The Solutions are Hidden in Plain Sight–if you look through 21st century eyes

IMG_4806A lot of us in the Northeast are doing our share of grumbling this year about the Arctic air that just won’t go away.  Usually March is the time when the winds start to blow, the sap starts to rise, the snow melts into the thawing earth and our thoughts turn to snowdrops and crocus.

This year, we’re still in the deep freeze with a hardpack of snow on the ground, and no end in sight.

It’s all part of the erratic weather of our climate change era.  The question for all of us now is, how, beyond bitching and moaning, are we going to respond?

Most of us just shrug and turn the dial on the heater up a little higher, not thinking about what that very small, ordinary act really entails.

If your thermostat is wired into an oil burner or a natural gas furnace, like most homes and apartment buildings in the Northeast, then when you turn up the dial in response to the bitter cold you are, perhaps unwittingly, enabling, supporting and becoming an integral part of the very industry that is relentlessly destroying our climate.

The fossil fuel industry is not some demonic force outside of our control.  It’s just a human business that is responding to human needs for energy—lots and lots of energy.

We Americans are used to getting what we want, and what we’ve wanted, in the 50 years I’ve been on the planet, is ease.  What could be easier than turning a dial to make your house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, or gassing up your comfy car before you get on the freeway?

1_RussetLikewise in terms of agricultural production—we like to get our vegetables pre-washed and sometimes even pre-cut, all even-sized, no blemishes, laid out attractively in faux crates under spotlights in our upscale grocery stores.

When we buy that bag of potatoes or carrots, we’re not thinking about the tons of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and fossil fuels that went into making it easy for us to throw these items in our shopping cart.

We’re not thinking about the bees, butterflies and other valuable insects that have been driven to population collapse by industrial agricultural practices; or the huge dead zones in the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where fertilizer and chemical run-off from the Midwest runs down to the sea; or the millions of birds that are affected each year by the toxic chemicals we spread over the landscape.

We’re just throwing that bag of veggies into the cart, or turning up that dial.

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard of Industrial Capitalism has been revealed—and lo and behold, he wears the ordinary face of each one of us.

Every step we take on this beautiful, battered planet of ours matters.

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

I am heartened to know that this very weekend, one year after the big climate change rally in Washington DC that I attended in the hopes of pressuring the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL pipeline, thousands of activists, most of them college students, will be raising a ruckus at the White House gates to insist that the politicians stop gambling away their future.

Here in my backyard, in the Massachusetts-New York region, people have woken up to the fact that mile-long trains of crude oil and gas are being run through heavily populated neighborhoods.

We’re moving to block gas fracking in western Massachusetts as the sight of contaminated tap water in fracking regions brings the dangers right home.

We’re also starting to get serious about making solar energy accessible to homeowners and businesses.

UnknownThis week’s New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about a little-known scientific program to create a controlled thermonuclear fusion power plant.  Unlike the current fission plants, which burn radioactive fuel and generate dangerous waste, the fusion plant, if it were successful, would run indefinitely on seawater and lithium, with no waste.  It would be ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

Talk about an audacious plan!  You have to hand it to human beings, we are nothing if not hubristic.  It is our greatest strength and our most glaring weakness.

Why spend billions on creating an artificial sun here on earth?  Why not just learn from our cousins the plants, and start to use the sunlight we have more efficiently?

It’s time to take off our grimy 20th century glasses and start looking at the world and ourselves through 21st century eyes.  When we do, we’re going to find that the solutions to all the problems that beset us have been hidden in plain sight all along.

Time for change

Jen light 3 copyIf my blog posts have been a bit few and far between lately, it’s because I’ve been focusing my writing efforts this summer on the bigger project I have underway, the personal/political memoir I’ve been working on for some years now.

The political subtext will be somewhat familiar to followers of my blog these past two years: the necessity for more ordinary folks like me to wake up to the realities of climate change and environmental destruction, and begin to take action in both the personal and the political spheres.

The personal narrative will be somewhat familiar to friends and family who have followed my life, or pieces of my journey, these past 50 years.  Good moments and bad, easy stretches when everything seemed to be going right, followed by inevitable patches of heartache and turmoil.

In the course of charting my experiences in depth through this memoir project, I’ve realized that I have two qualities that have often led me into troubled waters.

One, probably because I grew up in a family with strong values of caring, respect and integrity, I have tended to be very trusting—to believe that people mean well and want to do the right thing by others.

And two, I have been slow to respond to situations that make me unhappy.  I tend to try to stick with whatever I’ve started or gotten myself into, to try make it work even when it’s become quite obvious—even to me!—that things are never going to change for the better.

