21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.

melting-polar-ice-caps

Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the 350.org climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.

 

NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic

Trustworthy

Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea

Tenacious

Resilient

Creative

Empathetic/loving/caring

Passionate

Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears

Engaging

Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating

Synergizers

Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges

Self-confident

Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities

Focused/single-minded

Evangelical

Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”

Articulate

Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people

Diligent/hardworking

Initiative-takers

Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice

Generous

Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals

Intuitive

Considerate

Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive

Thoughtful

Resistant to corruption

 

JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?

Fear

Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure

Shyness

Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen

 

Negative Qualities that may hold us back

Closemindedness

Righteousness

Malleability

Empathy—taking things too personally

Numbness/alienation

Staying under the radar

Aggression

Defensiveness

Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning

 

What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission

Youth

Education

Social upbringing

Poverty

Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)

Language

Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem

 

Bypassing the Old Boys’ Club

As we move exuberantly into the second half of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, my mind is sparkling with memories of the powerful, indeed heart-stopping moments that have already taken place at Festival events this season.

DSCN4609Grace Rossman extending a powerful poetic hand to the drowning Ophelia in so many girls today; Ruth Sanabria impersonating both her mother and the fascist regime that unjustly imprisoned her in a fierce poem about the impossibility of stamping out the love between mother and daughter; Kate Abbott celebrating the cultural diversity of the Berkshire hills as she works quietly and steadily to make it more visible; Barbara Bonner eloquently describing the spirit of generosity that seeks and needs no recompense.

The list could go on, and it will, as the Festival continues to unfold day by day this month, and throughout the year in the on-going readings, workshops and writers’ circles that will be taking place under the Festival banner.

This is important work we’re doing together at the Festival—creating multiple entry points and platforms for women writers to step into the spotlight and shine.

The truth is, such opportunities are still all too rare for women writers, and creative women more generally.

Overall17-316x173At the end of February, just in time for Women’s History Month, the non-profit, all-volunteer group VIDA published its annual Count, revealing the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s voices in literary and upscale magazines and journals.

Overall14-316x173I invite you to take a look for yourself: the results show clearly that in literary circles (think The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The Nation and the New York Review of Books), the old boys’ club is alive, well and holding steady at an average of 75% male voices represented in their pages over the past year.

The same is true in the film industry, the theater industry, and in the television industry. 

It’s the same in book publishing, which may be one reason why women are so interested in exploring new opportunities for self-publishing and self-promotion.

publishing_quadrant1222These days in publishing, it’s like the Berlin wall coming down—gates thought to be invincible are simply crumbling away, with their keepers revealed in all their flabby ordinariness.

Having spent far too much of my life not even trying to take myself seriously as a writer because I knew exactly how high the odds were stacked against my success, I’m excited about the DIY spirit of the new publishing landscape.

I’ve got a book that’s almost ready to launch, and buoyed by the lively, can-do spirit of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’m thinking seriously about bypassing the old boys’ club entirely and taking responsibility myself for getting my words out into the world.

No more sitting on the sidelines complaining that “they won’t let us in!”  No more waiting to be asked to dance.  No more hiding my light for fear it won’t be appreciated.

BFWW-square-logo-2014If all of us women started supporting each other and working collaboratively to create the opportunities we all need to shine, we could change the creative cultural landscape for the better, turning those red and blue pie charts a lovely shade of purple.

What a beautiful world it would be!

The Philippines Today; Where in the World is Next, Tomorrow?

The media silence before Typhoon Haiyan hit was as eerie as the sickly green calm before a violent summer tornado.

In the days while the storm churned its way across the sea to landfall in the Phillippines, only the BBC seemed to be paying attention.

Super-typhoon Haiyan

Super-typhoon Haiyan

I had that familiar tightness in the pit of my stomach, watching the satellite images of the storm’s progress.  I knew that even though there had been evacuations, this was going to be a storm of historic proportions.

And it was.

And now the American media is paying attention, but it’s the usual kind of attention, which is to say, they’re asking the usual questions: how many dead?  How many wounded?  What humanitarian relief effort is being mounted?

