Finding Hope in Hard Times

Amid all the darkness and chaos overtaking our world—the beheadings of journalists and the enslavement of women, the bloody flux of Ebola, the melting of the poles and the relentless advance of the bulldozers and chain saws into the forests—amid and despite all that, I am still seeing the frail but determined light of hope burning.

And the best thing is, I see this light growing in places that surprise me.

In recent weeks some huge financial players have announced their intention to fight the stranglehold of fossil fuel companies over our political economy.

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller.  Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller. Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Right after the dramatically successful People’s Climate March in September 2014, the Rockefeller family declared it would join forces with the nascent fossil fuel divestment movement. John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels,” trumpeted the lede in the New York Times article by John Schwartz.

“The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil… [announced] that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement that began a couple years ago on college campuses.”

This is big news indeed! In a society where money rules, the people with the most privilege are the ones with the most social power to create change, and the Rockefeller family can catalyze other wealthy philanthropists to start to think outside their parents’ box.

Not that the rest of us have no power. It’s only because college students and their adult mentors dreamed up the divestment movement and pushed vigorously for it that the Rockefellers made this move.

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

We ordinary folks—those of us who are awake to the critical state of our planet and human civilization today—can and must apply pressure to the rich and powerful in our society to shift their resources from our current death-dealing economic model to a life-giving, ecologically sound human relationship to the planet that sustains us.

timthumb.phpWhen current economic top dogs start to pay attention at last, we know we’re making progress. It was heartening to hear that the Women Donors Network is focusing its 2014 annual conference on strategic visioning of future scenarios for the year 2030.

At this year’s annual conference, the organizers state, “we will get the chance to step out of the urgent demands of the present to think big and strategize for the long term. What kind of future do we want to create? How can we work with the major trends we know are going to shape the future? And what can a powerful group of progressive women philanthropists do together to make the most of this critical moment?”

I find hope in the fact that this big group of wealthy women will be spending their valuable time not at a spa or a vacation in Paris, but at a conference where they’ll be, according to the conference Program, “’transported’ to 2030 to experience what our collective future could look like based on the decisions we make now, in this critical moment….We will participate in three “future scenarios” that are designed to help us clarify the role we hope WDN and all of us as individual philanthropists can play in helping strengthen the progressive social change movement.”

Go women go! The more of us become aware of the extent to which our choices today affect the futures that await us, the more we can act to create the green and glowing future we want.

Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Oren Lyons

I find hope too in the news that Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation will be making a special visit to the Bioneers conference this month to talk about the new international initiative, the Plantagon urban agriculture system. A joint venture of the Onondaga Nation, Sweden and several East Asian investors, the Plantagon aims to revolutionize urban agriculture by making it possible for cities to feed themselves locally—a shift that will have enormous benefits in relieving pressure on rural water and land, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel transportation of produce, and also reducing or eliminating the need for harmful chemical inputs.

Artists' rendering of the Plantagon

Artists’ rendering of the Plantagon

To me, the word “Plantagon” summons up a word that has very different connotations, “Pentagon.” When we Americans hear the word Pentagon, we think immediately of military force and the way American military might has most often been called upon to defend “American interests”—politico-speak for access to resources, principally oil and precious minerals, often at great cost to local people and environments.

The U.S. Pentagon

The U.S. Pentagon

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, I find hope in the recent announcement that the Pentagon is now taking climate change into account in its strategic planning, not just for the distant future, but for next week.

In a new report, the Pentagon asserts unequivocally that “climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages,” reported Coral Davenport in The New York Times. Whereas “before, the Pentagon’s response to climate change focused chiefly on preparing military installations to adapt to its effects, like protecting coastal naval bases from rising sea levels,” Davenport writes, “the new report…calls on the military to incorporate climate change into broader strategic thinking about high-risk regions — for example, the ways in which drought and food shortages might set off political unrest in the Middle East and Africa.

“Experts said that the broadened approach would include considering the role that climate change might have played in contributing to the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State.”

Well hallelujah! At last the most powerful force in the world is recognizing that climate change is here, it’s real, and it’s already a major destabilizing factor in world politics.

The challenge now will be to see if civil society can exert enough pressure on the military to get them thinking in proactive ways, rather than being a reactionary, often highly destabilizing force in the world.

Why can’t we use the wealth and resources of the U.S. military-industrial complex to support and sustain life on the planet?

Let’s get those military planners, along with the big boys at the World Bank, IMF and the U.S. Congress to understand that building schools and investing in sustainable agriculture and distributed energy networks is a far smarter and saner use of funds than blowing things up and rebuilding them (which has been our strategy in the Middle East over the past decade).

I see glimmers of hopeful light behind many of the dire stories in the news right now. We need to focus on those flickers of consciousness, blow on them gently and encourage them to grow brighter and stronger.

