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 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”:


“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.


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.

Dangerous Times: Looking for Hope in the Ashes of the Tar Sands and the Train Wreck of the Trump/Clinton Candidacies


It’s hard not to think about divine justice when looking at the photos of Fort McMurray, the Alberta tar sands’ boomtown, going up in flames. And not just any flames—gigantic, towering, white hot flames, the kind you’d expect from exploding oil depots and gas tanks. The entire city of 80,000 people is being evacuated, as firefighters have largely given up on being able to save it from destruction.

What happens next will be something to watch. Will the Canadian government continue with business as usual at the oil sands, rebuilding Fort McMurray and carrying on its dirty trade? Or will it seize this moment to set off on a new path towards a livable future?

Buried in the Globe and Mail article about the evacuation is some telling information about the cause of the wildfires: “Much of Alberta has been under extreme or very high wildfire warnings over the past month. After 2015 was marked by the worst drought in a half-century, the province experienced a mild winter that left little snow. A heat wave across the province this week, as well as strong winds, turned the vast forests around Fort McMurray into an inferno.”

Did someone say CLIMATE CHANGE?

Erratic weather is the new normal, to which we are going to have to adapt the best we can. It’s not just the pesky environmentalists who are sounding the warnings these days; even staid, business-as-usual mainstream media outlets like The New York Times now regularly note the relentless advance of climate change.

For example, it was a historic moment for The Times last week when this headline appeared on the front page: ”Resettling the First American ‘Climate Refugees.’”

It turns out that those first American climate refugees are also First Americans—native peoples, who are on the frontlines of the battle to save the planet throughout North America and beyond.

I have been heartened to see the newly vitalized union of environmentalists and indigenous peoples, coming together to protest the fossil-fuel nightmare and envision a renewable energy economy that works for all, including the millions of non-human species who seldom have a voice at the tables that decide their future.

In Canada, the Leap Manifesto has been gaining steam. Co-authored by Naomi Klein and other environmentalists and First Nations activists, it calls on Canadians to lead the way (or leap their way) into a sustainable future. Co-author Crystal Lameman, an Alberta First Nations leader, insists that “The time for a just transition beyond fossil fuels is now: Alberta holds incredible untapped potential for renewables, the best in Canada. The transition in Germany, where they have created 400,000 clean-energy jobs, is waiting to be emulated here.”

Lameman, Klein and other climate justice advocates know that scare tactics alone won’t build a movement for change. Apocalyptic photos of wildfires, droughts, floods and storms are as likely to produce despair and resignation as they are to galvanize action.

As activists like Frances Moore Lappe and Sarah Van Gelder have been telling us, the public must be informed about the dangers of the fossil fuel juggernaut while simultaneously being presented with viable alternatives. So it’s not just that the Alberta tar sands operation should be shut down, it’s also that the shift to solar and wind power in Alberta will generate hundreds of thousands of new, clean, good-paying jobs.

In the U.S., it’s not just that we must oppose new pipelines, fracking wells and oil trains, it’s that we must build an entirely new infrastructure of solar fields, wind farms and high-speed public transit. We must re-localize agriculture and re-learn how to farm in ways that enhance the biological richness of the soil, rather than depleting and exhausting it.

Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; clear-cutting forests; deep-sea trawling; hydro-fracking; disposable plastic bags, bottles and caps—all these must fall into the dustbin of sad 20th century history.

It’s truly humbling—and horrifying—to realize how quickly the human industrial revolution has brought our ancient planet to the brink of another global re-set, a “sixth great extinction” and a re-entry into an open-ended period of unstable climate.

Geological_time_spiral for HOP for web_0

Our beautiful old planet will survive, and life will persist. But humans? Will we be able to make the leap into a global civilization that values life and works to protect and steward our Earth? Or will we too be swept into that dustbin, a failed experiment of monstrous proportions?

