Late Night Thoughts on Love, Loss and the Urgent Need for Action

I had a rough night last night. I went to bed thinking about the April 15 “Blood Moon” lunar eclipse; unfortunately we could not see it here in the Northeast, but we certainly could feel the extra-intense full moon energy these past few days.

At some point in the wee hours I woke up to strong winds battering the house, and peering out the window I could see that our long-awaited springtime had been overrun by Old Man Winter again. Driving snow, accumulating steadily on the ground.

Shit. Yet another manifestation of the new normal of our wrecked climate.

After that I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually, bored with my own churning thoughts, I fired up my tablet and started reading The New York Times in bed. Bad move. The first article that caught my attention was about how hazardous materials, particularly heavy crude and gas from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota, are being sent by rail to ports in the Northeast in exponentially increasing quantities, with virtually no regulatory oversight.

The map below shows the rail lines from North Dakota to the Hudson River, where tankers take the oil up to the refinery at St. John, New Brunswick, on the magnificent Bay of Fundy.

I live just two blocks from a train line, and I see the tanker cars that rumble past twice a day.

The tracks go right through downtown Pittsfield, the largest town in Berkshire County, and they go through many of our most lovely wilderness areas too.

But compared to cities like Albany, where schools are apparently sited right along the railroad tracks, or Philadelphia, which narrowly averted a major hazmat rail accident just recently, we have it good here in the Berkshires.

The point is, we are kidding ourselves if we think that nasty crude oil spills and explosions only happen somewhere else, like Ecuador or Nigeria.

We are kidding ourselves if we try to imagine ourselves as innocent bystanders in the nightmare of industrial devastation of our land, waters and air, and the destruction of our planet’s biospheric life support systems.

If Humans Are So Smart, Why Are We Destroying Our Home?

Surface of Mars

Surface of Mars

Surfing around the web bleakly in the middle of the night, I found myself reading articles speculating about how the dead, dry planet Mars lost its ability to support life.

The most likely scientific guess right now seems to be a catastrophic asteroid hit that changed the climate. Somehow the magnetic field of the planet was damaged, which allowed its atmosphere to literally blow away into space.

On Earth, our undoing will be the result of our own relentless industriousness and intelligence.

Human beings are so smart, we figured out how to split atoms and make atomic explosions! Too bad we haven’t got a clue what to do about the residual radiation and radioactive waste—waste with a half-life measured in the billions of years.

We’re so smart, we figured out how to harness the carbon energy buried deep in the ground in the form of coal, gas and oil. We even figured out how to turn oil into a different kind of substance that’s virtually indestructible—plastic! We just somehow overlooked the fact that we might quickly bury ourselves in plastic garbage, and choke ourselves in exhaust fumes.

We’re the smartest species on Earth. But like the Grinch, it appears that we have one fatal flaw—our hearts are many sizes too small for our outsized minds.

If we were guided by heart energy—that is, LOVE—in the application of our amazing technological abilities, what a very different world it would be.

It’s Time For Those With Loving Hearts to Speak in Many Tongues, Translating Love into Action

If future beings ever look back, shaking their heads at the demise of Homo sapiens on Earth and wondering how this once lush green and blue planet turned dead and brown, I wonder if they will be aware of the anguish of some of us living through these bitter transition times.

Will they know that some of us tossed and turned through the night, seeking futilely for a chink in the armor of the corporate stranglehold on our planet? Will they see that many of us, in these end times, tried to stand up for our values; tried to put into action the love we feel for the living creatures that share our beautiful Earth?

Always, it comes back to the question that keeps me up at night. What can we do to make a difference, now while there’s still time?

For a wordsmith like me, the obvious answer seems to be to learn to speak more tongues.

Since the corporations who are so bound and determined to keep fracking and mining and bulldozing their way to Kingdom Come only understand the language of quarterly profit and loss, this is the way we must speak to them.

The almighty priests of the Bottom Line and their henchmen the politicians could care less about emotional blather of love and respect for life and leaving a livable planet for future generations. So let’s speak to them in terms of losses.

The insurance company guys understand already how irreversible climate change will lead to losses on a Biblical scale. The fossil fuel magnates must also be made to understand that they are driving us all down a rapid road to ruin—and no gates will be high enough to keep the floods, fires and starving displaced populations out. We’re all in this together—rich and poor alike will go down with our sinking Mothership Earth.

To the church-going folks, we can speak the language of moral commitment and social responsibility. This weekend is a holy time in the Jewish and Christian calendars. When we’re thinking about the Resurrection and the miracle of Passover, let’s remember how these ancient holidays celebrate LIFE. For those who are religious, how can you claim to follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus and allow the destruction of our planet to proceed unopposed?

To the ordinary folks who are just trying to keep their own lives on track, we must speak in a very pragmatic voice. It’s time to begin to pull together as communities and insist on re-localizing energy production (solar, wind, geothermal) and agricultural production in order to build resilience at the state and town level.

It’s time to insist on regulations that will put the safety of people and environmental ecosystems above the profit margins of corporations, and if the federal government won’t do it, the states and towns must step up.

