Will Frankenstorms Become the New Normal?

Yesterday’s images of the NY Stock Exchange with sandbags at the front doors, or cars floating by on Wall Street, were not taken from the latest science fiction disaster movie, not this time.

This time they were real.  And next time the storm could be worse.

But despite all the dramatic headlines declaring Hurricane Sandy the worst storm to hit the East Coast in human memory, there has been barely a whisper of climate change in any of the top weather-related news stories.

I was hoping that Sandy would prove to be a big wake-up call for the privileged denizens of the East Coast, many of whom hold influential positions in business, finance and government.

But instead of people acknowledging the climate elephant in the room and starting to talk about proactive steps we can take to avoid such scenarios in the future, they are just following the usual reactionary script: marshalling disaster relief, urging the citizenry to donate to the American Red Cross, assessing the cost of the clean-up and how long it will take to put Humpty back together again.

A storm like Sandy—or Irene, or Katrina—should prompt reflections on the awesome power of natural forces, and the puniness of human structures.

Take our power away and we are suddenly rocketed back into the early 19th century.  Take our food supplies away, and we become an angry mob in no time.  Do it on a scale that impacts millions of people all living crowded together, and you have a recipe for unprecedented horror.

This is not a pitch for the next action thriller film, and it’s not idle chatter.  These are the kinds of scenarios our governors and national leaders were worrying about yesterday when they authorized the shutting down of mass transit, schools and businesses.

We were lucky this time.  Sandy weakened as she came ashore and the damage, while serious, is manageable.

What we know is that with each passing month and year of inaction on global heating, the storms will become more frequent and more intense.  In the years to come, we will look back on Sandy as child’s play, just a warning of what is yet to come.

What should we be doing now, as individuals, as a nation, and as a global human community?

  • We should be starting a massive shift to renewable, clean energy sources.  And I’m not talking about “clean coal.”  Wind, solar, geothermal, tidal—these are the sources that can safely feed our energy addiction, without driving our climate into ruin.
  • We should be shifting away from cars and highways to trains and mass transit.  Bicycles, too.  And we should embrace the shift to online commerce and education, to avoid the need for a great portion of the horrendous morning commute.
  • We should start a concerted effort, especially in densely populated areas like the northeast corridor, to bury the power lines.  Tangled mats of downed overhead wires should become a thing of the past, and quickly.  We need to become much more resilient at surviving big storms, and our electric grid is a 19th century anachronism in need of immediate upgrade to the 21st century.
  • We need to start a serious citizens’ movement to resist the tripartite junta of the fossil fuel industry, Big Agriculture and Big Chemical.  These three industries must be held accountable for the tremendous destruction they are wreaking on our environment, and on us as individuals.  I’d like to see Big Insurance take our side in this battle; I am sure they’re getting tired of always being stuck holding the bill when the next disaster strikes….

These storms are not random events.  They are getting bigger and closer together and less predictable.  The hotter the climate, the more the ice melts at the poles, the more freakish our weather will become—except that freakish is going to be our new normal.

It’s time to stop the denial, stop allowing ourselves to be distracted from the very serious questions that face us now.

It boils down to this: are we going to leave a livable Earth to our children and grandchildren?  Or are we going to go down in history (if there are any left to carry history forward) as the most criminal generation of all time?

Waiting for Sandy

As the Scorpio Full Moon slowly grows during these closing weeks of 2012, we are waiting for what forecasters are calling a “perfect storm”: a hurricane coming ashore from the Caribbean, going up the Atlantic seaboard and hitting a burst of cold air from the northwest.

Tonight, coastal cities are already in emergency mode: canceling school, closing public transportation, ordering evacuations, and preparing for power outages that may last days or even weeks.

Against this dramatic natural backdrop, we are watching the most artificial of scenarios: the unfolding of the closing chapters of the 2012 Presidential race.

What should be an easy sweep for the Democrats is seeming less secure, perhaps just through the clever manipulation of the Republican political marketing team.

We are at the late stage in politics when it becomes increasingly impossible to tell where reality ends and show business begins, and it almost doesn’t matter—it’s all show business, really.  Except that when the curtain comes down and it’s time for us to go home, we have to live with the real, often uncomfortable effects of the show.

Personally, I just keep feeling a tremendous sense of foreboding.  I can’t tell if it’s just part of the show—in other words, me being influenced by the heavy barometer of both the natural and the political climates—or if I might be picking up a legitimate sixth sense warning that I should be paying attention to.