It is quite a responsibility to be part of the transitional generation. The choices and decisions of those of us alive today will have an impact far beyond our own brief lives. Even short-term political decisions matter, since the speed with which the climate is spinning out of control makes every day of action—or inaction—count.

We know that Hilary Clinton is in bed with the fossil fuel industry and their financiers. She is the candidate of the status quo and the leader of the heads-in-the-sand folks who refuse to look at the inconvenient truth that if we maintain the status quo, we’ll all be engulfed by the wildfires, floods or famines of climate change before long.

Bernie Sanders, pied piper of the young, acknowledges that climate change must be dealt with, and he’s laid out a plan to “make sure our planet is habitable and safe for our kids and grandkids.” As President, he will have the power to convene the brightest minds on the planet to engineer a transition to a renewable-energy economy.

The popularity of Trump is truly frightening, as his followers are clearly the least informed about what our future holds in store. As a country, we must take responsibility for those folks too. As an educator, I feel especially responsible—it should be impossible for a young person to graduate high school, much less college, without the ability to discern truth from lie, to recognize the difference between strength of character and empty sloganeering.

We are living through dangerous times. We will need the wisdom of every old story even as we must boldly and thoughtfully work together to write a new story we can live into, our visions of a just and sustainable future like rope bridges we must build in front of us as we advance across the chasm of time.

Voting for Sanders: Because a Little Birdie Said So!

What an amazing moment, when a little bird landed on Bernie Sanders’ podium in Portland OR and looked him right in the eye!


She was probably just giving him grief for making so much noise in the arena where she had been peacefully sitting on her nest. But like everyone else, I can’t help but make a symbolic leap, seeing in the bright eye of the bird a bit of cheerful encouragement, a “right on!” from the natural world that was immediately echoed by the throngs in the stadium who cheered Sanders for pausing in his speech to acknowledge his smallest supporter.

The good news this week is that Sanders’ campaign steadily gained momentum, chalking up big wins in Utah, Idaho, Washington and Alaska.

That was pretty much the only good news this week. Between an incredibly gloomy new climate change report, the terrorist bombings in Belgium, and the dispiriting chest-beating of the two Republican front-runners over the relative merits—physical merits, that is—of their wives, it was a pretty depressing week.

Here in my corner of western Massachusetts, this week has seen an uptick in action on two major local environmental issues: General Electric threatening to make toxic PCB dumps right alongside the Housatonic River, adjacent to bucolic little towns like Great Barrington and Lenox; and Kinder Morgan threatening to cut down a huge swath of pristine state forest to put in a 36-inch gas pipeline that won’t have any benefit at all for Massachusetts.

This is just the kind of corporate impunity that Bernie Sanders has been inveighing against his whole life, and never more than now, during his incredible Presidential campaign.

No, it is not OK for corporations to use public lands to build more fossil-fuel infrastructure. No, it is not OK for corporations to “clean up” the mess they left in the river by dumping it into mounds near villages. It wasn’t right when GE dumped PCBS in a huge hill next to an elementary school in Pittsfield MA back in the 1970s, and it still isn’t right today.

Yes, I understand that when we ship toxic waste out of state we are shipping it into someone else’s backyard. But at least it is a licensed toxic waste disposal area, built and maintained for hazardous waste. Not a few acres hastily purchased by GE, right between the town and the river, to haphazardly store dredged PCB-laden sediments.

Meanwhile, as we fight over tree-cutting and river clean-up, this week’s climate change report warned that the polar ice is melting much faster than predicted, with the result that sea rise and coastal flooding is going to happen much faster than anyone expected–within decades. That means some of the younger folk among us may be around to witness the flooding of the major coastal cities of the world, and the climate refugee crisis that will result.

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that we are all dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic, while the iceberg looms ever closer. Will we snap out of our pleasant trance and pay attention to what really matters, before it’s too late?

