Brexit, Trump & Sanders Insist: We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. But Who Are We?

When faced with the madness of the world, I often get the impulse to just retreat into my own private little corner and raise the drawbridge—let the world go to hell, just leave me in peace! But of course, no sooner does such a thought manifest than I realize how ridiculous it is: there are no “private little corners” anymore on this crowded planet, we are all as interconnected as a hive of bees, and just as vulnerable to plagues, whether mental or physical.

I’m sure you’re aware that bees have been having all kinds of problems lately, caused by humans overworking them or meddling with their environment through chemicals. In one common scenario, chemically addled bees simply lose their way out in the field, unable to navigate their way back to the hive. Out there alone, even surrounded by flowers, they die.

Today’s very close vote by Britons to leave the European Union seems to me just such an addled choice, driven by xenophobia and the injured feeling of having given up too much for too little in the way of rewards. Sound familiar, Americans?

I don’t know enough about Brexit supporters to be able to analyze their motives—I am sure we will be treated to an earful of punditry on that subject in the days to come. What I do know is that this vote symbolizes—or even actualizes—a dangerous political current that we are facing here in the U.S. as well.

Is it pure coincidence that Donald Trump was in Scotland on the eve of this historic vote for just exactly the kind of political extremism he represents? Am I out of my mind to see shades of conspiracy in this series of events: UK votes to leave the EU… stock markets crash…softening up the US electorate with the fear and crisis Republicans have manipulated so well in the past…allowing the engineering of a Republican presidential win, with Trump or someone else at the helm, maybe Paul Ryan?

Oh, give me my moat and drawbridge should that ever come to pass! And yet I know there would be no moat wide enough to protect me or any of us good-hearted people from the danger such a scenario would represent.

The only way around this is straight through, with full engagement. I am heartened to see the mainstream media beginning to regularly fact-check the inimical Mr. Drumpf and trumpeting the fact of his constant shameless lying. But the general public, particularly of the Republican variety, doesn’t read The New York Times. How can we communicate to them the catastrophe they’d be inviting by allowing the Republican Party to have its way with America? How do you communicate with people who won’t listen to reason?

The latest episode of U.S. Congressional charades—I mean, politics—in which the distinguished Democrats of the U.S. House of Representatives sat defiantly on the floor of the Chamber, phone video feeds flying high, signaled not only these courageous Representatives’ desperation to be heard on the gun control issue, but also the tactics that succeed in our weird, through-the-looking-glass times.

Go ahead, Paul Ryan, you can try to shut down the official cameras that, through C-SPAN, would have informed Americans about this bizarre act of democracy happening in the heart of the U.S. empire. Social media is the new Paul Revere, riding at lightspeed to alert the populace, and it is much harder to shut down.

Of course, both sides are working social media. We on the side of sanity—that is, peace, justice, prosperity for all—must work it harder and smarter. It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment we’re in now. We can’t have a Brexit scenario happening here with the U.S. presidential elections. No. Way.

Here are some questions I wish I didn’t have to ask:

  • Why are we allowing the Republicans to get away with stealing our democracy by not appointing a Supreme Court judge? Would they ever allow Democrats to get away with that, should the situation be reversed, with a Republican president making the appointments? We are we standing by passively and allowing this to play out as they want it to?
  • Why do the Republicans want the general populace of the US to be armed with the most deadly weapons a single human being can carry? When the Second Amendment was enacted, it was because at that time, ordinary citizens would often have to be called upon as spontaneous militia. Is that part of the diabolical Republican playbook now too? Think about that for a moment, you don’t have to use too much imagination to see where that scenario goes….
  • Fear and hate thrive on crisis. Could it be that what the xenophobic, bigoted haters fear most of all is a peaceful, just, prosperous world, where everyone is doing just fine?

They’ll tell you such a new world is impossible, but I know that’s not true.

We humans are blessed with extraordinary intelligence. If we chose to use it for the good of the hive, and each member of the hive, we would thrive and create a global civilization that would rival our greatest utopian dreams.

We are capable of it, and we’ve already envisioned it. We just need collective and individual determination to turn back the tides of hatred, fear, violence and isolation. We need clarity and dedication to work together, locally and globally, to manifest the better world our hearts know is possible.

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Bernie Sanders allowed us to see, in a visceral, lines-around-the-block, stadiums-overflowing kind of way, that there are a lot of us good-hearted people here in America, just waiting for a leader to call us together.

We’ve got to stop waiting.