I’m trying to make some connections between these personal traits of mine, and the larger social landscape that I inhabit.

For example, it seems to me that we have all tended to be too trusting of authority figures like politicians and business leaders, expecting that they have our best interests at heart.

As a kid growing up, it would never have occurred to me that corporations would produce, package and market products aimed to appeal to children, that would, over time at least, make us seriously sick.

I remember begging my mom to buy me Froot Loops and Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, which looked so yummy and appealing on TV.

I wanted Ring Dings, too, and Yodels, and Twinkies.  I wanted Coke, of course, and Dr. Pepper.  I wanted McDonald’s hamburgers, fries, and McMuffins.

I was lucky that my mom was not swayed by the seductive advertising, and went her own way with food, raising my brother and me on fresh fruits and vegetables (often grown in our own garden), premium meats, and homemade, preservative-free desserts.

Others, who bought the advertising and fell for the products, are finding themselves now, at midlife, with diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis and all the rest of our common American ailments.  To some degree at least, the explosion of health problems in the developed world can be directly traced back to our societal trust that Big Business, Big Agriculture and Big Government were doing their best to safeguard our health.

Turns out we needed to be more discerning—a theme that runs through both my private and public spheres.

Likewise, I can relate my own slowness to realize and respond to untenable situations in my personal life to our broader social reluctance, as human beings, to go against the flow.

Let’s face it, we humans are herd animals, as Nietzsche saw clearly more than a century ago. We run in packs, and we fear nothing so much as social isolation and disapproval.

For me personally, the kinds of situations that I’ve been slow to wake up to and act upon have been ones in which taking action means going against the grain of social expectations.

For example, my marriage.  It was very hard for me to let go of my own attachment to being married.  There are so many positive perceptions surrounding married people, while divorced people, on the other hand, are perceived as unstable, difficult, dissatisfied, disloyal, probably neurotic, bad parents, bad partners, bad lovers—in short, failures overall.

Even though some 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, these stigmas still hold a great deal of power, and for me it was hard to finally concede that I could go no further in my marriage.  After more than 20 years, I had to cry uncle and admit that yes, I had failed.  I could not make it work.

The thing is that once I got to that nadir, I didn’t care anymore what people thought, and I came to see the major life change of divorce as a positive liberation, not a failure at all.

Once I’d made the leap and let go of my inertia and fear of change, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined, nor were the repercussions as severe.

It turns out that most of the fears I’d had around becoming single—and a single parent—at midlife had much more to do with my own perceptions than with any reality out there in the world.

I believe that these kinds of fears in the personal realm apply just as much in the political realm.

CWindmillhome

Wind turbines on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia

For instance, we know that our longterm relationship to fossil fuels is, in the words of JT, “driving us down the road to ruin,” but so many of us feel stuck, afraid to go against the tribe in seeking out new, more positive relations to energy use on the planet.

We tend to just go with the flow, running our AC on hot days, driving our cars, using our oil furnaces for heat in the winter.  Even though we’re beginning to see that this makes us unhappy—who, after all, enjoys prolonged heat waves, out-of-control wildfires, destructive storms and raging floods?—we still stick to what’s familiar, what appears to be socially acceptable, what everyone else is doing.

It’s time for each one of us to stiffen our backbones and be honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in now.

Climate change is upon us.  It’s past time to start working hard to cut carbon emissions by reducing use and switching to cleaner energy like wind, solar and geothermal.  We need to stand with 350.org and other environmental groups to pressure our government to do the right thing—to put the health and welfare of we, the people, ahead of the profits of them, the corporations.

On a personal level, too, we can also make changes.  We can use bicycles more, and AC less.  We can hang out our laundry to dry.  We can start weaning ourselves off disposable plastics, and put some raised beds in our backyards or on our rooftops.

It used to be that only “granola people” did things like this—“granola people” pronounced with a dismissive smirk.

It turns out that those crunchy folks had it right, and we’re the ones who have stayed in our unhappy fossil fuel-based relationship too long.

We may imagine that breaking with the herd and striking out alone on the path of ecological sanity is going to earn us smirks and sneers.  But a) this is probably just in our heads; and b) who cares, if it makes us happier in the long run?

Here’s what I’ve finally realized, at midlife, on both the personal and the political levels: life is way too short to waste time being unhappy if a path toward happiness is available.

Letting go of our attachment to the status quo is the crucial first step on that path, and it’s not easy.  But it is necessary now, given the critical juncture we’re at as a planet and a human civilization.