Well, I am paying attention—I can’t not pay attention, the feeling of dread is too strong to ignore—but I have no idea what I should be doing in response.  So I am just going along from day to day, trying to keep my eyes on the road and ignore the looming threat that seems to be lurking just outside of my line of vision.

There are two kinds of people I feel envious of: those who have absolutely no clue of the larger forces at play in the fate of human civilization on the planet today, and those who are so consumed by their own manic determination to “win” that they are able to focus on their own narrow goals without admitting the least shred of doubt as to the correctness of their path.

Me, I am like a sea plant tossed in the tides, or a palm tree bending in the wind.  I can feel the strong currents of change sweeping through, but I lack the will or the conviction to strike out in the direction of some kind of focused action.

I bend, I toss, I wait, I dream.

I stoke the coals of my deep love for the planet, and know, as I stare into the glowing embers of humanity’s time on our beloved Earth, that though we may leave our current physical form, we remain bound into the dance of energy and matter cycling endlessly between our Sun and the molecules that compose us.

So much is at stake, and yet in the larger scheme of things, how inconsequential are our tiny concerns.

All things must pass…and what will be will be.

The future’s not ours to see.  Que sera, sera.

Barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen? Hell no!

Parsing the memes dealing with women in this election season is almost dizzying.

From “binders full of women” to the insinuation that if women get pregnant from a rape, it’s “something that God intended,” Republicans seem determined to put their feet their mouths over and over again.

There are signs now that women are getting the message, and getting more politically active as a result.

Yesterday I received the new Lesley Gore video, “You Don’t Own Me,” from several sources; if you have’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look: it’s a composite of many different women (most of them young) telling the politicians to get their f**king hands off our bodies (emphasis mine).

The specter of Roe v. Wade being reversed has a lot of women frightened.

We seem to be heading eerily towards the scenario imagined by Margaret Atwood some thirty years ago in The Handmaid’s Tale: a nightmare landscape of environmental devastation and societal breakdown, where the elite, safe in their gated communities, feel righteously justified in considering forced childbearing the only function of fertile young women.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the reality of the fact that we live in a country where Viagra is fully covered by insurance, but contraception often is not.

We live in a world where powerful men can get away with assaulting women and boys repeatedly, with the collusion of those around them. Sandusky and DSK, I’m looking at YOU—but these just the most scandalous recent cases, there are so many more in their club.

And if we move over to the virtual world, the violence against women’s bodies grows exponentially.  People always tell me that there’s all kinds of porn out there, from the soft & cuddly to the whips and chains, but from what I know, there are an awful lot of men jerking off to women’s pain.

I really don’t like calling men out like this.  I believe that many–probably most—men are fine upstanding citizens who would never hurt a woman.

But the truth is that we women need all those fine upstanding men to stand up for us now.

I was shocked at the statistics released last week showing that if only men voted in the Presidential election, Romney would win.

That means that an awful lot men support the kind of patriarchal social structure Romney indisputably stands for.

When is the last time you heard of a Mormon woman running a big company, or holding political office, or doing much of anything outside of doing the admittedly fulltime work of raising a big brood of children?

And then there’s the other half of the ticket, Paul Ryan—a Roman Catholic who seems to be Scrooge re-issued in a virile young package.

These two are the front men for a huge back-to-the-future wave of religious conservatism that employs much more subtle means than the Islamic Brotherhood, but with the same ends: to uphold male privilege and keep women securely ensconced in the private sphere.

A Romney might take a look at those “binders of women,” but in the end he’ll choose a nice young white man as the “most qualified” of the lot.

A Ryan might approve of a married woman leaving the home to earn some extra bread for her husband’s table, but if her daughter was raped while mom was out and got pregnant, too bad—suck it up, have the child, life goes on, and it’s just too bad that rapists are so rarely punished.  After all, boys will be boys, and girls ask for it.

If all American women voted in this election, President Obama would win by a landslide.

Obama has been good to women where it counts: he’s drastically improved health care and fought off the insurance dragons who want to label even pregnancy a “re-existing condition”; he’s stood up for women’s ownership of our reproductive health; the stimulus he put into place in his first year has kept our economy limping along,despite the repeated and concerted efforts of Republican Congressmen to sabotage it; and his government showcases a number of powerful, strong women who provide excellent leadership models for all Americans.

Shortly after he was sworn in as President of the United States, Barack Obama wrote a public letter to his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, in which he says:

“These are the things I want for you—to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That’s why I’ve taken our family on this great adventure.”

The historic election of the nation’s first African American President represented a giant step forward for this country.  A racial barrier that had seemed insurmountable fell, just as suddenly as the Berlin Wall fell two decades ago, ending what had seemed to be an everlasting Cold War.

