The Civilization We Grew Up In Is Already Dead. So now what?

“If we want to learn how to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

This is the last line in a fine essay by Roy Scranton, former U.S. soldier and currently a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton University.  The essay, published in the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone,” is one of those rare attempts to really lay out the gravity of the situation we face today, as humans on a rapidly destabilizing planet.

Readers of Transition Times have been hearing me give my doom-and-gloom warnings for years now.  But it’s very rare that such grim scenarios break into the gilded precincts inhabited by readers of The New York Times.

Here is Scranton:

“The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human.

“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers.

“Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

“We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction.

“If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”

Yes.  We know this.  It’s actually what Scranton does next in his essay that most interests me.

He makes a turn into the humanities, arguing that since “studying philosophy is about learning how to die,” then we have now “entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Scranton reminds us that “the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’

“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — ‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’ — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

These are the kind of questions I ruminate about daily.  It comes back to Mary Oliver’s signature question, in her haunting poem “The Summer Day”—“What will I do with my one wild and precious life?”

We never know if our own deaths are right around the corner.  Will the truck driver around the next bend be distracted by his phone, cross the yellow line and blow me to oblivion?  Will my next physical exam reveal a terminal illness?  It could happen any time.

But as Scranton says, the climate change issue is much bigger than any of our individual lives.  It’s about the future of human civilization on the planet.

He ends his essay provocatively, saying that the problem of climate change cannot be solved by “buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.” What is needed is a profound philosophical shift; to go from a civilization built on the illusion of endless growth and consumption, to a steady-state civilization that the planet can sustain.

We need to realize, Scranton says, that the human civilization all of us grew up in “is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Watching the desperation on the faces and in the voices of the climate negotiators from sea-level nations like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, it’s clear that these folks have already absorbed the lesson we in the higher-terrain countries have yet to confront.

We cannot go on with business as usual any longer.

Not if we want to bequeath a livable Earth to our descendants.

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki said it all, so eloquently, speaking to a climate change summit way back in 1992, when she was just a girl of 12.  Are we ready to listen yet?

Of Climate Change and the Humanities

This week, most unusually, two topics that are of great interest to me, but which rarely make it into the mainstream media, suddenly surfaced in The New York Times.

It was not glad tidings.

ipcc_altlogo_full_rgbAn article about a “leaked draft” of a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, strategically placed in the Saturday edition of the NYT–generally the least read—warned that global warming is going to severely disrupt food supplies in the near future.

A burgeoning global human population, expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, is going to need more food—but climate change is predicted to reduce agricultural production by as much as 2 percent each decade for the rest of this century, with predictable results in terms of famine and civil unrest.

Meanwhile, back on the higher-education ranch, it was doom and gloom for the humanities this week, with a “Room for Debate” discussion in the New York Times about whether or not the study of the humanities has become vestigial in these science-focused times, just an “academic luxury.”

The answer I liked best to the question “what good are the humanities today” came from Lisa Dolling, an associate professor of philosophy, and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Stevens Institute of Technology, who said:

“While science and engineering can tell us the “what” and “how” of the world, the humanities and social sciences provide insights to answering the “why” — along with the skills necessary to communicate it all to others.”

i-f38d8b0bf62d6e656f1e4bf2c111d9b2-IPCCScience and engineering can tell us all about the problems we face due to global warming, but it is the humanities that will be able to tell us why it is so impossible for human beings to agree on reducing carbon emissions and shifting into a sustainable economic framework.

And perhaps it is the humanities that will be able to persuade us to overcome our collective inertia…find the necessary fire in our bellies…and insist that corporations and politicians join hands to make a livable future for us all.

 

Personally, I have never been more excited to be a humanities professor than I am today.

All of my courses this year are focusing on urgent issues of social and environmental justice, giving students the models and tools they need to become the kinds of change agents our world so desperately needs.

In science & engineering courses, students will learn how to measure and impact biofeedback systems.

But in my courses, they will learn how to communicate these statistics in ways that not only inform, but also inspire a thoughtful response in others.

It is not enough today to understand what is going on, although that is a crucial first step.

We must also be able to take the next steps of a) explaining to others why global warming is important and b) creating channels through which people’s fear, passion and courage can flow into positive efforts at social change.

