A Life of Sustainable Business in Solar Energy

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27-rattman-memorialDeath is the final mystery. This is especially true when the one passed on has reached back and grabbed hold of the living, as is the case today. A correspondent of mine sent me an announcement about a new award for people who use solar power technology in socially progressive ways.

Though the requirements for the prize quite possibly suggest a marketing ploy, the fellow whose memory the award celebrates reveals a story among the most bizarre and compelling that I've encountered. Since a primary reason that I'm a writer is that people regularly bring me implausible, seemingly impossible, yarns that turn out to be true, my statement about Walt Ratterman's life ought to carry some weight.

In any event, I've been unable to tell myself, "Now, Jim, just let it go; he's gone, and it's just too filled with weird and unanswered questions and highly dubious components." I mean, I've told myself those things, but it hasn't worked. His life as a proponent of solar electricity for cousins in the direst straits, generally speaking at some border between conflagration and penury, kept insisting: "Write something, even if it's tentative and partial."

Critical distance unfortunately plays a role here; I say 'unfortunately' because I'm no expert on the idea, but, especially in regard to the work of an 'intellectual' or 'thinker,' and ultra-especially in relation to technical matters like renewable energy and economics--'sustainable business,' for instance, the notion is important.

Basically, it makes requisite that thinking about an intellectual product, say a laudatory or critical obituary of a person's life, means being responsible about the political meaning or social impact of the thought-product. And that responsibility is difficult, perhaps impossible, when one is either too far removed or too close to a topic. A person's life and death, precious and sacred, is also a subject for review--we all are, from this perspective.

In regard to the phrasing that several chroniclers of Walt Ratterman's life have used, "Sir Ratterman" is both too close and too far for me to grasp in a way that is responsible. Yet, as I indicated above, the story has its hooks in me deeply enough that I'm giving things a try here, offering another thematic notion for readers to consider as I do so.

Ultimate motivations almost always come up in my thinking about the characters in the stories that I tell. I reject out of hand the idea that objectivity is obtainable; on the contrary, the notion is absurd as a category of human experience, despite its seductive and frequent utility. Honesty, on the other hand, and fairness, and empirical estimation, are all essential pieces of assembling a narrative puzzle.

waltrattermanfacebookjpg-27And parsing motivation powerfully elevates the capacity to deploy these important investigative aspects of the work that I do. In the case of Sir Ratterman, I am at sea in a small, open boat.

Here is a fellow who connects with a pair of other merry Catholics in an organization they name after an often conspiratorially-viewed 'Knighthood,' while he also decides to follow a powerfully charismatic Buddhist nun who has invented a new set of strictures along the 'eightfold path,' all the while teaming up with a 'known' CIA front to do basically gratis work in solar engineering in various frontline situations that involve a high likelihood of torture and death.

"It don't make no sense," as my brother likes to screech. And Sir Ratterman left behind a loving wife and a happy home, by all accounts, in the process of peregrinations that barely paid a dime. Man, Jimbo is far outside his comfort zone.

Mastering mysteries by revealing the unknown in a light that reshapes the conundrum is what essays, reports, journalism, all narratives are about, however. Perfection is not only not the purpose, but also a pretentious trap for the sanctimonious to fall into. So here goes in regard to a heroic and Zen and indecipherable fellow who now has a solar engineering prize named in his honor, "The Walt Ratterman Award for Creative Community Energy," as well as a scholarship fund established in his name by none other than the redoubtable Solar Energy International (SEI) association.

INTRODUCTION

A Catholic, who turned to Buddhism, might be typecast for a role like the one that Walt Ratterman played--passion and compassion in a wild dance--with star turn after star turn, at least after he left a successful corporate career, and then the fulfillment of entrepreneurial predilections that began when he appointed himself the twelve-year-old CEO of his first company, to embark on a high road to selfless adventure, like, well, like a crusading, chivalrous knight.

27-walt-in-burmaThe memorial award in his honor puts this in perspective. "The annual Walt Ratterman Award for Creative Community Energy was created to recognize and honor Walt Ratterman, one of NABCEP’s first Certificants, who was killed while working in Haiti when the devastating earthquake struck. Walt’s astonishing renewable energy work among some of the world’s most needy was truly inspirational. Walt channeled his efforts into the non-profit company he co-founded, Sun Energy Power International (SunEPI). The company’s mission is 'to promote an increased quality of life in remote, rural regions of the world through the use of renewable energy.'"

I make no promises whatsoever about follow-up to this story. However, I would like to know more about this amazing fellow's life before he set out, like one of the Three Musketeer's in search of Dartagnan. I have discovered a bit about his work life, in which he rose from a grunt's' position with Foley Electric Contractors to become a hard-working Vice President who oversaw huge projects involving power supplies to oil pipelines, villages on the tundra, and more.

And for a time, after leaving oil and gigantic power operations behind, he formed TRC Electrical Construction Services, a company that installed solar technology in homes in Pennsylvania and Maryland. From this, I infer, though I am miles away from anything other than supposition and assertion, another turn away from the social SOP, which necessarily involves large-scale electricity as the default methodology.