This year’s contest for U.S. President matters as never before. The Republicans are all “full steam ahead” and damn the consequences. Clinton is not much better. Bernie Sanders is the only one who knows—because a little birdie told him so—that our current course will lead us to unmitigated disaster. He’s the only one who consistently acknowledges the importance of dealing head-on and immediately with climate change; and stands up without fear or kowtowing to the corporate giants who have been driving the ship up until now.

It’s no surprise that young people have been gravitating to Sanders. Young people can gauge authenticity a mile away. Sanders has it; Clinton does not. Trump has it, but he is authentically disgusting. The rest of the Republican candidates are obnoxious, dangerous phonies.

Today’s young voters will be the ones who have to deal with the consequences of the decisions our politicians make today. They should and they must turn out in force to guide this year’s crucial Presidential elections, as Matt Taibbi argues eloquently in a recent Rolling Stone Magazine article.

Truly, we stand at a crossroads. Me, I’m following that little bird.


DIY Media: Reading the Oil Glut and Stock Slide Against the Backdrop of Climate Change

I have been puzzling over the lack of media coverage, let alone analysis, of the huge stock market slide this past week, coupled with the oil glut and consequent low gas prices for consumers. What does this mean?

I went on a hunt through the media for explanation, or at least discussion, and turned up precious little—not in the mainstream media, not in the progressive media, not even in the business media. The facts were being reported, but no one, not even the pundit/oracles, were trying to tease out the deeper meanings of the current scenario.

For example, take this article in business section of The New York Times. It reports the story of oil as though climate change and alternative energy were non-existent. It’s all about production, investment and returns—not only financial returns, but pipe-dream returns to the naiveté of the 20th century, when the ability of the planet to support endless growth of human activity seemed limitless.

When we bring alternative energy into the picture, the analysis gets a bit more complicated.

It seems that the oil glut is good news for the planet (less exploration, less extraction), good news for the consumer (lower prices at the pump) but bad news for investors who had been banking on fossil fuels to be a never-ending gold mine.

More importantly, it’s also bad news for alternative energy developers and producers, because low gas and oil prices diminish consumer demand—we’re less incentivized to make the investment in a home solar array or make sure our next car is a hybrid or electric vehicle when oil and gas prices are so low.

In my search through the media for more explanation of the oil glut, I found some suggestions (by commenters, not by journalists) that the low oil prices might be a Saudi manipulation precisely to dampen enthusiasm for shifting to alternative energy, in order to slow down the transition away from oil.

If that were the case, the Saudis would be digging their own graves and bringing the rest of the planet down with them.

Given the bigger picture of undeniable, stark and looming climate change, governments, investors and consumers must use their purchasing power to drive the market towards clean energy. We should not be fooled by the smoke and mirrors of low oil prices, or intimidated by the stock market jitters into backing into the traditional “safe” investments of fossil fuels.

That way does not lie safety—it lies collapse.


It would be nice if the pundits of the mainstream media (The New York Times, for example) would focus more attention on the biggest story of our time: the race to adapt to and mitigate climate change. It would be nice if instead of just blandly reporting the news, journalists would reach out to scientific, political and economic experts for deeper analysis.

But thanks to the Internet, we can do that work of reporting for ourselves now. We can read publications from all over the world, of all political stripes, in any discipline, any time. If we care about what’s happening to our planet, we need to become more alert, placing the superficial narratives reported in the media against the backdrop of the bigger and deeper realities that often cast quite a different slant on the news.

We live in a time when anyone with an Internet connection can become an engaged citizen of the world, able to exchange ideas, influence others, and galvanize social movements. The American rightwing, with their crude emotional ploys, seems to be doing a much better job of activating their base lately than the progressives, Bernie Sanders a lone and very active exception!

We can do better, and we must. It sounds weighty but it’s true: the future of the planet depends on the choices each of us makes now.



Transition Times: Personal, Political, Planetary

The Solstice is an opportunity to remind ourselves that the moment we hit the very darkest point of the year is also the transition into the next phase, the return of the light; every end point is also a new beginning.