In our networked, hyperlinked times, we don’t need a single charismatic leader anymore, and that’s what the shining example of Bernie shows us: that each of us can and must pick up where he leaves off, and do what we can—just as he always, his whole life, has done what he could—to remake this world according to a positive vision of social and environmental justice for all.

We can, we must…and we will.

From Selfies to Withies with Eli Pariser: Who’s In the Frame?

UnknownTis the season of Commencement speeches, and I read one this week with particular attention, because it was by an illustrious alum from Bard College at Simon’s Rock—Eli Pariser, the founder of Moveon.org and Upworthy, two awesome organizations dedicated to using social media technology to shift culture for the better.

There’s a lot to love in Eli’s speech. He tells the graduates that having a sense of self-worth is the foundation of empathy, which is the social glue that holds communities together. He enjoins the young people before him to remember that they matter, citing studies showing “the powerful effect that believing we matter has on the way we behave, especially toward those who are different from us.”

He continues: “When we’re affirmed in who we are, when we believe that we matter, we relax. We’re more open to new ideas, other ways of seeing things. We’re more accepting of each other. We feel safe. Our subconscious bias goes down. Our empathy goes up. Instead of seeing stereotypes, we can see and accept people as individual human beings.”

This leads him to the important question of how we should value ourselves, or what in ourselves we should value. After all, a bigot might look in the mirror and value hir hatred, right?

Eli is clear on this question: “Here’s what I believe: You matter because you contain within you a great capacity to do good. To act with love.”

He concludes his speech by asking the students in front of him to take out their cameras and instead of taking selfies, take “withies”:

“I want you to capture yourself in the context of everyone around, everyone who has travelled this journey with you. Instead of a selfie, let’s call it a “withie.” With your friends. With your classmates. With your professors. With your family. With as many people as you can fit into the frame. The whole context….As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this. You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too.”

Totally awesome message! There’s just one thing missing here, and that is an acknowledgment that there is much more in the frame of our “withies” than people.

2016 is a year when we desperately need to bring the great green and blue pulse of planetary life into our frames, and remember that our love and empathy must be extended to all living beings, from the plants that produce the oxygen we breathe to the plankton, coral and mangroves that support the ocean food chains, to the bacteria that give us rich earth and the insects that pollinate our crops.

Interestingly, Eli mentions non-human life just once in his speech, a reference to penguins that apparently occurred to him only because the penguin is the mascot of the institution he was addressing. He uses the communitarian nature of penguins to illustrate his idea of “withies”:

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“As any student of “March of the Penguins” knows, penguins are awesome. They can swim faster than a human can run. They can drink ocean water and sneeze out the salt. And when it gets really, really Antarctic cold, they huddle close to one another. They put the kids on the inside. They rotate turns on the outside, absorbing the chill. They come together. And that’s how they make it through the winter.”

“March of the Penguins” came out in 2005, bringing us up close and personal for the first time to the dramatic lives of Antarctic penguins, nesting and raising their young in the harshest environment on Earth. A decade later, a film like that would never be made without acknowledging that penguins are among the many iconic species now being threatened with extinction by the manmade global heating that is causing their ice shelf home to melt into the sea.

The fact that someone as smart and savvy as Eli Pariser could write a Commencement speech in 2016 making no mention of the environmental crisis at all is deeply sobering to me.

It reminds me of the humans in the 2008 movie WALL-E, who have computer screens perpetually fixed right in front of their faces. We have become so entranced by our own reflections in our screens that even our “withies” are all about us.

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Let’s go back to the conclusion of Eli’s speech for a moment. He says:

“As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this.You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too. If you do that, then truly there’s nothing to be afraid of. Class of 2016, you’re going to do just fine.”

Yes, I totally agree, with this essential caveat: the Class of 2016, and all of us who are in the service of love on this planet, must become aware of the gravest challenge of our “wild and weird future”—climate change and environmental destruction—and begin to direct our energies towards creating a livable future, not just for us but for life as we know it on this planet.

That means coming out from behind our screens and reconnecting with the elemental life on this planet—earth and water, fire and air. We need to feel the wind on our faces, to smell the fresh scent of damp earth, to remember what it’s like to swim in a clean river and sit around a fire on a starry night, telling stories.

Penguins are not just mascots. They are living beings with every right to continue their march into the future. Let’s put them, and the polar bears, elephants, whales and all other life on Earth, into our “withies” too.

The Power of Black and White Thinking or Why I Love Bernie Sanders

Teenagers, it is said, see everything in black and white. Something is wonderful or it’s awful. I hate you or I love you. Part of coming to maturity, common wisdom has it, is learning to see in shades of gray, the glass half-full as well as half-empty.