Lying awake at night worrying and mourning is a poor use of my energy. I want to spend whatever time we have left raising my voice to motivate all of us who care to work tirelessly and passionately on behalf of the voiceless: the trees and the bees, the birds and the whales, the frogs, elephants and farm animals, and especially on behalf of the human children as yet unborn, who may never be born—or may be born into a nightmarish, unlivable world gone mad.

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014--western Massachusetts

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014–western Massachusetts

From Syria to Sunshine

And so we find ourselves, once again, on the brink of sending our military to attack another country, about which, again, we seem to know pathetically little.

Will it be possible to perform a “surgical strike” in Syria, preventing the government armed forces from using chemical weapons without actually taking sides in the civil war?

To what extent have the “rebel forces” been infiltrated by radical Muslim fighters coming over from Afghanistan and Iran?

What are the motives of the shadowy big players looming in the background—China, Russia, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Israel?

Why has the United Nations been so silent?

But here’s the big question that no one is asking: why aren’t we working like banshees to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil?

The fact is that the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf were insular, off-the-the-beaten track kingdoms until the advent of the modern Western addiction to oil.  It’s all about resources.

If humans replaced our dependence on fossil fuels with a dependence on the mother fuel of it all, the Sun, we would be so much better off.

The Sun is one of those resources, like air, that is free and available to all.  Every tree, every blade of grass, every phytoplankton, benefits from the sun.  The sun plays no favorites, though sometimes clouds intervene.

If we put anything near the amount of dollars we currently put into weapons development, production, and the waging of war, into research & development of solar energy capture, storage and distribution, we would suddenly find ourselves accelerating into a whole new era of human civilization, as dramatic as the shift from coal to oil, or from horsepower to steam.

IMG_1174 copy

The Middle Eastern nations, being naturally sunny, would do fine in a new solar-based economy.

But there’s no part of our globe that is cut off from sunshine.

In fact, the sun shines in my backyard just as brightly as it does in yours.

Exxon/Mobil/BP and all the rest couldn’t lay claim to a monopoly on sunshine, although I am sure they will try to control the storage and distribution networks.

But solar is naturally inclined to egalitarian distribution.  Just as every daisy in the field and every apple on the tree has an equal claim on sunshine, so every human being is also entitled to soak up those rays.

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Photo by Eric Hernandez

Wake up, humanity!  Wake up, Americans!  Understand that we do not have to spend our hard-earned tax dollars on war instead of peacetime priorities like education, health and social security.

Understand that the same forces that want to wage war are the ones that want to frack and drill and build pipelines to Kingdom Come.

Gone is the time when oil came gushing up out of the wells, black gold that would make us all rich.

Now oil is a fool’s gold, bankrupting the majority even while it enriches the few who control the wells, the refineries and the gas stations.

Another world is possible—a world that looks to the sun to warm us and the wind to cool us, at a fraction of the cost of the 21st century extraction of oil.

When we think about intervening in Syria, or Iraq, or Iran, or Afghanistan, or Colombia, or Venezuela, or Ecuador—understand that whatever the stated moral goal, the real reason is a very simple three-letter word: O-I-L.

To which we can respond with some very simple words of our own: S-U-N, W-I-N-D.

N-O-W.

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.

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.

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.

What Good is a Higgs Boson When the Planet is Burning?

Call me sour, but I really can’t find much to get excited about by the news that physicists have moved one step closer to figuring out how the universe began.

Yes, the Higgs Boson is an amazing phenomenon.  “Without it,” writes Dennis Overbye in The New York Times, “all the elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight. There would be neither atoms nor life.”

Yes, it’s an amazing feat, to which hundreds of scientists have dedicated their lives, to have actually nailed the elusive Higgs Boson in the giant particle accelerator built for that purpose.

But while the champagne corks are popping at the physicists’ convention in Melbourne Australia today, all the myriad problems confronting us physical beings still fester unchecked.

What good will it do us to understand how matter formed back at the beginning of the universe while we are succumbing to drought, wildfires, violent storms and floods?

What good will that marvelous particle accelerator do us when the climate is so disrupted that we can no longer rely on a steady stream of electricity, or a steady food supply to keep us going?

We really need all those super-smart people to pull their heads out of the air and start focusing much closer to our own time and place.

We need more scientists like Lonnie Thompson, who has spent the past forty years traveling to remote glaciers and mountain peaks all over the world to collect ice core samples that give us insight into climate change in the much more recent past—the last 10,000 years or so.

“Dr. Thompson,” writes Justin Gillis in The New York Times, “became one of the first scientists to witness and record a broad global melting of land ice. And his ice cores proved that this sudden, coordinated melting had no parallel, at least not in the last several thousand years.

“To some climate scientists, the Thompson ice core record became the most convincing piece of evidence that the rapid planetary warming now going on was a result of a rise in greenhouse gases caused by human activity.”

Do we really need any more convincing?

The latest storms to hit the U.S. struck the wealthy suburbs of Washington D.C., and surprise surprise, those Beltway folks were just as susceptible to power loss as the rest of us out in the hinterlands.  Forced to cope with triple-digit heat with no air conditioners, their sweat smells no sweeter than ours.

