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

21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.

melting-polar-ice-caps

Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the 350.org climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.

 

NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic

Trustworthy

Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea

Tenacious

Resilient

Creative

Empathetic/loving/caring

Passionate

Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears

Engaging

Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating

Synergizers

Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges

Self-confident

Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities

Focused/single-minded

Evangelical

Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”

Articulate

Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people

Diligent/hardworking

Initiative-takers

Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice

Generous

Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals

Intuitive

Considerate

Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive

Thoughtful

Resistant to corruption

 

JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?

Fear

Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure

Shyness

Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen

 

Negative Qualities that may hold us back

Closemindedness

Righteousness

Malleability

Empathy—taking things too personally

Numbness/alienation

Staying under the radar

Aggression

Defensiveness

Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning

 

What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission

Youth

Education

Social upbringing

Poverty

Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)

Language

Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem

 

Love is all we need

Most people I know don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Valentine’s Day.

In its pop culture guise, it’s pretty trite, after all—candy, flowers, champagne perhaps, aimed at seducing the beloved into bed at the end of the evening….

Eve Ensler has tried hard to put a harder, more political edge on V-Day.  She’s got thousands of women dancing for freedom—rejecting the pervasive violence against women that forms the backdrop of so many of our lives.

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But for most of us, well, we’re just here in the trenches, and we may or may not have a loved one to honor as a Valentine this year.

Me, I’ve got no particular human Valentine at present. Such love as I have to give, I want to dedicate to the forests and the birds, the butterflies and the flowers that are, to me, the most beautiful manifestations of LOVE on this planet.

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Any expression of love is far and away more potent than expressions of hatred and violence.

If you love someone, you should, by all means, shower them with kisses and caresses.  You should be extravagant in your appreciation.

Likewise, if the object of your affection is a tree or a landscape or a bright, joyful living thing—say, a tadpole or a fish or a magnificent coral—go ahead and shower that being with the love it deserves.

The only meaningful counter to the hatred, disrespect and violence that has become the norm in Western culture is the intentional distribution of LOVE.

Love is all you need, crooned the Beatles.  Maybe they were on to something.

It’s Up to Us Now: Carrying on the Work of Pete Seeger

Unknown-1When I heard the news that Pete Seeger had died, my first thought was “oh no!” and my second thought was “now there goes a man who lived a good life.”

At 94, he had accomplished so much and lived so fully.  Even during his final months and weeks on the planet, he was still playing concerts to packed houses and inspiring people everywhere with his unwavering dedication to using music as a means of raising awareness and fomenting social change.

The New York Times obituary quotes him as saying in 2009 (the year he sang at President Obama’s Inauguration): “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Pete’s gift was for making music and getting others to sing along with him, and he used it not for fame, fortune or glory, but for the good of those who most needed him.

Whether he was singing in support of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-war movement, singing for freedom against the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, singing against apartheid or singing for the environmental movement, he was always out in front leading the charge and showing others what true courage and conviction looked like—in a joyous register.

Image: File photo of Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao attending the We Are One - Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

That upbeat, “we-shall-overcome” personality probably played a big role in Pete’s longetivity—research shows that people who think positively tend to live longer, happier lives than those who tend to see the glass half-empty.

When I saw Pete play, at one of his last concerts last fall, there was a joyous glow about him that lit up the whole stage, and those of us in the audience would have followed him anywhere.

Well, it’s up to us now.  Pete has moved on, and we are left to carry on his legacy—to keep singing his songs and working for the positive social change he believed in and created.

Unknown-2Pete was so deeply engaged with humanity during his lifetime that in death he will still stay lodged in our hearts.

His is the kind of soul that will rise into heaven showering sparks and spores of bright beckoning energy, encouraging us to carry his tune, to keep his good spirit alive.

Today I start a new semester of classes, and I am excited to be teaching two classes that will enable me to do just that: “Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice.”

Pete, I’ll be thinking of you with love and admiration as I go to greet my students this morning.  I hope a little of your sweet, positive, hardworking energy will carry us forward this year, and forever.

 

If you get there before I do

Comin’ for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m comin’ too

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Dark Universe, Brightening

Socrates had it right long ago when he acknowledged that to the extent that he was wise, it was because he knew how much he did not know.

During my lifetime, the trend has been for homage to be paid to all the cocky, smart human beings who think they know everything.

The slicker and more self-confident the guy (and this is mostly about guys), the more rewards and adulation he gets.

