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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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!

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

 

Of Oil, Honey and the Future of Human Civilization

do_the_math_image_1I have been reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, with a group of students in a course called Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice Advocacy that I’m offering for the first time this semester at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Oil and Honey tells the story of how McKibben founded 350.org with a group of his students at Middlebury College in 2009, and how together they went on to become the most visible American environmental organization of our time, leading the U.S. protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and creating an international movement to put pressure on governments and policy makers to quickly and decisively address the mounting threats of climate change.

Most recently, McKibben has been focusing on divestment as a tactic to push the fossil fuel industry to shift into cleaner forms of energy production.

Taking its cue from the successful anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s, the strategy is to awaken enough ordinary citizens–including college students, church-goers and workers of every stripe–to the perils of climate change, and get them to press their hometowns, companies, churches and colleges or schools to divest their endowments, retirement funds and other collectively held investment portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

It seems like a good strategy, and yet it did not elicit much enthusiasm from the students in my class.

They were more interested in thinking about how to educate younger kids about the beauty and value of the natural world, and moving from that basic platform out into activism.

Kids today spend so much time indoors, in front of screens, that they have little sense of connection to nature, my students said.  And without that connection, it’s very hard to understand why it’s important.  What’s all the fuss about?

This is what it’s about.

Bill McKibben asks us to “do the math” and understand that if we were to actually succeed in burning all the fossil fuels that are currently in the ground, we would heat our planet to a level not seen for millions of years.

It would definitely be game over for human civilization, and it would take millions of years for the planet to restabilize.

What it is about this simple math that human beings today do not want to see and understand?

Part of it is simply that we’re so easily distracted.

The big news yesterday was that Federal Aviation Administration will now allow airline passengers to use their computers and tablets right through take-off and landing.  We can be in front of our screens to the very last second of the day!

Meanwhile, while we’re busy on our computers, not paying attention, the fossil fuel industry is going around the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline by massively investing in railway terminals, lines and cars for carrying its tar sands oil down to refineries and tankers on the coasts.

B3029FCC-5228-4E57-B879-F8A83ABF036B_mw1024_n_sAnd up in the darkness of the Russian tundra, 30 Greenpeace activists are languishing in cold solitary prison cells, held without trial for the crime of trying to raise awareness about the destruction of the Arctic by Russian and international oil drilling.

Where is the outrage?

In the book Oil and Honey, McKibben ingeniously compares corporate behavior to bee behavior.  Corporations are like bees, he says, in being relentlessly “simple” and focused on their one crucial task—for bees, making honey; for corporations, making profit.

They don’t change their focus, no matter what.

But humans are more complex than that.  We can change and adapt to new circumstances.  We can recognize and act upon moral imperatives.  We don’t have to follow suicidal corporations blindly over a cliff of their own making.

Although it’s true that the alarming dependence of Americans on screens of every size can get in the way of a connection to the natural world, on the other hand, the fact that so many people are networked together through the media presents great opportunities for activism and change.

With my students this semester, I’ll be thinking about how to harness the power of the media to create a different kind of swarm—not following our current corporate leaders, but moving in an entirely different direction.

We’re not alone—there are many groups working on this now, from the Transition Town movement to the Pachamama Alliance to even such formerly mainstream organizations as the Sierra Club.

The task: to awaken a critical mass of people, worldwide, to the reality that we are living in an end-time of biblical stature; and to get them to understand that we have the power to change the storyline from doom-and-gloom cataclysm to a positive shift into a whole new relationship of humans to our planetary home.

Working cooperatively, bees are able to turn small grains of pollen into vast tubs of honey.  Human beings can do that too–when we work together for a common cause we can do almost anything.

So what are we waiting for?

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I have a dream…for President Obama and our nation

There is a fair amount of speculation today over what President Obama will say at tomorrow’s Inauguration speech, which coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Obama, like King, is a great orator, especially when he allows himself to lose his cool and display the inner fire that animates him.