I had yet to hear the words CLIMATE CHANGE raised, until this afternoon—and no surprise about who uttered those words.

Bill McKibben sent one of his pithy, no-nonsense emails out to the 350.org list today.

“Lines of communication are in still in chaos, but we managed to get in touch with Zeph, our amazing 350 Southeast Asia Coordinator in the Philippines. Here’s what she just emailed to our team: “This lends urgency to our work. I think we need to be twice as strong as Typhoon Haiyan.”

Concretely, McKibben is asking us to send funds to the survivors, and here’s the link provided by 350.org for more information on humanitarian aid.

Secondly, he says, we need to raise our voices.  The link connects to a petition that will be delivered to negotiators at the UN climate summit going on right now in Warsaw (surprise surprise, I didn’t know that was going on—did you?).

With characteristic bluntness, McKibben says:

“We need to let world leaders know that their inaction is wrecking the world, and the time is long past for mere talk — we need action, and we need it now.”

UnknownPhilippine negotiator Yeb Sano, who has been working for years to persuade the developed world to act aggressively on climate change, is fasting for the two weeks of the talks until and unless countries make real commitments around climate finance and reducing emissions.

McKibben quotes Sano: “Let Poland, let Warsaw, be remembered as the place where we truly cared to stop this madness. Can humanity rise to this occasion? I still believe we can.”

Call me a fool, but I still believe we can too.  One thing is for sure, this is no time to give up.

 

More Info and Links, courtesy of 350.org

 

Rotten Tomatoes for Republicans

All right, I admit defeat. I can’t tune out those crazy Republican Congressmen who actually believe that they are acting righteously in preferring to shut down the U.S. Government rather than guarantee all Americans the right to affordable health care.

I need to let off a little steam, so bear with me.

First of all, WHO ELECTED THOSE CREEPS????

It is beyond depressing that we have such an apathetic, distracted, numbed electorate, of whom barely 50% generally even bother to show up to the polls.

Of the half who do show up, obviously they are the easily manipulated types, because these Tea Partiers have managed to convince them to vote against their own interests time and time again.

It’s no secret that the Tea Partiers have been most successful in the so-called Red States, where the egregious gap between rich and poor (ie, the gap between the 1% of extreme wealth and the 99% of everyone else, way down at the bottom of the mountain) is huge.

Why would people vote against their own best prospect of getting affordable health care?

Why would people vote against the political party that, while far from perfect, has at least shown a measure of human decency and responsibility in its approach to governing?

images-2It’s only fathomable if you remember how, in Tea Party country, education and the media are entirely controlled by these same craven elites, who will stop at nothing to seize power and control of the country.

In these parts of the country, people live in ideological bunkers, where party-controlled propaganda is the only message they get.  Red China anyone?  1984?

With the advent of the World Wide Web, in America at least, it’s hard to maintain a complete lockdown on information.  But as we all know, we tend to surf to places on the Web that are familiar and tell us what we want to hear.

So I get my news from The New York Times, while in Tea Party country the average citizen is more likely to check out Fox News.  The same story looks entirely different as reported by these different media—check it out and see for yourself.  Spin rules.

This is the only way I can explain the fact that these Tea Party maniacs were elected to Congress in the first place.

I can only hope—yes, I still do have hope—that in the next round of elections, they will be sent back to their Neanderthal caves where they belong.

Then the rest of us adults can get on with the much more important business of the day.

HillaryCare1993aAffordable health care—yes, of course!  We should have had it long ago, back when Hilary Clinton tried to get it going in the mid-1990s.  She was stymied by lack of authority as merely the First Lady, seen as overstepping her bounds (get thee back to the parlor, Mrs. Clinton!).

Now President Obama is getting blowback for daring to challenge the status quo and lobby openly for the rights of the poor and for all Americans who have gotten screwed by the medical industrial complex over and over again.

It’s the same old same old, which is why I have resisted taking up the Tea Party gauntlet this time.  Why should I waste my time and energy with their nonsense?