Whatever the motives, given that he was only 33 years old when he left Foley, having started as a whippersnapper of 18 with the company, he still had plenty of youthful oomph to offer to his entrepreneurial efforts. In any event, these went on for years, pioneering efforts in photovoltaic applications, before the period of his life came to fruition that led to his memorialization, about which we'll learn more below.

Perhaps the most interesting sidetrack along which Sir Ratterman perambulated was his joining his life to the work of Tzu Chi, a Taiwanese spiritual and service offshoot of Buddhism. This religious body, in which he became one of just 100 worldwide adepts, or 'commissioners,' out of five million followers, eschews politics and other earthly compulsions to deliver medical and material assistance whenever disaster strikes.

Interestingly, China allows this outfit from Chiang Kai Shek's redoubt on Taipei to work on the mainland; the disavowal of politics at least passes muster in Beijing. Also interestingly, Tzi Chu has become a prominent player in calamity-services here in the U.S., in the aftermath of 9/11, following the mayhem that accompanied Hurricane Katrina, and otherwise.

As fascinating as these facts are, the simple reality of the conjunction between Tzi Chu's founding master, the charismatic nun Cheng Yen, and this not-yet-knight in search of a grail is more captivating still. Several sources describe it as akin to "Indiana Jones meets Mother Theresa."

Another major turning point in his life resulted from Sir Ratterman's first connecting with Edward Artis, a former Special Forces medic turned social entrepreneur and fiscal wizard, in 1999, at which juncture the not-as-yet-annointed Sir Ratterman joined Knightsbridge International(KBI), a Knights-of-Malta styled disaster relief and medical-assistance NGO that Artis had formed in 1995 with cardiologist Jim Laws.

A few years later, Walt Ratterman--having run gauntlets in Afghanistan, the Southern Philippines, and elsewhere with his new friend and mentor--received his own christening. Thereafter, the world deemed him worthy of the moniker Sir Ratterman.

He took this oath:

"I do swear by the Eternal Power of the Trinity, to be both a true and chivalric Knight, to obey my Commanders and to aid my bretheren. I also swear by all that is holy and dear unto me, to aid those less fortunate than I, to relieve the distress of the world and to fulfill my knightly obligations."

The formation of the SunEnergy Power Corporation(SEPC) followed shortly thereafter, and his own calling realized its fullest expression in the funding, by the for-profit and largely domestic operations of SEPC, of SunEnergy Power International(SEPI), a 501-C-3 non-profit of which he was the founding partner who became, for all intents and purposes, CEO-fof-life in 2008.

Rapidly, SEPI queued up a substantial list of projects, for which Ratterman and the staff who were his friends and colleagues and daughter worked persistently on the four corners of the earth. At this intersection in Ratterman's life, as well, a key partner for moving everything forward came on board.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of those outfits that looks darned good on paper. In some senses, USAID represents the best face of the USA, with its wealth, its technical acuity, and its pragmatism all available for those in need.

The bureau avers that

"The United States has a long history of extending a helping hand to those people overseas struggling to make a better life, recover from a disaster or striving to live in a free and democratic country. It is this caring that stands as a hallmark of the United States around the world -- and shows the world our true character as a nation."

Only a true troll could argue with such goals as these, coming from the "Global Partnerships" page of the agency. It proffers models that "Promote Clean Energy, Expand Access to Energy, Finance Energy, Create a Favorable Policy Environment, Train Energy Professionals," and serve "Energy at the Base of the Pyramid," the last of these templates relating to projects that bring power to the poorest households.

Sir Ratterman and SEPI, providing the most secure financing outside of the company's own profits that the group had ever had, were about to embark on truly world-shifting work. With USAID and its other partners, SEPI "(wa)s in the kick-off stages of a multi-year, multi country project aimed at improving access to reliable energy for Health Care facilities in remote locations."

Just prior to these capstones for Sir Ratterman, an award winning documentary film-maker, with his own astounding back story, having encountered the charming and turbo-charged Edward Artis on one of Knightsbridge's first-among-equals peripatetic sojourns, enlisted this trio of knights-errant as the subjects of a film that would serve to document their intertwined lives and purposes on this plane of existence, as it were.

LIVES IN SERVICE

The edgy tension and overwhelming fulfillment of leaving the feedbag behind is an important part of the message of "Beyond the Call," which shows Sir Ratterman, Sir Artis, and Sir Law as they dodge bullets and deliver renewable electricity and medicine from Rwanda to Chechnya to Afghanistan to the Philippines and beyond. The movie's impact resounds in viewers' comments.

Bill Morse noted, "The work that these guys are doing is absolutely amazing. I run an organization that helps clear land mines in Cambodia and I know how difficult it is to sustain this type of work. Ed and his cohorts are an inspiration to all of us. This film should be required viewing for everyone."

Another Californian said,

"This reflects the American Spirt of winning 'Hearts and Minds'. I believe Ed Artis should be considered as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. To accomplish what he has done with such minimal assets is truly extraordinary."