If that is so, I am amused to note in my middle-aged self a return to black-and-white tendencies. Could it be that part of the socialization that enables us to see in gray is also a schooling in the fine art of compromise and settling for “good-enough”? If so, it seems that I am less and less willing to settle. My standards are high, for myself and others, and I don’t want to aim lower.

What does that mean? Well, take Love, for instance, since Valentine’s Day is nigh. I have learned, over years of trial and error, that the most important relationship we have is with ourselves. No, that doesn’t mean I’m an egotistical navel-gazer. It means that in order for me to give love to others—whether people or causes—I must love myself first. I must believe that what I have to give is important, and worth sharing.

And I really have to love myself completely, warts and all. That’s where the absolute thinking comes in. If I were thinking about myself in shades of gray, I’d be picking apart what I like about myself from what I dislike about myself. I’d be doing a daily self-critical dance, castigating myself when I don’t live up to my own expectations.

Here’s what I’ve learned in middle age: doing that dance is a huge drain of time and psychic energy. It’s so much better to say, definitely (and maybe a little defiantly): I know I’m not perfect but I do the best I can and I love myself for trying. I love myself, faults and all, because I know that it’s through failure, hurt and disappointment that I learn to be stronger, better, and more lovable.

How Can We Love Ourselves?

In so many ways it seems that we live in a disposable society. It’s not just diapers and plastic cups we’re throwing away; it’s people and places too. It’s life itself we trash without even noticing. Thinking in black and white, I’d say that’s just not acceptable.

The litany of suffering caused by modern industrial human civilization is long and grievous. You know what I’m talking about, I don’t even have to get into the ugly specifics of species extinctions, animal torture, human-on-human brutality, environmental devastation, disease and anthropogenic famine.

This is the thing: can I know this about human society, my society, and still find it in myself to love us? To love us enough to want to spend my life working to make us better?

I suppose this is why the Christ story has had such a hold on human civilization for so long. Christ died for our sins; he loved us enough to sacrifice himself willingly to remind us to try to live up to a higher expectation of ourselves.

But I am not talking about sacrifice, violence, pain and death, the language of Christianity. I’m talking about love for oneself and everything in the world around us—the language of animism and Buddhism, seeing the world as Gaia, an intricate living organism to be cherished, cultivated and loved deeply and absolutely.

We humans are Gaia’s children. We sprang from her and have been one of her most fabulously successful creations. It is a marker of our success that we are now severely over-populated, to the point where we must either discover new, more harmonious ways to sustain our society, or face species collapse.

I want to believe that we can love ourselves enough to recognize our tremendous potential as a species, and work hard to move ourselves to the next level of awareness.

This is not the time to do the self-castigating dance of “I love me, I love me not.” We need to acknowledge our failures and weaknesses but use them to enhance our awareness of what is good and positive in us. Knowing what we don’t like or want enables us to understand more powerfully what we like and want. That’s the power of black and white thinking.

How Much Do We Love? Revolution vs. Reform

There’s a reason most revolutions in human history have been carried out by young people who have not yet settled into the complacency or despair of “shades of gray” thinking.

Although modern education, in America at least, does its best to indoctrinate children to be compliant and docile, still there are always young people who insist on thinking for themselves and pushing the adults around them to wake up and do what must be done to make the world better. We saw that in the Occupy movement, we’re seeing in now in the Black Lives Matter protests, and, in a very destructive way, we see it in the young jihadists and school shooters who take up arms in violent protest of the way things are.

There’s a reason Bernie Sanders is building such runaway support among young people, and among the young-at-heart older folks too. He’s appealing to our idealism—our stubborn belief that we don’t have to compromise, that we can reach towards creating the world that should be, rather than settling for the fallen and corrupted world that is.

When Hillary Clinton says “I know how to compromise and get things done,” that’s shades-of-gray, middle-aged thinking. Barack Obama went into the White House repeating that refrain, and tried repeatedly in his early years as President to reach out to Republicans for compromise. He has been resoundingly rejected—the Republicans, school-boys that they are, insist on seeing the world in black and white, their way or the highway.

Maybe it’s time for the Democrats to do the same. Maybe it’s time for us to love and believe in ourselves enough to allow our own brand of black-and-white thinking free rein. Bernie Sanders, with his uncompromising social justice platform, his refusal to play the usual political PAC money game, his defiant, teenage idealism packaged in an unlikely middle-aged body, is showing us the way.

