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.

Aslan

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.

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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.

Moving from Anger and Cynicism to Gratitude: Thanksgiving in Dark Times

It’s Thanksgiving time, the time when we’re supposed to be counting our blessings and giving thanks. Given the current bombardment of bad news, it’s hard not to feel cynical.

Do I give thanks for the American justice system, which once again has valued the rights of a white man over the rights of a (dead) Black man?

Should I give thanks that a growing roster of universities are finally being pushed to take fraternity gang rape seriously, after years of turning a blind eye?

Maybe I should be giving thanks that the Kinder Morgan fossil fuel group, responding to public outcry, is thinking about routing its gas pipeline through “an existing utility corridor” rather than through backyards and recreational areas in the heart of Berkshire County, the tourist-friendly resort area where I live.

It’s easy to get angry about the injustice and casual brutality of our world. And one of the problems of modern existence is that when something bad happens, we know about it almost instantaneously, and have to grapple in our own hearts and minds with its disturbing reverberations.

Any wonder why so many people in media-saturated modern societies turn to drugs (prescription and recreational) or alcohol to get some relief?

I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s happening in our world, even when the news is very bad. But we do need to find ways to retain our own sense of balance and inner resilience in the face of the constant heartbreak that characterizes contemporary life.

I try to remind myself, at Thanksgiving time and all year round, of all the things I do truly have to be thankful for.

I give thanks for the protesters who have been standing up to the fracking and drilling industry giants all over North America, and indeed all over the world. I am thankful that Sandra Steingraber has been released early from jail, so she can spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

I give thanks for the many innovative scientists who are working hard to develop viable alternative forms of energy, from better solar panels to clean battery cells to geothermal, tidal and wind generators. I am thankful for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, leading the way towards a clean-energy future.

I give thanks for the health workers who are at this very moment risking their own lives in order to bring the Ebola epidemic under control. I thank all the health workers, worldwide, who give so much to others day in and day out.

I give thanks for my family, friends and comrades—for all the good people who are working in their own spheres to be sources of love and compassion.

On dark days like this one, it can be hard to feel confident that the human capacity for love and empathy will prevail over the less admirable side of our nature; that our ethical intelligence and social creativity will succeed in tempering our greedy self-interest and destructiveness.

Every day presents opportunities to live in ways that elevate the human condition and spirit. Even the greatest events in human history always depend on the actions of individuals, each within our own sphere. All we can do, as human beings alive on the planet in these frightening transition times, is strive to embody love.

We won’t always succeed; no one of us is perfect. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us place ourselves on that arc, with gratitude for being able to help it bend towards justice now, in our own time.

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Letter to Sandra Steingraber: Civil Disobedience and the Fossil Fuel Monster

Dear Sandra,

I have been thinking about you for days now, ever since I heard the news that you were leading the peaceful protests defending Seneca Lake. Now you’re sitting in jail, taking your turn along with several others who also chose to serve jail time as an extension of the protest, rather than taking the “get out easy” card of paying a fine.

Sandra Steingraber going to jail

Sandra Steingraber going to jail

Thoreau would be proud of you! You are a living example of his famous injunction on civil disobedience, written from the jail cell that served as his bastion of protest against slavery and a war he knew was wrong: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

The machine of our time is the fossil fuel industry. It is an industrial monster, with mining claw arms, a drill bit mouth and a huge bloated body belching stinking carbon smoke. It has no eyes to see the destruction it causes, nor ears to hear the screams and wails of the innocent creatures—including human beings—mown down in its path or sickened beyond recovery.