The recent decision of The Berkshire Edge to end my EdgeWise column gives me time to return here, to Transition Times, with renewed energy and commitment. Transition Times began in 2011 as a space where I could write about human rights, social justice, issues of higher education and pedagogy, and my overriding concerns about the environment and climate change. It’s been a liberating and often exhilarating experience to write in my own personal/political voice, without having to meet any particular deadlines or answer to an editor or publisher. And I love that my readership is truly global.

I wish I could say that many of the issues that preoccupied me in the first several years of Transition Times have now been resolved. Sadly, violence—against people, against the natural world—is still a problem of epic proportions, worldwide. Climate change, chemical contamination, animal extinction deforestation and acidification of the oceans have all been accelerating. Our political establishment continues to be dominated by elites who seem to care only about maintaining their own wealth and power, not about preserving a livable world for the rest of us.

While all that is true, there is still cause for hope. When I first began writing about climate change, I felt like other than Bill McKibben and a handful of environmentalists, no one was paying attention to this looming issue. Now it’s common to see climate change on the front page of mainstream media. The Pope has written a whole Encyclical about it. World leaders converged in Paris to talk seriously about what can be done, including key players like the U.S., Russia, China and India, countries that must cooperate for real change to happen.


I feel less optimistic about progress on the peace-building front. Gun violence in the U.S. continues to skyrocket, as do sales of assault weapons to civilians. Let’s face it, here in the U.S. we live in an armed and dangerous camp. Terrorism continues to rise with the spread of the violent, sexist, medieval principles and tactics of the Islamic State and Boko Haram. Civilians are also being constantly threatened by state-sponsored terrorism, otherwise known as warfare—especially in places where civil society has broken down or become dominated by corruption (think Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the list goes on).

Against this backdrop of global-scale violence, I see young Americans, who in earlier generations would have been our revolutionaries, struggling with up-close-and-personal issues that make it hard for them to focus on the bigger picture. Poverty, debt, lack of opportunity, institutional racism and sexism, anxiety, depression and addictions (including media addiction)—these immediate concerns are front and center for many young people I know. Mention climate change and they just flinch and turn away, unable to cope with one more problem, especially one so immense and seemingly intractable.

Butterfly-Effect-Logo-WEB-2015In my work—teaching, writing, organizing the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and the new Butterfly Leadership Program, and running Green Fire Press—I am always seeking to empower others to recognize their own potential to become the leaders we are all waiting for. The old saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” is so true, and we must wait no longer—there simply isn’t time.

What is needed now is a deep, grounded movement for peace, based on empathy, collaboration and alliances across superficial differences. We must recognize our kinship, not only with other human beings but with all life on Earth. We must re-learn to rightly value the “natural resources” without which none of us could survive a moment: clean air, clean water, fertile soil, a vibrant healthy planetary ecosystem.

We must re-learn and teach our children appreciation and even reverence for this beautiful battered planet of ours. We must institute social priorities based on peace and collective well-being, not violence and competitive profiteering.

UnknownWe have a candidate for the American Presidency now who is not afraid to take up these values and call them by their old, 20th century name: socialism.

While I have no problem with the moniker socialism, I wonder if it might be time for a new, 21st century political movement, with a new name that doesn’t come with all the blood-soaked baggage of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Your ideas of possible new names, emphasizing collective well-being and reverence for life, would be most welcome. Here’s one idea to get us started. How about Gaiaism?

Happy Solstice to all, and may this new year be a transition time to a new and better world for all of us Gaians.


As above so below. Photo by J. Browdy c. 2015



Why Paris? The Questions No One Is Asking About the Post-9/11, Post-11/13 World

cropped-1604741_560811498264_7010113564277153021_n.jpgOn the morning of the Paris terrorist strike, 11/13/15, I was trying to write and, uncharacteristically for me, I was totally blocked. I seemed to be wading through a thick mental fog, and nothing I could do would clear it. I gave up, went about my day, and it wasn’t until that night, when the first reports of the bombings came in, that I understood: my inner turmoil was what we used to call a “sixth sense,” picking up on the fog of fear and distress that was about to descend not just on Paris, but on the entire West that evening.