We need the gender barriers to fall too. I know there are young women in the political pipeline today who have the dream of breaking through all the glass ceilings and reaching the sky, and we should be doing all we can to support them.

Today, what we need to do is prevent the takeover of this nation by rightwing religious conservatives.  We need to vote President Obama back into office.

And then we need to keep going, to make this a nation where all our children—no matter their gender, their race, their class, their religion or their ethnicity—can soar.

Surmounting the challenges facing us not just as a country, but as a planet, will take every ounce of creative, innovation and intelligence we can muster.

We need all our children to turn their minds to this task.  We can’t afford to leave half the population—our women—barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

The Cabal Behind the Curtain

It’s hard to understand the kind of person who would be taken in by Mitt Romney’s absolutely unsubstantiated claims that he’ll be able to magically produce 23 million new jobs in the next four years, and raise take-home pay while he’s at it.

Do people really think Mitt is a magician?

Watching him struggle to appear mild-mannered and fangless during the debates—an effort that translated into a zombie-like smirk—I began to understand him as the puppet he is, a marionette whose strings are pulled by the cabal behind the curtain: the Koch brothers and their ilk, along with Big Fossil Fuel, Big Pharma, Big Chemical, Big Ag, Big Free Trade, Big Finance, you name it.

Now, it’s true that that gang has their tentacles in Obama too.  You can see the strain the President is under, trying to please his popular base while also keeping his pockets open for the big under-the-table donations that keep his campaign afloat.

Guys like the Kochs hedge their bets.  Whichever of the two parties wins, they’ll carry on just fine.

But if it’s Romney/Ryan, their agenda will take a great leap forward.

We’ll automate and outsource jobs like crazy, to satisfy Wall Street—the hell with Main Street.

We’ll drill and frack and mine and bulldoze our way to oblivion, and call it Kingdom Come.

We’ll appoint more social conservatives to the Supreme Court, and put women back where they belong: barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

We’ll drastically increase our military spending, at the expense of social welfare programs.  Those who dare to ask for help with affording health care, education, or retirement, not to mention simply being able to eat regularly and keep a roof overhead, will be asked coldly: Can’t you borrow from your parents?  Or, are there no workhouses?

Not only that, but the first thing we’ll do in office—day one!—is pick a fight with the Chinese over currency manipulation.

Yes, Obama is the better of the two choices, for all the reasons he has laid out himself during the Presidential debates.

We must re-elect him, and continue to work to strengthen the progressive movement over the next four years, so we don’t backslide in 2016.

But part of this work must be to stand up for true democracy in our supposedly democratic nation.

Stein and Honkala arrested outside Hofstra U on Oct 16

The detention of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala last week was reprehensible, and I am glad to see they are filing suit—at least that way more people will know what happened to them when they tried to enter Hofstra University to participate in the presidential debate there.

You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media that Stein and Honkala were taken by police to a secret detention facility and handcuffed tightly to metal chairs for eight hours, without being allowed to consult their lawyers or staff.

Thank goodness for Amy Goodman, who broke this story and has refused to let it die, broadcasting “alternative debates” on Democracy Now that give the other three candidates on the November ballot a chance to have their views heard on national television.

Goodman is a model for the kind of alert, engaged and impassioned citizenry we desperately need in the coming decade, when the economic and environmental challenges we face are going to be increasingly dire.

We don’t need more goon cops in riot gear to maintain order, we need more ordinary people taking the time and energy and yes, the risk, to stand up for our rights to a safe, sustainable future.

After we re-elect Obama, those of us who understand what is at stake need to get to work with redoubled energy on building a broad coalition of people who care about our future and are willing to lead the way in making the necessary changes to ensure that human civilization survives on this planet.

This is a struggle that concerns all of us: we need to work across ethnicities, across gender, and across nationalities to engage the young and the old, the faith-based groups, centrists and leftists, the elites and the working class.

We can’t let a few shortsighted, greedy, impossibly foolish billionaires hijack our future.  It’s ours to save—or to lose.

Earth to Obama: Come in please! Or do we have to take to the trees to get your attention?

Of course I knew it would be too much to expect President Obama, during the second Presidential debate on Tuesday, to actually break the great taboo of contemporary American politics and mention—Shhhh—climate change.

But I didn’t expect him to come out pandering so shamelessly to Big Fossil Fuel.

Yes, he managed to create a mild distinction between his position and his opponent’s.