President Obama arriving in Newtown last month

President Obama arriving in Newtown last month

I hope that tomorrow he will allow us to see his human, emotional side, as he did when he shed unscripted tears the night he visited the bereaved parents in Newtown last month.

It’s true that many of his followers have lost the starry-eyed sense of possibility that made his first Inauguration such a joyful affair.

The romance of our first Black president, an outsider who dodged all the slings and arrows lobbed at him by his opponents to sprint his way to victory, has settled into a more realistic relationship.

We know he’s not superhuman.  He’s not infallible, and he cannot please all of us all the time.

But I hope that in this second term he will be bolder in his governance of the country.  Now that he doesn’t have to worry about running for office again, he can afford to take more risks to get his agenda through.

We’re seeing him do this with gun control, as—to give him due credit—he did in the first term with the Affordable Health Care Act.

It looks like he’s poised to make a positive move on immigration.

These are all important issues.

But they pale by contrast with the single most important issue of our time, restabilizing our climate.

Severe flooding in Jakarta this week from unusually heavy monsoon rains

Severe flooding in Jakarta this week from unusually heavy monsoon rains

An image shot in Jakarta this week gives a snapshot into what is ahead for us, as a nation and as a global human civilization, as the oceans warm, the glaciers and poles melt and release trapped methane and the climate becomes more extreme and erratic.

Scientists tell us that the die has already been cast; the planet is set on a warming course that cannot be reversed.  But it can be mitigated.  We can still keep the average rise in temperature to 4C rather than the 10C that is the current worst-case scenario for the next hundred years.

I have a dream that President Obama surprises the nation and the world on Inauguration Day by announcing a plan to divert current government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry into a new federal fund to promote:

  • a shift to distributed energy (rooftop solar arrays, town wind turbines, local geothermal, etc);
  • new incentives for the manufacturers and installers of renewable energy components;
  • a new R&D push to improve batteries and design data centers and other industrial plants that use less energy;
  • an initiative in urban planning and architectural design to begin the arduous, expensive but necessary process of refitting our cities, towns and individual dwellings for our new climate reality;
  • a strong push to improve the environmental component of our education at every level and in every subject—not just science and technology, but medicine, philosophy, history, sociology, literature and of course economics and business.

This is my dream for the Inauguration speech, but I will not be holding my breath waiting for it.

tumblr_mguif6Qltd1qzsjkco1_400I won’t be in Washington for the Inauguration, but I want to be there for the Presidents’ Day (Feb. 17) climate change rally in DC, sponsored by 350.org and the Sierra Club, to pressure our politicians to do the right thing for us and for our children.

President Obama, I know the tears you shed in Newtown were real—I know you are a feeling, caring human being who does not like to see innocent people suffer.

You have an opportunity in this second term to make a historic difference in our nation’s stance on climate change.

Instead of being one of the world’s biggest polluters and consumers of energy, we can become one of the world’s biggest innovators in renewable energy and energy conservation.

We can once again resume our historic position in the world as a moral and practical leader, doing what’s right for our planet and its beleaguered denizens.

The people elected you, Mr. President, not the corporations.

Do it for us.  Now.

Seeking solidarity in the environmental justice movement

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

It’s hard to wrap my mind around 129 degrees Farenheit, a temperature so hot that meteorologists have had to add a new color to the heat spectrum to represent it.

The pictures coming out of Australia this week have been nightmarish.

You’ve probably seen them too: the charred sheep, the family taking desperate shelter under a dock while ash and sparks fly around them, the huge red sandstorm wall looming over the ocean.

This is the push-back of Mother Earth.

There is only so far you can push her, and 2012 seems to have been the threshold beyond which there can be no further illusion of business as usual continuing.

 

Family in Tasmania seek shelter from wildfires

Family in Tasmania seek shelter from wildfires

Even some of the most hard-nose politicians are getting it now: I was heartened to hear Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York speak of the urgent need to plan for climate change disasters in his State of the State speech this week.

But he is still on the fence as far as fracking New York goes, which shows he has yet to fully put two and two together.