Collectively, especially in the United States, arrogance has been the name of the game.  I think this collective hubris may have reached its apex with the splitting of the atom and the knowledge that he who controls atomic energy controls the world.

Or so we thought.

Climate change is ushering in a whole new, and much more humble era.

imageIt turns out that just because we can bulldoze forests and mountaintops, change the course of rivers, drill beneath the sea and through solid rock, and completely saturate the earth with satellite, drone and in-home surveillance devices, we are still just as vulnerable as we ever were to the simple, earthbound necessities of food and shelter.

As the big, climate-change-induced storms continue to roll in from the ocean, so frequently that they all begin to blur into an anguished nonstop disaster montage, a slow but steady sea-change in collective human consciousness is beginning to occur.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

We are beginning to recognize how much we still don’t know, and how dangerous our ignorance, combined with arrogance, is becoming.

There is no doubt now that we who are alive today, along with our children and grandchildren, are going to be living through a remarkable transition time as the planet we have destabilized and plundered during the past few hundred years of industrialization seeks to return to equilibrium.

We must acknowledge that human over-population has played a major role in this process of destabilization.  Our very success as a species is what is driving the current unfolding disaster.  By reducing our numbers through disease, drought, flooding and the competition for shrinking natural resources that leads to war, the planet is doing what it must to return to a steady state where the ecosystem as a whole can flourish.

It is sobering to live with this knowledge.

Perhaps it is my sadness at knowing that I am going to be living through (and dying in) a veritable Holocaust of earthly creatures, that has me searching outside the box of science and common knowledge for signs of hope.

IMG_4150 copyI was not raised with religion, but I have always been an instinctive spiritual animist, seeing the divine in the beauty of the natural world, and in my unbounded love for all the elements of our Earth—rock, water, air and all the myriad living beings that inhabit every strata of our planet.

I have also been open, since I was a child, to the possibility that there is more to our experience than meets the eye.  I have always been fascinated by the occult, shamanism, and science fiction involving time travel to other dimensions of space/time.

I don’t know if it is just because I am paying more attention, but lately I have been perceiving a definite uptick in collective awareness that the key to fixing what ails us in the physical world may lie not in better “hard science,” but in a deeper connection to knowledge that can only be accessed through a different kind of perception.

The doors to this under-tapped realm of wisdom are accessible to us through what has poetically been called “our mind’s eye.”

There have always been humans who have been explorers in this realm—Socrates was one, the Biblical sages and prophets were others, and modern esoteric explorers like Rudolf Steiner, Terrence McKenna, Mary Daly, Martin Prechtel, Starhawk and many more.

Terrence McKenna

Terrence McKenna

In the 1960s psychedelic drugs opened the doors for many people who were not at all prepared for the “trips” they encountered.

Now we seem to be coming around again to a period where, as conditions in the physical world deteriorate, more of us are seeking understanding and reassurance in the non-physical.

The more we know of how bad things are here in the physical realm, the more we want to know that “another world is possible.”  And the more we look, the more we find that indeed, there is much more to the universe than meets the eye.

Even scientists are beginning to align with the spiritists they previously disdained. In our age of quantum physics, the whole idea of a “spiritual dimension,” accessible through human consciousness, is becoming much less far-fetched to rational hard science types.

The new Hayden Planetarium show, “Dark Universe,” ends with a graphic that could be right out of “Twilight Zone,” showing that roughly three-quarters of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” a term invented to represent in language something we know enough to know we do not understand at all.

It could be that waking, embodied life is to human consciousness what the physical, hard-matter universe is to the cosmos as a whole.  Just a tiny fragment of a much larger, and potentially much more interesting, whole.

What if the reason every living thing on this planet sleeps (whether in the daytime or the nighttime) is in order to reconnect with the non-physical realm that spiritually sustains us?  We know that if we are deprived of sleep for any length of time, we go crazy and die.

What if “the dreams that come,” whether in sleep or in death, are just as valid a form of experience as the waking hours of our day, and our lives?

What would it mean to be able to think beyond the brief timelines of our individual lives, or even the eons of evolutionary cycles on the planet, and know that we are all part of a much grander cosmic dream?

dark-universe-red-shift-interior

Photo source: American Museum of Natural History, Rose Space Center, Hayden Planetarium, “Dark Universe”

Thinking this way does not give me license to let go of my focus on making a difference here on earth, now in my lifetime.

In some ways this imperative becomes even stronger, as it was for Socrates, Steiner and so many other visionaries who were also powerful initiators and guides during their lifetimes.