And yet, as the government shutdown looms, and behind it the mythical debt ceiling crisis, I just have to add my voice to the chorus of BOOS and throw some metaphorical rotten eggs at those stinking Tea Partiers who want to deprive ordinary Americans of the right to a functional government, along with the right to affordable health care and an economic system that at least attempts to lift all boats.

images-1I thank the President and the Democrats for holding the line on this one.  “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” right?  Let’s let those terrorist Republicans dig their own fox holes and stew in their own SH*T.  I’d like to see John Boehner coming out when it’s all over like Saddaam did, dazed, dirty and totally deposed.

images

American Mothers Must Unite Against the Culture of Violence

A couple of weeks ago, when I heard that my 14-year-old son and his friend had been playing with the other boy’s air-soft pistols by shooting each other at close range, I saw red.

“But it just stings like a bee-sting, Mom,” my son protested.  “It just leaves a welt.  Why are you getting so upset?”

At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was getting so upset—after all, these were only toy guns.

My answer to my son was that a “bullet” could ricochet and end up hitting him in the eye, which is true and a rational explanation for why I flatly forbid him to engage in that kind of behavior any more with those guns.

“Target practice only!” I insisted. But of course, what he and his friends do when I’m not around is impossible to predict or monitor.

Nancy Lanza

Nancy Lanza

Now, after the Newtown massacre, I am thinking more deeply about the issue of guns, violence and kids.  I’m also thinking more about Nancy Lanza, the gunman’s mother, who he savagely shot in the face, leaving her dead in her pajamas in bed while he went out on his mission of mass murder.

I’m far from the only one who is asking what Nancy Lanza could have been thinking to make her home into an arsenal, complete with assault weapons and major ammunition, especially with a son living there who she knew to have social adjustment problems.

I hear that the good people of Newtown are shunning Nancy in death, focusing on the “26 victims” of Adam Lanza and refusing to light a candle in her memory.

This seems like a classic case of blaming the victim, and yet of course Nancy does bear responsibility for the horrific massacre of the 26 innocent victims.

If she hadn’t armed her son, he could not have carried out this crime.

So this begs the question of our responsibility as parents, especially, in this context, as parents to sons.

I have two sons, and like Nancy I am divorced, with my sons’ father very distant from their day-to-day lives.

It is my responsibility to raise them to be kind, good-hearted men, who use their warrior strength to protect and strengthen their communities, not to destroy.

But what a battle it is to keep the tremendously destructive tsunami of media and cultural violence at bay in our home!

I don’t have TV in my house, and my kids don’t own a Wii or Playstation.  But we do have computers, tablets and smartphones; we watch Netflix and go to the movies and have friends who are more casually accepting of (toy) guns than I am.

Unknown-1I have tried to hold the line on violent video games that the boys may have access to through the computer, and for the most part I think I’ve been successful.  Even if they may sneak a violent game or two when I’m not around, at least they don’t play these games obsessively, with impunity, the way most teenage boys do in America.

We’ve talked at length about my objections to media violence, and I know they understand, even if they occasionally express the wish that they could just join the crowd and go on a good virtual shooting rampage like all the other boys they know.

I’ve gotten into arguments with my older son, age 20, and some of my college students, who insist that there is no way they’d ever do in real life what they have so much fun doing in video games.

I hope they’re right.

But I want to know why, as Americans, we tolerate and indeed seem to relish representations of violence, while at the same time we’re so fearful of actual violence that some of us are stockpiling weapons in our homes to prepare ourselves for the worst.

In the old days—not that long ago, in the scale of human history—a whole town used to turn out for a festive viewing of a hanging.

Today in places where conservative Islam reigns, women are stoned to death in public spectacles of participatory violence.

But how different is that, really, from the great American past-time of engaging in virtual violence of the most vicious sort?

America is the most violent, militarized society on Earth and Americans are the greatest exporters of violence, both physical and virtual, to the rest of the world.