According to the Stanford University website, “the humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

I find it sad that humanities scholars have to defend the utility and validity of our field today.

Science without the humanities would be a cold social environment indeed, and I think even scientists probably recognize this.

In the age of climate change, we need the humanities more than ever to understand where we are, and to provide the moral framework for where we want to go.

It is not enough to simply describe population growth or agricultural decline. We need to explain why it is imperative that we work to curb human populations and create economic and biological systems for sustainable growth.

We need history to show us how we got here; philosophy to show us our ethical responsibility; and literature and rhetoric to show us how to most effectively communicate with others.

What an impoverished human society it would be if empirical evidence was all we focused on.

Scientists need the humanities, and vice-versa.  To suggest otherwise is to greatly undersell the capacity of human beings to think with both sides of our large, ambidextrous brains—with potentially disastrous results for human society and planet Earth.

We can do better than that.  And we will.

What are we waiting for? Violence and climate change in our brave new world.

Finally, in the Sunday New York Times, a report giving empirical evidence of what we already knew intuitively, that climate change leads to violence, and that it’s going to get worse as the planet continues to warm.

For a couple of years now I’ve had a haunting premonition that violence is going to come even to the comfortable, beautiful corner of the world where I live.

We saw how fast tempers flared when Hurricane Sandy created gas shortages down in the New York metropolitan area.

What happens when our industrial food supply starts to fail, given the inevitable and already-occurring wildfires, droughts, tornados and floods?

When people get hungry, survival-of-the-fittest kicks in, and it will take serious riot police to keep order when the supermarkets run out of food.

The authors of the new report say that their findings “are particularly important for what they imply about the future. Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over the next half-century. Our results imply that if nothing changes, this rise in temperature could amplify the rate of group conflicts like civil wars by an astonishing 50 percent in many parts of the world — a frightening possibility for a planet already awash in conflict.”

Frightening indeed. What to do with this new knowledge?

The authors urge political leaders to “call for new and creative policy reforms designed to tackle the challenge of adapting to the sorts of climate conditions that breed conflict — for instance, through the development of more drought- and heat-resistant agricultural technologies.”

I hardly think that the answer lies in agricultural engineering.

In the time we have left before chaos sets in we should be re-localizing agriculture, setting up distributed energy networks and re-learning the old arts of drying, salting, canning and cold storing agricultural products.

Indian Line CSA, one of the first in the nation

Indian Line CSA, one of the first in the nation

We should also be disarming our civilian population and focusing on creating strong community networks of mutual support.

For all our cleverness, humans are just primitive beasts when our bellies are empty—primitive beasts armed, at least in Fortress America, with deadly assault weapons.

The nightmares of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan, not to mention Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, could easily start up here too, when food is scarce and sectarian violence begins to flare.

The truth is that we can’t rely on national and international leaders to undertake meaningful “policy reforms”—not when they are being held hostage by Big Carbon, Big Ag, Big Chemical/Pharma and Big Finance.

Delusional these corporate giants may be, but they will be going down with the ship holding fast to their belief in the value of limitless human economic growth, stable climate be damned.

We who believe that another world is possible need to hold fast to our own belief that the world won’t end when those giant glass towers in financial districts worldwide go down.

We can build that new world—not through technology and arms, but through community and collaboration.  Bottom-up, not top-down.

It’s true: we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  And given the impending climate crisis, there’s no point in waiting anymore.

Harvesting at Indian Line Farm, Berkshire County MA

Harvesting at Indian Line Farm, Berkshire County MA

World on fire

I had to dig deep into the New York Times, my usual go-to source for “all the news that’s fit to print,” to find any mention of this weekend’s train explosion in the province of Quebec, not far from the Maine border.

canada-floater-articleLarge

Lac-Megantic on fire July 6, 2013

I knew about it only because here in Canada it’s at the top of the headlines, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper taking the time this Sunday to journey to the small town of Lac-Megantic, where the disaster occurred, to size up the situation and offer his condolences.

Officially, so far, five have been confirmed dead, with scores still missing; Lac-Megantic, pop. 6,000, is said to look like a war zone, with black fumes rising from the burning crude oil carried by the 73-car train.

This on a weekend when temperatures in the Canadian Maritimes soared to record-breaking heights, and harmful algal blooms worldwide choked out marine life along all the coasts.

