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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Climate change is no joke

What a totally spurious pro-Keystone pipeline column from Joe Nocera in the New York Times today!  He doesn’t even bother to mention the 35,000-plus people who turned out in Washington to protest, focusing instead on “boneheaded” Bill McKibben and James Hansen and others who got themselves arrested at the White House last week as though that were the end of the story of citizen protest of this issue.

He dismisses the idea of a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies as ineffective, arguing, inexplicably, that this would “make expensive tar sands more viable.”  Huh?  Is anyone fact-checking this columnist, NYT?

“If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical.”  Anyone follow that logic?

Nocera does not once mention the real reason for the protest against the tar sands extraction, which is the environmental hazards, from toxic waterways to exponential increase in the greenhouse gases causing global heating.  If that isn’t an insidious, dishonest omission, I don’t know what would be.

His only mention of climate change is dismissive: “Like it or not, fossil fuels are going to remain the dominant energy source for the foreseeable future, and we are far better off getting our oil from Canada than, say, Venezuela.  And the climate change effects of tar sands oil are, all in all, pretty small.”

There are so many things wrong in this sentence I hardly know where to start, and most of my readers probably can do the parsing themselves anyway.

The truth is that if, as Joe would have it, “fossil fuels are going to remain the dominant energy source for the foreseeable future,” then our foreseeable future is going to be very brief.

Yesterday while in DC I went back to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to see the Human Origins exhibit, which is, strangely enough, funded by the climate-change denying billionaire Koch brothers.

Once again I lingered at the opening display, a huge poster depicting the changes in Earth’s climate over the past few hundred thousand years, showing how the swings between extremes of hot and cold forced our ancestors to adapt or die.

The last inch or so of the immense timeline (I’m guessing it’s 12 feet wide) shows the last 10,000 years, the era of homo sapiens.  The swings between hot and cold get more jagged as we get closer to the present, with the last hundred years–a mere quarter-inch of the vast scale of human history–showing aggressive upward spikes of heat.

There is no mistaking the message of this chart.  We are now in a period of rapidly escalating climate change.  If we don’t adapt just as rapidly, a major correction to our population will ensue. Millions, even billions of humans may die off, very much in the “foreseeable future.”

For those left to tell the tale, one thing is for sure: the Keystone Pipeline, rusting and derelict on the western plains, will be a less-than-useless monument to the immense folly of men like Joe Nocera, who thought climate change was just a joke.

Dispatch from the heart of the American clean energy movement

 

My son Eric and I at the rally

My son Eric and I at the rally

On this cold, blustery day in Washington D.C., thousands of people braved the elements to send a resounding message that we will not stand idly by and let Big Oil continue to run the great ship Earth straight on to the reef of global heating.

Although my body feels battered and tense from standing clenched against the wind so many hours, my physical discomforts pale beside the sheer joy of the memories of today’s climate rally.

The most exciting part was when the whole huge, enthusiastic, orderly crowd began marching from the meet-up point by the Washington Monument, signs and banners and flags flying high, drumbeats and chants rising up into the clear sky above Washington, winding ourselves into a huge coiling serpent wrapping itself around the White House, parading and prancing and stomping and making all the joyful news we could as we passed by the iron gates under the watchful eyes of security.

On the march!

On the march!

It was somewhat deflating to know that the President was not home–and even worse to get word that he was golfing in Florida, no less (my regular readers will recall how much I detest golf courses and consider them symbolic of all that is wrong with humanity’s relation to the natural world).

But it was gratifying to see the media out in fairly substantial numbers covering the march; many, many video cameras were rolling and iphones were snapping and people were even wandering around the crowd doing spot interviews about what had drawn the protestors to DC this fine, cold Sunday.

I think I can speak for many when I say that what drew us out was a deep concern for our planet, and a desire to draw a line in the sand–in this case, the Keystone XL serving as that iconic line–to indicate our opposition to the continued rape and pillage of our Mother Earth.

No more impunity! If the fossil fuel magnates win this round and the Keystone is built, let it not be with impunity. Let our whote-hearted opposition to this misguided investment be duly registered in Washington, today and at re-election time next November.