Most perpetrators of violence—again, both real and virtual—are men.  Men are the greatest victims of violence too, though women and children bear a disproportionate share, given that they are far less likely to be pulling the triggers.

We need to start looking much harder at the way our culture encourages violence by selling us the story that real men enjoy violence and can handle it with insouciance.

I don’t want my teenage son shooting an airsoft gun at his friend, and I don’t want him going on virtual “special ops” missions armed with a Bushmaster assault rifle.

I wish his father were on hand to back me up in this, and I think my situation as a mother trying to keep violence out of my home is probably far more common than we realize as a nation.

We know that half of marriages end in divorce, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that of the remaining married couples, half include men who enjoy guns, violent video games and violent movies, and teach their sons to do the same.

So that leaves a lot of us women either on our own trying to fight the prevailing winds of culture and raise peace-loving men, or tolerating or going along with the culture of violence within our most intimate relationships and the private sphere of our homes.

Yes, some women may themselves be violent.  We still don’t know why Nancy Lanza felt the need to arm herself with such terribly potent weapons.

But the fact remains that of the steadily mounting toll of mass shootings in this country, not one has been committed by a woman.

Women are way more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and even as perpetrators they are generally acting in self-defense.

American women, I call on you to look deeply at this issue, and find the strength to stand up collectively against the violence.

Mothers, we need to support each other on this!

Just as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving took a stand and changed the pattern of teenagers driving drunk and killing themselves and others year after year, by forcing legislators, schools, merchants and other parents to take collective responsibility for raising responsible kids, we need to start a new movement against the culture of violence in our country, both virtual and physical.

Then perhaps we could say that the 27 victims of Adam Lanza did not die in vain.

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Building a Tsunami of a Climate Change Movement: What Will it Take?

In the seething, saturated media environment we live in, victory is measured in whether or not you’re able to get people to slow down and pay attention.

It’s getting harder and harder, especially for young people, to sustain attention for more than a few minutes.

Life is a restless prowl for something new, and in a manmade environment where we’re seen it all before, it’s got to be pretty damned new and exciting to get us to pause for even a moment.

As a teacher, I find myself adapting to this in ways that I would never have predicted when I first started teaching undergraduates, nearly a quarter-century ago.

I know I have to be more exaggerated in my classroom presence.  She who drones is lost.

I also don’t expect the level of reading comprehension these days that I used to take for granted among my students.

I know I’m going to have to excerpt and digest for them, and I’d better do it in an enthusiastic, engaging way, or they’ll be surfing away, in their heads if not literally, on their screens.

I have to do constant daily battle with those screens, too—even when I outright forbid them, they creep back in with all the force of a compulsion, or an addiction.

In this kind of environment, why should we be surprised that it seems to be impossible to get people to pay attention to a big, remote problem like climate change for more time than it takes to say “Hurricane Sandy”?

The other night I was overjoyed when I stopped by the New York Times site and saw Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour foregrounded front and center on the homepage.

Unknown

Bill had the same reaction: he forwarded a screenshot of the page to his email list, trumpeting victory.

But what kind of victory is it, really?

Yes, McKibben’s Do the Math tour succeeded in finally penetrating the security perimeter of that gated community known as Mainstream Public Opinion.  If the Times prints an article, we can assume that at least a few of the sheltered, august heads within the insular circle of elite readers will pay attention.

Note that the article was ultimately filed in the Business section of the newspaper, by the way.  Evidently the Times thought its business-minded readers ought to know that those pesky students might be causing trouble for stockholders in major fossil fuel companies in the coming months.

This is the same way that the Times reported the Occupy Wall Street movement: as an annoying inconvenience, a public nuisance that our good police force is working to clear away ASAP.

It’s the same way they’ve reported on Hurricane Sandy, hitting right in their own backyard.  What a colossal inconvenience!  Let’s clear it away so we can get back down to business as usual.

What is it going to take to get through to the Times and its readers that there is not going to be any more business as usual?