Hope is a verb, and we do it together. I’m working on it; how about you?

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Ebola & Islamic Extremism: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

airport Ebola screening

Airport Ebola screening

Although American officials are making lots of reassuring noises about screening passengers coming from West Africa for signs of the dreaded Ebola virus, the truth is that the only way to totally safeguard against the spread of the disease is to close our borders entirely. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Talk about an unexpected side effect of globalization. Goods and services spread around the globe at the stroke of a keyboard or the roar of a jet engine, but the same mechanisms we celebrate as having pumped up the global economy also, potentially, have a darker side.

What was it Marx said about the bourgeoisie digging its own grave?

I keep hearing the undertone, in the media reporting on Ebola, of the “blame-the-victim” complaint, “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they living in such poverty? Why don’t they have doctors, nurses, hospitals? Look how their squalor is putting us all at risk?!”

There is truth to this. The poor folks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierre Leone, former colonies of the U.S., France and Great Britain, respectively, have not managed to modernize their societies. This is due to a number of factors, including corrupt leadership (strongmen often propped up by the Western powers), violent civil wars (armed by Western weapons manufacturers and distributors), and banana republic-style economies where Western corporations rule by extraction, extortion and exploitation, without giving anything back in taxes, infrastructure or education for the local people.

This is where the West has made its big mistake. How could we in the so-called developed world be so naïve as to think that we could ignore the poverty and suffering of other parts of the globe without that poverty and suffering coming back to haunt us?

Liberian child soldier

Liberian child soldier

If we had invested in schools, medical facilities and housing in Liberia, instead of sending endless supplies of assault rifles and ammunition, we would not be worrying about Ebola now.

Likewise, if we had invested in education and economic development in the Middle East, instead of relying corrupt warlords to keep the population in line, we would not be dealing with a seemingly endless morphing insurgency of Taliban-Al Quaeda-Islamic State terrorists.

It really is true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In a globalized society, pretending that vast disparities of wealth don’t matter is just plain stupid. Imagining that a vicious virus can be contained by airport thermometer checks is as ridiculous as imagining that an international terrorist network can be stopped by a few fly-by bombings.

The world’s leaders need to take a lesson from Malala Yousefzai, the 17-year-old girl who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her steadfast insistence, even after nearly having her head blown off by the Taliban, that girls should be educated.

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Study after study has shown that when a society educates and empowers women, it becomes more economically successful and more politically stable.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

This week, in my African Women Writing Resistance class, I’ve been reading and discussing the autobiography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman head of state in modern Africa.

Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has been in the news a lot lately, begging for help in containing the spread of Ebola and warning grimly of the consequences of international inaction.

She came to office vowing to take her country back from the warlords and reintegrate child soldiers, to educate girls and boys and build a sustainable economy. She’s made great strides, but the stark pictures of the pathetic state of the nation’s health care infrastructure make it clear how far Liberia, like other poor African nations, still has to go.

The bottom line is this: if we want safety, we have to build towards it, step by step, from the ground up. We can’t ignore poverty and then get mad when impoverished sick people dare to infect us, or when desperate people turn to radical Islam as a way out of their misery.

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

There is no excuse, in our globalized world, for the dramatic disparities of wealth and poverty that exist today. Those of us lucky enough to live comfortably in the U.S. or Europe should be using our privilege to advocate for those less fortunate.

Not just out of altruism. Out of self-preservation, too.

If we had been helping Liberia and other West African nations build good social infrastructure, instead of extracting profits from diamonds, rubber and gun sales, we would not be worrying about the spread of Ebola today.

If we had been educating children in Syria, Yemen and Iraq instead of supporting corrupt dictators and ignoring the plight of ordinary people, we would not be facing the spread of Islamic extremism today.

How many innocent humans will have to die before we begin to understand that simple adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy

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Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.

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In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.

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A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

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An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

The People’s Climate March: Taking the Evolutionary Leap of Radical Democracy

The People’s Climate March in New York City is just one manifestation of a huge sea-change sweeping through our culture. Or perhaps “seeping” would be a better verb—this shift in awareness is not happening with the tsunami force of a revolution, but more with the steady, determined drip-drip-drip of water undermining rock.

Humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, we love everything that’s new and innovative, we all want to be out ahead of the curve when it comes to technological breakthroughs and new ideas. On the other hand, we hold tight to the received wisdom of our forebears, living by enshrined writings thousands of years old (the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, Confucius, etc.) or hundreds of years old (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights).

We have established elaborate educational, political and legal systems designed to hold us to a particular form of society, permitting free, innovative thinking only along narrow channels carefully defined by the interests of business and commerce.

The arts and humanities, traditionally the realm of creative, imaginative exploration, have been steadily starved in this brave new world, which can only imagine creativity in the service of profit.

What happens to a society that can only envision creative energy in an instrumental, utilitarian light?