Over four hundred members of We Are Seneca Lake blockade the gates of Crestwood Midstream and stand up to the expansion of dangerous gas storage in the crumbling salt caverns next to Seneca Lake and under the beautiful wine country of the Finger Lakes. Lead by renown biologist, author, Sandra Steingraber. Pictured; Yvonne Taylor, Gas Free Seneca, Doug Couchon, People for a Healthy Environment, Members of Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative, Seneca Lake Pure Waters, ShaleShock, DJ Astro Hawk. (PRNewsFoto/We Are Seneca Lake)

Over four hundred members of We Are Seneca Lake blockade the gates of Crestwood Midstream and stand up to the expansion of dangerous gas storage in the crumbling salt caverns next to Seneca Lake and under the beautiful wine country of the Finger Lakes. Lead by renown biologist, author, Sandra Steingraber. Pictured; Yvonne Taylor, Gas Free Seneca, Doug Couchon, People for a Healthy Environment, Members of Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative, Seneca Lake Pure Waters, ShaleShock, DJ Astro Hawk. (PRNewsFoto/We Are Seneca Lake)

You and a handful of courageous resisters have gathered on the shores of the mighty Seneca Lake, to put your bodies on the line to stop this monster at all costs, before it can carry out its federally sanctioned intention of making the fragile salt caverns beneath the water into a volatile gas depot.

Did we learn nothing from the tragedy of the BP gas spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Haven’t we learned that fossil fuels and pristine waters do not mix?

Drinking water is a finite and precious resource on this planet. We can find other ways to create energy—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydrogen—but if we pollute the precious aquifers and freshwater reservoirs upon which our very life depends, there will be no return.

I know you of all people know this well, Sandra. Your first book, Living Downstream, tells the story of how you uncovered a serious cancer cluster in your own hometown, caused by the toxic runoff of chemicals into the groundwater.

‘Look upstream,’ you admonished us then. ‘What we need more than a cure for cancer,’ you said (still recovering from cancer yourself) ‘is strong action to prevent cancer, which means strong regulation against environmental pollution.’

Now one of the magnificent Finger Lakes is under direct threat of contamination. A gas rupture there would ruin the drinking water for tens of thousands of people; destroy the aquatic environment for millions of fish and other lake creatures; and severely impact the recreational use of the lake.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Is it really worth the risk? Can’t a safer place be found to store gas, away from the fragile ecosystem of the lake?

It’s beyond disappointing that our government caved to the fossil fuel monster in granting a permit to put a gas storage chamber beneath the floor of Seneca Lake. The people can do for ourselves what our craven politicians could not. We can make our lives “a counter friction to stop the machine.”

You are showing us the way, and I am with you in spirit, helping to spread the word and extend the protest into the potent realm of cyberspace.  It’s time to banish the fossil fuel monster once and for all.

In solidarity,

Jennifer

NOTE TO READERS:  Please read the comment below which gives more ideas for taking action in solidarity with Sandra and the other Seneca Lake defenders.  For starters, visit this site and voice your support: http://www.wearesenecalake.com/pledge-protect-seneca-lake/

Envisioning a Cosmic Religion, Rooted in Mother Earth: Homage to Thich Nhat Hanh

It must have something to do with reaching midlife. The beat of elders moving on out of this lifetime has picked up for me, and it’s so hard to let them go, knowing that as each life ends, those of us remaining are called ever more strongly to step into their shoes and become the elders leading our society.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Few people alive today could step easily into the humble, powerful shoes of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like the Dalai Lama, he is a Buddhist monk who has been so generous and warm in inviting others into his orbit. Whether or not you practice Buddhism, whether or not you follow any religious tradition at all, there is so much wisdom and guidance in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, so much to learn and gain from listening to him.

I regret that I never had the chance to be physically in his presence, but as with so many of the other great leaders I admire, I know him through the writings he has shared and through his public persona and the good works he has accomplished.

At 88 years old, Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage from which he may still recover. He is still with us today but even after he is gone, I know his spirit will be showering us with the lovingkindness he knows we need to overcome the negativity that besets so many of us as individuals and as societies.

Today, in homage to Thay (as his students call him lovingly), I want to quote at some length from one of his last books, the beautiful Love Letter to the Earth. I urge you to buy a copy of this small bright gem of a book, and use it as a guide and inspiration—maybe you will be moved to write some love letters of your own to our dear battered planet.

“Dear Mother Earth,

“The human species is but one of your many children. Unfortunately, many of us have been blinded by greed, pride, and delusion, and only a few of us have been able to recognize you as our Mother. Not realizing this, we have done you great harm, compromising both your health and your beauty. Our deluded minds push us to exploit you and create more and more discord, putting you and all your forms of life under stress and strain. Looking deeply, we also recognize that you have enough patience, endurance and energy to embrace and transform all the damage we have caused, even if it takes you hundreds of millions of years.