The game is up.  Things are going to get much worse, and the only chance of avoiding total disaster is through immediate decisive action to curb carbon emissions and build up a massive supply of carbon sinks—ie, more forests, more seaweed and algae, more grasslands and croplands.

I was heartened, in a very melancholy sort of way, to see the chief negotiator for the Philippines, Naderev Saño, get all choked up as he made an impassioned speech to his comrades at COP18 this week to stop dilly-dallying and get down to the business of real change.

typhoon_yeb_sano

Referring to Typhoon Bopha, he said:

“As we sit here in these negotiations, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising. There is massive and widespread devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes. And the ordeal is far from over, as typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines.

“I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

“I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

Those are the right questions to be asking, and Saño is on the right track when he says that the work of stopping runaway climate change is not about what the “political masters” want.  It will only be possible if a sufficient number of people, all over the world, focus their attention and insist on the policy changes that will lead to real change.

The poor are the ones being disproportionately swept away by the floods and storms of climate change.  The problem may have their attention, but they’re not in much of a position to do anything about it.

I believe it is up to us, citizens of the so-called “developed” countries, to come out in force to demand change.

That is the kind of tsunami of U.S. public opinion that McKibben is trying to create with the Do the Math tour.

If we can succeed in catching the attention of young people, and getting them to understand how crucial this issue is to their futures, they can become a powerful force for change.

But in the end, this must be a multigenerational, multinational, multiethnic movement, of men and women from all walks of life, because if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that climate change does not play favorites.

It will blow away the fanciest palace just as soon as the flimsiest shanty (though the shanties will undoubtedly go first).

Ultimately, it will not be possible to build walls high enough to keep out the floodtides of a destabilized climate.

Does that get your attention?  No?  How about this: if we don’t get our act together on this issue now—I mean, NOW—we might as well just give it up and resign ourselves to roll with whatever punches are in store for us.  There will be many, and they will get progressively worse until our entire human civilization grinds to a halt.

Is that a risk you’re prepared to take?

I hope not.

So what can you do?

If you own stock, consider divesting your portfolio from fossil fuel companies until they shape up and get seriously green.

If you own a home, consider investing in alternative energy sources like solar or geothermal, and make your home as energy-efficient as possible.

Consider pressuring your town or city to do the same.

Start writing letters and emails to your elected representatives and the President of the United States and the fossil fuel barons and anyone else who might have influence, insisting that they think about our long-term welfare, not next quarter profits.

Talk to people about this.  You can never tell where ripples will go as the word goes out.

Do you want to go down fighting and active, or zoned out in front of your screen?

I echo the emotional words of the Filipino negotiator:

“Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

Telling the story of climate change: a call to action

You probably didn’t notice, but this past week another round of major international climate talks were held in Doha, Qatar, surely one of the least “green” locations on the globe.

The mainstream press barely bothered to give a nod to what has come to be a mind-numbing ritual of bait, switch and dodge.

The alternative press knew better than to look to the assembled ministers in Doha for any real news, focusing instead on the grim report released early last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

The 84-page report, titled “Turn Down the Heat” and funded by that radical fringe group known as the World Bank, demonstrates that if we continue our reckless heating of the planet at the present rate, all the scenarios of which readers of this blog are well aware—sea level rise, droughts and floods leading to severe food shortages, more frequent and more severe storms, loss of biodiversity and loss of human life on a biblical scale—will come to pass.

The executive summary of the report concludes with a measure of urgency:

“A 4C world is likely to be in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally.  It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured and unequal than today.  The projected 4C warming simply must not be allowed to occur–the heat must be turned down.  Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.”

But this takes us in circular fashion back to Doha, where as we know, nothing substantive is going on.

Those of us who are aware of what’s happening on the climate front—and let’s face it, there aren’t that many of us, we probably form our own little 1% club—find it frustrating and frightening to have to sit by and watch as our beloved planet goes into drastic human-induced traumatic shock while our leaders bicker and fiddle and run down the clock.