For me, this post-11/13 period has been a time of swirling, insistent questions and concerns, which I share in the hopes of promoting some productive discussion.

One: Did the timing of the Paris strikes have anything to do with the imminent global climate talks scheduled to begin there this month? Is it possible that the global oil lobby could have somehow instigated at least the time & place of the strike as a way of destabilizing the climate talks that should be leading us away from a reliance on fossil fuels?

Two: Could the military-industrial complex of the United States, Russia, and European powers like Germany, France and England, be subtly promoting war in the Middle East by their “containment” policy, which includes keeping demand for weapons high? Every bomb dropped is an order placed, after all. We saw this strategy revealed in all its grotesquerie in the Halliburton/U.S. government policy in Iraq—first manufacture a war, blow everything up and destabilize society, then rake in millions in “reconstruction” contracts. Is this happening again in Syria?

Three: Why are so few commentators talking about the role of Saudi Arabia in supporting the Islamic State? After 9/11, when all other commercial air traffic in the U.S. was grounded, there were the reports of the sketchy Saudi Arabian flights allowed to travel around the country picking up Saudi nationals and transporting them back home. We know that Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and was supported by Saudi funds. Then as now, ancient Sunni/Shia rivalries are coinciding with contemporary geopolitics to fuel proxy wars in the Middle East. Is the situation in Syria really all about the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, with the lives of millions of people caught in the crossfire of these warring ideologies? Why is American policy aligning with the Sunnis when they have been shown to be promulgating the most violent, extremist religious intolerance and hatred?

In this last question, we circle back around, perhaps to oil and the climate. If the world really got behind the shift to renewable energy that we MUST accomplish if we are to keep human civilization stable, the oil wealth of the sheikdoms would become much less important. Could it be that behind the world events currently playing out lie some desperate fossil fuel barons, willing to risk the collapse of the world order as we know it in order to keep the black gold flowing from the ground into their pockets? Is the Islamic State really some kind of bizarre mercenary army, paid to destabilize the region, no questions asked about tactics?

I know this sounds like the scenario of a wonderfully gripping international thriller, which we would enjoy in the movie theater precisely because we know it’s just fiction. But what if it’s not fiction? What if this time it’s all too terribly real—and the fate of the planet, at least the planet as we know and love her, really does hang in the balance?

My sixth sense is telling me now that we ordinary people are just pawns in a high-stakes game played by the super-elite, the rulers of the military-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry and their political henchmen. The final question becomes: what do we do about it?


After Paris, Searching Upstream for the Source of Terrorism

Thanksgiving Refugees, Past and Present

Keystone XL: A Battle Won, But the Good Fight Continues

On a balmy day in November 2015, President Obama did the right thing and rejected the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. Although I am well aware that this is just one battle in an on-going war, still it seems worthwhile to pause a moment to savor this victory.

At the climate change rally in Washington DC, Feb. 2013

At the climate change rally in Washington DC, Feb. 2013

Back in February 2013, I traveled to Washington DC with friends to participate in the historic protests against the Keystone XL. President Obama was conveniently absent the day we circled the White House with our protest parade, but the rally was the largest ever demanding that our politicians start taking climate change seriously, and we left D.C. the next day feeling satisfied that we had done our best to get our point of view across.

And now here we are at the hottest November ever; the glaciers and poles are melting at alarming rates; and there are dramatic die-offs of marine life as the oceans warm, turning, as one headline put it, into “cauldrons.”