During this winter solstice season of introspection and questioning, I have been reading and re-reading the writings of one such contemporary guide, the Sufi mystic and spiritual ecologist Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.  I leave you with a passage to ponder:

In the book of life we can see the energy patterns of creation, the rivers of light that flow between the worlds.  We can see how the individual relates to the whole and learn the secret ways to bring light into the world; we can understand the deeper purpose of the darkness and suffering in the world, of its seeming chaos.  And the attentive reader can glimpse another reality behind all of the moving images of life, a reality that is alive with another meaning in which our individual planet has a part to play in the magic of the galaxy.  Just as there are inner worlds, each deeper and more enduring, there are also different outer dimensions whose purposes are interrelated and yet different.  The inner and outer mirror each other in complex and beautiful ways, and in this mirroring there are also levels of meaning.  As we awaken from our sleep of separation, we can come alive in a multifaceted, multidimensional universe that expresses the infinite nature of the Beloved.

–Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Spiritual Power: How It Works

Let it be so.

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia.  Photo by Eric  B. Hernandez

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

I have a dream: the 20th century visions of King and Obama and the “fierce urgency” of our time

mlkihaveadreamgogoFifty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dreams with the American nation:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today!”

Today President Obama, himself the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, honored the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, telling us that because people in Dr. King’s generation marched for justice, “America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”

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But Obama’s dream remains too limited.  He is still dreaming a 20th century dream of middle class jobs and security: the longing for a society offering  “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Such a scenario assumes the stability of the real workers of our economy: the trees and plankton that supply our oxygen and the microorganisms that make our crops grow.  It takes for granted steady, predictable rains and moderate temperatures.

We can no longer make such assumptions, and President Obama is wrong to preach to the nation as though 20th century problems and concerns were still paramount today.

Yes, the problem of the color line still exists in 21st century America.  The unemployed still need jobs.  The racial disparity in prison populations is disgraceful.  But these are not the most pressing issues of our time.

President Obama lauded the young of the 1960s for being “unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better.”

He argued that “that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.   We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains.”

In fact, we face even greater dangers today than in 1963, and it was dishonest of our President not to allude to the much more serious problems now bearing down on us full force: the juggernaut of global climate change.

The wildfires burning in California this week are the among largest ever recorded in the United States.

The rate of species extinction is faster now than it ever has been in the history of human civilization.

The ice melting at the poles promises to release heat-trapping methane gas at rates not seen since prehistoric eras.

Human population is on track to reach 9 billion or more in this century, way beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth.

We don’t know where all this is leading, but surely we cannot expect positive outcomes from these dramatic planetary shifts.

These interconnected environmental issues are the great challenges of our time, and it is to them that President Obama should have alluded, if he was being honest with himself and with the American people.

Whether or not the Syrians used chemical weapons against their own people; whether or not African Americans get to the voting booth; whether or not the American middle class sinks into poverty…all this will not matter at all when accelerating climate change begins to bring food shortages even to the most cosseted Americans.

Here is what our President should have said today:

‘I have a dream that Americans will step into a leadership role in the great fight of our time, the transition to a sustainable, renewable-energy-based society.

‘I have a dream that people of all nations, all creeds and from every culture on Earth will embrace our common challenge of finding ways to mitigate human damage to the planet, and adapt to the changes that are rapidly coming our way.

‘I have a dream that men and women from all over the globe will stand together, knowing that divided we will fall, but united we have a chance to safely ride out the storms that face us.’

My own personal dream is that our political leaders will stop lying to us, and will summon us to step up to the great ethical and empirical challenge of our time: creating lifeboats on which our children and grandchildren may sail safely into a sustainable future.

R.O.I.—From Mother Earth’s P.O.V.

imagesPeter Buffett, one of billionaire Warren Buffett’s sons, published a brave, thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times the other day.  In it, Buffett takes to task what he calls “the Charitable-Industrial Complex,” the philanthropic crowd who piously seek to save the world, as long as the R.O.I. is sufficiently rosy and the status quo is not upset.

Buffett knows he sounds like a class traitor here as he proffers this description of “Philanthropic Colonialism” (his term):

“As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

Buffett says he’s “really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism…. It’s time for a new operating system,” he declares. “Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”

Buffett says that philanthropy should be dedicated to  “trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market. Is progress really Wi-Fi on every street corner? No. It’s when no 13-year-old girl on the planet gets sold for sex. But as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.

“It’s an old story,” he concludes; “we really need a new one.”

Yes.  And philanthropy is not the only sector of our society that needs to reinvent itself.