I find myself constantly pulled between A) wanting to support political efforts like Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour, which aims to educate and inspire action (specifically, divestment from fossil fuel companies to pressure them to reinvent themselves as bonafide green energy companies) and B) wanting to simply hunker down and build resilience at the local level, perhaps enrolling myself and my sons in a crash course in how to survive a disaster.

For the moment, I am focusing on doing what I can within my purview as a teacher to help the upcoming generation of young adults get a handle on what’s happening to our climate, and do their own productive thinking about how to engage in the struggle to turn things around.

Yesterday I was fortunate to have had a chance to participate in a small way in my colleague Eban Goodstein’s C2C Fellows Workshop, a national program based at Bard College that seeks to give young people the skills and understanding to become successful leaders in the global effort to stabilize our climate and create a sustainable economy.

Eban Goodstein

Eban Goodstein

This is an ambitious undertaking, and Goodstein is going at it full tilt, holding weekend workshops several times a year at college campuses across the country, and bringing graduate students to Bard, with generous funding, to undertake Master’s degree programs in environmental policy with a special emphasis on climate-related policy and advocacy.

As Goodstein puts it, “Stabilizing the climate is not the work of a year, of a presidential term, or of a decade. It is the work of a generation.”

I see it as an essential commitment and responsibility to use my skills as a writer, scholar and teacher to help equip the upcoming generation for this great work we must all undertake now.

Goodstein is a unique blend of science policy wonk and communications guru, and I’m convinced that it’s at this very nexus that real change on the climate front will be forged.

All the dire scientific reports in the world won’t get people to wake up and change their daily habits, or insist that policy changes are made at the local, state, national and international levels, if the information is not presented in clear, compelling language.

A significant portion of the C2C Workshop, therefore, is spent in developing students’ storytelling skills.

It was interesting, and somewhat disheartening, to watch the students’ puzzled reaction when asked by Goodstein to talk about a favorite storyteller in their family.  Very few hands went up.

This is because most Americans today are reared listening to the TV tell us stories, not cherished individuals in our actual lives.  We are avid but passive consumers of prepackaged stories, and as a result most of us—unless we have the ambition to become stand-up comedians—don’t see storytelling as a skill we need to master.

Goodstein’s important insight is that storytelling is key to getting people’s attention, and telling a good story is essential to success in environmental advocacy and politics.

Good persuasive communication, he said, starts with a personal story, and then moves into the political.  Hook your audience with a personal anecdote, keep their attention with a strong narrative, and then finish up with a call to action.  And once you’ve got a strong story developed, practice telling it, over and over again, until you can do it in your sleep.

Armed with this advice, the group of some 80 students broke into smaller groups of five, each accompanied by a faculty or graduate student facilitator, for a two-hour intensive storytelling workshop.  Our task was to each come up with a short story about an inspiring person or event, write it up and tell it three times, to three different partners, then refine it and tell it again to the whole group.

The stories would be refined further the next day, told again to new audiences, and several would be singled out for telling to the entire big group, and given awards.

This is the kind of work for which I have been preparing my whole life.  There is nothing I would rather do than facilitate a writing workshop on inspiring stories!  And it gives me special joy to do it as part of a program aimed at giving young people the skills and mojo to tell the climate change story in a way that galvanizes action.

It may be that in the end, I would have been better served by spending my time learning survival tactics in the woods, but the truth is that even in the most dire circumstances, human beings have always needed their storytellers.  A good story well told can keep us warm in ways that may not be measurable, but that are profound nevertheless.

Here is the story that I wrote and told the students yesterday in our workshop.  I offered it to them—and now to you—with love and an earnest desire that it may inspire us all to each get to work on the climate change issue—in our own ways and spheres—before it’s too late.

My friend Pauline tells the story of how she came home from work one day and discovered that a civil war had started in her country, Congo-Brazzaville.  Suddenly she had ten people, mostly women and children, sheltering in her house as gunfire and bombs shook the streets of the city. 

When a bomb hit the house, she and her family and friends knew they needed to make a run for it.  They gathered what food and supplies they could carry, and left the house in the middle of the night, heading for the countryside. 