An inspired woman from Maine admitted, "I ... am amazed that men are in this day and age willing to become knights and to take their oath seriously. The Knights oath and prayer are pledges to make a difference in serving humanity. The documentary revealed the desperate needs of humanity and the terrible consequences of ineffective leadership that exist in our global world - and illustrates that individuals can make a difference."

And Nila, from Eastern Washington, offered this:

"It was high adventure by such three unassuming personalities. I identified w/ Ed Artis' feelings about not wanting to be associated w/ religious organizations for these trips. I saw the Gospel being lived out in the actions of Artis, Laws, and Ratterman. There are times when religious words just are not necessary. Thank you for letting us see what determination and a wonderful combination of gifts and skills has done in behalf of unfortunate but deserving people. They appeared to be having the time of their lives."

This lesson, of joyous engagement, appears repeatedly among scores of notes, highlighting what could easily be the central component of sustainable business: the passionate pursuit of having a positive impact. Without that, none of the subjects of the film, for example, would have shown up, the 'call of duty' would have diminished, or it might have absented itself altogether, yielding another set of gritty, grubbing, greedy geniuses on the make.

waltrattermanInstead of such selfishness, every photo of Sir Ratterman shows the glow of this calling--one might see a tinge of concern or patina of fatigue as well, but the quiet commitment to a life of passionate purpose gleams forth from each shot. He literally hop-scotched over every ocean and touched down in every inhabited region, seeking, with minimal material reward as incentive, to power-up the lives of the poor, to provide the essence of all capacitaiton, in the form of good health, to touch the lives of those in need with deft skill and gentle kindness.

*He spoke to one interviewer about the period after the release of "Beyond the Call," noting, "I have been pretty constantly on the road since ... film(ing) . I have been working primarily in renewable energy projects in very remote locations around the world, mostly where we started working in the years of the original Knightsbridge missions. I have been working to combine the solar energy work with the medical work and it is coming along quite well."

*He listed as examples of such work, in the flashing passing of a year that also required commercial contract fulfillment, fundraising, and occasional nods to wife and family, efforts in half a dozen different countries--"Solar power for a Buddhist monastery high in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Bhutan; (P)articularly risky Solar water pumping(projects in)... NW Pakistan... . due to the bombing that the U.S. has allegedly taken part in recently;... (T)raining and equipment for clinics inside Burma (that we built earlier and where) the military were burning villages and killing people in the largest offensive in the past ten years. ... We will return in April of 2007 to do more solar systems for clinics;...Working with the Shuar Indians in southern Ecuador to provide electricity to VERY remote villages there. ...Working with more than 20 (Rwandan)medical centers to provide training, equipment, and installation for diagnosing and treating of HIV/AIDS and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis."

*He later mentions efforts in Haiti and Guyana, along with Nicaragua, in this hemisphere; in the first two, he led teams in the design and installation of remote-area photovoltaic electric capacity, while in Central America, he was building water pumping and purification projects that also relied on solar power.

*He made literally dozens of treks to Afghanistan with Knightsbridge, always in the company of comrade Sir Artis, and often with Sir Laws and others. On one occasion, "we asked the teachers what they needed the most. They said that they have not been paid for six months, and they did not know how long they could keep this up, when needing to tend to the needs of their families as well. We donated funds to the school to pay the salaries of the 17 teachers for one year, starting this past July 1st. This came to about $2000 since the teachers' salaries are $10 / month."

*He hit the ground running as CEO of SEPI, projects both independent of USAID support and a part of that 'Global Development collaboration' unfolding as 2010 dawned on us. Work in Haiti and elsewhere in Latin America, in the Pacific Islands, in South and Central Asia were among the programmatic efforts that he was leading to employ his knowledge, American technology, and the power of the sun in tandem to improve the lives of benighted folks.

These examples just give a glimpse of the surface tip of the vast oeuvre of his efforts. He combined with governments, with colleagues, with other organizations to achieve truly miraculous results. Adhering to a schedule that would leave onlookers winded, Sir Ratterman was always, as my dad liked to say, "loaded for bear, raring to go, and ready for more."

In addition to funding from the government and foundations, such financial gurus as John Mauldin fronted appeals for both SEPI and KBI. Mauldin sells loads of books, and plenty of investment grade advice emanates from his print, broadcast, and web portals. Unless I am much mistaken, people listen to him.

adrian_meal_time_27In one appeal, plugging moral responsibility more so than tax deductibility, he wrote that "Long-time readers are familiar with Ed Artis and Knightsbridge. They walked into jungles in Rwanda to rescue nuns at the height of the craziness there. They took food into Afghanistan months before our soldiers were there. Sri Lanka? They took drugs into Tamil Tiger territory after the tsunami, when no other aid agency would go. They went to Burma (and figured out how to get in with relief supplies after the last typhoon, when other agencies couldn't). Ed is one of the really good (if somewhat crazy) guys. He and his friends like to get an adrenalin rush as they do their good deeds, which generally means going places where others will not. Thankfully, they keep coming back. They take no salaries. They pay their own way. And there are people all over the world who are alive today because of their work."

This network-building was not exclusively at the upper reaches of the food chain either. A pair of younger women in L.A. freshly minted graduate degrees and good jobs in hand, encountered our good gentlemen. "Most little girls dream of meeting a Knight in Shining armor… we were lucky enough to meet 3… well 3 Knights in RUSTY armor anyway. When we met Sir Ed, Sir Jim and Sir Walt… and learned about their legendary humanitarian efforts, we immediately wanted to get involved and help. ...(and realized) the best way to contribute would be to ... raise funds to bring much needed relief to the region of Sudan that we all know as DARFUR."

"A dollar for Darfur" was on the way, and other strategic partnerships were unfolding on the sidelines as 2010 drew nigh. People spoke of Nobel Prizes. Acolytes everywhere spoke of KBI and SEPI as 'designs for living' and as pathways to survival.

And then, working with USAID prior to the Haitian quake, while staying at the Hotel Montana near Port au Prince, moments after he sent his wife a spirited missive of love and devotion, the quiet doer, the accomplished capacitator, the gentle helper met an entirely unanticipated end. A bullet, a machete, a missile, a crushing blow from a barbaric onslaught; a virulent infection, bad water, rotten food; any number of brutal confrontations were part and parcel of Sir Ratterman's daily fare.

27-hotel-b4-afterBut a collapsing building in the aftermath of one of our planet's routine shrugs ended his life, earlier this year, on January 12. As he ran for his life to extricate himself before the trap had sprung, the trembling structure crashed down around and on top of him, extinguishing the steady flame of this knight's bright light..

And the outpouring of grief testifies to the man's magnificence; to his potent contribution to making the world a bit easier to live in; to that sense of selflessness to which all of us aspire, but which so few of us can attain.

*An obituary from Anchorage, Alaska, where he worked in the 1970's, eulogized him: "In 2004, he was one of three founders to start up SunEnergy Power (Corporation), where he became CEO in 2008 of their nonprofit division. Walt's true passion came in his missionary work. He was one of two non-Asian commissioners of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu-Chi Foundation. He worked in disaster relief for the Afghan people, making numerous trips from 2001-2004. He introduced sustainable energy to the newly appointed Afghan Assembly Government, appeared in the documentary by Academy Award nominee Adrian Belic's 'Beyond The Call' about his missionary work in Afghanistan, the Philippines and Burma, and traveled to more than 30 countries for aid, relief and sustainable energy efforts."

*One chronicler extolled the bravery of Jeanne Ratterman, Walt's partner of nearly forty years: "Most inspirational among the posts on this (FaceBook)page are those of Jeanne, Walt’s wife, whose serene courage shines through. Jeanne extends her own condolences to well-wishers, telling them, 'I didn’t lose Walt, we lost Walt.'" The memorial continues, "Walt’s principal expertise and endeavors focused on solar energy systems--(h)is objective was to bring micro-solar capability to Burmese refugee groups); but much of this work was imbued with the same spirit of humanitarianism and ever-present peril as his Knightsbridge exploits. His projects in Burma give a perfect illustration of the rock-hardness and intense thoughtfulness of this most complete and complicated man. ...At night in these encampments, when all were asleep, Walt would sneak from his pallet and sabotage the very systems he’d just helped assemble; and troubleshooting lessons would commence first thing in the morning. ...It is not difficult to understand how, in the days after the earthquake, so many people held out hope that Walt might have survived somewhere within the collapsed hotel. If anyone had the physical strength, presence of mind, and mental toughness to make it, Walt did. As days turned to weeks, however, we secretly knew what we would not admit until confronted with bitter proof."

*A prominent solar energy blogger mourned as follows. "Walt Ratterman—one of the most dedicated and intrepid solar pioneers that I have ever had the honor of knowing—was tragically killed last month. ...The world has lost a truly great man, solar professional and global humanitarian. ...Aside from Walt’s deep technical knowledge and experience installing photovoltaic (PV) systems around the world, one of the things that struck me most about Walt was his tireless work ethic. He never seemed to take a rest.

Typically up by 4:00am, Walt would spring into action with a series of calisthenics, followed by a checklist review of everything he aimed to accomplish over the next 24 hours. And after a long, grueling day in the field followed by a quick supper, instead of relaxing over a beer or two, Walt would inevitably fire up his laptop and respond to a string of emails and/or do some additional planning for his next project.

27-waltrwandaA couple of other attributes come to mind when I think about Walt. First, he loved to teach and always took special pleasure in training local technicians and villagers in the basics of PV installation and maintenance. One of my favorite photos of Walt is the one below, which features him and a couple of Rwandans wiring the back of a solar panel. Second, Walt had a profound sense of kindness and compassion towards those less fortunate and treated everyone with the utmost respect and dignity. He also possessed a fierce sense of social justice, which no doubt helped to fuel his passion to provide solar electricity to some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged peoples."

*Sunplugger, another solar afficianado, collected many memorials, including this one. "Walt was a true solar maestro. For him, there was no problem that was too big to take on, or environment that was too intimidating to operate in. But what I loved most about Walt was his indefatigable spirit, his mountain of compassion, and his relentless drive to make the world a better place by teaching the poor and disadvantaged how to tap into and draw sustenance from the boundless energy of the sun."

*Finally, for now, a renewable energy site also gathered evidence of this marvelous human being, again starting with his wife. "'Walt was about partnering and networking, getting so many like-minded folks to share their strengths and resources to help the most people they can in the best way they can. It is not about the glory but the humanitarianism that is needed in the world, the service we can truly be to others in need. … I am glad his life inspires others.'" The organization punctuates Jeanne Ratterman's compassionate words.

"When Walt Ratterman passed away during this winter's devastating earthquake in Haiti, he left behind a legacy defined by hard work, creativity, and the drive to help people in need."

Thousands, even tens of thousands more such expressions of solidarity and grief are available. They all speak to a man's greatness and to the greatness of which each of us is capable who can recognize the outstanding achievements of this fine cousin of ours.

Of course, "born a critic" as I was, I want JustMeans readers to pause a moment. I'm going to ask that everyone consider a few ideas that call us to an even greater sense of responsibility, even a higher expression of heroism. I would bet, though obviously proof now will never be forthcoming, that Sir Walt Ratterman would welcome the ensuing conversation with quiet delight, rubbing his hands in contemplation of wrestling with necessity again.

Whatever the big picture may reveal, however, whatever the more nuanced telling of the tale will show, Sir Walt Ratterman deserves the legacy of goodness that has followed his untimely and unlucky demise. He should inspire all of us, especially those among us who truly desire "business...better," who envision a world powered by the sun and conjoined by people with equivalent chances to blossom, wherever they start out.

Most critical to those who seek to actuate a model for 'business better,' no superior guidelines are available than what Sir Ratterman and his comrades displayed in their work. They show that the intersection of demand, empowerment, networking, capacitation, and commitment is simply unstoppable as the underlying components of a sustainable business plan.

A NECESSARY CAVEAT

The easy summation of this report would be something like this: 'we have born witness to a solar power hero here today.' Though I stand in awe of the efforts and output of Sir Walt Ratterman, 'Decidedly not!' would nonetheless be the comment that resonated with this humble correspondent.

We have scanned, ever so briefly, the life of an amazing man. He should be canonized, of that no doubt exists. The only miracle that he failed to manifest in his long life full of risk was getting out of that hotel from his room when he knew that the end was near.

27-bdg-solarNothing could diminish the powerful legacy of good and compassion and grit and fearlessness that Sir Walt Ratterman displayed with every waking breath. But none of these things make him a 'hero.' I don't mean to split hairs. This, in my estimation, is of crucial importance.

A hero, if he or she does anything, defines a problem and leads the way to a solution. Sir Ratterman abhorred the poverty and helplessness of his more or less blameless fellow creatures. Thus, he stood against what we can call 'problems.' Moreover, he delved the potential of solar technology to the roots and as such learned to create 'solutions' to one sort of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, he shied away from--spit at and rejected is probably more accurate, a conceptualization of these matters in political, or even in policy terms. He saw the evils of social division and corruption but refused to countenance their essential relation to matters of power.

Tzi Chu explicitly rejects political action--an 'interest in politics is OK, but any involvement is poison.' So too with Sir Ratterman, one can sense from his reticence and relative quietude that matters of ideology and infighting are anathema to him. This was readily apparent in the film in his case, and it was the surface orientation of the entire Knightsbridge project.

Such an orientation, though, only results in the transformations that we seek if in fact the human world is malleable outside of a political context. Does this strike anyone as plausible? Spiritual people might raise a tentative, or even--when they are decidedly political behind the scenes, sharpening knives for the next Crusade of 'knights' and knaves--an enthusiastic hand to suggest, or insist, that spiritual change can lead to temporal transition.

I hope that my readers will forgive a little outburst here. At the best, such a view is a load of horse sh**. Of course I could be wrong, and "Pie in the Sky" will somehow rule the day yet. But we don't have any evidence of that, and almost nobody really believes it, at least not at the level that they believe that breathing water is suboptimal, at the level that they believe that being kind to children is sensible, and so on.

And a bunch of less than salubrious results follow on this rejection of politics, of which I will mention three, and a few truly nasty effects are also detectable of which I will note a pair. I'm going to develop this point briefly here. If I write further about the amazing life and gentle genius of Sir Ratterman, as well as of his arguably less genial comrades in arms, then this is where I will focus.

The first symptom of ill that attends the KBI and SEPI choice to forego politics concerns choice of venue. Folks in Western Michigan desperately need better sources of jobs and power. Georgia, way down South, is even in worse shape. Why do the likes of such 'missionaries' as Sirs Ratterman, Artis, and Laws so frequently travel so far afield for their 'adventures?'

The photos that I take of the Appalachians, which suggest vast potential in wind and sun and water renewable energy sources, evidence a gorgeous landscape fraught with all manner of excitement. Why go to Afghanistan? Or Chechnya? Or the Southern part of the Philippines, for heaven's sake, instead of Manila or Vietnam?

27-ratterman_womenAnd why go to Afghanistan for the very first time in the Spring of 2002? I think of these inquiries and have difficulty retaining my equanimity. The reason that I feel a tad testy is that the rationale for choosing to be 'helpful' in Afghanistan just prior to a big U.S. decimation of the country, after twenty-three years of decimation of the country in which the U.S. had played a key part, is political. DUH!!!!

Thus, any demurral that making that choice, at that time, could avoid politics is like someone saying the following when gangsters are about to invade my home. "Hey, I just wanted to come along here and make sure your water lines were good, reassure you that everything is cool, and duck out of the way of the incoming; but don't mind me. I haven't got anything to do with those guys, even though we're from the same place and I get some of my money from their bosses."

My goodness, I need hip waders and eye shades. Now, I understand that this is not the way that most people want to think about energy. I realize that people say they don't want to get involved in politics. But 'Heaven's to Betsy,' as my granny used to cry at any outrageous absurdity, can we be a little real? A little 'responsible?'

In reflecting on this, what Wendell Berry says about community is critical to remember as well. If one thinks about it, a key to carrying out all of the eight parts of Buddha's path--or any other moral, ethical, or spiritual engagement-- is a definition of community something like Berry's. "… the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.”

Reflecting on this, not only is going halfway around the world to 'help' someone inherently presumptuous and condescending, it is also inherently political in the most invasive sort of way. Does no one recall the priests' actions in Mexico, the joyous crusade to bring the heathens to God in our own land, and so on? Simply saying, "I'm not trying to change your mind or your religion" doesn't eliminate the political nature of the act.

And this is especially true in regard to the avoidance of similar engagement in the communities to which we do belong. I know for a fact that poor people live in Washington, where Sir Ratterman's home was, and in California, from whence Sir Artis haled, and in Ohio, which is the neighborhood from which Sir Laws traveled forth.

To ignore these needs, and focus on needs far away, in cooperation with the chiefs and pawns of empire must contain all sorts of political implications to consider, implications that are not altogether friendly and may suggest a basis for the $50,000 bounty that the Taliban had on the heads of our Knightsbridge comrades. Overlooking such issues is at best disingenuous.

And what I have mentioned about history's relevance is also paramount to integrate into our contemplation here. The United States has conducted covert war in and around Afghanistan for half a century; the British have plied the same territory for three times that figure. Ignoring this long standing meddling, bias, employment of divide-and-conquer ploys and assassination and subterfuge, while insisting, 'but we just want to help,' is insupportable.

Malalai Joya is someone who is a hero. Her book, A Woman Among Warlords, provides a response to the KBI and SEPI approaches to doing business. Her point is simple. Those who would honor and support, or otherwise 'help' Afghan communities cannot simultaneously side with the butchers who have worked hand in glove with both the Soviet and United States occupations.

She lists, and documents, the Northern Alliance atrocities which the U.S. has either ignored or assisted. One can uncover multiple facts, if one looks, that KBi collaborated with, and celebrated its connections with, this group of thugs. They also gave money to girl's schools teachers, well and good. But that does not unravel the political, and venal, nature of the initial acceptance of criminals.

The same line of reasoning applies to the likely indisputable connection between USAID and empire. Even in the agency's own words--pushing 'free trade' and plugging 'America's foreign policy goals'--one has to detect a whiff of gunpowder unless one refuses to look at reality.

So here is an honest take on the work of SEPI, KBI, and so on. Such 'non-political' interventions are always political, and any denial of this risks not only falsehood, but also fundamental misunderstanding that inevitably goes far beyond the dangers of incongruency and 'unintended consequences.'

This has been brief. A rich plowing of these furrows is arguably essential if one wants to understand energy policy, sustainable business, social justice, and many other topics in which JustMeans readers have an ongoing interest. One thing, however, bears repeating.

Memorial Service for Walt RattermanExamining Walt Ratterman's life with such a clarifying lens as I suggest doesn't mean that this man's life was a lie. Nor could we say that the heartfelt efforts, and substantial gifts, that this 'knight' doled out so generously are somehow evil, or even tainted, in and of themselves. And no one would reject the potential empowerment that Sir Walt Ratterman promulgated for at least fifteen years of global service.

But we would have to acknowledge, at the very minimum, a measure of complexity. We would need to take stock of the forces in play, the fields sowed and harvested compared to those left to lie fallow, And in taking the measure of the man, we would have to take the measure of the historical circumstances in which he operated.

Most importantly, perhaps, this willingness to consider such subtleties and complications would have to occur without chagrin or defensiveness. As the therapists like to chant, "What we resist will always persist." Too much is at stake in these matters to do anything other than consider very carefully what I am offering to readers here. Sir Ratterman should indeed join the holy ranks of the canonized among our ancestors.

Thousands upon thousands of expressions of love and grief attest to Sir Ratterman's clearly saintly significance. Few and far between, on the other hand, such critical assessments as this report may serve to balance how we can both perceive this amazing fellow most accurately and try to signify most elegantly what lessons he can inculcate in the rest of us.

CONCLUSIONS

To a certain extent, our collective survival depends on our acknowledging Walt Ratterman's model, and then turning to each other, or inside of ourselves, and asking, "So what can we do about it?" On the other hand, our recognition of what Sir Ratterman stood for and contributed will only effectively deconstruct the viciousness and poverty that he so loathed if we qualify our acceptance of how he went about doing 'business better.'

The arguments about this appear in sum above. They have shown up throughout my articles here. Hopefully, readers will understand the points that I am making, whether they find themselves uncertain about, agreeing, or disagreeing with these contentions.

Everything fits together. Everything is therefore political. We cannot 'fix' anything in isolation. Powerlessness and oppression anywhere requires a response that is most like the 'solidarity forever' in the old union song. And, go figure, there's more. I end the main section of this posting with a couple of illustrative examples, and a continued insistence that Sir Walt Ratterman was a sainted soul.

One of the folks who wrote a laudatory comment to the Public Broadcasting Service about "Beyond the Call" came from Century City, California. "I have traveled with Sir Edward Artis and Sir James Laws to Nicaragua on a relief mission," he reminisced. "I personally saw that the items collected went to the people in need. We delivered an electro-cardiogram machine to the hospital in Bluefields and delivered antibiotics and other medical supplies to various villages on the East Coast of Nicaragua during a time when the infra-structure had been decimated by revolution resulting from the politics of the Cold War."

Now that all sounds swell, doesn't it? But here's what caused the 'decimation' in Nicaragua: murderous thugs whose employer was one arm or other of the United States of America; some of the criminals wore U.S. uniforms, and, to the credit of this land of ours, went to prison for their lies. But to the discredit of our accounting methods, the likes of Oliver North never went to prison for criminal conspiracy, drug cartel collusion, or murder, all of which crimes evidence exists that points to their having committed.

Once again, delivering a machine to help people whom you have brutalized and abused does not redress the brutality and abuse unless they sign off on that. I'll hope this makes sense. As such, this commentator's conclusion is also close to worthless.

27-walt-ratterman-in-haiti-2009"The work that is chronicled in this film is of the utmost importance to the world as it provides a true message of the spirit of Americans. Each of us has the power to make a small change to the world and if Ed and Jim's message takes hold and millions make the commitment to make a small difference then the world will be a much better place. I am looking forward to participating in just such a world. Dont miss this film."

I'd agree with the last clause. The rest is fatuous, feel-good, irrelevant diversion. What we need is a truly responsible accounting of the sort that Malalai Joya prays that we promote eventually. And settling for three 'knights-in-rusty-armor' simply delays or even deflects the real efforts that we must make.

The second example is from a story I reported nearly a decade ago. A friend of mine is a Catholic Worker, bless Dorothy Day's heart, and he was planning to have himself arrested at Fort Benning's Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, which used to have the title School of the Americas.

This institution, in its various guises, arose after Smedley Butler's testimony about being a strong-arm "gangster for capitalism" in Latin America, but it carried out the same task--protecting empire and enforcing submission. I was reporting a series of features about the folks who were getting ready to spend as much as a year or more of their lives in jail because they insisted that our government close this terrorist establishment within our midst.

"Why are you doing this?" always came out near the beginning of the interviews that I did.

The story that he told is harsh. It will sicken some of my readers. I nearly wept when I heard it. It is a nauseating indictment of America's patrimony to our neighbors in the world. My friend, Rich, just out of college and, like a younger version of Sir Ratterman, fixated on making a difference and helping out people who didn't have the nice clothes and nice car and nice stuff and plentiful plenitude that he did, went on a mission trip to El Salvador.

Those not familiar should study up a bit, to discover that, indeed, U.S. agents were active in mass-killings in this little land of Volcanoes and jungle. Rich knew this vaguely but did not really connect it with his 'mission' work, which stemmed from a more generalized desire to do good, ease suffering, and so on, again not at all dissimilar to what impelled Sir Ratterman to his actions.

Within three hours of his arrival at the San Salvador airport--this was sometime in the mid-to-late '70's; I'd have to dig to pin down the date--he had humped and bumped up steep and winding roads with a gear-grinding nun to reach the village that his church had offered assistance, one manifestation of which was my friend's willingness to pitch in.

However, things began to go badly as he and his hard-driving escort approached the encampment--the actual village had been burned to the ground with the help of CIA and School-of-America anti-insurgency school Salvadorean officers. Mortar rounds started to drop all around them. Rich nearly wet his pants when one explosion seemed to lift up the rear of the jeep and he thought he felt metal whizzing past his ear.

When the nun braked hard and parked, he leapt out of the vehicle and followed her toward a large tent where people had huddled. Just as they arrived, a mortar shell blossomed on the opposite side of the clearing, where a few people also had gathered. A young girl's agonized scream split the air.

A little wisp of a fellow, who turned out to be the Salvadorean doctor who had attached himself to the camp--the Army didn't like the peasants getting doctors, because that meant they might receive advice that was antithetical to 'submission'--jumped up and went to where the girl writhed on the ground.

My friend, good hearted soul that he is, followed. When the doctor, weeping in fury and frustration, turned to him, the little girl's eyes had glassed over as she bled her life away from her left arm, severed at the shoulder. Unable to contain himself, Rich turned and wretched.

Wiping vomit from his mouth, though, he turned back, and asked simply, good-heartedly, like a slightly less skilled if not less well-intentioned manifestation of Sir Ratterman, "What can I do to help?"

The doctor's response does not undermine the feelings of goodness and generosity that inhered in Sir Ratterman's heart. His reply does not diminish the tangible technical benefits that Sir Ratterman's skill brought to hundreds of places. Nor do the physician's words in any way impute that Sir Ratterman was acting from self-serving or evil intentions.

They do, however, effectively eviscerate any notion of this generous, skilled, and compassionate man's being a hero. He was politically naive, and his work served the wrong master because he did not recognize, in the words of Bob Dylan, "Now you might serve the devil, or you might serve the Lord; but you're gonna have to serve somebody!"

In words that could have severed a limb were they 'weaponized,' the sobbing doctor, about half my giant friend's size, spit into his face. "Go back to America and fix your f****** country!"

AFTERWORD

Whether capital and social justice are more likely cat and mouse than natural allies, sometimes a powerful human witness can join even the most unlikely qualities in a sublime partnership. This was clearly a purpose of Sir Walt Ratterman's life.

He sought to bridge the noisome divide between privilege and oppression with the sacrifice of his own safety and the provision of all of the skills of head and hand and all of the love of a big-hearted man. I'm not nearly so certain about his collaborators, who did a lot more talking in the movie. 'Walking the walk' is more important, but they too could be similarly inclined.

Despite the fact that this story still just bursts with unresolved tension and moments of drama and comedy and tragedy, however, and even if all of the motives of each of the actor's measured up to Walt Ratterman's high spiritual standard, the actions of these folks were deeply flawed if what they wanted was to heal the difficulties that they all said troubled them--poverty, ignorance, starvation, mass murder, and so on.

27-solar1These problems are not issues of a lack of technology: no amount of solar collectors will deconstruct empire. These criminal deficiencies are not matters of a lack of individual caring: no amount of love, from the outside of the imperial system, can successfully dismantle the engines of suppression. These horrific disparities do not result from a lack of individual knowledge: all of the schooling that the universe might proffer cannot, of itself, raze the vicious cupidity of any ruling class, let alone the one that is managing the throttle these days.

Solving these problems requires political consciousness. Solving these problems is impossible outside of a shift in collective behavior. Solving these problems necessitates a mass movement for power-to-the-people, or something similar. Or, in the alternative, we can solve these problems with another World War, which will get rid of most of the starving poor in one fell swoop. That last choice does not strike me, in any way, shape, or size, as "business...better."

To paraphrase an earlier note, someone in the position of a Walt Ratterman, as magnificent as he is, or facing the daily choices that JustMeans readers do, as decent as we are, must, if we want to be responsible for our beliefs and actions, find the 'space to be critical' about the impacts of what we say and do. I'm guessing that this is one reason that Sir Walt Ratterman was more about action than speech, because he at some level recognized this tangled web.

Malalai Joya has advice for all Americans of good will, but especially for those of a passionately philanthropic bent, who feel compelled to travel ten thousand miles to 'help.' Her book is one that I have thought about reviewing; I recommend it as highly as any volume in print just now. This young woman, under threat of death, dismissed and disrespected by the U.S. government instead of raised high as the hero she is, has the intelligence and courage to lead us. She insists that we gain some perspective, that we garner the capacity to see.

She views the threats against her, and the multiple attempts on her life, as vindication. "I am truly honored that I have been vilified and threatened by the savage men who have condemned our country to such misery. I feel proud that even though I have no private army, no money, and no world powers behind me, these brutal despots are afraid of me and scheme to eliminate me. But it is not really me these men fear. ...They know that they cannot evade justice indefinitely, and the Afghan people have already decided the verdict."

She asks for an audience. Can we hear the reality of her courage? She begs us to attend to her passion and purpose. Can we feel the wisdom of her stalwart stand? If so, then we are ready to hear how she closes her book.

"Today, we Afghans remain trapped, between two enemies: the Taliban on the one side and the U.S./NATO forces and their warlord hirelings on the other. We are feeling the squeeze, and it is costing us in blood and tears. But the situation is not hopeless. I believe in the power of the people, and I know that there are millions of women and men standing and waiting--eager to play their role in history."

She is speaking directly to us. Honor and honesty are her only defenses. She awaits the favor of a reply.

Furthermore, she is saying that the approach of Sir Walt Ratterman, bless his loving heart, is inadequate to the demands of history. At best, a wider marketplace for terror to operate is the result of such methods, whatever the happy eventualities of a few kilowatts or megawatts of power here and there. That does not sound like a sustainable business.

Photo Credits:
Memorial Service: Oregon Live
Walt with solar panel, FB snapshot, Hotel Montana before/after, solar: <a href="http://currentmissions.blogspot.com/"KBI Current Missions
Muslim women:
Solar Panels in Rwanda:
Rwanda - SELF & Partners In Health
Walt installing solar panel: Bob Freling's Solar Blog
Afghanistan gathering: Croatian World Network
Bald Eagle: Frank Kovalchek

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