At one point today as the wind whipped over the crowd the speaker observed wryly that “we like wind!” and everyone waved their “Forward with Clean Energy!” signs vigorously and laughed.

Standing up for the Sandhill Cranes of North Dakota!

Standing up for the Sandhill Cranes of North Dakota!

A small tribe of seagulls circled overhead for a while, wondering if there would be potato chips on offer at this gathering, and a young woman dressed in a lifesize Sandhill Crane outfit poked her long, elegant neck way above the crowd.

The gong has rung to signal the start of another round in the long struggle for a transition to a sustainable human relationship with the planet.

A good 35,000 people turned out today to tell the President and Congress, loud and clear, that we want real action on the climate disaster-in-the-making, and we want it to start RIGHT NOW.

If the New York Times is any indication of whether those in the mainstream halls of power are getting our message, the prospects look good, because the front-page story this evening is precisely about the Keystone XL issue and today’s big rally.

We the people do have the power to direct our elected officials to safeguard our interests. Our interests, not the corporate “persons’” interests.

As the chant went in the march today, “This is what democracy looks like!”

YES!

r-RALLY-huge

Postscript, President’s Day 2013:

Even the MSM press was on to this rally!  The New York Times covered it, as did The Washington Post.  HuffPost Green did a good job, and of course we could count on Common Dreams to be one of the first to cover Bill McKibben’s victory speech at the end of the day!  Right next to yours truly, I am truly honored to say.

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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.

The Audacity of Hope, c. 2012

For those of us who supported President Obama, the last 24 hours or so have been positively giddy.

There were the nail-biting first few hours of the election results…followed by the glad tidings of more and more of the big electoral states turning a glorious blue…capped by the wonderful thrill of seeing the President stride out onto the stage in Chicago to give the most rousing acceptance speech most of us have ever heard.

What a big heart this man has, to include in his acceptance speech itself the invitation to his opponents to meet him in the aisle and try to seek common ground!

In the very first words of his speech, before he even thanked his running mate, he reached out to Mitt Romney, offering to work with him to move the country forward onto a better, firmer footing:

I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign. 

We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply and we care so strongly about its future. From George to Lenore to their son Mitt, the Romney family has chosen to give back to America through public service and that is the legacy that we honor and applaud tonight.

In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.

And then, towards the end of the speech, he said so memorably:

America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class. I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.

This audacity of optimism is why we elected Barack Obama back in 2008, and why we continue to love him.

Whatever his personal or political failings, Barack Obama stands for the best hope of the USA: the raw immigrant passion and drive that founded this country and still makes it great.

He also represents, in his very skin, the polyglot future of the USA, the inexorable movement away from the European aristocracy of our founders to the broad multicultural diversity of our descendants.

Mitt Romney’s concession speech 2012

The Republicans are still stuck back in the good old days of the good old guys’ party.  As one commentator aptly noted, Republican political rallies look suspiciously like Ku Klux Klan rallies of the early 20th century.

For those who might rather not recall, let us remember that the Klan not only hated and lynched African Americans; they also hated and lynched Jews.  And they didn’t liked the Irish or the Italians much either!

Let’s not even talk about gay folk.  And women?  For the Klan and many contemporary conservatives, they belong in the kitchen or in the bed.

This is not the country we want to be as we move into the 21st century.

Although I thought the Obama campaign’s slogan “Forward, not back” was a little hokey when I heard it trotted out at various rallies, it does have the ring of truth to it.

We do not want to go back to the intolerance and violent hatred of our past.

We need to move forward, and we will need all hands on deck to confront the deeply unstable, uncertain future that awaits us in the age of climate change.

I want to see Barack Obama rise to the challenges of our time with all the power of his big heart.

I want to see him not just think about jobs, but think about green jobs, about jobs that will move our country forward into a longterm, sustainable future.

Enough kow-towing to Big Oil, Big Agriculture and Big Chemical.  It’s time to force these industries to bend to the winds of change, to adapt to the new paradigm of sustainability sweeping our country and our planet.

I applaud Bill McKibben for waiting until the election was over to come out swinging—and I applaud his continuing efforts to get the climate change issue into the center of political discourse.

Those who are still suffering from the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, along with their insurers, should be his best allies.