Although I respect Buffett for his willingness to sound what will be taken as a heretical note in his own social circles (at one point he adds self-consciously “now I’m going to upset people who are wonderful folks and a few dear friends”), I don’t think he goes far enough.

I don’t want to see a merely “humanist” social system, I want to see humans develop an ecological understanding of our place and role on the planet.

I want us to repudiate our colonialist mindset, which persists not only in our tendency to give “humanitarian aid” with one hand while seizing economic control of a country’s most valuable resources with the other, but also in predatory capitalism at home and abroad—the debt bondage that the majority of people on the planet who buy into the system find themselves lashed to, laboring to pay the bank without ever being able to accumulate enough capital, social or financial, to buy their way into the promised land of security and ease.

The “new story” I’d like to see us live by would rewrite human attitudes towards other animals, insisting on the rights of every living being on this planet to a decent life.

That doesn’t mean a pig needs a condo with a swimming pool, but she does need enough space to breathe and move around in, healthy food and a clean, sanitary living environment.  Her wastes need to be disposed of the same way human wastes are—not sent into the rivers to create dead zones the size of states out in the sea.

100_2435Every aspect of the planet, from trees to minerals to water to fossil fuels, should be seen as precious resources to be safeguarded and cherished for the good of all who rely on them, not merely as sources of income for the few who sit on the boards or own stock in the mega-companies that develop, extract, exploit, and sell before moving on, leaving the devastated land as “collateral damage”— someone else’s problem.

The question is, how to get through to the corporate titans who are very happy with the status quo?

These are the folks who live their whole lives in such a fabulous cocoon of wealth and privilege that they have the illusion that they and their families can remain entirely insulated from the shocks of our poisoned, over-populated, over-heated planet.

If even in their philanthropy these people are thinking in terms of R.O.I., it must be a totally foreign concept to them to imagine conducting business in terms of gross social gain rather than gross individual profit.

Andrew Harvey, in his book The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, recounts a lunch conversation he had with one such business tycoon, “the head of a major agribusiness corporation.”  The businessman chews Harvey out for being a “naïve do-gooder” who does not understand how the real world functions.

“Most of you that I have met truly believe that if the CEOs—like me, for instance—really knew what harm their corporate policies were doing, they would rend their Armani suits, fling out their Rolex-wreathed arms, burst into tears and change.  This is madness and shows how little you dare to know about what is really going on.  And how can you even begin to be effective until you understand what you are up against?

Of course, the businessman then enlightens Harvey on what he and other “naïve do-gooders” are up against in the quest to change the world for the better.

“You are up against people like me,” the man says.  “I know exactly what my company is doing and what devastation it is causing to thousands of lives.  I should know; I am running it.  I know and I do not care.  I have decided I want a grand gold-plated lifestyle and the perks and jets and houses that go with it and I will do anything—bend the law, have people ‘removed,’ bribe local governmental officials, you name it—to get what I want.  I know, too, that none of my shareholders care a rat’s ass what I do or how I do it, providing I keep them swimming in cash.”

I thought of this blunt, self-satisfied description of the view from the top of the capitalist heap when I read recently about how the American electricity industry is responding to the rising popularity of home-based solar panels.

images-1Rooftop solar panels are being compared to cell phones, which, if you remember, created a major sea change in the telecom industry.  In the end, the telecom giants made out like bandits, after initially having spent a lot of money and political capital to try to put the brakes on what was perceived as a threat to the traditional landline phone system.

Today it’s the turn of the electricity industry, which is terrified of losing market share if every homeowner can make their own energy on their own roof.

If homeowners are no longer paying the fees that subsidize the public grid, industry officials argue sanctimoniously, how will this public system be maintained?

No where in the New York Times article about this, which appeared in the Business section, was there any mention of the broader social, global benefits of distributed solar electric generation as compared to fossil fuels or nuclear electric sources.

No mention of the many reasons why every government on the planet should be encouraging homeowners and businesses to convert their energy sources to solar, along with wind, hydro and geothermal, just as fast as they possibly can.

When are the CEOs who are so busy buying off Congressional delegations and creating expensive self-advertising campaigns going to realize that what they really need to be worrying about is not thrifty homeowners taking advantage of tax incentives to install solar panels, but the mega-storms, wildfires and floods that will be coming our way every year, increasing in intensity the longer we wait to make up our minds, as a global society, to give up our addiction to fossil fuels?

hurricane-sandy-damage

Apparently most human beings can only be swayed by self-interest.