Two and two cannot equal two, Mr. Cuomo.

In other words, you can’t continue to expand the fossil fuel industry and not expect the blowback of climate change to worsen.

A lot of people are getting this now.

Not the ones who have their heads so deeply buried in the technology sands that all they can think about is the excitement of the next app, MOOC or tablet.

Not the ones who are riding the current stock market wave to scary new heights, buoyed by who knows what fictitious understanding of the relationships between real people and real goods—referred to in finance-speak as “market shares” and “bundled securities.”

Not the 1%, still sitting comfortably above it all, looking down on the disturbances below like vultures surveying the activities of scurrying mice.

But down here at ground level, people are starting to look at each other and know, even without speaking, not only that things are wrong, but that we cannot rely on others to make it right.

Wildfires are killing thousands of sheep in Australia

Wildfires are killing thousands of sheep in Australia

That can be the only explanation for the sudden groundswell of support for the Idle No More movement, which, just like Occupy, tapped into the resistance of ordinary people to the bulldozers of global capitalism, now coming to a forest or a farm field near you.

The lure of short-term gains has led many a politician, businessman, landowner or Native tribe down the daisy path of signing off on legislation and leases giving Big Fossil Fuel the right to do whatever the hell they want.

But we’re wising up now.

Toxic wastes from Texaco-Chevron are poisoning people and animals alike in Ecuador

Toxic wastes from Texaco-Chevron are poisoning people and animals alike in Ecuador

We look at the way Chevron left Ecuador when it was done extracting all the oil it could, and we listen to the story of how relentlessly their lawyers fought against giving even the least amount of their vast profits towards reparations for the toxic environment they created, and we know we could be next.

Now they’re coming right here in the Northeast—in the watersheds of New York and Pennsylvania, buying up those fallow farm fields and bringing in their huge fracking drills.

They’re down in Texas, building the first leg of the proposed transAmerican oil pipeline that will bring the dirty sludge of tar sands oil down to the Gulf of Mexico refineries, crossing over aquifers and farmland, by cities and pristine national parks.

And they’re up in Alberta with their giant bulldozers and dump trucks, razing the fragile boreal forest to get at the oozing tar underneath.

But in all these places, people are stirring.  People are rising in protest.  People are seeing that the short-term gains from these destructive fossil-fuel driven industries are going to quickly burn up, driving the stock market temporarily higher only to set up an even bigger crash in the future; keeping our homes warm and light today, only to set up bigger and worse climate-related disasters down the road.

Tree-sitters in Texas

Tree-sitters in Texas

A few brave souls have been sitting in the trees in Texas to block the pipeline, a resistance strategy pioneered in the 1990s when Julia Butterfly Hill sat in Luna, a giant California redwood, for more than a year to keep the loggers from cutting her and her neighbors down.

The First Nations are on the march in Canada in a movement that is spreading like wildfire across the world, protesting the poisoning of the environment by the fat cats in boardrooms who arrogantly believe that they exist on another plane, a modern-day Mount Olympus that is impervious to the environmental destabilization they are wreaking on the world.

Students are rolling out an urgent campaign to get their college and university trustees to divest their portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, these efforts can be beamed across the globe instantly, refracted and amplified through the networks of hundreds of millions of kindred spirits worldwide.

The dissenting power of the many that Hannah Arendt wrote of back in the late 20th century has never been more powerful, in part because resistance can now take place virtually.

We don’t have to go out and brave the guns and tear-gas, although probably in the end it will have to come to that.

We can build our networks at home, working quietly but steadily until they are so big that to arrest us all would be, as Marx predicted, to undermine the capitalist structure itself—throw all the workers in jail, and who’s going to do the work?

Idle No More protesters on Highway 401 in London, Ont., in December.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Idle No More protesters on Highway 401 in London, Ont., in December.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Right now all of these protest movements are disparate, each working on their own perceived goals.  What I hope to see in the coming year is more solidarity, more recognition that we’re all really fighting the same grand battle to keep our planet from being so devastated that it can no longer support life as we know it.