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Algae bloom on the Yellow Sea in China, July 2013

Astoundingly, at least one Canadian pundit responded to the burning crude and the smoldering township by calling for increased building of pipelines!

Another columnist, in the very same newspaper that reported on Nova Scotia’s unprecedented heat wave, had the nerve to call for more drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas on land and sea in the province.

If there are no more fish in the sea, we can at least extract the last of the fossil fuels, eh?

It’s time to get a grip, people.

What we need is not more oil and gas, but more wind and solar.

We need clean sources of energy, and we need to lower our consumption dramatically.

The window of possibility is smaller and tighter than most of us care to realize.

The tipping point is upon us.

This is not another action movie, a “White House Down”-style disaster flick, ending with the good guys reliably saving the day.

As we saw with the Arizona fires the other day, even the most hot-shot of heroes can go down in a blaze of glory when the fires burn out of control.

Do we really want to wait until the entire world is going up in flames, literally and figuratively speaking, before we act?

This is not a rhetorical question.  And the answer, I believe, is NO.  We can’t afford to sit on our hands any longer.

The time to act is NOW.

You can run but you can’t hide

As the heat and humidity of summer bore down on my home turf of New England last week, I made a run for it, spending two days traveling northeast at breakneck speed towards the normally cool coast of Nova Scotia.

I arrived just in time for a rare heat spell here on these windy islands sticking out into the north Atlantic.

Today it was up in the 90s Farenheit, the sun golden-bright and merciless.  Too hot to go out to the beach—a day for staying in the shade and drinking lots and lots of water.

musselsThinking of having something light and cool for dinner, my son and I drove down to the store to get some mussels.

The Canadian Maritimes are a prime source of farmed mussels, and I was eagerly picturing a pot full of the glistening blue-black beauties, steamed in a fragrant shallot and wine sauce.

Ignoring the sad, dried-up looking fish at the Atlantic Superstore fish counter, I confidently asked for a 5-pound net bag of mussels, and placed it in my shopping cart.

I started walking around the store briskly, revived by the freezing air conditioning.  But I kept getting whiffs of a strange smell, like something rotten.  After a few minutes, I realized it was coming from my cart.  It was the mussels.

I returned the bag to the fish counter, where the server took it back without argument.

So much for my fantasy of a mussel dinner.

***

warnsignOn the way home, we stopped to pick up a local newspaper, and while waiting in a long hot road construction line, I noticed a small headline tucked on the inside pages: “Shellfish Harvesting Suspended Due to Red Tide.”

My son and I looked at each other in dismay.  We had already noticed, on our first walk on our normally pristine local beach, that the water was a strange rusty-red color.

We had noticed too that there seemed to be fewer seabirds around, and that when we went down to the rocks to look for the normally numerous crabs, we could hardly find any.

We had been planning to go clamming over the weekend, out on the mud flats at low tide.

That plan would have to go the way of the mussel dinner.

When we got home, we went to the Internet to look up Red Tide, learning that it was more properly known as Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), and that it was almost ubiquitous along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, especially during the summer.

We learned that eating shellfish that have been harvested from HAB water can cause “paralytic toxic poisoning” in humans, characterized by gastrointestinal and respiratory distress.  Good thing I left those stinking mussels at the Superstore!

HABs have disastrous effects on other species like fish, waterfowl, dolphins, whales, and seals.

If I can’t eat mussels I may be piqued, but I can find something else just as good to eat on land.

Ocean denizens have no such options. I began to picture cormorants and seagulls with bad tummy aches.  No wonder we’d seen very few of the big blue herons that used to be so numerous in the salt marshes.

 ***

Red Tide - Mary Mackin 2My admittedly superficial Internet search did not bother to mention the cause of harmful algae blooms, speaking of them as an inconvenient fact of life, like a rip tide or a thunderstorm.

While HABs are sometimes natural, there is nothing normal about the dramatic spike in coastal red tides we’ve been seeing for the past 25 years or so.  They are part of the same phenomenon that causes the dead zones around the mouths of rivers that run through densely populated agricultural regions.  This summer, scientists are forecasting the largest dead zone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico—some 8,500 square miles.

It’s human and animal sewage and fertilizer run-off that upsets the natural chemical balance of the coastal waters, feeding the destructive algae at the expense of everything else.