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Transitions at Transition Times

I am aware that I have not been posting very frequently on Transition Times, and there is a simple explanation for that: I have shifted my writing energy into my weekly column, Edge Wise, published on Thursdays at The Berkshire Edge.

I started Edge Wise thinking of it as a way of holding the publishing door open for other women who might like to get their voices and visions into virtual print. But more often than not, it’s me who’s holding the fort there, turning out weekly commentary on issues of social and environmental justice, of local, national, and international import.

If you are interested, you can take a look at the archives, going back about a year now to when I started Edge Wise. The inaugural column explained the name, including a personal anecdote about how, as a soft-spoken woman in various social contexts, I have often found it hard to get a word in edgewise.

Recent columns I think my Transition Times readers may especially appreciate include:

 I will continue to post on Transition Times, as I know we’re still very much in the thick of the transitions that started me off here back in 2011. The first four years of Transition Times charted the journey of my awakening to the seriousness of the political and planetary challenges that face us today; you, my readers, helped me understand how important it is to align the personal, political and planetary as we seek to become creative leaders in our rapidly transforming social and environmental landscape.

I have been putting theory into practice in a number of ways:

  • BFWW-sq-logo-WEBthrough the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, an annual conference and a series of year-round events nourishing and showcasing the voices and visions of women of all ages;
  • through Green Fire Press, which offers high-quality publishing services for writers seeking an alternative to both traditional publishing and self-publishing, including the new anthology Writing Fire: Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words;
  • through the new Butterfly Effect Leadership Program for teen girls and young women, which encourages young women to step into their potential as creative leaders in ways that can change themselves and their communities—and ultimately, the world—for the better;
  • through the new Women’s Collaborative for Creativity and Leadership, which is the umbrella non-profit organization for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and The Butterfly Effect, with a mission of offering multiple entry points into an inspiring vision of a stronger role for women in leading the way towards a sustainable and harmonious future for us all;
  • and through my teaching and the many workshops and talks I have been giving connected to all these endeavors, including two coming up this month, Gaia Calling and the Rookwood Writing Retreat on Memoir.

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I am also working on several book projects that I will be bringing to fruition in the coming year:

  • what-i-forgot-cover-WEBWhat I Forgot and Why I Remembered: A Purposeful Memoir of Personal and Planetary Transformation, my own story of how I lost and regained my deep and essential connection with the Earth, and why that matters for me and for every caring human on the planet today;
  • a companion book, The Elemental Journey: An Inspirational Guide to Purposeful Memoir, which will offer signposts along the road for those interested in embarking on a similar journey through their own life histories;
  • The Butterfly Effect: A Guide to Stepping into the Creative Leadership Our World Needs Now;
  • and several editing projects, including an anthology, Strong Shoulders: The Loves and Labors of Women, for which the Call for Proposals is still open.

Yes, I am busy trying to walk the walk as well as talk the talk of social transformation, seeking out and finding collaborators as I go, because building community is such a strong part of what I know we need to be doing in these transition times, as we move together along this part of the journey, where life—personal, political and planetary—seems to be constantly speeding up.

10153293_552008379784_8650399992315417237_nThis is a time when we need to come together, not only in the amazing virtual spaces of the Internet, but also physically, in our home communities. We need to create opportunities and spaces for deep reflection and sharing, so that we can build strong networks of kindred spirits and webs of support to carry us through what may very well be some turbulent times ahead.

As always, I invite you to come along with me on the journey through these transition times. As the old prophecy said, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time of the lone wolf is over. We must put hope into action collaboratively, with the goal of emerging stronger, clearer and more confident in our shared desire to create bridges to the future we want for ourselves and for those who will come after us.

Are you with me? Let’s go!

Resisting Our Suicidal Culture: Are We All Aboard Germanwings?

We’ve passed the Spring Equinox and it continues to snow here in the Northeast. I feel like I’m stuck in Narnia under the Witch, and no sign of Aslan coming to the rescue.

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In the Narnia series, the Witch is a symbol of the dark side of humanity. Greedy, selfish, vain and cruel, she makes others suffer because it pleases her to do so.

C.S. Lewis, like J.R.R. Tolkien, took the struggle between Good and Evil right out of the Christian playbook. Both of these epic stories end with Good triumphing, but also with beloved characters simply moving on to a better world. In Christian traditions, that better world is called Heaven. You can only get there by dying.

For some of us, death does seem like a release, a chance to lay down one’s sorrows and find peace and comfort at last. We get a taste of it nightly when we dream—if we are able to sleep deeply and well.