We become a society of robots. We lose our connection to the soul of the world, the anima mundi that sustains us humans along with all other living beings on the planet.

http---pbs.twimg.com-media-ByDzJSPIYAA_RHcThe People’s Climate March, which is happening not only in New York City but worldwide, with 2,808 marches and events in 166 countries, bears welcome witness to the fact that the sparks of creative, independent thinking have not totally gone out.

There are many, many people worldwide who are aware, and aghast, at the failure of our political and business leaders to act in the best interests of the people and all the beautiful, innocent creatures who are slipping away into the night of extinction day by day due to the relentless human assault on our shared planet.

We are here, we are aware, and we are engaged. We are not going to stand by silently and let corporate greed and shortsightedness overwhelm us.

It is true that business and government have a stranglehold on official channels of communication, education and social change.

They control the curricula taught in our schools, what appears on our major media channels, and what projects and areas of creative exploration are funded. They keep us in line with the debt bondage of school loans, mortgages, car payments and the fear of not having enough money in the bank for a comfortable old age. We’re so busy running on the treadmills they’ve set up we have no time or energy to think about changing the system.

Or do we?

So far, the one social area that has not been overtaken by corporate/governmental control is the World Wide Web. It’s still a Wild West space, a place where you can find everything and everyone, from dangerous sadists to beneficent spiritual leaders. There’s room for every kind of idea out there to percolate through our collective consciousness. And make no mistake: the energy we’re seeing in the People’s Climate March is fueled in large part by the distribution power of the Web, the ability to get the word out and get people fired up to come together to take a stand.

We saw it happen in the Arab Spring, where people used cell phones and texts to organize themselves to resist oppression.

We saw those people get beaten back, the promise of their revolution squashed by the entrenched power of men with guns and tear gas.

The rise of the Islamic State, like the rise of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, is all about conservative forces resisting change.

I am just as afraid of men with guns and tear gas as the next woman. I am happier making revolution on my laptop than in the streets. But at some point we have to come out from behind our screens, get off the treadmills of debt bondage, look around us at the beauty of the world, and say: this is what I want to live for, and this is what I’m willing to die for.

Terry Tempest Williams.  Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Terry Tempest Williams. Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her book The Open Space of Democracy, says that the time has come to “move beyond what is comfortable” (81) in pursuit of what she calls a “spiritual democracy.”

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt,” she says.

“It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few” (87)

Williams calls for a radical recognition of the interdependence of all life on Earth. “The time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms,” she says. “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” (86)

If we humans could step into our destiny as the stewards of our planet, the loving gardeners and caretakers of all other living beings, we would harness our incredible intelligence and creativity to re-stabilize our climate and do what needs to be done to ensure the well-being of all.

Williams calls this “the next evolutionary leap” for humanity: “to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own” (89).

DSC_2200WIf we are able to take this leap, we will not only avert climate-related disaster on a Biblical scale, we will also overcome many of the social problems that we currently struggle with. “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry,” says Williams (89).

Williams’ small gem of a book grew out of a speech she gave at her alma mater, the University of Utah, in the spring of 2003, as America was rushing into its ill-conceived War on Terror in Iraq. She describes her heart pounding as she got up to make a speech advocating a different form of democracy than that embraced and espoused by all the conservative friends and family sitting in the audience before her.

Challenging one’s own friends and family, betraying one’s own tribe, is the hardest aspect of being a social revolutionary. You have to question the very people you love most, who have given you so much and made your whole life possible.

But if we become aware that the social systems that gave birth to us are the very social systems that are undermining the possibility of a livable future on this planet, can we continue to just go with the flow, to avoid asking the difficult questions?

Or will we become change agents who work slowly and steadily, drip by drip, to awaken those around us, those we love most, to the necessity of undertaking “the next evolutionary leap” in the human saga on the planet?

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Are We Going to Stand By Silently in the Face of Ecocide? Hell no!

In my talk the other night, “The Personal is Planetary,” which I gave as the opening lecture of the Berkshire Human Rights Speaker Series, I set out to point to climate stabilization as the most important issue of our time, the one that dwarfs all the other social and environmental struggles we may be engaged with.

candian-oil-sands-615Most people know by now that if we don’t shift to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, the greenhouse gases caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels are going to wreck our planetary environment so badly that our beautiful Earth will become unlivable for most of her current inhabitants, including humans.

“We know and we don’t know,” I told the audience. “We know but we see no role for ourselves as change agents. We know but we’re afraid of the consequences of protest. We know but we don’t want to know. Life is comfortable; why rock the boat?”

I wondered aloud how bad things would have to get before we sunpower_maincomfortable Americans finally understand that it is past time for our active engagement in forcing our government and our corporations to do what needs to be done to ensure a livable future for us all.

Shocks can be necessary, and we’ve already had a few: Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy, along with regional droughts, floods and wildfires in many parts of the country, all weather-related events exacerbated by global warming.