What we humans break, we can also fix.  We could fix this problem if we wanted to.  But I found mention only of closing shellfish beds to harvesting, not of trying to turn the entire problem around by reducing the amount of shit we allow to run off into the sea.

***

I thought that up here in Nova Scotia I might be able to escape from the relentless, depressing awareness of the cascading, ever-quickening destabilization of the natural world.

That’s just another little fantasy I’ll have to give up.  There’s nowhere to run, much less to hide.

Becoming part of Gaia’s cure, instead of what ails her

Milkweed-with-Monarch-ButterflyI will never forget one hot summer day when I was about eight years old, and a Monarch butterfly took it into its head to land on my arm and delicately lick up my sweat with its long, probing tongue.

I froze, wanting the Monarch to stay with me as long as possible, and watched with total fascination and delight as it balanced on my warm brown skin and enjoyed the salty treat I had to offer.

Eventually, with a graceful swish of its elegant wings, it rose up in the air and twirled off to land on a nearby stand of sweet-smelling pink milkweed flowers.

I felt blessed by the encounter, and ever after, when I see a Monarch I approach cautiously and respectfully proffer my arm, hoping to feel again the light touch of those fragile black legs and tiny tongue.

My childhood connection with Monarchs came to mind this week as I read the deeply disturbing news that “the number of monarch butterflies that completed an annual migration to their winter home in a Mexican forest sank this year to its lowest level in at least two decades, due mostly to extreme weather and changed farming practices in North America.”

Mexican conservation authorities report that “The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December,” which is “a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.”

So now, along with the bats and the goldfinches and so many other species that I have known and loved in my 50 years on the planet, I must bid farewell to the Monarch butterflies too?

Carolyn Baker

Carolyn Baker

Trying to find a way to cope with the pervasive sense of grief I feel on a daily basis, I turned this week to the works of Carolyn Baker, who has self-published two books that have been striking a chord with thousands of people.

In 2009, she published Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, followed in 2011 by Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.

Baker comes out of a psychology background, having served as a consulting psychotherapist for many years, but she draws on a wide range of sources that I too have been poring over in recent years, from Joanna Macy to Derrick Jensen to James Lovelock and many more.  Andrew Harvey, author of two books on “spiritual activism,” wrote the forward to her second book.

What all these folks have in common is the strong, level-headed recognition that human civilization is headed for a collapse.

The butterflies and the bats may be going first into the void, but we will not be far behind.

The current noise and controversy over questions like “to frack or not to frack,” “to build wind turbine generators or deep-sea oil rigs in the Arctic,” or “to erect solar arrays or thousand-mile oil pipelines” are just that—so much noise, which obscures our ability to focus on what is driving the debate on all these issues: the fact that our planet cannot and will not support 7 billion people at current levels of consumption.

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

The eminent eco-scientist James Lovelock, who, with Lynne Margulis, developed the theory of Earth as a complex living system he calls Gaia, has just published what may be his final book (he was born in 1919, making him now just seven years short of 100 years old).

Grimly titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock sadly predicts that global heating will force the die-off of much of humanity, and a retreat of the survivors to “lifeboat” places on the planet that will remain habitable on a subsistence basis for those able to live close to the land.

Lovelock uses the metaphor of disease to describe what is happening to our planet these days.  This passage is worth quoting in full:

“When we are first infected by fatal disease organisms, they grow in our bodies without our noticing.  We call this the incubation period, and it can be as long as several weeks.  Then at some stage in their growth, or in our bodily reaction to it, we feel unwell, with fever and pain.  Soon, a matter of hours with the most virulent influenza, homeostasis starts to fail and we collapse and die.  This is when physicians speak of massive organ failure.  In the whole course of fatal disease there is no tipping point but instead a downslide that starts imperceptibly and then grows ever steeper until we fall.

“We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago when we first used fire and tools purposefully.  But it was not until about two hundred years ago that the long incubation period ended and the Industrial Revolution began; then the infection of the Earth became irreversible….

“The disease that afflicts the Earth is not just climate change—manifest by drought, heat, and an ever-rising sea.  Added to this there is the changing chemistry of the air and the oceans, and the way the sea grows acidic.  Then there is the shortage of food for all consumers of the animal kingdom.  As important is the loss of that vital biodiversity that enables the working of an ecosystem.  All these affect the working of the Earth’s operating system and are the consequences of too many people.  Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythanemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells.  By analogy, Gaia’s illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good” (232-33).

