live in a shithole?

I don't.