But Americans are still pretty cushioned from the full effects of climate change. Around the world, for people of other nationalities and for millions of non-human species, things are already reaching a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, even impossible.

We Americans, privileged and coddled as we are, need to open up our eyes and take in the full enormity of the crisis that confronts us.

This is bigger than any individual war, even against evil empires like the Islamic State. It’s bigger than any individual social justice issue, even the ones I’ve spent a good part of my life fighting for, like women’s equality and anti-racism.

As I said in my talk, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to compare our role as bystanders to the destruction of the forests and oceans and all their inhabitants to the role of the ‘good Germans’ who watched the trains full of Jews roll into the concentration camps and professed to not know what was going on behind those walls.”

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, some of them my distant relatives. I’ve been taught all my life that we must remember this genocide, and others like it, so that it will never happen again.

And yet all of us are willing to stand by, deaf, blind and mute, as millions upon millions of innocent living beings on the planet are sacrificed to the maw of human industry in its current greedy, profit-driven guise.

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Fossil fuel extraction, from fracking to tar sands to deep-sea drilling; industrialized agriculture, with its chemical poisoning of the earth and waters; mining and deforestation; plastic garbage on land and sea; endless urban and suburban sprawl—all this is driving what scientists now refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction, which will only intensify as the planet continues to heat up.

Eventually, if we stand by and do nothing, we humans too will join the long death march to extinction, or at least to a total collapse of our ruinous global civilization.

Are we going to stand by and do nothing while the planet burns? Are we going to allow our government and our corporations to commit planetary ecocide? Are we going to continue to pretend that we don’t know what’s going on?

10453020_1454513064799672_5914704337046021387_oThis Sunday there will be an opportunity to take to the streets to demand effective action on climate change. Tens of thousands of Americans from all over the country will be converging on midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March to show the world that we care about our future and we know that our destiny is bound up in the health and welfare of the entire planetary ecosystem.

It is truly a legendary moment in the history of humanity. We have the grand opportunity to be the generation that succeeds in abandoning the deadly playbook of industrialized capitalism, and opens up a new epoch based on caring, balance and good stewardship of the Earth.

Endless growth of human industry is not possible on our finite planet—not without driving us all to ruin. The sooner we can adjust our economies and industries to this new worldview, the sooner we will all begin to learn how to recalibrate human activity accordingly, and redistribute the current massive imbalances of wealth so that everyone has enough—including all the non-human species that we must also learn to value and protect.

As I concluded in my talk the other night, “The future of so many living beings on this planet depends on our ability to overcome our fear, move beyond our silences and step into the power of our own transformative visions. Opportunities to work for positive change will open up as we begin to look for them. Now is the time for action, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Let’s not wait any longer.”

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PS: I was glad to see an excellent op-ed piece by Mark Bittman in The New York Times about the importance of the People’s Climate March. The Times is also providing a “Countdown to the Climate March” this week: here’s a story that goes behind the scenes with the organizers, featuring an interview with Bill McKibben.

Also, if you haven’t seen the new film DISRUPTION yet, here is the You-Tube link.  It begins with a quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass.  Check it out!

Resistance is the Secret of Joy–and of Social Revolution

The little old building that houses the offices of Orion Magazine was crowded with people of all ages, gathered around a data projector to see the just-released film, DISRUPTION: CLIMATE. CHANGE.

The film, made by the same folks who created the excellent climate advocacy film DO THE MATH, features stalwart activists like Naomi Klein, Van Jones and Bill McKibben, along with newer voices like Chris Hayes and Keya Chatterjee, all focused intently on a single goal: getting the viewing public—that’s us!—to understand that climate change is real, it’s happening now, it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and there is absolutely no more important cause to which to dedicate our lives.

According to the 2014 report by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we are in for a rough century. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow, we’ll drive the global temperature so high that severe climate change will result. Mega-storms, melting polar caps, coastal flooding, ocean acidification, damages to agriculture, human and ecosystem health, mass extinction, you name it.

Walker - from Beauty in Truth jpg

Alice Walker

How do we avoid despair when looking ahead at an uncertain and probably chaotic future? One of the scientists interviewed in the film quotes Alice Walker, who famously wrote that “resistance is the secret of joy.”

This is the title of one of Walker’s novels, and the quote comes from the protagonist, Tashi/Evelyn, who willingly submits to genital mutilation as a young woman eager to conform to her society’s idea of what is right and proper…only to spend the rest of her life dealing with the resulting pain and trauma.

She thinks to herself that “resistance is the secret of joy” as she’s on her way to be executed for the crime of having murdered the old woman who cut her clitoris out with a razor—the woman who performed this “operation” on hundreds and hundreds of young girls over the course of a long career as an exciser.