Lovelock sees the demise of the current terrestrial epoch as inevitable.  But he also reminds us that Gaia is a tough old planet, who has survived many other total collapses of biodiversity in her past.  “After every one of these catastrophes Gaia recovered, taking her own time—sometimes as long as millions of years,” Lovelock says.  “During these periods of convalescence there was always somewhere on Earth a refuge for living organisms, a place where the climate and the chemistry still favored life.  And so it surely will be when polyanthroponemia resolves” (235).

Lovelock faults our human tribalism and the selfish, competitive shortsightedness of a predator species for our current predicament, quoting the biologist E.O. Wilson, who said towards the end of his life, “How unfortunate that the Earth’s first intelligent social animal is a tribal carnivore” (239).

This is “our agonizing condition,” Lovelock says; “we have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves; we can communicate and exchange our deep thoughts and keep them outside our minds as a permanent record.  We have all this but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet.  Our inherited urge to be fruitful and multiply and to ensure that our own tribe rules the Earth thwarts our best intentions” (240).

Lovelock ends his book by looking ahead to a mythical time in the future, when the survivors of the collapse of human civilization “evolve to become as beneficial a part of Gaia as were the photosynthesizers and the methanogens,” who “might serve within her as our brains do in each of us.  We would be an important part of what had become in effect an intelligent planet better able to sustain habitability” (248).

It is our duty, he says, as human beings living through these great Transition Times to ensure that enough of us survive to pass on our genes to the future, in the hopes that future iterations of human beings will overcome our tribalism and selfishness and put our remarkable creative intelligence to work for the good of the planet and all her denizens.

The question becomes then, what should we be doing now to prepare for the future that awaits?

This is where Carolyn Baker’s work becomes so important.  Navigating the Coming Chaos is nothing less than a workbook for inner and outer transition where the focus is on strengthening one’s resilience and connection with a sense of purpose and meaning in a world gone increasingly mad.

“I am not a survivalist,” Baker says.  “I have never believed that the prime objective in preparing for the Long Emergency is to remain alive.  None of us is enthusiastic about death, but we will all die.  To deny this fact and focus primarily on survival is to embrace the heroic perspective and, in my opinion, to miss the point….

“I believe that navigating a collapsing world will entail constant observation of various forms of death—the death of infrastructure, the death of abundance, the increasing absence of goods and services that we now take for granted, the death of institutions, the disappearance of employment and shelter, the increased scarcity of food and water, the death of landscapes and yes, the literal deaths of people and animals.  The collapse of industrial civilization and the lifestyle it has provided is a catastrophic death of a paradigm and a way of life.  While we may look ahead to the ultimate blessings unleashed by this death, it will nevertheless be traumatic to live through the magnitude of losses it will manifest.

“If, however, we can begin now to make friends with death, as the Buddhist tradition has taught for thousands of years, we may be better prepared emotionally and spiritually to navigate a civilization dying on myriad levels….

“Simply put, the essential question is not: How can I survive the collapse of industrial civilization?  But rather: Why am I here, right now, in this place, at this time, experiencing the end of the world as I and my species have known it? (166).

Much of Baker’s book, like Starhawk’s most recent book The Empowerment Manual, is dedicated to prompting self-reflection leading to the recognition of what we are here on this Earth to do—and how we can successfully work with other awakened humans to accomplish our purpose.

The biggest challenge seems to be how to learn to work together harmoniously with each other and with the other living elements of our planetary home.

Gaia callingFor me, it seems clear that what I need to be doing now is to rekindle the instinctive sense of kinship I had with the natural world as a little girl; to find ways to become a channel for the love I felt, and still feel, for the gaudy Monarch butterflies who sailed regally through the fields of my childhood.

Sooner or later I will be following them into oblivion. But let it not be before I’ve had a chance to do my utmost to wake up my fellow travelers on this planet to the state of emergency we now face, and to help create the community structures that will enable at least a critical few of us to survive into the distant future.

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.

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.

Telling the story of climate change: a call to action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eban Goodstein

Eban Goodstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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