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Practicing 'Green Compassion': How Do You Stack Up?

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When I wrote my book, The Compassionate Life, I never suspected the words I'd put on the page would get so deep under my skin. But hanging out with the folks who do the heart's heavy lifting -- homeless shelter workers, kidney donors, people who forgave their mortal enemies -- had subtly changed me. Now I needed to get out from behind my desk, off the cushion, and actually do something for the world. But what?

Cue the voice-over: "be careful what you wish for." One day, visiting a friend's house in Malibu, I met an old man who had spent a lifetime planting trees. As we talked through the afternoon, the blue Pacific murmuring rumors of the world's vastness and nearness, he explained how trees were the ecological equivalent of one-stop shopping: they could restore degraded soil, increase crops, feed livestock, provide building materials and firewood, restore biodiversity, sustain villages, and bring dormant springs back to life -- all the while sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

I had an epiphany: green compassion! My friend in Malibu gave me the umbrella of his nonprofit foundation to start what I decided to call the Green World Campaign . I decided I'd work pretty much for free, with my kitchen table as world headquarters. One morning, Skyping our new partners in Ethiopia while a friend worked online with a volunteer Web designer in Japan, I paused in amazement at the 21st century power to change the world with mouse-clicks.

Soon, more willing hands appeared: a climate change lawyer in London, a former World Bank country director, a geo-spatial expert in Berkeley, a corporate techie from New York. When my personal savings were depleted and I began to doubt my sanity, a Hollywood director astonished me by writing a check to support me for nearly a year. "I like the idea of planting trees," he told me, "but right now, I'd like to water the tree-planter."

Someone offered to donate a ticket to Ethiopia so I could inspect a program we wanted to support -- calliandra and gravillia trees that not only anchored the soil, but produced blossoms for bees to forage, increasing yields in village honey cooperatives. It was a model that fit our philosophy: find holistic, synergistic projects that could help both people and planet. One night I found myself the only foreign face among ten thousand Muslim pilgrims at a back-country religious festival in the Gurage Zone. Families set up campsites bounded by sheets, chanting and clapping through the night, their silhouettes backlit by smoky orange fires. I felt enfolded, no longer a stranger in a strange land but a global citizen -- permanent home address: Earth.

Later, I visited a remote settlement where the main water pump had been broken for over a year. The stagnant well was infested with parasites. The young people were forced to trek for miles each morning to get fresh water, reserving a few gallons to keep a few scraggly tree seedlings alive. For under $1,000, I was told, they could get their pump fixed. "Done", I said. "Kadam!" they yelled: "Wonderful!" I reveled in the joy on the kids' faces, amazed that scratching a few symbols on an oblong piece of paper could renew a village.

A Mexican organization that was working to restore the forestlands of an indigenous Tlahuica community asked if they could become Green World Mexico. A group of women treeplanters emailed me from Uganda.

Now, I'm not green newbie. I once wrote a global enviro- broadcast for Ted Turner, was an editor at some green-leaning national magazines. But it felt like I'd taken a step beyond denouncing the polluters and despoilers, or waiting for politicians and corporations to have a sudden change of heart and mind. I was finally doing my bit to heal the Earth, tree by tree. I began to imagine the Green World Campaign as a kind of global class project to crayon those barren brown spots on the homeroom map green again.

It was exhilarating, but also heartbreaking. I discovered that philanthropy is also a competitive scrum over scarce donor dollars. A renegade from our round-table who taught me the truth of the Arabic adage: "Love all men, but tie up your camel." In Ethiopia's Rift Valley, a mosquito donated the malarial parasite that nearly killed me, reminding me how things of no consequence can thwart our loftiest purposes. I've now spent four stubborn years at my unexpected posting in the Forest Legion, and it's blown my life wide open. And though I wouldn't exactly say, "Try this at home," I offer, for what they're worth, a few apercus for the intrepid giver:

Expect synchronicity: The Bible lauds the mustard seed of faith. It's said in Hinduism that "the means gather around sattva." New-agers tout "the power of intention," businesspeople describe those unexpected good breaks you get when you just jump into the fray and put "skin in the game." Tibetan Buddhists talk about tendrel (a term that means both serendipity and the interdependence of everything.) More times than I can tell, I've gotten an eerie sense of invisible orchestration, of behind-the-scenes cosmic string-pulling, of something that actively rooting for the planet's home team. I've also learned that when doors magically fly open, you'd best walk in with your pragmatic hat jammed firmly on your head, practical feet encased in sturdy shoes, and sleeves rolled up for the grind of making (and keeping) it real.

You don't need money (then again, you really, really do ... ) Time, energy, vision, and heedless love will go an astonishingly long way. At the same time, funding counts. Yes, capital can be an ensorcelling web of symbols mistaken for reality, hypnotizing the world into walking off a cliff, keeping people from doing the needful thing unless it's "monetized." On most quarterly balance sheets, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are omitted from the bottom line, and the value of Nature's services is discounted to near zero. (Put on a real green eyeshade and nearly every business on earth is revealed to be running in the red.) Still, you've got to respect -- no, embrace -- the dance-partner of illusion: money may be on one level an abstraction, but you suffer when it tromps on your instep, and feel the joy of efficacy when you get to whirl it across the floor to serve your mission.

Don't get grandiose (and don't play small): Self-annointedness is an occupational hazard for would-be world-savers. It's easy to succumb to the Atlas syndrome (don't shrug!). On the other hand, what's at stake these days really is the fate of the Earth and of the generations yet to come. It's time more of us followed the words of the poet Goethe: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it now." Our problem is less a shortage of resources than a shortchanging of our imagination. Compassion is, at bottom, just the ability to see the connection between everyone and everything, everywhere -- and to be willing to act on it.

Go with what you've got (and ask for what you don't) Trust that solutions are self-emergent, that the right people will form the circle, and that to ask, "What does the universe want?" is not a crazy question. Sketch a few back-of-the-napkin diagrams of your networks of networks (and notice how the degrees of separation dwindle to nil). Know you're a neuron in a new global brain, a muscle cell in the pumping heart of the Earth. Suss out your role in the planetary body, keep signaling your fellow organelles, and you might find the resources you need among friends and neighbors, or no more than a few clicks away.

Start with a seed: How does a tiny dot of seemingly inert matter buried in dirt bring forth such beauty and utility? A seed is less a physical object than it is the germ of an idea. It's the information it contains that mobilizes elements in the soil to raise up magnificent living structures. There's something within each of us, within every situation, that already knows how to grow. A little light and nourishment can potentiate some truly magical creative forces. If you start small and dream big, it's not unrealistic to expect something marvelous to come up.

These days, each sapling the Green World Campaign plants feels like a resurrection of hope, an emissary to future generations that says: We never forgot about you. We're trying to scale up our efforts, convinced we can help plant hundreds of millions of trees, restore the economy and ecology of some of the world's poorest places, take a bite out of climate change. I've been contacted by a prince of Kenya's Wanga tribe who is leading efforts to re-green their homeland. We've begun to assist a community of tree-growing farmers in a conflict zone in the Philippines.

Years ago, at the outset of the journey, I made up a slogan, a mantra of sorts: It's amazing what one seed can grow. Sown in the ground, planted in the heart, each day it seems to grow a little more true.

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