We need to face the truth that all the matters of social justice that concern us will be moot if we don’t face the pressing need to get our planetary civilization onto a sustainable footing.

We need to convince our President of this, post-haste.

But let’s take a moment to breathe a big sigh of relief that it is Barack Obama we’re dealing with, and not Mitt Romney!

This election proves that Big Money is not infallible.

Democracy still matters; individual votes still matter; as a country, we are not as corrupt as many of us feared.

Now is the time for all of us to embrace the President’s big heart and let it reach out even further to encompass our entire beautiful planet and all of her creatures.

This is the task we humans were born to undertake: to become the thoughtful, compassionate stewards of our planet, and the collaborative leaders of our own multifarious tribes.

It is so good to see more and more women stepping up to the plate now.  We are sorely needed, but we can’t do it alone.

Men and women of all heritages must work together as never before to reestablish the equilibrium needed to move our civilization forward sustainably into the 21st century.

These are not just words.  This is our urgent reality.

Barack Obama has answered the call.

Will you?

Thank you, Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy did the planet a favor by hitting hard right at some of our most elite enclaves.

This time it’s not the poor residents of the Ninth Ward facing the horror of flooding, it’s the wealthy owners of some of the most valuable coastal property in the country.

When I heard Mayor Bloomberg of New York, one of the richest men on the planet, finally come and out say the words “climate change” with urgency, I had to smile despite the seriousness of the context, because it meant that at last the rich and powerful are getting the message that the status quo cannot go on—at least, not if we expect to survive as a civilization into the 22nd century.

The truth is that Americans in the ruling class—the business owners, the politicians, the finance and computer wizards, the media producers, the educators, even the artists–have been living in a luxurious gated community our whole lives.

We have been watching the travails of those outside, including the accelerating extinction of other species and the poisoning of the environment, from what has seemed like a safe, secure vantage point, behind several layers of bullet-proof glass.

Americans have watched impassively as people in other parts of the world have been forced to deal with terrible storms, flooding, and droughts with increasing regularity over the past decade.

As long as the electricity stays on and the supermarkets and gas stations are full and open for business, we just don’t pay much attention to what’s going on with the weather.  As long as our homes are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, what’s the problem?

People like James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and Elizabeth Kolbert have been knocking futilely on the windows for years, trying to get the ruling class to wake up and pay attention to the looming threat of climate change before it’s too late.

They’ve made little progress up to now.

But Hurricane Sandy is a game changer.  Blowing into town the week before the Presidential elections, she put climate change on to the front page of the New York Times at last.  She forced her way into the bland discourse of Presidential politics.

She tossed her windy head and in just a few hours paralyzed the “greatest city on Earth,” creating $50 billion of damage that will take weeks if not months to clean up.

All of a sudden, city planners are talking seriously about flood gates, and some are saying it might be foolish to rebuild in the same way, right down along the coast.

I don’t hear many in our ruling class yet saying what needs to be said, which is that our entire lifestyle has been built up in an unsustainable way, and must be changed if we are to leave a livable legacy to our children and grandchildren.

We must wean ourselves from the addiction to fossil fuels.  We must shift from highways and cars to mass transit.  We must immediately start reducing emissions in every way possible, with special attention to the agriculture sector, which has to be completely redesigned with sustainability and health—our own, and that of the animals and plants we cultivate—in mind.

We must build a much more resilient, collaborative culture.  Competition and aggression may have been the watchwords of the capitalist and imperialist 19th and 20th century, but following their star has landed us in our current grave circumstances. We can’t go any further down that path.

For thousands of years prior to the Christian era, human beings lived tribally and cooperatively in harmony with the land.  Our population has now grown so large that we are reduced to fighting each other for increasingly scarce resources.

Going forward, if we are to survive, we must transcend the pettiness of national boundaries and ethnic differences, recognize our common goals as humans, and start to work together to provide strategically for the good of all.

This may seem like an impossibly idealistic goal, but if there is one thing that I believe can unite human beings, it is the awareness now dawning about how interconnected we are through our dependence on the life support of our planet.