Was it that pull toward peace that caused the Germanwings co-pilot to slam his plane into a mountain, killing himself and all 149 people aboard? Suicide that takes other innocent people along is reprehensible and incomprehensible. Yet it happens, more often than we might like to admit.

It’s easy to call the behavior of that suicidal co-pilot evil. But there are many other instances of human behavior resulting in cruelty and death that are harder to see and categorize. Often these actions are miniscule in their individual iterations, but together add up to horrifying, devastating impacts.

Most of what is going on with our relationship to our environment falls into this pattern of negligent evil.

For instance, when we buy a beautiful mahogany table and chair set for our porch, we don’t think about the rainforests that were bulldozed to create it. We don’t think about all the myriad life—the bright butterflies, exotic lizards and intelligent orangutans—that had to die so we could enjoy that table.

When we turn on the gas range to heat water for tea, we don’t think about the billions of gallons of water that are irrevocably contaminated through the fracking process to provide us with that gas. Likewise, when we fill up our car tank and rejoice to see the price of gas falling, we don’t think about the despoliation of the landscape and oceans that is going on in order to continue to provide us with cheap gas.

When we continue to support industries that destroy our environment, from industrial agriculture to the petrochemical industry to Big Oil and all the banks and subsidiaries that love them, we are each contributing to the crazy destabilization of our planet’s climate.

We are feeding the Witch that preys on every human being—the side of human nature that lacks empathy for other living beings and values short-term comfort and gratification over long-term well-being.

sustainable-happiness-lAs we round the corner into April, traditionally a month when human cultures of the northern hemisphere celebrate Spring and the return of warmth and green to the Earth, we must focus our attention on what Sarah van Gelder of YES! Magazine calls “sustainable happiness.”

In the introduction to her new edited collection, Sustainable Happiness: Live Simply, Live Well, Make a Difference, Van Gelder points to research showing that what truly makes human beings happy is “loving relationships, thriving natural and human communities, opportunities for meaningful work, and a few simple practices, like gratitude.”

Van Gelder insists that “sustainable happiness is possible,” but “you can’t achieve it with a quick fix and it can’t be achieved at the expense of others.” It all “depends on the choices we make individually and as a society.”  In the book, she gives us a list of five principles to help move us in the right direction:

  1. “Stop the causes of trauma and support healing;
  2. Build economic and social equity;
  3. Value the gifts we each bring;
  4. Protect the integrity of the natural world;
  5. Develop practices that support our own well-being.”

That about sums up a plan for right living, doesn’t it? Easy to say, harder to put in practice in a social landscape that is seems to be so eternally under the spell of the Witch of destructive extractivism.

There are signs that the spell is weakening, though. Rivulets of indignation are spouting up. Individuals are awakening to their own power to imagine a different way of life, a different relation to each other and our planet.

We are beginning to talk with one another about making change, and acting on our deepest intuitions of what happiness would mean for ourselves, our loved ones and our beloved world. Through the networked power of the World Wide Web, these conversations and new paradigms can spread faster than ever before, giving us hope that there is still time to right the wrongs and stabilize the imbalances that threaten to turn our planet into a mass grave on a scale never seen before in human history.

The captains of industry and their hired politicians are threatening to slam our entire civilization into the side of a mountain, metaphorically speaking. Are we going to sit quietly in our seats and let it happen? Or are we going to pound on the door, like the heroic pilot of the Germanwings airplane, who did everything he could to get through to the insane man at the controls and bring his plane home safely?

Looking out at the relentless snowfall of April, I know it’s time to awaken the Aslan in each one of us. It’s time to fight for the survival of the world we love.

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Stepping Out With Confidence on International Women’s Day 2015

Although far less widely known and celebrated in the U.S. than Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, International Women’s Day is a much more interesting holiday.

It is one of the few truly global holidays, observed in most countries around the world (hence the prominence it gets at the United Nations, that international enclave in the heart of New York City).

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Unlike Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, IWD is not a romantic or family-oriented holiday. On International Women’s Day, women accept recognition for their hard work and achievements in both the public and private spheres, and gather to advocate for further advancement down the road to full gender equality.

Gender equality looks different depending on where in the world you are located. But at its core is one of the fundamental principles of human rights: that no human being should be discriminated against on the basis of their physical attributes.

Even in the U.S., supposedly a bastion of liberal values, we have a long way to go before we arrive at the goal of gender equality. This is partly a vision problem: there is still a fair amount of confusion over what a society in which men and women were treated equally would look like.

In every society in transition, there is anxiety about change from those who have been benefiting from unearned privilege (in the U.S., that would be white males, especially of the Christian variety). Giving up privilege is hard.

