Snowden and the Politics of Doing Good

Go see Oliver Stone’s new movie “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous hero, if you need reminding about how important a single human being’s act of courageous resistance can be.

Granted, Edward Snowden had his finger on the pulse of information far beyond the ken of most of us ordinary folks. But we can all relate to the ethical questions he faced, which the movie details so well.

To whit: At what point is it more important to listen to your own internal moral compass, even when it means going against “public opinion,” company policy or—in Snowden’s case—the entire power elite of the U.S. military industrial complex?

We live in a time when this is a question will come up with increasing urgency for more and more of us. Our age is one of unprecedented access to information, as “Snowden” shows in horrifyingly graphic detail. And once we know something—say, how a pipeline leak can foul and destroy an entire river ecosystem, or how a radiation leak can play havoc with ocean systems for years, or how deforestation leads to mud slides, or how climate change is already changing coast lines and destroying planetary weather balance—once we know all this, and so much more, what do we do with our newfound knowledge?

what-i-forgot-cover-draft-new-smThis question became increasingly central for me as I worked on my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, over the past several years. It was waking up to climate change that sparked my journey of looking back at my half-century on the planet, trying to understand how I had allowed myself to forget the connection to the natural world that had been so central to me as a child.

What I discovered was that as a young adult, I made some choices that led me to go with the predominant flow of American culture. Like Snowden, I was seduced by the possibility of attaining the American dream—my version of it being the husband, children, home, career. I put myself in the traces and began to focus on pulling that cart, and I found it took everything I had.

Not until the dream disintegrated along with my marriage did I pick my head up and look around me, instinctively seeking solace in the natural world but finding that things had changed a great deal since I was a dreamy child following the chickadees through the hemlock forest, or lying full-length on a high maple branch to feel the wind swaying through the tree.

While I had been focused on raising my family, trying to hold my marriage together and striving for success in my career, things had been going very badly for the chickadees, the hemlocks and the maples. Government policies and corporate greed, unleashed by the shortsightedness of millions of compliant citizens like me, had led us to the brink of a global catastrophe of biblical proportions.

There we sit now, on that brink. Did you notice the news, buried beneath all the election cycle noise, that the climate has now passed 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, far beyond the 350 ppm that gave the scrappiest of the climate change warrior-organizations its name?

This means we are on track to melt, folks. The polar ice caps and the permafrost on land will thaw, releasing ancient methane; the oceans will warm, throwing off the food chains and the weather; insects and bacteria will do very well, but many if not most of the larger species will rather quickly go the way of the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.

Including, dare I say it, homo sapiens. Future historians, if there are any, should rename our species homo ignoramus—the stupid ones who knew how they could save themselves and the ecosystem that sustained them, but let it all go to hell.

We have come to a time, as the Deep Green Resistance eco-warriors recognized several years ago, when it will be necessary to think for ourselves and stand up for what we believe in, just like Ed Snowden did.


This is dangerous business, as Snowden knew. He is lucky to be living freely in Moscow rather than locked up as a traitor like fellow information resistance fighter Chelsea Manning. The fossil fuel lords and their military henchmen take mutiny very seriously, as the brave water protectors at Standing Rock know well.

But there comes a time when you have to listen to your gut, even if it goes against your upbringing and socialization. You have to do what you think is right.

Of course, in a black and white view of morality, what’s right for you may be totally wrong for me. How do we reconcile the disparate moral compasses of a jihadist suicide bomber or an American bomber pilot or a tar sands bulldozer operator or a pipeline resistance activist?

Each of us has to make up our own minds, fully cognizant of the implications of our actions, the bigger backdrops against which each of our little lives play out. That is why I continue to believe that there is no more important role these days than that of an awake, aware, independently minded educator.

We need teachers at every level of education who are dedicated to developing the capacity of young people to understand and analyze complex information, to weigh and debate different points of view, to use empathy as a pathway to decision-making, and to be open to shifting their views as their understanding increases.


Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both thoroughly indoctrinated by the military, but were still able to think for themselves and sacrifice their snug insider positions in service to the greater good. If they can do it, any of us can.

No need for spectacular defections or heroics. All that’s needed is a steady ongoing commitment to sifting through the barrage of information coming at us all the time, and pointing our internal compass at DO NO HARM or even better DO GOOD.