For us, as for Tashi, there comes a point where we can no longer go along with the path that our elders and leaders have laid out for us.

There comes a point where we have to begin to think for ourselves, and to see that the danger of going along with the status quo far outweighs the danger of standing up to declare that another world is possible.

In a much-quoted column on Truthdig.com, Chris Hedges writes that because of the stranglehold the fossil fuel industry has on our political process, ordinary democratic tactics are not going to work in the urgent struggle to radically rethink and retool our economy to run on renewable energy.

“We have known about the deleterious effects of carbon emissions for decades,” Hedges writes. “The first IPCC report was published in 1990. Yet since the beginning of the Kyoto Protocol Era in the late 1980s, we have emitted as much carbon dioxide as was emitted in the prior 236 years. The rising carbon emissions and the extraction of tar sands—and since the industry has figured out how to transport tar sands without building the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, this delivery seems assured—will continue no matter how many police-approved marches are held. Play by the rules and we lose.

“Resistance will come from those willing to breach police barricades. Resistance will mean jail time and direct confrontation. Resistance will mean physically disrupting the corporate machinery. Resistance will mean severing ourselves from the dominant culture to build small, self-sustaining communities. This resistance will be effective only when we refuse to do what we are told, when we turn from a liberal agenda of reform to embrace a radical agenda of revolt.”

These are strong words from a middle-aged white guy, a media guru with a lot to lose.

Hedges is disdainful of the People’s Climate March on September 21, which, he says, has been coopted by some of the big fossil fuel companies themselves, and has failed “ to adopt a meaningful agenda or pose a genuine threat to power.”

Go ahead, “March if you want,” Hedges says. “But it should be the warm-up. The real fight will come once people disperse on 11th Avenue.” 

This is a point that is also made in the DISRUPTION film by the People’s Climate March organizers, who freely acknowledge that the march is only a first step in what will be a much more protracted struggle to, as one activist says, “take back our future” from what Bill McKibben calls the “rogue industries,” the criminal fossil fuel companies who are selling the future of every living being on the planet for a fourth-quarter profit report.

My favorite part of the film is right at the end, where Van Jones looks directly at us through the camera and says that change must start with each one of us taking a good hard look in the mirror.

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The author marching in Washington,DC, February 2014

Planetary and political change starts with personal awareness and responsibility. We can’t keep hanging around waiting for our political leaders to do the right thing. We can’t keep waiting for someone else to step up. If you have a vision of a better world, now is the time for you to start expressing it, finding others to share it, and together making it happen.

Next week I’ll be sharing my own story of coming to awareness, finding my way out of the straitjacket of convention and back into a deep connection with the natural world, which I had as a child but lost as I took my place among the young adults of my generation.

Entitled “The Personal is Planetary,” my talk is aimed at people like me—ordinary, people who work hard, take their responsibilities as parents and mentors seriously, and try to be kind and compassionate towards others.

How could it be that good people like us have let the planet come to the brink of disaster?

Human beings are like caribou—or like lemmings. We are instinctively compelled to run with our pack, even if the pack is running straight over a cliff. Those who try to buck this stampede can find themselves trampled.

The DISRUPTION film makes the point that we Americans are both bystanders to the tragedy of global climate change, and perpetrators. We have been enjoying the carbon-intensive lifestyle that is now driving the entire planet down the road to ruin.

True story. But regrets and guilt won’t get us anywhere now. We must find within ourselves the courage to look in that mirror, accept our culpability and deficiencies, and move on to do whatever we can, in the time that is left to us, to work towards a smooth transition to a sustainable future for children and grandchildren.

I’ll be in New York on September 21 for the People’s Climate March, will you? Let’s remember that resistance is not only the secret of joy. It’s the only way real social change has ever been accomplished.  

Communing with Grasshoppers: An Elemental Prayer

There’s nothing like an out-of-control fatal virus to make you stop and give thanks for each day of your still-unfolding life.

Every year when I teach the five-day Writing & Thinking orientation workshop at Bard College/Simon’s Rock, I end by leading the students on a slow, silent, meditative walk in the woods, and before we set out we read Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem “The Summer Day,” which ends with these lines:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.


I do know how to pay attention,


how to fall down into the grass,


how to kneel down in the grass,


how to be idle and blessed,


how to stroll through the fields,


which is what I have been doing all day.


Tell me, what else should I have done?


Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do


with your one wild and precious life?

The students think and write and share their responses to that final question, which is the part of the poem that leaps out at them—understandably, as they are poised on the threshold of an exciting new chapter in their lives, starting college two years earlier than most of their peers.

The more I read this poem, the more drawn I am to the earlier lines, though. I love Oliver’s humility in admitting, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” followed by the suggestion that prayer can take the form of communing wordlessly with the unmown fields and the grasshopper that Oliver observes “gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

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Fewer and fewer of us humans have the chance, these days, to simply relax into the natural world around us.