Terrestrial life is similarly stressed, with mysterious mass deaths in Central Asia and raging, out-of-control fires burning in Indonesia. In the Middle East drought conditions persist, and it has been alarmingly hot—with predictions that by 2070, large portions of the Gulf peninsula will no longer be habitable for humans.

I was especially disturbed by a recent New York Times op-ed arguing that the time for climate change mitigation is past, and we must now do our best to adapt to the inevitable rapid heating of the planet.

“Drastic reductions would be needed to stabilize human influences on the climate at supposed “safe” levels,” writes scientist Stephen E. Koonin. “According to scenarios used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global annual per capita emissions would need to fall from today’s five metric tons to less than one ton by 2075, a level well below what any major country emits today and comparable to the emissions from such countries as Haiti, Yemen and Malawi. For comparison, current annual per capita emissions from the United States, Europe and China are, respectively, about 17, 7 and 6 tons.” And “even if today’s annual per capita emissions of three tons in the developing world grew by midcentury to only five tons (about 70 percent of Europe’s per capita emissions today), annual global emissions would increase by 60 percent.”

So are we doomed then? Will the world as we know it be swept away by the dramatic climate shifts ahead of us?

It’s impossible to deny the very real possibility that global warming will cause the collapse of many of the life support systems that have made human beings so incredibly successful as a species.

We are over-populated, and Mother Earth has ways of dealing with such imbalances. The only way to avoid serious system collapse is to dramatically recalibrate our relationship with the Earth. It’s not rocket science: we know that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, shift to renewable energy like solar, geothermal and wind, and stop deforestation. And while we’re at it, reduce our chemical dependency and shift food production into permaculture practices. Stop raising and eating so much meat, and shift to healthier plant-based diets.

We must continue to pressure our politicians to make the policy changes needed to support these crucial shifts (and another piece of good news is the possibility that Exxon-Mobil and other fossil fuel giants may be sued for lying to the public about the dangers of climate change–what I myself would call CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY).

Tonight, I raise a glass to toast Bill McKibben, and all the environmentalists who worked so hard for today’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is a wonderful victory, but we still have a lot of work to do before we can rest easy knowing that we have done our part to assure that our grandchildren will inherit a habitable world.

Skirmishes in the Gaian Wars

I’m trying—I really am—to comprehend all the skirmishes that make up our current Fossil Fuel Wars. Does anyone else find it dizzying to keep up with all the simultaneous fronts? For every piece of good news there’s a downer; for every ray of hope, there’s a big dose of icy cold water to keep us sputtering.

To review just some of what I’ve been aware of these past few days:

President Obama acted to preserve a big area of Alaskan wildlife refuge from oil drilling—Hooray! But he also, at the same time, opened up a huge area of the ocean off the eastern seaboard of the Atlantic for oil drillers—BOO!!

In the same week, President Obama took the opportunity of a state visit to India to push that country to work on lowering its carbon emissions. As reported by The New York Times, the President told his Indian hosts: “I know the argument made by some — that it’s unfair for countries like the United States to ask developing nations and emerging economies like India to reduce your dependence on the same fossil fuels that helped power our growth for more than a century…But here’s the truth: Even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly, like India, with soaring energy needs don’t also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change.”

I thank President Obama for raising awareness in India about the global importance of reducing dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

But then his next stop was Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of the international oil extraction empire (otherwise known as OPEC), where he and whole passel of American officials kowtowed to the new Saudi King in an all-too-obvious display of how important the fabulously wealthy Saudi monarchy is to American interests, both in the Middle East and at home.

saudi-arabia-oilDoes anyone else notice the immense Sun shining down on the Arabian desert, as well as the Indian subcontinent? How different it would be if President Obama were to use his bully pulpit to urge a transition to solar power, even in the Arabian desert, leaving all those reserves of dirty oil in the ground!

Then there’s the fracking front. Sandra Steingraber and her hardy band of upstate New York resisters are standing firm against a nefarious plan to store volatile gas in unlined salt chambers below the water line in Seneca Lake. Hooray!