It is sad that the Earth has had to sink to such an unbalanced, depleted state before we began to pay attention.  I would not wish a Hurricane Sandy on anyone.  But it seems that we need wake-up calls of her magnitude to get us up and out of the stupor of denial and inaction.

As I step over the threshold into my sixth decade today, I can feel a new resoluteness building in me; a new determination to use my time in a more focused way.

I vow to give the best of myself to the struggle for a sustainable future, and to encourage others to join me in this effort.  There is nothing more important any of us can be doing now.

Climate Change: What do we tell our children?

This has been a big week for change agents in the U.S.

First Annie Leonard came out with her new movie, The Story of Change.

Annie Leonard

Then David Brancaccio released his new movie, “ Fixing the Future,” with a two-day nationwide roll-out starting on July 18.

David Brancaccio

And today Bill McKibben made the cover of Rolling Stone, confirming him, at least in my eyes, as the true rock star of the environmental movement.

In the same week, radical economist Gar Alperovitz gave a historic keynote address to the Green Party National Convention, arguing that you can’t have a democratic society unless you democratize the ownership of wealth as well.

The big question is, will the best efforts of all these good folks make a difference in what is happening to our precious planet?

Or is it just so much more hot air, to add to an already too-hot summer?

This week I am teaching a class in media studies for middle schoolers.  While I’m amazed and delighted at the facility of the students with the technology of digital communications, I am also struck by the narrow focus of their concerns.

Three of the students have started blogs about fashion trends.  Another has started a blog about anime and manga characters.  Of the three others in the class, one is using her blog to do movie reviews, another is talking about hard science issues (the Higgs Boson discovery), and the third is writing about the stock market and the technological age we live in.

Absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.

Except that if we don’t solve the climate crisis, it will all be completely moot.

Runway fashions, movie stars, cartoons and stocks will all be swept away before the onslaught of food insecurity, economic instability and violently unpredictable storms.

No, this is not the stuff of Hollywood fantasy.  It is real, and as McKibben points out in the intro to his Rolling Stone article, it’s already happening.

As a teacher, what am I supposed to do?  If I remind my students (and my own children, for that matter) just how grave and portentous a time we are living through, aren’t I placing an enormous burden on them?  And isn’t it true that it is my generation, not theirs, that bears the brunt of the responsibility for where we are now?

And yet, if I say nothing and let them proceed as if fashion and anime were the most compelling topics of the moment, am I not being dishonest?

It really is quite a dilemma, for any parent and every teacher who is aware of what is really at stake in the times we live in.

I imagine it must have been similar for principled people in other times of crisis.  Do we try to shelter the children, keep their lives as normal as possible, for as long as we can?  Or do we let them know what is going on, and enlist them in the urgent struggle for positive change?

I don’t believe in lying to young people, and I have never been very good at lying, anyway.

The truth is that we are living through times unlike any faced by human beings before, in the 10,000 years of our history on the planet.

What we do in the next decade will make the difference between our continued existence on the planet, or the extinction or radical reduction of human civilizations on Earth.

I love Bill McKibben because so far, at least, he never gives up.

He’s got a true fighting spirit that refuses to take no for an answer.

Still, eventually even Bill may have to concede that the fossil fuel industry, with the politicians in their back pockets, is simply not going to give.

When that moment occurs, it will be game over for human beings on the planet, and so many other of our fellow Holocene travelers too—birds, fish, plants, and mammals.

But it’s not over til it’s over.    And I, at least, will never give up hope that people of all ages, from every corner of the world, will see the crucial urgency of this moment; that they will act upon their new awareness;  that the politicians will be compelled to listen; and that we will be able to turn this great climate change juggernaut around.

Looking Forward with Orion Magazine

The spirit of Henry David Thoreau was in the air last week at a gathering at his old stomping grounds at the top of Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts, hosted by Orion Magazine to celebrate the launch of its new anthology, The Thirty Year Plan.

Keynote speakers at the event were Orion contributing writers Ginger Strand, Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben, all of whom seemed to have a common concern on their minds as they looked into the future: climate change.

Thoreau’s legacy of using writing as a vehicle for civil disobedience is a mantle that all three writers have already assumed, particularly McKibben, who is very much following in Thoreau’s footsteps in going beyond simply writing about activism to actually standing at the forefront of a growing activist movement.