Romney is 100% for exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we can possibly get them up out of the ground.

Obama, on the other hand, is 100% for exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we can possibly get them up out of the ground.

And oh yeah, he’s not against throwing a little money at solar, wind and biofuels (let’s not even talk about how destructive existing biofuels like ethanol have actually been on multiple levels—let’s give the guy a break).

While Romney just wants to hammer home the assertion that his Administration will bring us lower gas prices (no doubt as a result of all the frantic drilling he intends to support), Obama is interested in encouraging conservation by raising fuel economy standards, an idea right out of the late 1970s if I ever heard one.

A 21st century idea would be to get rid of oil subsidies and insist that the price of gas and oil reflect the true costs of its production and consumption, which are actually way higher than whatever the current price of a gallon of crude might be.

Then there’s coal, which both of these guys are apparently in favor of continuing to exploit.  Did someone say “mountaintop removal”?  Just point Romney/Obama at the mountain, and let’s go!

The nadir of the whole energy discussion of the second Presidential debate came when, in response to a little goading from Romney, Obama said he was “all for pipelines.”

In nearly the same breath, he proudly proclaimed that his Administration has supported lots of oil and gas drilling on public lands—how many leases, and what percentage of increase or decrease they may represent from the Bush years, may be a bit fuzzy, but the gist is clear: both Romney and Obama are all for opening up our public lands to drilling, in the name of energy independence from foreign fuel sources.

Oh Lord. The truth is that our dependence on so-called foreign fuel suppliers (who are mostly multinational corporations anyway) is the least of our worries.

The one thing we most need to be focusing on is the one thing that no one wants to deal with at all.

The effect of global heating, caused by the ever-escalating burning of fossil fuels worldwide.

And instead of working soberly and swiftly to turn the climate juggernaut around, our politicians are acting like easy-going traffic cops, just waving those bulldozers and oil rigs right on through.

***

Take the Keystone pipeline, which both Romney and Obama were unabashed in supporting.

Did you know that right at this moment, there are dedicated Earth defenders sitting in trees in Texas, trying to block the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Daryl Hannah at Keystone XL Pipeline protest, October 2012

Why?

Well, you probably realize that the bitumen that pipeline is designed to carry is so thick and sludgy that it has to be mixed with toxic chemicals in order to make it flow.

You’ve probably heard about the damage that could be caused by a spill from a pipeline like this, if the chemicals leaked into the major aquifers that are along the way.

This on top of the destruction of the forests that is already happening on a vast scale to get those “tar sands” out.

On top of the chemical contamination of our aquifers from hydro-fracking for gas.

On top of mountain-top removal and strip-mining for coal.

On top of the whole lousy cap and trade system, by which dirty Northern-hemisphere commercial polluters can continue to pollute as long as they buy credits in Southern hemisphere forest preserves—except that what’s actually been happening is that first they buy the preserves, then they log them, then they replant with palm oil trees, heavily sprayed with pesticide, herbicide and fungicide to keep the rainforest from returning, and then they proudly collect their credits for having maintained some semblance of soylent green!

All this is the reality behind the puffery that passed for politics at the debate last night.

What is our national energy policy?  For both the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s drill faster!  Drill harder!  Drill everywhere possible!

President Obama chided his opponent at one point for thinking only of short-term prospects.

“We have to think about what’s coming in 10, 20, 30 years,” he said, the implication being that we shouldn’t entirely neglect the prospects of wind and solar energy.

But the truth is that if we continue drilling at the rate both candidates support, there won’t be a stable environment left to build an alternative energy future for our grandchildren and future generations.

They won’t be building wind turbines and solar panels in 2050, they’ll be building underground shelters and modern-day Noah’s arks.

***

Still, yes, I am going to go grumbling to the polls on Nov. 6 and pull the lever for Obama.  There is no question in my mind that he is the better man.

I understand that right now he is trying to walk the centrist line and please as many American constituencies as he can.

But once re-elected, he must be pushed to take a stronger stand on environmental policy, including energy policy.

If that means that more of us have to take to the trees in protest, well, so be it.  I always did love climbing trees!

Malala Yousafzai Stands Up for Us All

There are a couple of old saws that I was taught as a young journalist, which I continue to pass on to my media studies students now.

One is: if it bleeds, it leads.

And another: one powerful human interest story is worth a million statistics.

We saw both of these principles in action with this week’s news of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistan girl who New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “one of the world’s most persuasive advocates for girls’ education.”

Everyone probably knows by now of how the Taliban viciously shot Malala in the neck as punishment for her outspoken insistence that girls should be allowed—and indeed, encouraged—to go to school, just like boys.