“When greed and pride overtake our basic survival needs, the result is always violence and unnecessary devastation. We know that whenever one species develops too rapidly, exceeding its natural limit, there is great loss and damage, and the lives of other species are endangered. For equilibrium to be restored, causes and conditions naturally arise to bring about the destruction and annihilation of that species. Often these causes and conditions originate from within the destructive species itself. We have learned that when we perpetrate violence toward our own and other species, we are violent toward ourselves. When we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.

“We understand that all things are impermanent and without a separate self-nature. You and Father Sun, like everything else in the cosmos, are constantly changing, and you are only made of non-you elements. That is why we know that, in the ultimate dimension, you transcend birth and death, being and nonbeing. Nonetheless, we need to protect you and restore balance, so that you can continue for a long time in this beautiful and precious form, not just for our children and their children but for five hundred million years and beyond. We want to protect you so you can remain a glorious jewel within our solar system for eons to come.

Northern lights, photographed from space

Northern lights, photographed from space

We know that you want us to live in such a way that in each moment of our daily lives we can cherish life and generate the energies of mindfulness, peace, solidity, compassion and love. We vow to fulfill your wish and respond to your love. We have the deep conviction that generating these wholesome energies, we will help reduce the suffering on Earth and contribute to alleviating the suffering caused by violence, war, hunger and illness. In alleviating our suffering, we alleviate yours.

“Dear Mother, there have been times when we suffered greatly as a result of natural disasters. We know that whenever we suffer, you suffer through us. The floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t punishments or manifestations of your anger, but are phenomena that must occur on occasion, so that balance can be restored. The same is true of a shooting star. For balance in nature to be achieved, at times some species have to endure loss. In those moments, we have turned to you, dear Mother, and asked whether or not we could count on you, on your stability and compassion. You didn’t answer us right away. Then, beholding us with great compassion, you replied, “Yes, of course you can count on your Mother. I will always be here for you.” But then you said, “Dear children, you must ask yourselves, can your Mother Earth count on you?”

“Dear Mother, today we offer you our solemn reply, “Yes, Mother, you can count on us.””

Love Letter to the Earth concludes on a vision of a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of religion, founded on the Buddhist principle of interbeing—which, like deep ecology, understands that every form of life on earth, and indeed every element of our planetary biosphere is profoundly interconnected and interdependent, not in a hierarchy but in a rhizomatic web. Every strand in that web must be honored and tended, and this is the work that human beings, especially, are called upon to take up.

If Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a new religion for the 21st century could be realized, what a wonderful world it could be. Listen:

“We can build a deep spiritual practice based not on dogmas or beliefs in things we can’t verify, but entirely on evidence. To say that the Earth is a great being is not just an idea; each of us can see this for ourselves. Each of us can see that the Earth has the qualities of endurance, stability and inclusiveness. We can observe the Earth embracing everyone and everything without discrimination. When we say that the Earth has given birth to many great beings, including buddhas, bodhisattvas and saints, we are not exaggerating. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Moses and Mohammed are all children of the Earth. How can we describe the Earth as mere matter when she has given birth to so many great beings?

“When we say the Earth has created life, we know it’s only possible because she contains within herself the whole cosmos. Just as the Earth is not only the Earth, so too are we not only humans. We have the Earth and the whole cosmos within us. We are made of the sun. We are made of stars. Touching the true nature of reality, we can transcend the dualistic view that the cosmos is something greater than ourselves or different from ourselves. Getting deeply in touch with the phenomenal realm, the historical dimension, we can realize our true nature of no-birth and no-death. We can transcend all fear and touch eternity.

Orionid-shooting-star

“Every advance in our understanding of ourselves, our nature and our place in the cosmos deepens our reverence and love. To understand and to love are fundamental desires. Understanding has some kind of connection with love. Understanding can take us in the direction of love. When we understand and become aware of the great harmony, elegance and beauty of the cosmos, we may feel great admiration and love. This is the most basic kind of religious feeling: it is based on evidence and our own experience. Humanity needs a kind of spirituality that we can all practice together.