If you want to call me a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder, so be it. I can live with that.


Bernie Sanders’ Unconventional Leadership: What the Democratic Party Needs Now

From The New York Times, May 29, 2016:

“Early optimism that this would be an easy race is evaporating…. While [Hillary Clinton] enjoys many demographic advantages heading into the fall, key Democrats say they are growing worried that her campaign has not determined how to combat her unpredictable, often wily Republican rival, to whom criticism seldom sticks and rules of decorum seem not to apply.

“Mrs. Clinton is pressing ahead with a conventional campaign, echoing the 2012 themes used against the Republican nominee that year, Mitt Romney. But Mr. Trump is running a jarringly different crusade: accusing her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of rape; proposing that the country conduct brutal methods of torture; and suggesting that South Korea and Japan be permitted to develop nuclear arms. Prominent Democrats say a more provocative approach is needed.”

A provocative approach…like that of Bernie Sanders, perhaps?

Sanders is as “jarringly different” as Clinton is boringly conventional. But the Times is too locked into business as usual to recognize visionary leadership and revolutionary change, even when it’s staring them in the face.

The rest of this article is all about what Hillary should do to up her game—ignoring the fact that between them, Sanders and Trump have already changed the rules of game beyond anything the mainstream Democrats could have imagined.


This is shaping up to be as bizarre a presidential race as the Gore/Bush contest in 2000, with its hanging chads and sleazy strong-arm banana republic tactics. The intervening years have only made it more apparent how important US politics is to the fate of the entire world.

But what has changed since 2000 is the strengthening of grassroots political awareness and engagement by virtue of the World Wide Web. We are not as easily manipulated anymore by the party lines as touted by their mainstream media outlets (for example, the New York Times for the Democrats, Fox News for the Republicans).

The obverse of the surveillance state that the established authorities have been building up is the people’s surveillance of the state. What began with the horrifying release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos has continued not just with big sting operations like Wikileaks, but also with an army of ordinary citizens wielding smartphones.

From police brutality to sexual assault to chemical leaks and abuse of animals, it is getting more and more difficult for people in power to get away with crimes. Victims have become survivors, and survivors have become testifiers and avengers, crusaders who lead the charge for truth and justice.

Trump and Sanders recognize the power of the sleeping giant of the American public, amplified through social media. HRC and the NYT still don’t seem to get it.

Donald Trump and his followers are off in their own reality-TV parallel universe, using the same media-driven tools and tactics to accomplish their bigoted, dangerous, hateful agenda. In their own echo-chambers, they loom large enough to take themselves seriously, and those of us on the side of the real American dream of “liberty and justice for all” must not underestimate the potential might of the Trump mob.

However, there are more of us than there are of them. The slumbering, lumbering American public just needs to get aroused, and it will defeat the thin ranks of bigots and the fascists among us.


I ask you: where do you see the most political excitement among the opponents of Donald Trump?

Not among the grim defensive ranks of the Hillary-ites.

Only in the youthful, idealistic, enthusiastic crowds pouring into stadiums across the country to cheer on Bernie Sanders.

The New York Times is right about this much. To win this race, the Democratic Party must abandon convention and embrace the brave new world we find ourselves in now. The Clinton dynasty, like the Bushes and the singular Mr. Trump, are 20th century leftovers.

If the Democratic Party is to survive the turbulent 21st century, it must support forward-looking politicians with new ideas. It must support Bernie Sanders. And so must we.



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.



21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?


There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

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.

Storytelling and Resistance: Whose Narratives Are You Listening To? What Stories Are You Telling?

Generally when I turn on the radio or open up The New York Times or other media sources, I am immediately assaulted by the SAME OLD BAD NEWS.

Another hundred children gunned down by fundamentalist militants.

Another police brutality case.

Another round of insane Republican shenanigans in Congress, hijacking the taxpayers, the environment or the nation itself with greedy, mean, shortsighted policies.

The list goes on and you know it as well as I do. We live in a time when stories do not have happy endings and even the heroes get shafted.

Although I think it’s still pretty clear who’s right and who’s wrong, being wrong doesn’t mean you are necessarily unsuccessful. Mysteriously, the bad guys often win in contemporary news narratives. Even when a scapegoat is chosen to die on his sword, the game goes on, and since the media loves to cover the most powerful, most colorful players, it can often seem like there’s no glory in being good or right. Only in being powerful.