It was good to see Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant make the case in The New York Times this week about why gender equality, “in the boardroom and the bedroom,” will make both men and women happier, healthier, more successful and less stressed out.

It was also good to see a group of Afghan men taking the unprecedented step of standing up for women’s human rights in their country by donning burkas themselves—in much the same vein as the “Walk A Mile In Her Shoes” campaign that has men marching together in women’s high heels to protest sexual assault.

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Burkas and high heels are very different in intention—the one aimed at completely covering up a woman’s body and face, the other aimed at accentuating and drawing attention to women’s legs—but similar in effect: these are dress codes that hamper women’s ability to stand strong and step out comfortably and confidently into the world.

I know Western women who will argue that they feel more confident wearing their heels, and I’m sure there are Afghan women who prefer to step out in public shielded by their burkas. But this has everything to do with the world in which they operate, dominated by an often hostile, or at least aggressively attentive male gaze. It’s not about their own comfort in their own bodies.

No, we’re not going to get back to the Garden in which Adam and Eve romped about gaily without so much as a fig leaf coming between them and their lovely natural surroundings.

But this International Women’s Day, let’s reaffirm the basic principle that all human beings are created equal and deserve equal human rights, no matter what they look like and no matter where they live—beginning with the right to step out confidently into a affirming, welcoming world.

As U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon puts it, “To be truly transformative, the post-2015 development agenda must prioritize gender equality and women’s empowerment. The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential.”

Amen to that! And as the International Women’s Day 2015 theme says, it’s time to “Make It Happen!”

A Pipeline for Mr. Nocera

Joe Nocera is one of my least favorite of the regular New York Times columnists. I almost always disagree with him; I like to read his columns just to see what kind of inane argument he’s going to concoct this time for an untenable position.

This time, he’s giving the finger to “environmentalists,” who are still embracing the “pipe dream” that it’s possible to stop the oil industry from mining the boreal forests of Canada in search of dirty shale oil. His column points out, gloatingly, that whether any of us like it or not, Canada tar sands oil will be coming into the U.S. and making their long, expensive, dangerous way down to the Texas refineries and ports—if not by pipeline, then by rail.

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And, he implies, there’s not a damned thing the President, with his veto pen, or the public, with our outrage, can do about it.

How convenient that Nocera overlooked the big news this week when he sat down to write his column. It was more important to him to poke the hornet’s nest of environmentalists than to actually give his readers some meaningful content to thin about.

This week’s real news came in the form of two new studies produced by teams of scientists who concluded that a) 2014 was tied with 2010 as the hottest year on record; and b) anthropogenic climate disruption combined with human predation is causing unprecedented species extinctions in the oceans.

The truth is, Joe Nocera, that unless human beings get out of our “business-as-usual” mindsets and get serious about slowing the rate of carbon emissions and taking seriously our role as stewards of the planet, those pipelines will soon be rusting silently like the rest of the junk of our civilization, from skyscrapers to factories, abandoned in the wake of the storms and food crises that will push human populations into collapse—just as we’ve pushed so many other species past the point of stability.

Think I’m over-reacting? Think I’m getting hysterical? Check out this round-up of recent reports and studies on climate change impacts by Dahr Jamail and then let’s talk. If you’re not seriously frightened by what’s happening to our planet, maybe you should consider lowering the dose of your anti-anxiety medication.

Meanwhile, funny, isn’t it, that the price of oil is going down down down. I’ve read a few attempts at explaining this phenomenon, which is having the positive effect (for the planet) of getting the oil industry to slow down its relentless drilling. The most plausible explanation seems to be that the Saudis are trying to put pressure on the U.S. shale gas industry, which is growing way too fast for the liking of the OPEC producers.

I say, a pox on all their heads! We don’t want natural gas fracking any more than we want Saudi oil or Alberta tar sands.

Solar and wind power may not be perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot better than fossil fuels. If we took some of the billions currently being poured into fracking, mining and pipelines and put them into developing good ways to store and distribute renewable energy, our children and grandchildren just might stand a chance of having the kind of normal lives we have enjoyed ourselves over the past century.

Joe Nocera doesn’t get this, of course, or maybe he just doesn’t care what happens to his own kids and grandkids.

When the United States turns into a dust bowl and the coastal cities are swept away by fierce storms and rising seas, maybe he’ll climb into one of those pipelines he’s advocating for and make himself cozy.