She is now the face of millions of girls worldwide who are denied the chance to get an education and empower themselves and their communities.

This week the Times also reports that in Africa, unprecedented wealth is being generated by the efforts of a rising tide of entrepreneurs—many of them women.

UN Women, formerly known as UNIFEM, has argued for years that by educating a girl, you help her whole family, including the children she will one day bear.

After all, as the Chinese say, “Women hold up half the sky.”

I am glad to see that Pakistanis have come together to reject the extremist politics of the gunmen who shot Malala.

We should all light a candle for her today as she is flown to the West for more treatment, and pray that this brave girl survives the attack and returns to the fray to serve as a defiant model for all girls, whose instinctive human desire for education will not be extinguished so easily.

In the Christian tradition, Eve takes the blame for the fall from Paradise, and here in the U.S., too, we can see many examples of strong women being sharply checked: for instance, in the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords or the mocking of Hillary Clinton for wearing pants suits and acting tough.

The story of Malala Yousafzai is one particularly emblematic story among many that could be told, of women and girls who dare to stand up to patriarchal power, and learn quickly that such defiance has its price.

Lately we’ve been seeing a steady drumbeat of reports—most of them disapproving—of how women are becoming more successful in school and in careers, threatening traditional male dominance in the public sphere.

Maybe it’s time for a reminder that feminism was never about dominance—it was and is about equality.

What’s so threatening about that?

I’m sorry, but real men don’t shoot 14-year-old girls under any circumstances.

To me a real man is the one who encourages his children, regardless of their gender, to stay in school and work hard to be prepared to step out into a future that is sure to be challenging.

A real man applauds his wife’s successes, and stands by her side when things are rough.

Real women do the same.

The truth is that gender is just another one of those culturally conditioned differences, like eye shape or skin tone, that fade to irrelevance before the profound reality of our human similarities.

Having unlocked the secrets of the genome, we now know that human beings are genetically 99% the same as field mice.

Isn’t that enough to convince us that men and women are only different in the most superficial ways?

Sure, women can bear children; men are more muscular.  But our brains are close to identical, and our hearts are the same.

Our spirits, freed of our physical bodies, know no differences.

It’s time to soar above the petty in-fighting of gender, and work together for the good of all.

 

Will the Eagle and the Condor Land Together in the New Millennium?

At the Peace and Justice Studies Association annual conference, held this week at Tufts University with the theme “Anticipating Climate Disruption: Sustaining Justice, Greening Peace,” I presented a paper entitled “Changing the narrative and crafting alliances between Western and indigenous worldviews to create a sustainable global future.”

In it, I sketched out the standard Western triumphalist narrative of technological domination of Nature and the New World, starting with the voyages of Columbus and Darwin, continuing with the Manifest Destiny doctrine of the takeover of North America, and on into the present, where we continue to tell ourselves the story of living happily ever after in the brave new world established by the subduing and harnessing of the natural world, the routing of resistance, and the triumph of a technologically advanced global civilization.

Given that the premise of the conference theme anticipates serious climate disruption that will take the story to a very different, and much less rosy kind of conclusion, it’s clear that we need to start telling ourselves stories that reflect a different kind of understanding of our relation as humans to the natural world.

The kinds of stories we need to embrace are not new; in fact, they are ancient. I believe that the indigenous peoples left on the planet, who have survived the intense onslaught of Western culture over the past 500 years, are in the best position to survive the coming cataclysms, and to teach us how we can survive too. We just need to start listening to the stories they tell, rather than remaining spellbound by our own Western narratives.

I shared with the audience the voices and visions of two indigenous elders, Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala and Malidoma Some of Burkina Faso, who have both spent much of their adult lives reaching out to Westerners, trying to get us to see our relation to the natural world in a more holistic, less destructive way.

Rigoberta Menchu

Menchu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and ran for President of Guatemala in 2007, was a leader in the pan-indigenous drive to get the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which it finally was in 2007.  She has worked tirelessly to promote the rights and improve the living conditions of the indigenous peoples in Guatemala, who are a majority in that country, but have little national political representation or power.

Central to Menchu’s political activism is her Mayan understanding of the importance of ecological balance.  “An indigenous people’s cosmovision is centered on their relationship with Mother Earth and Mother Nature,” Menchu says.  “In contrast, the majority of the world doesn’t give it a thought, doesn’t know what the source of life is.  They pollute the earth and do more and more damage.  One day the earth will exact a price for this disdain and destruction. When this happens, we will see that the earth is not just good and bountiful, it can also be vengeful.