OK—we can work with that.  It’s quite clear that it’s in the interests of every human being on the planet to develop a sustainable relationship with our Mother Earth.

If we don’t, she will just give a great shrug of her climatic shoulders and be done with us.

Where will the R.O.I. be then?

Time for change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CWindmillhome

Wind turbines on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.  And then—act.

Floods, drought: the Earth needs us now

floods in southern Russia

I could hardly believe it when I read in the paper today that major floods in Russia have caused nearly 200 deaths this week.

Floods?

It is bone dry here in the hills of western Massachusetts.  It is so dry that if I did not water my vegetable garden every day, all my beautiful plants would be drying up in the merciless drought.

When I walk by the half-dry river in the afternoons, I am struck by all the yellow and brown leaves on the path—the forest has the golden cast of September now, the dry spell fast-forwarding us from mid-summer to fall.

The first veiled hints of trouble have made their way into the mainstream media, with crop losses due to drought expected to push up the prices of food in the U.S.

Barely a mention of shortages yet.  No rationing.  Just higher prices, which will make it harder for those of us on fixed incomes—not to mention all the unemployed—to afford to buy what we want to eat.

Clearly there is a shocking imbalance between the torrential rains in Europe and the parched drought here in the US.

Clearly it’s anthropogenic climate change rearing its scary hydra head.

I have heard tell of Native Americans calling on the rain gods to bring rain clouds to a dry landscape.

Our own techno-engineers talk about seeding the clouds to provide rain.

In both cases, it’s a matter of human beings applying our great brain power to find solutions to problems that threaten our existence.

Each of us has some gift to contribute to the common cause of survival—remembering that the survival of human beings is entirely intertwined with the survival of every other life form on the planet, from plankton to trees to bees.

Truly, this is no time to wait shyly on the sidelines to be invited, or to wait for others to take the lead.

As the saying goes, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. If ever a time called for brilliant and dramatic solutions, that time is now.

Commencement reflections, 2012

This weekend my first-born son will graduate at age 20 with a B.A. in Biology.  He will join thousands of other graduates across the country marching to the dais to accept his hard-earned degree from school officials dressed in the medieval cap and gowns we still wear for such occasions.

And then he will march out into the world to join the hordes of recently graduated young adults, confronting one of the worst job markets ever seen in American history.

When I graduated college back in 1982, there was also a bit of a recession on, but things quickly rallied, and I had no trouble finding a job in journalism, and working my way up from reporter to staff writer to editor at publications in New York City.

When I chose to go to graduate school, it wasn’t hard to find a part-time job as an assistant editor to make room in my schedule for my studies.

And so it went, one step leading to the next with a steady predictability.

For my son, now, that kind of reliable future is out of the question.

We live in such a fast-changing world that there is no way to predict with certainty what kind of challenges we’ll be facing in, say, the next five years.

Will climate change come to a head and rain environmental devastation down on us?  Will an antibiotic-resistant bacteria strike?  Will the risky behavior of the financial sector finally put us completely at the economic mercy of the Chinese?

We can’t know the answers to any of these big global questions, any more than we can know the answer to the very small, local question that I am sure is in the minds of all the parents and grandparents who will be watching their graduates march this weekend: will s/he be able to find a job next year?

Many of the graduates will choose to put off confronting that question by diving back into graduate school.  That is certainly what my son has in mind, and it is the right thing to do, given his desire to work as a marine biologist.

Even a Ph.D. is no guarantee of a living wage anymore, although things are somewhat brighter in the sciences than for those of us stuck in the doldrums of the humanities.

I am proud of what my son has accomplished in his first two decades, and proud of the fine human being he has become.

I am much less proud of the world we, his elders, have created, into which he’ll now be stepping as a young adult.

As a teacher, I see clearly that what is needed is a collaboration of older, more experienced minds, with the open, energetic and passionate young minds who are now coming into their full powers.

I don’t want my son and all the other graduates to follow blindly in our path, doing things as they’ve always been done, which is largely what I myself did as a young adult.

Knowing how desperately we need to change our habits in order to shift our society on to a sustainable path, we can’t afford to give young people the luxury of just following along the paths that are already established.

We need them to be blazing new trails, and we older folk need to work with them closely in this crucial undertaking.

As my son strides off the dais with his BA in hand on Saturday, this is the blessing that will be in my mind:

May you take your knowledge and talents and use them for the benefit of our planetary home.  May you be a warrior for good, and become a leader in your sphere.  May you prosper and find happiness in working for the prosperity and happiness of all. 

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