Think about it.  And then—act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Daryl Hannah at Keystone XL Pipeline protest, October 2012

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Resisting the Energy Vultures

Today’s New York Times Sunday Review piece by White House correspondent Mark Landler, “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy,” gives disturbing insight into the mindset not only of the men and women who preside over national foreign policies, but also into the media lapdogs who cover them.

Landler reports that China and the U.S., along with practically every other country in possession of a serviceable Navy fleet, are entering into “a new type of maritime conflict — one that is playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Landler’s sources, explains blandly that “This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades.”

Clinton has got the right metaphor there.  What Landler describes all too flippantly as “a watery Great Game” could well indeed “consume large bodies of water around the world.”

What neither Clinton nor anyone else interviewed for Landler’s article bring up is the cardinal question:  When the game is over, what will be left of the living beings that used to populate those waters in unimaginably vast numbers?

Landler describes the navies and drill ships of countries from China and the U.S. to Turkey and Israel jockeying for control of huge troves of oil and natural gas deposits that have been discovered beneath the sea.

Of especial interest to these circling energy vultures are the deposits beneath the Arctic ice.  Landler reports that “melting ice has opened up the fabled Northwest Passage,” making resource extraction in the Arctic more viable than before.

This offhand and veiled reference to climate change provides a window into the sociopathic mindsets of the men who rule the Energy Kingdoms.  The cowboys of global fossil fuel extraction are essentially warlords, relying on the national armies of their nominal countries of origin to clear the way of opposition to their reckless drilling.

From their warped point of view, global warming can be seen as a bonus.

If the Arctic ice melts, so much the better–it’ll make it easier to get those billions of barrels of oil out of the sea and into the global market.

No matter that deep sea drilling has been proven to be highly risky and lethal to the environment.  Hello, does anyone remember BP in the Gulf of Mexico?

Imagine a spill like that going on in frigid northern waters.

Imagine billions of barrels worth of oil or gas gushing into the Arctic Ocean, to be picked up by the currents and spread all over the world.

Imagine the destruction of marine wildlife, and indeed the entire marine food chain, that this would entail.

NY Times reporter Landler doesn’t waste time contemplating such grim scenarios.  The focus of his article is “gunboat diplomacy,” a glamorous new competition among national navies to dominate the oceans, seen strictly in utilitarian terms.  His only mention of fish, or indeed any maritime creature, is a brief aside that icebreakers are being sent into the Arctic circle by countries like China and Korea, “to explore weather patterns and fish migration.”

Landler’s article, which is billed as “news analysis,” reveals the extent to which the chillingly disturbing values of the Energy Kings have permeated not only the governments who are supposed to be regulating their industry and safeguarding the natural world, but also the media “watchdogs,” who are obviously sitting cozily in the laps of Big Oil.

Questions of environmental sustainability and health are simply outside the picture for these folks.  It’s not relevant to them whether or not the polar bears survive.  They don’t care about the coral reefs, or the plankton.  They don’t care about whales.  Their only concern is the bottom line.

What is the most effective opposition to such monomania?

Trying to think of persuasive strategies gives me a touch of hysteria.  We could appeal to their love of seafood!  Wouldn’t they miss their caviar and oysters?

They will figure out how to grow these in tanks.

We could appeal to them as property owners: what’s going to happen to their beachfront homes, not to mention their office towers in coastal cities around the world, when the waters begin to rise?

They will have armies of lawyers figuring out ways to make the taxpayers bear the burden of their lost properties.

We could appeal to their brand image.  Does Exxon-Mobil really want to go down in history as the biggest perpetrator of maritime omnicide in world history?

They will throw this back at us, and rightly so: they were just doing their job of giving the consumer what she wants, a steady supply of affordable energy.

It’s true that we all share the blame for this tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. It’s also true that we have the power to stop it.

How? We need to demand that the rights of the denizens of the natural world be respected.  A new Declaration of the Rights of Nature has been written–it needs to be circulated, popularized and upheld.

We need to insist that our politicians report to the people, the taxpayers, not to the corporations. Yes, people want energy; we want cars, we want electricity.  But we want to direct our tax dollars into R&D of renewable sources of energy–solar, geothermal, wind–not into dangerous oil and gas extraction or nuclear fission, and not into dirty coal mining either.

We need to call the mainstream media on its dereliction of duty when it presents one-sided reports like Landler’s industry white paper today.