“Indigenous people see Nature as a living mother, not as an inert organism that would allow itself to be destroyed,” she continues.  “All those who violate its laws must accept the consequences, because it is alive and will react. My grandfather always used to say that the day human beings violate our universe, they will receive signs and messages.  These messages will be very forceful, and will bring severe punishment.”

These words of Menchu’s come from her second book, Crossing Borders, in which she tried to reach out to the non-indigenous world with a challenge to the dominant narrative of “development,” which has been so terribly damaging not only to indigenous peoples, but to the ecological web of life itself. As she remarks bitterly in the book, “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods while they never mention how many sons of this America…have been sacrificed over the past 500 years to the god Capital.”

These biting words would no doubt resonate with Dagara shaman Malidoma Somé, who was taken as a child by Catholic missionaries to be educated at their school some hundred miles from his village, and was not allowed to go home to visit his family or village for 20 years.

Malidoma Some

On the point of being sent to France to finish his Catholic education, he rebelled and ran away from the missionary school, somehow finding his way back to his village on foot, unaided.  Once there, he insisted that he be given the initiation he had missed out on, and he started on the path to becoming a traditional shaman, or healer.

His healing practice has taken the form of trying to reconnect Westerners with the indigenous knowledge that our culture long ago left behind and rejected as “primitive.”  Malidoma, whose name means  “he who makes friends with the stranger/enemy,” spends much of his time in the U.S. and traveling around the world, guiding groups of Westerners into a different kind of understanding of self, community, and natural world.

Both Menchu and Malidoma stress that they do not reject all of Western technology —just the way it has been used, and the narrative vision that guides and undergirds it.  “What indigenous and Western peoples have in common is the desire to understand the intricacies and complexities of the world we live in, and to harness the power of nature for certain practical purposes,” Malidoma says in his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa.

“Where we have taken different routes, however, is the context within which we have developed our technologies and the purposes for which we have used them.  In the West, technology is oriented toward industrial, commercial and military uses; among indigenous people, it serves to heal and help people remember and fulfill their purpose in life.”

Malidoma continues, “Individuals, as extensions of Spirit, come into the world with a purpose. At its core, the purpose of an individual is to bring beauty, harmony and communion to Earth.  Individuals live out their purpose through their work.  Thus the human work of maintaining the world, to indigenous people, is an extension of the work that Spirit does to maintain the pulse of nature.  The villager’s quest for wholeness is an extension of nature’s wholeness.”

Both Malidoma and Menchu describe a human relationship to the earth rooted not in dominion and conquest, but in a cyclical give and take that takes ecological balance as a core value.

I believe that theirs is the vision that must animate the narrative arc of our future as a species on the planet, if we are to survive the environmental challenges that are speeding towards us now.

The good news is that though you won’t find much about this in the mainstream media, there is a quiet but forceful movement building on several fronts that is heeding the call to craft a different kind of human life story.

There is the Transition Town movement, which is imagining communities that are less dependent on multinational corporations, and more interdependent as individuals and cooperatives working together to meet needs on the local level.  And there is the Pachamama Alliance, which I talked about in my Tufts presentation, which has been partnering with indigenous peoples to, as they put it, “change the dream” of Western-style domination, development and destruction.

The Pachamama Alliance is quite remarkable in that it sees itself as a solidarity movement guided by its indigenous partners, the Achuar and Shuar peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.  It grew out of the connection with indigenous shamans established by John Perkins, who began in the 1990s to bring small groups of Americans and Europeans into the Andes and the rainforest to meet with indigenous shamans to learn a different way of understanding our relationship to the natural world.

Ecuador is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but is also one of the places that has been most devastated by the plundering of oil companies, specifically Texaco and Chevron.  Millions of acres of rainforest have been polluted by oil spills and the byproducts of unregulated drilling—and a landmark case has just been won against Chevron, ordering the company to pay $18 billion in damages to Ecuador for a clean-up.  The case is still in litigation, and meanwhile the people there are coming down with cancers and birth defects in astronomical numbers.  It is truly a place where you can see the worst conclusion of the Western narrative of development in action.

But it is also a place where another story is being told, and broadcast out into the world with increasing urgency.  It is a story that has been told by indigenous peoples of South America and beyond for hundreds of years.

According to the ancient prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor, which animates the work of the Pachamama Alliance, we are at a moment in history when the Eagle – representing intellect and the mind – and the Condor – representing wisdom and the heart – must come together to ensure the continued existence of humankind.

The human intellect and heart must realize that without the natural world we are nothing.  All the computers and synthetic chemicals and megawatts of electricity in the world will not enable us to survive in a world without plants and insects and animals.

It is that simple, and we know it scientifically, but we have not yet absorbed it in our hearts, and put our knowledge into practice in a different way of relating to the natural world.

So the question going forward, as Menchu so pointedly asked, is:

Will we sacrifice ourselves and most of the life forms currently on the planet to the great god Capital?

Or will we begin to understand wealth in a more balanced, ecologically sound way?

Will we have the strength to build a groundswell of resistance to the top-down hierarchies that hold such sway over our lives and the narratives we live by?

I believe we can do it.  I want to believe that we will.

Finding the fire in the belly to combat climate change

OK, I admit it, I fell asleep during the Presidential debate.

I got the lay of the land: the sober, restrained President; the overly aggressive, bulldog-style challenger; and poor Jim Lehrer, looking overly made up and rather frantic, trying to maintain order.

The truth is, I don’t like debates as a form of political discourse, especially not when we’re talking about something as important as who gets to hold the American presidency for the next four years.

This shouldn’t be decided on the basis of who is more aggressive at sniping at the opponent.

Pundits were quick to fault President Obama for not displaying sufficient fire in the belly, and I have to agree, I would have liked to see him put his rapier wit to better use.

But can we say that Mitt Romney “won” the debate simply because he showed more aplomb at throwing around inaccurate statistics?

Who do you want as your President, the man who can keep his cool and who believes in telling the truth, or the man who is all bombast and blather, and is quite comfortable with stretching the truth as need be?

 

The elephant in the room of this debate, and I suspect in the next debates as well, is climate change.

Neither candidate wants to talk about it, although it’s true that Romney is Mr. Fossil Fuel, while Obama is a tad more amenable to alternative energy.

All the projections about deficits and economic growth, etc etc ad nauseum, will be totally moot when and if the earth’s atmosphere goes way out of balance.  And all indications are that this is already happening, faster than anyone expected.

What we should be doing now is preparing for a brave new world that we have brought upon ourselves.  A world of violent storms, droughts, floods and wildfires, a world of acidified, dying oceans and rainforests turned to deserts.

 

No, this is not science fiction, this is real, and it’s already happening.

What we desperately need is a politician who will dare to stand up and tell the truth about where we’re heading, and the truth about what needs to be done to head off total catastrophe.

Obviously, neither Romney nor Obama is that leader.

Are we going to simply follow them over the cliff of climate change?

 

Although it may be hard to recognize, we do have other choices.

All involve taking the risk of stepping further off the beaten path. The lifestyle that most of us Americans were raised to see as normal is, in fact, a big part of what has brought the entire world to the brink of disaster.

We have to change.

And if we can’t find any leaders to show us the way, we have to do it ourselves.

Look into your heart and try to hear the deep, wise voice that lives there.

We know what to do.  It’s just a matter of summoning the courage to actually take those first baby steps into a new world.

Responding to Racism or Sexism: The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Again and Again

I shouldn’t be surprised that once again the ugly specter of racism and unacknowledged privilege is raising its head on my own little campus community.

It happens almost every year like clockwork, generally in the fall semester around this time, and usually involving freshmen who are still in the process of adjusting to the new, often more racially/ethnically/socially diverse culture in which they have suddenly landed.

Understandably, people of color who have had to put up with racism and white privilege all their lives get angry when it turns up, in all its crude arrogance, here in our campus home as well.

One angry response leads to another angry retort, onlookers begin to take sides, and before you know it the campus is in an uproar, with some calling for apologies, others calling for calm, and the majority just plain mad and not willing to take it anymore.

I want to talk about anger.

As a woman, albeit a white woman, I know something about how members of subordinate groups are not supposed to respond with anger to actions by members of dominant groups.  We are supposed to keep our cool, to turn the other cheek, seek the higher ground, not stoop to their level.

So we pretend we didn’t hear that cutting remark, muttered just loud enough to be audible.  We pretend we didn’t want to go to that party anyway—the one to which our invitation somehow got lost in the mail. Above all, we don’t respond directly to provocation, because that will just give them an excuse to keep going, and make the whole situation worse—not for them, but for us.

So the anger, unexpressed, gnaws at us, sitting in the pit of our stomachs as unmetabolized bitterness that threatens to choke us when, at unexpected moments, its bile rises into our throats.