After Charlie Hebdo: Tuning Out, Tuning In to the Violence that Beseiges Us

When the news of the Charlie Hebdo attack flashed into the headlines last week, with all its chaotic blood, gore and terror, I had a surreal feeling of detachment and déjà vu. Similar scenarios have been hitting us so often in recent months and years—the Boston Marathon bombing…the Times Square attempted bombing….Sandy Hook Elementary School…. Virginia Tech…Ferguson….the list could go on and on, and that’s just the incidents on American soil.

How do we cope with the constant background noise of violence against which our lives play out in the 21st century? How do we avoid either extreme: numbing out/tuning out, or becoming overwhelmed with fear and grief?

If you thought I might have the answer, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t know. It seems to me that I go back and forth from one reaction to another, depending on my mental resilience when the latest instance of violence surges into my awareness.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

If I’m feeling strong and stable, I can hit a balance, which seems like the healthiest response; I can honor the victims with appropriate grief and anger at the perpetrators, while maintaining the psychic distance I need to go about my daily business without being blown away by fear and sorrow.

Is this really “the healthiest response,” though? Or am I kidding myself here? How can it be healthy and sane to be so compartmentalized that I am able to acknowledge the pain and suffering on one hand, while at the same time going on with my life in an ordinary way?

Digging a little further into this, I have to ask: who does it benefit for me to be able to carry on with a stiff upper lip, remaining calm, cool and collected in the face on ongoing tragedy? Does it benefit me, or the status quo of the society I live in, which has generated this endless loop of repetitive tragedy?

What would happen if one day we all suddenly started to feel fully empathetic with the victims of violence—and not just gun violence, or military violence, but also rape, domestic violence, violence against animals, violence against the forests and the waters of our planet?

In the #BlackLivesMatter and #WeAreSenecaLake protests, and now in the #JeSuisCharlie meme and rallies in Paris, we are seeing a hint of the powerful force that can be unleashed by human compassion.

What if I, and other Americans like me, started to actively fight the conditioning that has made us believe that the healthiest, sanest response to ubiquitous violence is to turn our gaze away and keep moving?

What if we began to lean in to the deep wellsprings of compassion and empathy that are our birthright as human beings, and act out of the power we find there?

What if instead of accepting the constant static of violence as a given of modern existence, we began to actively tune in to it, in order to serve—each one of us—as antennae capable of picking up the signal and disrupting it, transforming it from cacophony to an entirely different, new form of activist harmony?

In their own satirical way, the Charlie Hebdo team was engaged in doing just this. They were holding a mirror up to our sick society, and forcing us to gaze at ourselves and recognize the extent of our own complicity in the violence that besieges us.

I believe, with Arundhati Roy, that another world is possible. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. But on a typical, violent day, all I can hear is the labored thumping of my own heavy heart.

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

#LifeMatters: On Die-Ins as a Path to Social Change

Die-in at NYU Bobst Library, December 2014

Die-in at NYU Bobst Library, December 2014

There’s something weird and macabre about the current spate of “die-ins” occurring across the country.

The logic seems to be that we register our very live protest by pretending to be dead, and blocking normal business as usual in the process.

The message: you must stop killing us and people we care about!

This season’s die-ins have mostly taken place in the name of racial justice.

I’d like to see the struggle broadened to include species justice as well.

Imagine if we protested on behalf of the coral reefs, the migrating birds and butterflies, and the small-animal roadkill?

Imagine if we staged die-ins on behalf of the sea turtles and the whales and the polar bears?

What about the tortured factory-farm animals and lab animals and the forest creatures whose habitats are being destroyed daily?

Imagine if we didn’t relent, but kept dying and dying and dying, swooning over and over again in public places until those in power were compelled to pay attention?

One thing is for sure, the powers that be in our uber-capitalist society want us alive and kicking, doing what’s expected of us as productive citizens: to keep consuming at a steadily increasing rate of purchase.

Buy, buy buy! Don’t worry about tomorrow, think about consuming today!

This is the constantly trumpeted message of countless advertising campaigns, and it’s the general ethos of American society, which admires those who can indulge in consumer wish-fulfillment, and disdains those who choose a different, less self-indulgent path.

Die-in for racial justice at Harvard Medical School, December 2014

Die-in for racial justice at Harvard Medical School, December 2014

Whether we choose to physically represent the “death” of our consumer selves, or to simply make a personal decision to refrain from participating in the excessive spending that is pushed on us from Black Friday through Christmas Eve…it is time to recognize our own power as consumers.

We can choose to support or starve the fossil fuel monster. We can decide to keep the factory farms humming or to put our purchasing power behind local farms where animals are allowed to live happier lives. Or even to go further, and eliminate meat consumption altogether!