Life will continue on Earth, there is no doubt of that.  But whether humans, elephants, songbirds and frogs will be able to persist on a super-heated planet is quite uncertain.

It is imperative that we build an unstoppable grassroots movement to prevail on our elected representatives to represent the people rather than the corporations, and do what’s right.

How many catastrophic hurricanes, out-of-control wildfires, drought-stricken fields, bleached out corals will it take before we make use of our power as denizens of the world and say NO MORE?

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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.

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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?”

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.

Scheherezades of the 21st Century

I have been following the progress of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development from a distance, feeling jaded about the process and the possibility of positive outcomes resulting from this gathering of diplomats and social engineers.  It’s good to see the lively and vibrant displays of people passion outside the gates of the conference, but the real question is, when will those gates come down?

Gar Alperovitz

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference earlier this month, veteran progressive economist Gar Alperovitz pointed to our time as the moment when enough people wake up and notice that something is wrong.

“This is a critical moment in history,” he said; “the moment when people realize something is gravely wrong and are willing to think outside the box to find solutions.”

Alperovitz suggested that we are currently in “the prehistory of a major shift,” and that now is the time for those of us who are aware of what’s happening to “lay the foundations for new institutions and new systems” that are tailored to meet the coming challenges.

Who would have thought, a decade ago, that the cell phone would take Africa by storm, Alperovitz reminded us.  In the same way, it could be that distributed solar-generated power—each home and business hosting its own power generator on the roof–will become the standard in the decade to come, particularly if the real costs of fossil fuels are brought home to industries and consumers.

Yesterday in the course of a desultory lunchtime conversation about changing weather patterns, one of the people around the table, a bigtime financial executive, mentioned that he’d heard the Arctic ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

I took his comment to be about the negative impact of climate change on the environment, and began talking about the methane bubbles that have been rising up out of the deepwater beneath the ice pack, suddenly and disastrously finding access to the open air.

But no—his point was quite different. To him, what was interesting about the melting of the ice was that it put previously inaccessible oil beds suddenly within range of development.

Groan.

What difference will all the UN treaties in the world make to the health of our planet if the power brokers sitting in their comfortable climate-controlled glass towers in New York don’t understand the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels?  My financier friend was actually planning to fly down to Rio this week on business, but it was news to him that the Rio+20 conference was going on at all.

Gar Alperovitz described our current economic system as “stalemated, stagnating and in decay—neither reforming nor collapsing,” and this sounds like an accurate description to me of our tightly intertwined political, financial and industrial sectors.

All of us ordinary people are held like flies in the sticky web of corporate capitalism, which is squeezing us ever more tightly in the bonds of rising prices, scarce jobs and inescapable debt.

Where will it end?  Alperovitz called on the conference attendees to become the historical change agents within our communities—to go home and seize every opportunity to develop the frameworks for the transition to a different kind of future.

To me, as a writer and teacher of literature, it was interesting to hear him calling in particular for an emphasis on new kinds of narrative.  In order to imagine new solutions to what seem like insurmountable problems, he said, “we need to tell new stories.”

Maybe 350.org’s Twitterstorm yesterday, in which hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world besieged Twitter with messages in support of ending the fossil fuel subsidies, is the start of a new story—a global story, authored collectively by kindred spirits worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether we will be able to figure out a way to preserve and extend our current technological sophistication while moving into a sustainable, harmonious relation with our planetary home.  Many who are currently trying to read the future predict a violent collapse of our human civilization, with a dramatic loss of human population and a return to a much simpler, low-tech kind of life for those who survive.

The only way the latter scenario will be avoided is if the technocrats and the bureaucrats and the financiers start listening to the ordinary people outside the gates, and understanding the full implications of their dependence on a capitalist economic system of endless growth fueled by destructive fossil fuels and the despoiling of the environment.

So yes, let’s start telling those new stories by every means possible—by Twitter, by blog, by radio, TV and film—around the lunch table and across the backyard fence.

Tell new stories as though your life depended on it. As in fact, it does.

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