Likewise, the wildfires out West are burning up the homes of the wealthy as fast as they’re burning the millions of acres of dead trees decimated by the surge in the pine bark beetle population, another gift of warmer weather.

Wealth is not going to protect us from climate change.

Abstract particle physics is not going to mean a damn once the extreme weather really sets in, just a few short years from now at our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions.

We have the technology now to engineer a rapid shift to renewable energy sources that will immediately curb the pace of global heating to keep our planet livable.

If the greatest minds of our time trained their attention on this fundamental issue, I have absolutely no doubt that we could solve it.

And if the rest of us not only went along with the technological changes, but actively pressured our political representatives to enact policies that would force big business to do the same, worldwide, we could make sure that the new technology was broadly implemented, quickly.

Hell, it will be good for business! We are potentially at the start of a whole new age, where demand for brand new products like solar panels and geothermal pumps could keep factories running for decades.

We don’t need any more oil rigs or gas wells.  That way lies suicide, on a species-wide scale.

We cannot afford to waste any more time, or to allow ourselves to be distracted by anything less important than the urgent question of survival—our own, and that of all the beautiful life forms on this planet we love.

Help Wanted: Strong Leadership on Climate Change, Starting Immediately

Now if only President Obama could show the same leadership on climate change as he has just demonstrated on the divisive same- sex-marriage issue.

The same narrow-minded interests that made same-sex marriage such a boogeyman for the President are also controlling the GOP-dominated boardrooms of Big Oil, from Mr. Cheney on down.

These people seem to be motivated by one thing only: the bottom line.  And they seem to be able to think only as far as a quarter or two ahead.

They don’t see that they are driving us as fast as possible over a cliff from which there will be no recovery.  Or maybe they see, but just don’t care.

It was with great appreciation that I opened up The New York Times Opinion pages today and saw the indefatigable James Hansen offering the lead op-ed, once more displaying his vision and leadership in 1) insisting that the comfortable NYT readers pay attention to the imminent and grave threat of climate change, and 2) offering a practical solution for bringing about the swift change of course we need to avert disaster.

Those of us who have been thrown into gloom by the prospect of Canada scraping down the boreal forest to exploit their tar sands will be somewhat heartened by the strong language Hansen uses to condemn this approach to “solving” the peak oil crisis.

Alberta, Canada: from boreal forest to tar sand devastation

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

This is not some crazy Armageddon-spouting evangelical talking here.  This is James Hansen, senior scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The way to head off this catastrophic scenario, as Hansen and many other scientists have been telling us now for at least a decade, is to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense, and Hansen has an easy, no-nonsense solution for forcing Americans to change our ways and start doing what we have to do to save our planet and our civilization.

“We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny,” Hansen says. “This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

As Hansen observes, in practice what we have been doing is just the opposite: “instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.”

These subsidies must stop.

Canada and the US must stop playing poker with the future of our children and our planetary epoch.

All of us, from President Obama and Prime Minister Harper right on down to each one of us ordinary folks who drive cars, heat our houses and run our air conditioning, need to stop pretending that business-as-usual can continue any longer.

Building on the Keystone “victory”–from endless growth to steady states

In his Op-Ed in today’s NY TimesMichael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Administration only agreed to put off the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline because of “not-in-my-backyard” pressure from Nebraskans, which had little or nothing to do with the urgent issue of cutting carbon emissions in order to avert climate disaster.

“For green groups,” Levi says, “the shortest route to blocking fossil fuel development appears to be leveraging local opposition.” The problem with this approach, from Levi’s point of view, is that there is going to be “local opposition” to green energy initiatives like solar and wind farms too.

What Levi, like most Beltway insiders, doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the green movement is not just about opposition.  It’s about positive action.  It’s not just about environmental protection.  It’s about social change.

It’s about a shift from a mentality that seeks to keep growing our energy-dependent economy indefinitely, to a mentality that seeks a sustainable steady state.

Steady states are anathema to capitalism–a quarter without growth is a quarter wasted, as any CEO would tell you.

But steady states are exactly what have made our planet a livable environment for the past several thousand years, during which the human species, along with countless others, has thrived.

Rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline is just a small step in the right direction, towards a society that puts effort and money first into reducing energy consumption, and second into developing energy infrastructure that has the lowest possible impact on the ecological web of life.

The Michael Levis of America don’t understand that this is the real push behind the green movement today.

Yes, we’ll seek allies where we can find them, and make use of whatever sources of power we can find (even pro-oil Republican Nebraskans) to achieve our goals.

But our movement is not about “leveraging opposition.”  It’s about mobilizing support, through raising awareness about the threats to our civilization and our planet if we continue along with business as usual.

It’s also about leading the way towards the alternatives that are already within reach if we choose to veer off the beaten path into new, much more stable territory.

Endless growth is a social model that has proven itself to be highly unstable, whether we’re talking about national economies or energy systems.

It’s time to use our intelligence as a species for the good of ourselves and our planet.  There is really no other way forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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