“Dogmatism and fanaticism have been the cause of great separation and war. Misunderstanding and irreverence have been the cause of enormous injustice and destruction. In the twenty-first century it should be possible for us to come together and offer ourselves the kind of religion that can help unite all peoples and all nations, and remove all separation and discrimination. If existing religions and philosophies, as well as science, can make an effort to go in this direction, it will be possible to establish a cosmic religion based not on myth, belief or dogma, but on evidence and the insights of interbeing. And that would be a giant leap for humankind.”

Amen, Thay. Go lightly.  We will carry on.

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth

Parallax Press, 2013

Joining Humanity’s Immune System: In the Body, in the Classroom, in the World

I had a tough day today in the classroom. I guess I brought it on myself by daring to raise unmentionable issues like violence against women and cancer….daring to follow Eve Ensler’s lead by assigning my students to read her remarkable cancer/incest survivor memoir, In the Body of the World. Unknown I assigned it for my class on “Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice.” The first book we read was Bill McKibben’s activist memoir Oil and Honey, about how he founded 350.org in a college classroom and how it grew to be a hugely successful global movement aimed at raising awareness about climate change and pressing for swift transition to renewable energy models.

This week we’ve been looking at Eve Ensler’s trajectory from a theater artist interviewing women about their vaginas and creating the series of monologues that would become “The Vagina Monologues,” to founding the V-Day movement to end violence against women, and now the One Billion Rising for Justice global phenomenon. Eve Ensler TED

But along the way, Eve Ensler got cancer. It arrived, she says in her viral TED Talk “Suddenly My Body,” with the force of a bird smashing into a plate glass window.

Her cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, is remarkable in its fearless interweaving of the personal and the political, the individual and the global, the violent rape of a daughter (Eve herself) with the violent rape of our Mother Earth by Western capitalist culture.

 ***

My plan for the class was to focus mostly on the cancer issue…to look at the horrifying statistics of cancer in the U.S., to name it as the runaway pandemic it is, and to think with the students about how we might most effectively employ media tactics and tools to raise awareness and push for social change. But I didn’t realize how deeply Eve Ensler’s description of violence against women, as related the violence of our chemical assault on Mother Earth, would resonate with these young people. Some of them were deeply troubled, even to the point of having to leave the class.

With the students who stayed, I had a good discussion about cancer itself. We looked at the most recent statistics of cancer in the U.S. (1.6 million NEW cases projected for 2014 by the American Cancer Society) and discussed the most common media strategies for dealing with the issue of cancer in the U.S.: walks, runs and galas “for the cure.” LivingDownstream_Portrait1

It took some pushing, but eventually I got the students to begin to discuss how activism that only focuses on “the cure” is missing the huge point: we need to focus on preventing cancer, not just curing it once it’s appeared. In Sandra Steingraber’s famous formulation in her cancer memoir Living Downstream, we need to start looking upstream.

What would looking upstream really mean? Buried deep in the American Cancer Society report is a short section on the environmental causes of cancer. This is what it says: “Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.”

Let me say that again.

“Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.” Environmental factors in the context of this report mean manmade chemicals and toxins present in our environment, from water to air to soils to our bloodstreams and mothers’ milk.

So what would it mean, I asked the students, to really probe this issue with the intent of stopping cancer before it begins—going to the source of the problem? It would mean, of course, we agreed after some discussion, pursuing the mining, chemical, pharmaceutical, atomic energy, fossil fuel and industrial agriculture companies. Oh yes, those—the ones that rule the world. It’s a tall order. Just like stopping violence against women, or reining in the carbon polluters and shifting to renewable energy. These are the major issues of our time, though. If we’re not stepping up to work on these issues, what are we doing with our brief, precious lifetimes?

***

In my next class, “Islamic Women Writing Resistance,” we were talking about violence against women, this time in the geographical context of Afghanistan.

Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya

Since we were reading the autobiography of Malalai Joya, the young woman who was elected a member of the Afghan Loya Jirga and famously called out the mullahs on their oppression of women, I steered the conversation into a discussion of leadership. How was it that despite the horrifically violent Afghan society under the Taliban and the warlords, where 90% of women are subjectd to physical, mental and sexual abuse, Malalai had managed to retain her confidence and bravado, her sense of herself as a leader?

And more importantly, what are the costs to a society that not only doesn’t respect and include the talents of 50% of the population, but actively works to suppress these gifts?

The answer to the first question has everything to do with Malalai’s father, who encouraged her to go to school, to become a teacher, and eventually to become an activist politician. Without his support, she could never have succeeded as she did. Chalk one up to the power of allies.

The second question is the one that really interests me. It seems to me that it takes tremendous energy to oppress half the population. Eventually so much is going into terrorizing the women and their potential male allies that there is nothing left over, in terms of psychic energy, to build a healthy, vibrant society.

It’s a true zombie society, with the powerful preying on the weak and the whole social fabric fraying into oblivion.

Is it an accident that the societies where women are being most savagely oppressed are also the societies that are poorest, most chaotic and most violent? Think Somalia, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia….

There are some countries where wealth has made it possible for strict patriarchal control of women to proceed without terrible violence and disorder: Saudi Arabia and the other Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Egypt. Even, maybe, the U.S., Russia and the E.U., where women tend to self-regulate their own subservience to the patriarchy, conditioned by high doses of media and peer education.

In every case, though, what we’re talking about is the same. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted people to cancer every year. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted women to violence and self-sabotage every year. And at the same time, this is happening against the backdrop that Eve Ensler describes so movingly in her book: the interweaving of the violence against women, the violence against individual bodies, and the violence human civilization is perpetuating against the Earth.

“Cancer is essentially built into our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically,” she says. “We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in. Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line close to the water. Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe. Think smoking, drugging. Think abusing our children who are meant to care for us in old age, think mass raping women who carry the future in their bodies, think overeating or starving ourselves to look a certain way, think unprotected sex in the age of AIDS. We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

??????????????????????It doesn’t have to be this way. I am so glad to be reading the new edition of Joanna Macy’s classic work Coming Back to Life, as an antidote to the darkness described by Ensler and Joya. Macy quotes Paul Hawken, who refers to activists and activist organizations as “humanity’s immune system to toxins like political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation.”

This immune system, Hawken continues, “can best be understood as intelligence, a living, learning, self-regulating system—almost another mind. Its function does not depend on its firepower but on the quality of its connectedness….The immune system depends on its diversity to maintain resiliency, with which it can maintain homeostasis, respond to surprises, learn from pathogens and adapt to sudden changes” (qtd in Macy, 55).

A current example of such an immune system in action is Sandra Steingraber’s anti-fracking movement in upstate New York. She and her Seneca Lake defenders have come to the rescue of the fragile environment of the Finger Lake region and its jewel, Seneca Lake, putting their own bodies on the line just like Eve Ensler did when she allied herself with the women of the Congo, vowing to stop the violence. 10470955_854714074549076_2405675760464249402_n Any one of us has the power to become a defender of life. All we have to do is to pay attention to what’s happening, start asking the hard questions, stop going along with the flow. We need to do this is in a proactive way. We’re not looking for a cure to violence against women/against the Earth—we want to address the underlying causes of the violence, to look upstream and stop it at the source.

This necessitates a willingness to spend some time outside of our own comfort zones of denial and voluntary blindness. It involves looking at painful, messy, upsetting aspects of human existence, and taking responsibility for the ways in which each of us contribute to the status quo, if only by looking away. It will be personal as well as political in ways that will often hit entirely too close to home.

We need to open our eyes and really look at what our Industrial Growth Economy and the society it has created is doing to our bodies and the body of the world. We need to look at the way women’s bodies, in particular, are forced to bear the brunt of the pain, even though women account for just a fraction of inflicted violence in the world.

Don’t look away. Take it in. And then think about what you can do to join “humanity’s immune system.” Look for me on the front lines—I’ll meet you there. Dandelion_seeds_Computer_backgrounds

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