Extracting those billions of barrels of oil buried below the earth’s surface miles beneath the sea would not just be a death sentence for marine life.  It would drive the nails on the human coffin as well, along with all the other species on this planet who will not be able to adapt to the erratic climate extremes of floods, droughts and storms that will inevitably ramp up once the planet heats beyond the point of no return.

Under these circumstances, if the governments won’t listen, radical action may prove a necessity.  The French Resistance to the Nazis were considered criminals in their own time and place, but look like heroes to us today, with the power of hindsight.

We are in the midst of a new, much larger Holocaust now, one that threatens not just one group of people, but all of us, and our natural world as well.

Each of us has a choice to make.  You can go along with the crowd, watching impassively as the train leaves the station for the gas chambers, or you can dare to raise your voice in opposition, and maybe even to throw a wrench in the gears of power.

Each of us is going to die sooner or later.  Wouldn’t you rather die knowing you had done your utmost to make a difference, to safeguard the world for your children and all life on this planet?

Ruminating on the demand for “demands”: Protesters, stay on target!

This morning we were discussing Nietzsche in my Seminar class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and I asked the students to think about Nietzsche’s advice to his readers in the preface to The Genealogy of Morals.  “One thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art,” Nietzsche said; something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays….something for which one almost has to be a cow and in any case not a “modern man”: rumination.”

In other words, Nietzsche says you have to read his work like a cow lying in a sunny field chewing her cud: slowly, deliberately, with total concentration.

If the “modern men” of 1887 had already “unlearned” this art, imagine how far away it seems to us now, in our age of the 24-hour media news circus, the Twitterati, and the sound bite.  Hardly anyone has the patience to just sit and ruminate anymore.  We are too busy clicking and chatting and running from one appointment to the next.

It’s in this busy, hectic spirit that, after having ignored the Occupy Wall Street protests entirely for their first ten days, we are now hearing impatient cries from the media for a list of “demands.”

It irritates me to no end that the media punditocracy, from Nick Kristof to Bill O’Reilly, are now pushing the protesters to get their collective act together and come up with a proper bullet-pointed list of all their grievances.  Unspoken is the subtext: tell us what’s upsetting you, dear children, so we can pat you on the head and make everything all right.

It’s condescending, again, and way too simplistic a response to the complex and serious nature of this rapidly spreading protest movement, which some are now calling the Tea Party of the left.

Some of the protesters, nettled by the insinuation that they lack focus and don’t know what they want, have hurried to put together a bonafide, if tentative, list of demands. These have been launched into the great wiki of the blogosphere, where thousands of minds are now busily turning them over and vetting them for possible political viability.  Not only the trade unions, but also Moveon.org and other big national political organizations are now poised to make hay in the sunshine of this nascent movement.

They all ought to take a deep breath and follow Nietzsche’s advice.  Take the time to ruminate.  Don’t leap too fast.  What is the hurry?  It took many years of steady, malicious manipulation to get us 99%-ers into this fix.  It’s going to take at least as long to get us out of it.

What the protesters really want cannot be contained by the old-fashioned concept of “demands.”  Their motivation comes from a much deeper place, a primal sense of justice and community.  They know that the 1%, the wealthiest Americans, have been living like parasites on the great sleeping flanks of the 99% for at least the past quarter-century.  If we 99 percenters wake up and stretch and begin to roar, there’s no telling what we might be able to accomplish together!

That’s why the protesters should not be lured in and fobbed off with the promise of a few candies or pats on the head.  What’s needed is deep systemic change of our social system.  There are some pretty radical ideas floating around out there right now, including complete debt forgiveness as a grand national “stimulus” plan.  Why bail out the banks?  Why not bail out the consumers?

This idea has merit, but it shouldn’t be just about getting us back into the same old groove of shopping for cheap foreign-produced goods, the production of which are contributing more and more to the destruction of our planetary environment.

There should also be a massive subsidy plan for renewable energy.  Instead of destroying the boreal forest in Alberta and building a misbegotten pipeline, we should be investing in low-impact renewable energy, especially solar and geothermal, which seem like the least hazardous forms of energy production currently available.

Coming up with “demands” implies faith in a political system to respond.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are down there on the front lines precisely because they know the current political system cannot be trusted.  They’re right.

“I am no man–I am dynamite,” Nietzsche wrote in his autobiography, Ecce Homo. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are, similarly, much more than a group of individuals assembled in one place.  They are the long fuse that has now been lit; or to use a more contemporary metaphor, they are the surge in the power line.

What will happen next we do not yet know, but one thing is certain: it will not be reducible to, or solvable by, a simplistic list of “demands.”

What happened to the Obama we elected?

If you won’t do it, Mr. President, we will!
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