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

I’m happy to see our quiet, serious President finally starting to flex his muscles a little and learn how to play this game.

Re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, well it’s about time! So what if the Cold Warriors complain, let them grumble into their mothballed cups.

Shake hands with China’s President and make some progress on global climate treaties, hell yeah! Where I come from, that’s called leadership—the kind of leadership that’s aimed at the future, not digging in its heels and trying to hold us all back in a carbon age that has outlived its usefulness.

Now I want to see President Obama reject that Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. Falling oil prices are the perfect excuse for saying what we all know to be true: tar sands oil is an abomination that, if extracted, will incinerate our planet. For the sake of all our children and the generations to come, we must leave that dirty oil in the ground and move on to a clean energy future.

Yes, this means that the bad-guy oil moguls must reinvent themselves as good-guy renewable energy czars. We’ll keep giving them our money…if they show themselves to be the planetary stewards we’ve been waiting for.

I keep thinking about the slogan I read somewhere (I believe it is a Chinese proverb): Crisis = Danger + Opportunity.

There is no doubt that these early years of the 21st century are a dangerous, crisis-ridden time. But they are also a time of great opportunity.

We have the chance to wake up and start telling some new stories, in which Good and Right actually do prevail; in which Greed and Vindictiveness are punished; in which deeds are measured not in dollars generated, but by how much they will benefit the greater good of the planet and all her denizens.

I suggest you pay attention to the stories you’re hearing; to who’s telling them; and who benefits from the version that hits the media fan.

Me, I like to pay attention to some of the storytellers who may not make it into prime time (as in, the front page of The New York Times), but surely merit a place there.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

For example, Bill McKibben, winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award for inventing and working tirelessly to raise awareness about climate change; Vandana Shiva, a relentless opponent of Monsanto’s assault on biodiversity and a champion of small farmers and their heirloom seeds and organic farming practices; and Sandra Steingraber, who is leading a most inspiring movement against a huge corporate conglomerate seeking to store pressurized natural gas beneath the floor of Seneca Lake in upstate New York.

These are the heroes and heroines of our time. In these cold, dark days of the Winter Equinox, human beings have always gathered around the fire to listen to stories. I say, don’t waste your time listening to the canned stories our news media prepare. Find and tell your own stories, and make sure they’re stories that inspire hope.

Here’s a good story, if you’re looking for one: how the citizen resistance to tracking gas in New York State triumphed, with Governor Andrew Cuomo backing away from this highly risky practice in the wake of intense negative pressure.

Stories matter. Words have power. Let’s make sure we are telling each other stories that will serve as bridges into the future we want to live.


Help Wanted: Willing Ring Bearer Seeks Quest

All week the energy of the summer solstice seemed to build in me. After a week of rain, the sun burst through and we had a whole week of clear, low-humidity days in which it appeared that you could see the plants growing happily, stretching their roots down into the soil and their leaves up towards the bright sky.

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

In anticipation of several weeks away (I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage to Nova Scotia soon) I spent a lot of time out in the garden, planting vegetables and annuals, weeding flower beds, mulching and staking and tending.

morning lettuce

morning lettuce



Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

It’s always hard to leave a garden in the summer, when you know the minute your back is turned the invasive weeds will grow with vindictive vigor, the slugs will multiply and munch away at the lettuce, and the Japanese beetles will arrive to decimate the roses.

However, I must get away from the confines of my little corner of the world to clear my head and ready myself for another year—for me, as a lifelong academic, the year always starts with the fall semester of school.

Last night, in honor of the longest day of the year, my son and I took an evening hike up a local mountain, and sat on a rock ledge facing west as the sun slowly and majestically dropped towards the horizon.

Eric in woods

We were happy to find some friends up there—a caterpillar with beautiful markings, making its way up an oak sapling, and a pair of orange-and-black butterflies, sunning themselves just like we were.



solstice sunset

As we walked down again in the last rays of sunshine, I couldn’t help thinking about the strong contrast between the peaceful, lovely landscape of my home ground, where for many of us the most urgent question of the day is “what shall we have for dinner?” or “what movie shall we watch tonight?” and the social landscapes that cry out to me every day when I read the news headlines—arid, violent, rigid, harsh.