What followed was weeks of deprivation and terror as they huddled in the forest waiting for the conflict to die down so that it would be safe to return home.

I tell this story because it is emblematic of the many stories I have studied over the years, in which women and children are disproportionately affected as victims of social conflict and war. 

I tell it because I fear that in the age of climate change this is a story that will be repeated over and over again. Whether the violence is human—men with guns—or natural—hurricanes or droughts—the effects will be the same: women and children on the run, vulnerable and afraid.

Recent studies indicate that hundreds of millions of people will become climate refugees in the next half-century.  And they won’t all be in Bangladesh or the Maldives, either.  Just ask a former resident of Breezy Point in New York City, devastated by Hurricane Sandy, how it feels.

In our lifetimes we will all witness–and many of us will likely experience—the kind of fear and hardship that Pauline lived through, when the social order disintegrated and violence became the norm. 

There are many, many guns in America.  It would not take much in the way of food and energy shortages to trigger violence.

Sometimes I find myself wondering whether I should be learning and then teaching others survival skills, instead of critical thinking and writing. 

What good will my PhD in literature do me in an age of relentless, recurring Hurricane Sandys?  What good will a vaunted college degree do my students?

But I do continue to believe that the stories of survivors like Pauline matter, and increasingly these are the stories I offer students in my classes on human rights, environmental justice, politics and literature.

We all need to learn from Pauline and other survivors about the amazing resilience of the human spirit.  Even in the face of terror and chaos, people can choose to be compassionate, generous and respectful of one another. We don’t all choose the violent path. 

It will not help any of us to focus on fear right now, as the climate change crisis gains momentum and threatens to engulf us.  What we must concentrate on instead is hope, resilience and solidarity.  That’s what the world needs from us now.

Fossil Fuels R Us–but we can change, and so can they!

I am in one of those periods where I feel quite inadequate to comment on the events that dash across the world and national stages with madcap intensity.

What was it Shakespeare said? Life’s but a shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing….

And yet for those of us who are caught up in the moment, our hour upon the stage, what happens does matter, it does signify something—even if we can’t always tell what that something is.

The General and his lover

What does it mean that a much-decorated general, Director of the CIA, abruptly resigns after being investigated for adultery by the FBI?

Is this scandal really just about a simple affair with a younger woman, or do the General’s neocon tendencies, which had him presiding over the escalation of the disastrous war in Afghanistan and advocating open hostility with Iran, have anything to do with the alacrity with which President Obama accepted his resignation?

We’ll find out when the blockbuster film comes out, a couple of years from now!

Meanwhile, the drumbeats of war are booming in Israel/Palestine, right on cue after the American elections ground to their quadrennial conclusion.

Once again photos of bloody children pop up on our computer and TV screens.  Once again passionate voices on both sides of this eternal conflict are raised.  This is a pageant that has taken place so many times it has become predictable and stale, like the Christmas pageants that will soon take their places on local church stages throughout Christendom.

Scenes from Gaza, November 2012

Why can’t those people just get along? Americans wonder before flipping the channel.  Few of us are aware of the extent to which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to be fueled and armed by the taxpayers of the United States.

This is our conflict; we are responsible.  But as long as we dispassionately wait for someone else to stop it, it will continue to grind on.

The same is true with so many issues, from climate change to income disparity.  It’s time to stop waiting for someone else to step in and solve the problems, make the changes for us.  We have to do it ourselves.

There are a few encouraging signs that this is beginning to happen.

The 350.0rg “Do the Math” tour with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and many, many friends is making its historic way across the country, urging Americans to consider ways they can pressure the institutions with which they’re involved to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Scene from the Do the Math tour in New York City, 11/12

McKibben was talking about this last summer when I went to listen to him up at the top of Mount Greylock here in western Massachusetts, courtesy of Orion Magazine.  He invoked the successful divestiture movement of the international anti-apartheid struggle, which put enough pressure on the racist South African government that it eventually had to back down from its untenable position and begin working with the Black South Africans.