Fewer and fewer of us are even aware that we inhabit a natural world—or if we do think about it, it’s more in terms of annoyance (“the mosquitoes are so bad this year!”) or fear (“the seas are rising! What are we going to do?!”) or utility (“the Arctic ice is melting, let’s get an oil rig up there and start drilling!”).

Oliver’s insight that prayer can take the form of “blessed idleness” in nature seems key to me now. That’s the kind of religion we need more of today.

Not the hysterical fanaticism of the pseudo-religious Islamic State, which, like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland screaming “Off with their heads!” at every opportunity, is turning the beheading of civilians into a spectator sport.

Not the Cain-and-Abel warring of the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Muslims; not the Christian capitalist posturing of “do unto others” while simultaneously creating wealth disparities just as vast as back in the days of feudalism, with inherited misery for the masses and inherited luxury for the few.

In creating a society that sees and understands itself through the mediation of computer screens, we have, in a few short generations, succeeded in cutting ourselves off from what we once knew: that we are an integral part of our planet, and indeed of our universe.

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Unmowed field off the Appalachian Trail, South Egremont MA. Photo c. J. Browdy

Humans are not that different from grasshoppers, or birds, or maple trees. Everything alive on Earth is made out of the same basic building blocks of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, fueled by the intense energy of our sun.

Without sun, water and oxygen-rich air, all of us will die.

It makes perfect sense to me that we humans should make our everyday lives into a prayer in honor of the Elemental Nature that sustains us.

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Humans are the consciousness of the planet; we are the one species that can weigh actions in the present based on our knowledge of the past, our calculated predictions of the future, and our elaborate system of ethics.

If we could just pull our eyes away from our hypnotic screens more often and remember our kinship with every precious manifestation of life on our beautiful planet, it would become inconceivable that we could allow ourselves to destroy it all.

Wildflowers, Nova Scotia.  Photo c. Jennifer Browdy, 2014

Wildflowers, Nova Scotia. Photo c. Jennifer Browdy, 2014

The quest to restore balance to our natural systems should become the Holy Grail of our time, with all the best and brightest on the planet dedicating themselves to the grand collective effort.

I wish every young person on the planet, but especially the brilliant, pampered, over-stimulated, often-jaded young people of privilege, could have the chance to sit in a field in blessed idleness on a lovely summer day and commune with a grasshopper.

If we would only pay attention, we would see in “her enormous and complicated eyes” the reflection of our own human souls.

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Michael Brown and the Dream of Radical Equality

 If Michael Brown had been Michael White, would the still-unfolding tragedy of Ferguson have occurred? When was the last time you heard of a white college student being shot down in cold blood by a police officer? Kent State, maybe? Yeah, it’s been that long.

10547712_1453135431613983_6655587389963374312_nThere is no excuse for the police officers hired to protect the peace using their weapons to kill unarmed citizens on the street.

There is no excuse for the kind of racial profiling that has spawned the bitter joke among Black men that they were stopped for DWB—driving while Black.

For a naturally empathic species, we humans can be remarkably insensitive to the well-being of others. I have realized, through examining my own experience closely, that this is due to cultural conditioning that enjoins us to put ourselves first—as individuals, as members of families and cultures, and as human beings.

We are not encouraged to think of ourselves in relationship to others. And without that sense of relationship, it’s hard to get worked up about what happens to others. It’s their business, their concern, not ours. Michael Brown? He must have been causing trouble.

The riots that came down in the wake of Brown’s killing show us that people of color knew otherwise. They took this murder personally because it could have been any one of them shot down by police. They are standing up for their rights in the way that people without power do: putting their own bodies on the line and raising a ruckus too loud to be ignored by the authorities.

Sometimes smashing storefront windows and setting cars on fire is necessary. It’s the last resort of people pushed beyond the bounds of civility.

There is a song that keeps running around in my head lately, from the Civil Rights Era, called “It Isn’t Nice.” It goes like this:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway

It isn’t nice to go to jail

There are nicer ways to do it

But the nice ways always fail

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice if you told us once you told us twice

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind.

Well we tried negotiation

And the token picket line

Mr. Charlie wouldn’t see us

And he might as well be blind

When you deal with men of ice

You can’t deal with ways so nice

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind.

What about the years of lynchings

And the shot in Evers’ back?

Did you say it wasn’t proper

Did you step out on the track?

You were quiet just like mice

And now you say that we’re not nice.

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind!

 When yet another unarmed black boy is shot by police for no apparent reason…well, it isn’t nice, and the authorities can’t expect a nice calm response. Further curtailing civil rights by imposing a night curfew won’t help matters either.

What’s needed is first of all an apology; and secondly a real sit-down between the Black and the white communities, a sincere and prolonged effort to come to terms with reasons behind the continuing segregation and impoverishment on the Black side of the tracks, and strategies for making things better.