But at the same time, the transnational gas giant Kinder Morgan is surveying the forested hills in my own Berkshire backyard, preparing to run a new pipeline through our neighborhood to carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania out to the coast. Supporters argue that the pipeline will make gas in our corner of the world more affordable, but I am not convinced, especially given that I have not heard of any plans to make some of this pipeline gas available here in Berkshire County.


I just filled my propane tank this month and was shocked to be charged almost $5 a gallon for the gas. Are they price gouging us now to soften us up so we’ll bow down and let their pipeline go through our territory without resistance?

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am.

tpp-protestThen there is the Transpacific Partnership front, which has been chugging along largely under the radar of media and public scrutiny for several years now. For all President Obama’s heartwarming rhetoric (and action) to support more vulnerable Americans, his administration is at the same time engaged in negotiating a trade agreement that has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.”

As Lori Wallach puts it, writing in The Nation, “Think of the TPP as a stealthy delivery mechanism for policies that could not survive public scrutiny. Indeed, only two of the twenty-six chapters of this corporate Trojan horse cover traditional trade matters. The rest embody the most florid dreams of the 1 percent—grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and permanent constraints on government regulation. They include new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.”

The worst part is that if the pact goes through, signatories “would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to the TPP’s rules—in effect, a corporate coup d’état. The proposed pact would limit even how governments can spend their tax dollars. Buy America and other Buy Local procurement preferences that invest in the US economy would be banned, and “sweat-free,” human rights or environmental conditions on government contracts could be challenged. If the TPP comes to fruition, its retrograde rules could be altered only if all countries agreed, regardless of domestic election outcomes or changes in public opinion. And unlike much domestic legislation, the TPP would have no expiration date.”

A resistance movement to the TPP is beginning to stir. A modest protest was held earlier this week in New York City by representatives from Doctors Without Borders and the Health Global Access Project, among other groups, focusing specifically on the provisions in the TPP that “will undermine efforts to ensure access to affordable, life-saving medicines in both the United States and abroad,” according to an article in Common Dreams.

The fact that this trade agreement has gotten so far without public oversight—not even Congressional oversight!—is truly frightening. 1984/Brave New World, here we come!

When even Democrats oppose the President’s agenda, risking a public disagreement with the President to stand by their principles, you know something big is at stake.

Whether the issue is oil drilling in the ocean, pipelines over land, or noxious trade deals favoring corporations’ rights above the rights of ordinary Earthlings, human and non-human, we can’t afford to passively assume that our elected representatives are going to look out for our best interests.

We can’t assume that anyone else is going to fight our battles. We have to stand up for what we believe.

No, we can’t fight every skirmish in this interminable battle for a sustainable future. But we have to keep our eyes and our hearts open, and stand ready to take a stand in alignment with our highest values and the better world we know is possible.

Gaia is depending on us. We can’t afford to fail her now.

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.


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.

Finding Hope in Hard Times

Amid all the darkness and chaos overtaking our world—the beheadings of journalists and the enslavement of women, the bloody flux of Ebola, the melting of the poles and the relentless advance of the bulldozers and chain saws into the forests—amid and despite all that, I am still seeing the frail but determined light of hope burning.

And the best thing is, I see this light growing in places that surprise me.

In recent weeks some huge financial players have announced their intention to fight the stranglehold of fossil fuel companies over our political economy.

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller.  Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller. Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Right after the dramatically successful People’s Climate March in September 2014, the Rockefeller family declared it would join forces with the nascent fossil fuel divestment movement. John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels,” trumpeted the lede in the New York Times article by John Schwartz.

“The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil… [announced] that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement that began a couple years ago on college campuses.”

This is big news indeed! In a society where money rules, the people with the most privilege are the ones with the most social power to create change, and the Rockefeller family can catalyze other wealthy philanthropists to start to think outside their parents’ box.