Audre Lorde

As a woman, I have felt this bitter resentment.  And yet as a white woman, I have also felt the other side, the ignorant innocence of privilege.  Growing up in a racist society, I did, as Audre Lorde famously put it, accept racism “as an immutable given in the fabric of [our] society, like eveningtime or the common cold” (“The Uses of Anger,” Sister Outsider, 128).

I didn’t think to question why there were no African American families living in my apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—other than, of course, the live-in maids who could be seen going in and out of the service entrance or trundling laundry down the service elevator. None of the doormen or elevator men were people of color either—most were Irish, like our superintendent, or perhaps German or Scandinavian.

I didn’t think to question why there were hardly any African Americans or Latinos in my public elementary school, or in the selective public high school I attended, Hunter College High School.  When I got to college, it was the same, and again, I was incurious, complacent.

When you grow up this way, in an insular environment of privilege, it is possible to be deluded into thinking that this is just the way the world is.  No one in my whole upbringing encouraged me to ask the kinds of questions that might have made me see the how the fabric of my existence was shot through with deep-seated, longstanding racism.  No one talked about it.  It just was, and since for me that privileged life was very comfortable, I had no incentive to rebel against it.

It was reading that eventually opened my eyes to how the other half (or, globally speaking, two-thirds) lives.

When I happened upon Lorde’s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and read about how she too had gone to Hunter College High School, the only Black girl in a sea of white, and how hard that was for her in so many ways, I began to see my experience there through her outsider’s eyes.  I began to question the way I had lived in a vacuum of privileged blindness for so long.

Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” is one I go back to again and again.  The sentence that continues to resonate powerfully with me is this:

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own” (132).

Listening to Audre Lorde with an open heart, I understood why she was angry at the racist structures into which she was born and bred.  I knew I was not responsible for creating those structures, into which I too had been born and bred, but I did have the power to question them, and to ally myself with those who were working to change them.

When it comes to racism and other forms of identity-based oppression, it really is true that ‘you’re either with us or against us.”  There’s no way to hide behind a façade of neutrality.  To say nothing when someone drops a racial slur or pinches a woman’s behind is to become an accomplice to that act.  In these situations, silence is itself a form of tacit consent.

Audre wrote about that too, in an essay called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”

I often reread these lines when I am feeling fearful of speaking out on an issue I care about:

“We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners as mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us….it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken” (42-44).

As an ally with some measure of privilege, one of the best things I can do to advance the goal of a just society is to speak up when I see racism or sexism or any other form of discrimination taking place.  And not just speaking to my friends, but speaking up in public, inviting and sometimes even provoking a sustained conversation, with the aim of promoting greater awareness and understanding.

The flashpoint for the current unrest on my campus was a white male student challenging the validity of the school holding a campus-wide teach-in known as “Diversity Day,” in which students, staff and faculty organize workshops around issues related to the politics of identity.  Originally, Diversity Day was entirely a student-organized event, held on an extracurricular basis to compensate for a perceived lack of attention to non-white-western-male culture and experience in the curriculum.  The founding students lobbied hard, and ultimately successfully, to have their effort institutionalized by having classes cancelled, with all students required to attend at least two workshops during the day.

Whenever a revolutionary gesture becomes institutionalized, it loses some of its spark, and maybe this is an event that needs to continue to evolve.

But only someone who was ignorant of the extent to which discrimination and structural identity-based limitations continue to affect women and people of color in this country could argue in good faith that it was not worthwhile to spend some time discussing these issues one day out of the school year.

Of course, many students will take classes in sociology, anthropology, gender studies or ethnic studies and go a lot deeper. But those are often the students who already have an inkling that all is not well for subordinate groups.

It is the most privileged who are often the least aware of how systems of privilege operate, and therefore the least likely to elect to take classes in these topics.  These are the students who are most likely to benefit from being required to attend two eye-opening workshops on Diversity Day.

At many of these workshops, people of privilege will be asked to confront W.E.B. Dubois’s famous question in The Souls of Black Folk, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, one of the finest anti-racist, anti-sexist writers and educators I know, says that in the 21st century, “the new White People’s Burden is to understand that we are the problem, to come to terms with what that really means, and act based on that understanding.  Our burden is to do something that doesn’t seem to come naturally to people in positions of unearned power and privilege: Look in the mirror honestly and concede that we live in an unjust society and have no right to some of what we have” (Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, 92).

The next step, he says, is to “commit to dismantling white supremacy as an ideology and a lived reality”—not because it’s hurting other people, but because, as Lorde recognized, “none of us is free while some of us are still shackled.”

Or, as Alice Walker put it, “We care because we know this: The life we save is our own.”

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