10600474_1445994419015603_795058456781638434_nBarack Obama’s rhetoric from early in his presidency—we are not Black Americans and white Americans, red Americans or blue Americans, we are all Americans—comes back to haunt me as I think about the killing of Michael Brown. For too long we humans have seen the world in terms of differences and separations, rather than recognizing the ways we are all the same and connected.

One day I hope humans will look back on this period of history and shake their heads, wondering how their ancestors could have been so misguided as to imagine that people with dark skin were any different than people with pale skin. I hope that in this future time, it will be inconceivable that a life could be snuffed out for no reason.

We humans are blessed with incredible powers of creative imagination, and the ability to manifest what we dream. We need to focus our imaginations now on envisioning a safer, saner world, where respect and mutual aid are the highest values—and not just respect for humans, but for all the life forms on the planet.

If we can use the situation in Ferguson as a catalyst for moving forward in the dream of radical equality, then Michael Brown’s tragic death will not have been in vain.

Cosmic Honey for Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams has lain heavily on me since I heard the news. I echo what all my friends are saying: he was so talented, he brought so much brilliance and joy to the world, how could it be that all his laughs and charm hid such deep reservoirs of pain and despair?

People as creative as Williams are often sensitive and discerning; and if you’re sensitive these days, you can hardly help but be overwhelmed by all the pain we are forced to contend with in the world on a daily basis.

I wince every time I listen to the world news, bracing myself for the inevitable onslaught of violence, disease and misery suffered by human beings—not to mention the destruction of the environment, the extinction of millions of innocent animals, insects and plant life and the ever-accelerating pace of climate change. It’s enough to drive anyone to Prozac.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with some 40,000 suicides a year, 70% of them middle-aged white men. Most cultures and religions condemn suicide; we are asked to live our lives to the fullest, going towards death only when our bodies totally give out. Certainly this is true in the U.S., where death has been demonized and medicalized, seen as an ending to be feared and evaded as long as possible.

But what if death is actually more like a transition, mirroring birth—the emergence into another state of being?

What if death is a release, as some religions would have it, where we rejoin our ancestors and our spiritual families in a non-physical realm free of pain?

I don’t believe in the Christian idea of heaven and hell, but I am certainly not willing to rule out the possibility of an afterlife, in the sense of a spiritual reconnection with the Source energy that animates the physical realm on our planet.

With the advent of quantum physics and the recognition that 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—i.e., with stuff we know absolutely nothing about—science is beginning to make friends with metaphysics.

You won’t find many scientists willing to go as far as Jungian philosophers like Anne Baring, who talks about “the soul of the cosmos” as a kind of divine intelligence immanent in everything—but at least scientists are beginning to admit how much they don’t know about the way our universe works. And in that opening of humility lies the possibility that there could be a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to one of the greatest unknowns: death.

For Baring (writing with co-author Scilla Elworthy), “The life we know is an excitation on the surface of an immeasurable sea of cosmic energy that is continually surging, dancing, flowing into being. In every galaxy, every star, every planet, every cell of our being the universe is bursting into existence from this womb or sea of being.

“What does this mean for us? It means that when we are in touch with this incredible idea, each one of us becomes a co-creator with that mysterious process, at one with our starry source” and conscious “the sacredness, oneness and divinity of life.”

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Baring and Elworthy offer the image of a fully conscious human as “a cell in a limitless honeycomb of golden light. Imagine,” they say, “this luminous network of honeycomb cells connecting people in every part of the world who are trying to lift humanity out of the dark place we are in now. Imagine that through this powerful network of relationships a new consciousness is coming into being.”

The new collective and individual consciousness they imagine would be one that respects all life, generating a mode of living in which humans act as the stewards of our planet, rather than as the greedy, destructive despots we have become in the past few centuries.

“When we are prepared to become but a humble servant of life, devoted to caring for it and healing it, we become free from all fear,” they say. “We are then able to resonate with life, harmoniously and ecstatically.”

I wish Robin Williams had been able to receive this message; to see himself as a bright spark tossed out by the loving flame of our cosmos. I wish he had been able to read Baring and Elworthy’s small gem of a book, Soul Power, which ends with this striking injunction:

“Live life as an opportunity to transform the nectar of experience into the honey that can heal the world.”

As a creative genius, Robin Williams surely was making that honey for us. He just needed to hold more of it back to heal and salve his own sensitive, wounded soul.

Warriors for the Planet

Another summer, another war. I wonder how many summers there have been in the last 5,000 years when human beings were not occupied with killing each other?

Correction: not “human beings,” “men.”

Let’s be frank: even though there may be women in the armed forces of many countries now, war still remains a masculine activity and preoccupation. The women who serve as soldiers must adhere to the masculine warrior code and become honorary “bros,” for whom the worst insult is still be called a “girl” or a “pussy.”