The sins of the fossil fuel companies are much bigger than those of the Boers: we’re not just talking about bigoted social policies in one country here, we’re talking about a mindset, policy brief and massive engineering effort that is inexorably endangering the entirety of human civilization on this planet, and indeed the well-being of all current life forms, perhaps excepting algae, bacteria and cockroaches.

And yet, it’s impossible to externalize the blame here, because the fossil fuel companies have only been trying to give us what we want: cheap and plentiful oil and gas.

It’s not their fault that we love their products so much we’re willing to do anything—including fight endless wars—to get it.

It’s incumbent on us to look inward and interrogate our own desires and dependencies in order to move forward.

Pressuring the fossil fuel companies to change is a good thing, as long as we’re willing to change with them.

Shifting to renewable energy is going to take a commitment from every player on the world stage today, from government leaders to manufacturers to the financial sector to ordinary consumers like you and me.

Let’s not allow the gloom of Shakespeare’s tragedies to engulf us and sap us of energy.  This play isn’t over yet and it doesn’t have to come to a bloody end.

Enough playing the handwringing Hamlet role!  Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work to solve our problems and write ourselves a better script.

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?

Politicos beware: the citizen journalists are coming!

Mitt Romney really hit the jackpot this time, caught on video tape callously dismissing half the population of America as not worth his time because they don’t pay taxes.

As “The Caucus” blog in The New York Times pointed out today, in fact it’s only 18% of Americans who pay no federal or payroll taxes.  And of those, “more than half were elderly and more than a third were not elderly but had income under $20,000.”

What a way to make a winning pitch to potential donors in the 1%.  Let’s just throw all those poor old folks under a bus, shall we?  Are there no workhouses?

Ripostes like this have been coming in fast and heavy for the past 24 hours, since the incriminating video clip first appeared on the Mother Jones website, and thence made its way virally around the Web.

What I think has been insufficiently analyzed so far is the provenance of this video.

Today in my media studies class, we were talking about how the old media model, what the textbooks call “legacy media,” is crumbling, to be replaced by myriads of web-based information producers, often referred to as “citizen journalists.”

The guy who released that covert video of Mitt Romney talking up a GOP horse’s ass was a citizen journalist of a sort.

We still don’t know exactly who shot the film, but we do know that it was sent to Mother Jones by James Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

The point is, these are obviously very different channels of information flow than scripted “press conferences,” or even the kind of access granted to card-carrying members of the mainstream media.

The video has so captured the attention of America because it affords us a ringside seat in the inner echelons of political power.  Next thing you know, someone will be shooting video (or at least making a covert audio recording) of the proceedings of a closed-door Goldman Sachs board meeting.

Hey, Richard Nixon was the master of this kind of bugging.  Let us not forget Watergate, or the Oval Office recordings.

But now the tables are turned, and the technology genie is out of the brass lamp and running gleefully through the land.

No longer are wiretaps and tiny voice recorders the provenance of James Bond and the FBI.  Now anyone with a bit of tech smarts and some fortuitous access to the workings of power can record what goes on there, and send it out for the masses to interpret as they see fit.

Last week it was the crazy anti-Muslim film, cheaply and poorly produced but sent out like a message in a bottle on the high seas of the internet, which washed ashore in the Middle East and provided the spark for a new round of anti-American violence.

This week it’s a citizen journalist with a Flip cam in his pocket, pulling back the screen in the GOP Emerald (cash-green, that is) Palace to reveal the true face of the mean-spirited man who would be the Republican President.

As a teacher of media studies in the 21st century, I am excited by the possibilities that my students will enjoy of leaping past the old gatekeepers and getting their investigative work out to the public.

I’m also not quite sure how they are going to make a living doing it—that’s one small detail that remains to be worked out.

But one thing is sure: in this day and age, it is going to be a lot harder for a politician to maintain a public image that is at odds with who he really is when he’s at home.

I hope that means that the next generation of politicians is going to have to be—gasp!—sincere.

 

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