In this age of Congressional gridlock and the stranglehold of big money on politics, we ordinary little guys must remember that we do have power if we come together to wield it.

One person staging a “die-in” is just a weirdo who can easily be removed.

A hundred or a thousand people refusing to go along with business as usual is something different: it’s a social movement, a force for social change.

The first step toward social change is awareness. I thank the die-in protestors for leading the way in raising our awareness and stopping the mad rush of business-as-usual.

Die-In at the COP 20 climate talks in Lima, Peru, December 2014

Die-In at the COP 20 climate talks in Lima, Peru, December 2014

I’m no Grinch; I’m going to be buying presents for my children and celebrating the holidays with friends and family.

But as I do, I will be trying to limit my participation in practices and policies I know to be harmful.

#LifeMatters. Yes, it does.

On Building Solidarity in Social Justice Movements: Reflections on Ferguson and Beyond

As a scholar of personal narratives by marginalized women activists from around the world, I have been studying the dynamics of privilege and oppression at close range for many years.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

For those on the receiving end of repressive treatment, an essential strategy of resistance is one voiced by the poet-activist Audre Lorde years ago: “the transformation of silence into language and action.”

We’ve been seeing this transformation since the murder of Michael Brown last summer. The people of Ferguson refused to take this outrage silently, and others, of all ethnicities and from all across the country, have rallied to their cause. Since the moment the grand jury decision letting the police off the hook—again—was handed down, my social media feeds have been on fire with declarations of sympathy and anger, along with demands for positive social change.

It has been heartening to see so many Americans marching together in cities all across the country in support of racial justice. Lots of white faces mixed in with the black and brown ones, all united in demanding that our government and legal system protect the rights of all Americans, not just the ones with privilege and power granted by a discriminatory system.

Unknown-1An oppressive system will try to protect those in power and maintain its status quo by discouraging dissent, sometimes silencing its critics by force (as in, for example, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X) or longterm imprisonment (think Leonard Peltier or Nelson Mandela).

Sometimes the silencing is imposed by shaming (think how women are often made to feel embarrassed and “unfeminine” when we dare to speak out against oppression by men); sometimes by peer pressure and the judicious distribution of rewards to those who go with the flow (for instance, young men can be rewarded by fraternity membership or sports glory when they go along with oppressive treatment of women or younger recruits).

One aspect of privilege I have been especially struck by is this formulation, which I learned from the gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel: “privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

Too often, those in power don’t realize how they participate in the oppression of others. Or maybe they choose to turn a blind eye, because acknowledging the effects of privilege would make them feel uncomfortable about themselves.

Privilege and oppression are relative terms, and very few people fit entirely into one category or another. In other words, I might be privileged by my white skin, but disadvantaged by my gender. I might be privileged by my gender, but disadvantaged by being born into poverty. And so on.

Those of us who believe in justice and want to live in a country that protects the rights of all its citizens equally need to understand how important it is to use our privileges, whatever they may be, to fight oppression in all of its guises.

photo-d

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, NY, early 20th century

For example, immigration reform: Americans who remember that just a few generations back their families were fortunate enough to be able to enter this country legally need to stand up for the rights of today’s immigrants.

Or women’s rights: we need to cheer on men like Nick Kristof, who consistently serves as an ally for oppressed women, using his privilege as a New York Times columnist to call attention to violations of women’s human rights worldwide.

In the environmentalist and animal rights movements, we see human beings using our privilege to advocate for the rights of wild animals and farmed animals to a life well lived.

And so on. Social movements are strongest and most successful when they draw their power from solidarity between the privileged and the oppressed.

History shows us that when a social system veers too far into an oppressive dynamic, it becomes weak and liable to fall. Social revolutions occur when enough people are fed up and have little to lose by challenging the status quo.

Americans know that we’re in a precarious state right now, with our politicians being bought and paid for by industry, the super-rich growing ever wealthier while the vaunted American middle class slips down into the ranks of the struggling working poor.

We are living through a dangerous time, but a time of opportunity too: a time when those of us who are awake to the dangers can speak out against oppression, stand up for justice, and insist on the structural changes needed to make our country live up to its own ideals.

I’m not talking about riots here, although those are sometimes the only way the system can be made to focus on the rage of the oppressed.

I’m talking about recognizing the dynamics of privilege and oppression, understanding our own place in the system, and using whatever privileges we have to support those with less power.

Only this kind of broad-based solidarity, based in our own communities but with a nation-wide reach, can shift the oppressive system that was stacked against Michael Brown in Ferguson. When to start? Now.

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