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq


This summer solstice, as I sit in my peaceful green American haven, Iraq is again descending into crazed sectarian violence. The news reports that “militias are organizing” or “Mosul was taken” focus on the politicians playing the mad chess game of war, and the young men drawn into the armies as battlefield pawns. There is no mention of the mothers, sisters and grandmothers of those politicians and young men. The women rarely surface in the headlines, and when they do, the news is not good: a woman who dared to go out to a rally stripped and gang-raped, for example.

We hear about women obliquely in the reporting about the incredible surge of refugees living in camps this year: of the 51 million people living in refugee camps under U.N. supervision, half are children—which means that a high percentage of the other half are probably mothers and grandmothers. But that is in inference I am making by reading between the lines; those women are invisible in the official story.

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan's fifth largest city

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan’s fifth largest city


I have to recognize the incredible privilege I have as an American woman, living in the heart of the heavily guarded gated community that this country has become.

Other people around the world are paying the price for the peace and plenty I have here in my home. And not just people—the animals and insects and birds and forests are paying the hugest price of all to maintain my privileged lifestyle.

How long can I continue to live comfortably with this knowledge?

The more time goes on, the more I see how prescient J.R.R. Tolkien was with his Lord of the Rings series. Berkshire County, where I live, is indeed “the Shire” of legend—peaceful, productive, green and jolly. Outside our borders, far, far away, the armies of Mordor are mobilizing in the midst of lands laid waste by the industries of the Dark Lord. Few in the Shire are worried; the chance of those nasty people and industries actually coming here seem remote indeed.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien

In Lord of the Rings, it is Gandalf the wizard who serves as the bridge between these two very different landscapes. He gives Bilbo, and later Frodo, the charge of becoming the change agents who can make all the difference. The fight against the Dark Lord is fought on many fronts, but the quest to destroy the Ring of Power is paramount, and in order to destroy the ring Frodo must journey to the heart of the dark Empire itself.

I can’t escape the feeling that here in the quiet Shire where I live, ordinary people like me are being called upon, as Bilbo and Frodo were, to step up to the immense and dangerous challenge of resisting the darkness that is brewing on our borders.

But in our case there does not seem to be a Gandalf who can give us a mission and guide us as we set off on the quest. Not even the wisest leaders of the environmental and peace movements seem to be able to provide that kind of leadership. Worldwide, those leaders who claim to know with absolute certainty what is right and what to do are precisely the ones who are fomenting war and leading us down the path to environmental, civilizational suicide.

That must be why I am drawn to study with those who are exploring other epistemologies, outside of the normative range of politics, science, philosophy and religion.

Right now my bedside reading includes Anne Baring, Pam Montgomery and Pamela Eakins, along with Brian SwimmeMartin Prechtel, Bill Plotkin,  and Daniel Pinchbeck.

spring meadowWhen I look out into the green world stretching up towards our beneficent Sun, or glowing brightly under our sweet white Moon, I can see and hear the harmony that life on Earth evolved to sing. Put water and sunlight together, wait a few billion years, and you get this incredible lush planet, pulsating with life.

Human beings have flourished so well that now we have become overpopulated, an invasive species that is destructively taking over every last environmental niche on the planet. In a normal terrestrial cycle, we would go bust, our civilization would collapse, and with time the earth and the sun would gradually rebuild life in endlessly new creative forms.

Is that what is coming? Or will we be able to be the Gandalfs of our own generation, waking ourselves up out of our complacency here in the beautiful American Shire, and conquering the inner and outer Dark Lords that are laying waste to the planet?

What is the quest that is mine to carry out? What is yours? If we at least start asking these questions, with the greater good of the Earth in mind, perhaps the answers will emerge in time to set humanity on a better path.

solstice sunset dark

Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.


Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?


So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.


There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

The Radioactive Imprudence of The New York Times Editorial Board

Why am I surprised each time The New York Times editorial board comes out with an opinion that demonstrates yet again how deeply indoctrinated the whole gang of them are into the logic of our industrial growth, more-energy-at-any-cost society?

I grew up reading The Times daily, poring over the Sunday edition, and believing its worldview to be objective, level-headed and virtually infallible. I believed that The Times was a watchdog over government that looked out for the good of ordinary people, the ones like me without any public power. I believed that when The Times issued an opinion, it was always going to be well-considered and trustworthy.