AnneBaring_A_lgI have been reading Anne Baring’s magisterial book The Dream of the Cosmos, in which she gives a detailed account of the shift, around the time of Gilgamesh, from the ancient, goddess- and nature-worshipping “lunar cultures” to the contemporary era of solar, monotheistic, warrior-worshipping cultures.

In her elaboration of this shift, I read the tragedy of our time, enacted over and over again all over the planet, and not just by humans against humans, but also by humans against the other living beings with whom we share our world. I quote at length from Baring’s remarkable book:

Gilgamesh-187x300“The archetype of the solar hero as warrior still exerts immense unconscious influence on the modern male psyche, in the battlefield of politics as well as that of corporate business and even the world of science and academia: the primary aim of the male is to achieve, to win and, if necessary, to defeat other males. The ideal of the warrior has become an unconscious part of every man’s identity from the time he is a small child.

“With the mythic theme of the cosmic battle between good and evil and the indoctrination of the warrior went the focus on war and territorial conquest. War has been endemic throughout the 4000 years of the solar era. The glorification of war and conquest and the exaltation of the warrior is a major theme of the solar era—still with us today in George W. Bush’s words in 2005: ‘We will accept no outcome except victory.’ This call to victory echoes down the centuries, ensuring that hecatombs of young warriors were sacrificed to the god of war, countless millions led into captivity and slavery, countless women raped and widows left destitute. It has sanctioned an ethos that strives for victory at no matter what cost in human lives and even today glorifies war and admires the warrior leader. This archaic model of tribal dominance and conquest has inflicted untold suffering on humanity and now threatens our very survival as a species.

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“The cosmic battle between light and darkness was increasingly projected into the world and a fascination with territorial conquest gripped the imagination and led to the creation of vast empires. It is as if the heroic human ego, identified with the solar hero, had to seek out new territories to conquer, had to embody the myth in a literal sense and as it did so, channel the primitive territorial drives of the psyche into a Dionysian orgy of unbridled conquest, slaughter and destruction. We hear very little about the suffering generated by these conquests: the weeping widows, the mothers who lost sons, the orphaned children and the crops and patterns of sowing and harvesting devastated and disrupted by the foraging armies passing over them, the exquisite works of art pillaged and looted….The long chronicle of conquest and human sacrifice, of exultation in power and the subjugation of enemies might truly be named the dark shadow of the solar age” (118;124).

Like Baring, I see our time as a critical era in the long history of homo sapiens on the planet. There is still hope that enough of us will be able to detach ourselves from the pressures and busyness of our lives—will become conscious of what is happening to the planet and human civilization writ large—will understand that there are other ways to relate to each other and to the Earth, ways that will seem increasingly possible and obvious once we focus on them and begin to put our energies into manifesting our visions of a creative, collaborative, respectful mode of being.

Baring ends her disturbing chapter on the ascendancy of the solar warrior culture with a hopeful quote from The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas, from which she springs into her own positive vision of the potential of our time.

“’We stand at the threshold of a revelation of the nature of reality that could shatter our most established beliefs about ourselves and the world. The very constriction we are experiencing is part of the dynamic of our imminent release. For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being. The driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life; to differentiate itself from but then rediscover and reunite with the feminine, with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul. And that reunion can now occur on a new and profoundly different level from that of the primordial unconscious unity, for the long evolution of human consciousness has prepared it to be capable at last of embracing the ground and matrix of its own being freely and consciously.’

“As this deep soul-impulse gathers momentum, the ‘marriage’ of the re-emerging lunar consciousness with the dominant solar one is beginning to change our perception of reality. This gives us hope for the future. If we can recover the values intrinsic to the ancient participatory way of knowing without losing the priceless evolutionary attainment of a strong and focused ego, together with all the discoveries we have made and the skills we have developed, we could heal both the fissure in our soul and our raped and vandalized planet” (130-131).

My heart aches for the suffering of the innocent civilians trapped in the crossfire in Gaza this summer, and for the grieving families of the passenger plane heinously shot down by warriors who were either poorly trained or just plain evil.

I am heartsick when I think about the holocaust that is overtaking living beings on every quadrant of our planet as humans continue to ravage the forests and seas, to melt the poles with our greenhouse gases, and to poison the aquifers and soil with our chemicals.

The last Polar Bear

This is where the solar cultures, with their “great” warrior kings, have led us. And yet, as Baring says, they have also presided over the most amazing advances in science and technology that humans have ever known in our long history on the planet.

We don’t need or want to go back to the simple innocence of ancient lunar societies. We don’t have to bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age.

What we need is to go forward, wisely and joyously, into a new phase of consciousness, in which the masculine warrior spirit is used for protection and stewardship rather than destruction, and the Earth is honored as the Mother of all that she is.

Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. It is already happening.

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