Characteristically, McKibben wasted no time in reminding his listeners that it’s high time for decisive action in the quest to transition our global economy off fossil fuels.

“It’s not enough to go around changing lightbulbs or even buying hybrid vehicles,” he said.  “Individual change won’t do it, the math doesn’t add up.  We have to change the price of carbon to reflect its true cost to our environment.

“We will never be able to match ExxonMobil and the other fossil fuel corporations in money, but we do have people power, and we have to use it.  A lot of you are going to have to come down to Washington DC and get arrested with me!” he said to applause.

McKibben also suggested using the shareholder pressure that was successfully applied against apartheid in South Africa back in the 1980s, but this time putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry to reinvent itself as a renewable energy industry based on wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal.

Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben speaking at Bascom Lodge, Mount Greylock, mA

The Beauty of Renewable Power

 From the top of Mount Greylock there is a striking view of eight huge spinning wind turbines on a ridge not far away, over by Jiminy Peak.  Wind power has become controversial in New England, with some towns and neighborhoods arguing vociferously against the location of wind turbines in their backyards.

In Massachusetts there has been great opposition to the proposal to build a windfarm out in Nantucket Sound, and here in the Berkshire hills we have also had many people of the NIMBY mindset.

When asked to comment on the prospect of wind turbines being set up on mountaintops in wilderness areas, Bill McKibben was unequivocal.

“I love the wilderness as much as anyone, and I’ve spent a lot of time out in the Adirondacks, as far away from it all as you can get.  But I’d have absolutely no problem with a wind turbine being set up overlooking my favorite patch of forest,” he said.

“The real threat to the places we love is fossil fuels, not wind towers,” McKibben said, adding that he has little sympathy for Americans who complain about wind towers being unattractive.

“Our sense of what’s beautiful is going to have to change,” he said.  Wind turbines located in Vermont or Massachusetts force people living in these exclusive areas to see the results of our impact on the climate, McKibben said, unlike our usual practice of making people in other parts of the planet—the Maldives, or Bangladesh, or the mountaintops of Virginia, for example—do all the suffering.

Emphasizing that the technology already exists to shift to renewable energy, McKibben pointed to the fact that Germany is already breaking records with its distributed solar energy model.

In May, German solar plants produced a record 22 gigawatts of electricity in two days, equal to the output of 20 nuclear power plants.

According to a recent Reuters article, “Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.”

Solar panels sprout on roofs in Heidelberg, Germany

The Challenge of Getting People’s Attention

The contributors to the Orion Thirty Year Plan vision agree that the challenges we face in getting off fossil fuels are much more socio-political than they are technical.

One of the questions that remains intractable is how to get the public fully engaged with the issue of climate change, so that more people are willing to try Thoreau-style civil disobedience to force the politicians to do the right thing when it comes to regulating Big Oil—ending the subsidies on fossil fuels and giving incentives for the shift to renewable energy sources.

Elizabeth Kolbert said she was perplexed at the fact that she got a far greater response to a recent New Yorker article on child rearing than she generally gets on her much longer, more meticulously researched pieces on global heating.

“It’s something I think about a lot,” Kolbert said; “how to get people as interested in climate change as they are in raising their kids.”

Kolbert agreed with writers like Mark Hertsgaard, who suggested in his book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth that it’s pathological to do the kind of intensive parenting Americans are known for while at the same time ignoring the biggest danger of all looming over our kids and grandkids: anthropogenic global warming.

Sunset from Mount Greylock

As the sun began its spectacular descent towards the west side of the Greylock summit, and the assembled group went in to dinner and animated discussion at Bascom Lodge, it seemed to me that our charge was clear: to join leaders like Kolbert and McKibben in becoming change agents in our own spheres and out in the public eye.  We need to build a movement with a broad enough base of committed supporters to seriously challenge the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, as well as the massive inertia of the American public, which still has a tendency to imagine that life as we knew it growing up can go on for the next thirty years virtually unchanged.

Life will go on, with or without us humans.  But the story of our species does not have to end in disaster.  There is still time to write a new ending to our 10,000-year adventure on this planet, if we get up the courage and the dedication to get moving now.

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