It’s only in the last few years that a veil has fallen from my eyes to reveal the extent to which The Times is simply a creature of the reckless, short-sighted, greedy elites that it serves. I grew up among those elites. But now, like many others, I have come to understand that the model of American society that I grew up with is not only unjust, it’s also deadly dangerous. Will The New York Times be playing its tune resolutely on deck as the whole global civilization built on extraction, exploitation and bottom-line myopia crashes, burns and sinks?

These reflections are prompted by a recent lead editorial, signed “The Editorial Board,” urging American policymakers to expand the use of nuclear power. The Board lauds the construction of a huge, and hugely expensive concrete shield over the leaking radioactive core of the Chernobyl power plant. The shield, The Times says blandly, will be good for 100 years.

No where does the editorial mention that radioactive waste associated with nuclear power plants can take tens of thousands of years to decay. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, surely no tree-hugger, puts it this way in its public fact sheet:

images“The splitting of relatively heavy uranium atoms during reactor operation creates radioactive isotopes of several lighter elements, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, called “fission products,” that account for most of the heat and penetrating radiation in high-level waste. Some uranium atoms also capture neutrons from fissioning uranium atoms nearby to form heavier elements like plutonium. These heavier-than-uranium, or “transuranic,” elements do not produce nearly the amount of heat or penetrating radiation that fission products do, but they take much longer to decay. Transuranic wastes, also called “TRU,” therefore account for most of the radioactive hazard remaining in high-level waste after a thousand years.

“Radioactive isotopes will eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. However, while they are decaying, they emit radiation. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (that means that half the radioactivity of a given quantity of strontium-90, for example, will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.

“High-level wastes are hazardous to humans and other life forms because of their high radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, ten years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour, whereas a fatal whole-body dose for humans is about 500 rem (if received all at one time). Furthermore, if constituents of these high-level wastes were to get into ground water or rivers, they could enter into food chains. Although the dose produced through this indirect exposure is much smaller than a direct exposure dose, there is a greater potential for a larger population to be exposed.”

Nevertheless, The Times Editorial Board chides Germany for “succumbing to panic” in aggressively phasing out its nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster “in favor of huge investments in renewable sources like wind and sun.”

The editorial concedes that “the world must do what it can to increase energy efficiency and harness sun, wind, ocean currents and other renewable sources to meet our ever-expanding needs for energy. But the time when these can replace all fossil and nuclear fuels is still far off, and in the meantime nuclear energy remains an important means of generating electricity without adding to the steadily increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Therefore, the Editorial Board concludes, America should “pay attention to the withering away of America’s fleet of 100 nuclear reactors,” and keep that nuclear energy burning brightly, exercising “Prudence in the design, maintenance and operation of all nuclear facilities. Prudence also in the sense that policy makers not be spooked into shutting down a vital source of clean energy in a warming world. The great shield over Chernobyl should also entomb unfounded fears of using nuclear power in the future.”

Given the incredibly unstable sociopolitical situation in the Ukraine, the “great shield” stands a good chance of never being completed. And even if it were to be finished, what is 100 years in the timeline of radiation, or of our planet?  Can we really consider nuclear energy to be “clean energy” given its deadly potential?

holding-the-sun_shutterstock_674327681-225x300This editorial should be rewritten to make Germany’s remarkable achievement in shifting quickly to renewables the central point, a rallying cry for other nations to swiftly follow suit.

Nuclear energy is part of our dark 20th century past. It has no more of a place in our future than its evil twin, nuclear bombs. Human beings have shown that we are still far too immature and imprudent to play with this kind of fire.

We need to let the sun take care of the fusion, and simply bask, like the other living beings with whom we share the planet, in the vast quantities of solar energy that bathe our planet every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

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

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

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic


Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea






Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears


Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating


Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges


Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities



Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

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


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

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people



Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice


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

Clear on what they want; clear goals



Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive


Resistant to corruption


JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?


Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure


Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

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

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

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

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

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

convince people)

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

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

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

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

Fear of being seen


Negative Qualities that may hold us back




Empathy—taking things too personally


Staying under the radar



Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning


What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

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



Social upbringing


Not having access to audience—tools to connect

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

Location (geographic)


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

Influence of media on self-esteem


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