Not that the rest of us have no power. It’s only because college students and their adult mentors dreamed up the divestment movement and pushed vigorously for it that the Rockefellers made this move.

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

We ordinary folks—those of us who are awake to the critical state of our planet and human civilization today—can and must apply pressure to the rich and powerful in our society to shift their resources from our current death-dealing economic model to a life-giving, ecologically sound human relationship to the planet that sustains us.

timthumb.phpWhen current economic top dogs start to pay attention at last, we know we’re making progress. It was heartening to hear that the Women Donors Network is focusing its 2014 annual conference on strategic visioning of future scenarios for the year 2030.

At this year’s annual conference, the organizers state, “we will get the chance to step out of the urgent demands of the present to think big and strategize for the long term. What kind of future do we want to create? How can we work with the major trends we know are going to shape the future? And what can a powerful group of progressive women philanthropists do together to make the most of this critical moment?”

I find hope in the fact that this big group of wealthy women will be spending their valuable time not at a spa or a vacation in Paris, but at a conference where they’ll be, according to the conference Program, “’transported’ to 2030 to experience what our collective future could look like based on the decisions we make now, in this critical moment….We will participate in three “future scenarios” that are designed to help us clarify the role we hope WDN and all of us as individual philanthropists can play in helping strengthen the progressive social change movement.”

Go women go! The more of us become aware of the extent to which our choices today affect the futures that await us, the more we can act to create the green and glowing future we want.

Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Oren Lyons

I find hope too in the news that Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation will be making a special visit to the Bioneers conference this month to talk about the new international initiative, the Plantagon urban agriculture system. A joint venture of the Onondaga Nation, Sweden and several East Asian investors, the Plantagon aims to revolutionize urban agriculture by making it possible for cities to feed themselves locally—a shift that will have enormous benefits in relieving pressure on rural water and land, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel transportation of produce, and also reducing or eliminating the need for harmful chemical inputs.

Artists' rendering of the Plantagon

Artists’ rendering of the Plantagon

To me, the word “Plantagon” summons up a word that has very different connotations, “Pentagon.” When we Americans hear the word Pentagon, we think immediately of military force and the way American military might has most often been called upon to defend “American interests”—politico-speak for access to resources, principally oil and precious minerals, often at great cost to local people and environments.

The U.S. Pentagon

The U.S. Pentagon

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, I find hope in the recent announcement that the Pentagon is now taking climate change into account in its strategic planning, not just for the distant future, but for next week.

In a new report, the Pentagon asserts unequivocally that “climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages,” reported Coral Davenport in The New York Times. Whereas “before, the Pentagon’s response to climate change focused chiefly on preparing military installations to adapt to its effects, like protecting coastal naval bases from rising sea levels,” Davenport writes, “the new report…calls on the military to incorporate climate change into broader strategic thinking about high-risk regions — for example, the ways in which drought and food shortages might set off political unrest in the Middle East and Africa.

“Experts said that the broadened approach would include considering the role that climate change might have played in contributing to the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State.”

Well hallelujah! At last the most powerful force in the world is recognizing that climate change is here, it’s real, and it’s already a major destabilizing factor in world politics.

The challenge now will be to see if civil society can exert enough pressure on the military to get them thinking in proactive ways, rather than being a reactionary, often highly destabilizing force in the world.

Why can’t we use the wealth and resources of the U.S. military-industrial complex to support and sustain life on the planet?

Let’s get those military planners, along with the big boys at the World Bank, IMF and the U.S. Congress to understand that building schools and investing in sustainable agriculture and distributed energy networks is a far smarter and saner use of funds than blowing things up and rebuilding them (which has been our strategy in the Middle East over the past decade).

I see glimmers of hopeful light behind many of the dire stories in the news right now. We need to focus on those flickers of consciousness, blow on them gently and encourage them to grow brighter and stronger.

Hope is a verb, and we do it together. I’m working on it; how about you?


%d bloggers like this: