Casting the Spell of the Solstice Season

There is a passage in my memoir where I describe the sense of gleeful abundance that the Christmas season brought to my childhood. It was a magical spell created through the transformation of bringing a fragrant pine tree into the living room and decorating it with lights and ornaments; the joyful anticipation of presents; the sweet and savory scents and tastes of my mother’s special holiday meals and treats.

Outside our home, the whole world was transformed by millions of lights, Christmas trees and decorations, the landscape glittering with lights on the ground and bright stars overhead. The cumulative effect of all of this was that for the holiday season, we seemed to have stepped over some kind of threshold into a magical fairyland, complete with talking reindeer that could fly and jolly elves that delivered presents down the chimney.

Nowadays, as an adult with children of my own, the external trappings remain the same, but it’s harder to recapture that sense of magic. The setting up and taking down of the Christmas tree, lights and decorations are chores, though there is pleasure in the outcome. The presents must be chosen, obtained and wrapped. The cooking must be planned and executed. My mother, on whom most of the burden of all of this activity fell in my childhood, made it look easy and fun, and I followed in her footsteps while my children were small, which is why they too have developed a magical attraction to celebrating this holiday in an all-out way.

As I grow older, it is harder to banish the persistent doubt…the feeling that rather than celebrating the birth of a sacred child representing love, mercy and compassion, or even the simple return to light of the Solstice, we in modern America have been charmed into celebrating the great God of Consumption, who we worship through the rituals of shopping, cooking and eating to excess.

Oh, I know I will be branded a Scrooge or a Grinch for this thought. My children will cringe, embarrassed that their mother would be willing to publicly deviate from the established tradition, the script. And I can’t deny that I still enjoy the chance to escape into fairyland for a day or two, through a door that only opens at Christmastime.

But while we fortunate few are enjoying ourselves with feasting and gifts, the unpleasant reality continues for the majority on our planet. Humans continue to kill and persecute other humans. We  continue to kill and exterminate other species. The roasting of the planet through carbon combustion continues unabated, with weird, dangerous weather becoming more commonplace every day.

Oh Grinch, stop it, they will cry. Where is your sense of fun and joy? Why is your heart ten sizes too small?

No, I will reply sadly. The problem is that my heart is ten sizes too large, and I cannot relax in fairyland knowing that there is so much misery going on just outside our charmed circle.

This holiday season I have not been able to evade the thought that maybe what I need is a little dose of Zoloft to keep my mood suitably elevated and banish the darkness to the margins of my consciousness. Oh brave new world, in which we cannot function without a dose of manufactured, pharmaceutical good cheer!

If I were to change this holiday so that I could truly be happy celebrating, what would I change? I would still want to eat and drink and exchange presents with my family. But I would want to increase the dose of spiritual energy running throughout all the rituals. Instead of buying presents, we would take the time to make them for each other, putting love into every stroke of creation. Or at least choose and purchase gifts that are made by hand, with love.

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We would take the time to appreciate the slow return to light that happens after the Winter Solstice, the sun going down just a few minutes later each day. We would go outside under the stars and moon and send our own intense lovelights into the universe, seeking consciously to increase the network of loving connection across the planet. We would affirm to each other our commitment for the coming year to each do what we can, in our own sphere, to make this world a better place for all.

We would take it all slow, as is appropriate for this dark, cold time of year. We would sleep in and go to bed early, allowing plenty of time for dreams. We would linger long at the table and by the fireside, enjoying each other’s conversation and company.

So much of contemporary life is about maintaining our robotic rhythms without any heed for the change of seasons. In the summer we air condition so we can keep working without the indolence of heat and humidity. In the winter we have the bright glare of electric lighting to keep the darkness of the season at bay, so we can keep working and playing without interruption.

These artificial rhythms are not good for our spirits—or for our mental health. As we are drawn into marching to the beat of the machine world, the bright living aura that tunes us into the pulse of life on our planet is diminished, dimmed.

It is no accident that our time has seen a resurgence of fascination with zombies, the walking dead. We play out in our imaginations what we fear in reality. Sometimes fantasy anticipates or spells out a frightening reality we do not want to acknowledge.

We must blow gently on the embers of our humanity, still alive and glowing despite all those artificial lights. In these Solstice days of dramatic darkness and light, let us cast the spell of the season by reaching out in love to each other and all life on the planet. That is where the true magic lies.

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.

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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.

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

 

 

Pay Attention! Listening to Angels on Superbowl Sunday

On Superbowl weekend, I was visited by an Angel.

Or rather, an Angel appeared to me in a dream, a fragment of which I remembered upon awakening. In the dream, the Angel stood on a soapbox in a darkening, rush-hour city street, surrounded by hurrying streams of people moving with determined strides, heads bowed against the cold wind and shoulders hunched beneath heavy coats. The Angel was trying to say something important to the people, but nobody was listening, or even aware she was there. As I awoke, I felt the Angel’s sense of dejection, failure and sorrow. It was as if her wings were broken.

Later that day, in a writing workshop with playwright Winter Miller, the Angel surfaced again. I saw her standing on her box in the midst of the hurrying, unthinking masses, aware of the darkness engulfing them and trying to summon up enough strength and power to shine a bright light, a beacon that would make them pick up their heads and see.

But the Angel does not have enough force, enough spark to reach these people. Despairing at having failed in her mission, she steps down off the box, her wings dragging in the dirty water in the street gutter, and immediately begins to be buffeted by all the impatient passersby, who are focused on catching their trains or buses, not wanting to be bothered with a crippled Angel slinking off.

Then suddenly a piercing blue-green ray of light shines out, as a little girl turns around and sees the Angel. She tugs on her mother’s hand, shouting, “Mommy! Stop! Look! An Angel!”

“You’re the only one who has been able to see me,” the Angel says, looking at the girl’s bright blue eyes in wonder.

The girl succeeds in stopping her mother’s dash across the street, and while they wait for the light to change, she and the Angel have a wordless communion, souls mingling through the beams of their shared gaze, each taking courage from the other.

When the street light changes, the girl is jerked almost off her feet by her mother, who is intent on catching the express bus she can see waiting on the corner. She throws one last eye beam over her shoulder, a flash of blue as brilliant as the gleaming wing of a quetzal bird in flight.

The Angel drinks it in like nectar, feeling its pulse traveling through her like a tonic. She straightens up, pulling her wings up off the ground, and suddenly she has no need of a soapbox any longer. She towers above the crowd like an alabaster statue illuminated by clear white light.

Without having to say anything—no more pleading for attention—suddenly her intention and meaning permeate the entire scene with the resonance of a gong that the people can feel vibrating in their bodies, penetrating the thick layers of clothing, the dense wrappings of habit, the brittle armor of indifference.

“Did you hear something?” one man asks another.

“I felt something,” he replies. “It was like an earthquake, maybe, or a tremor. I felt something shake.”

“We need to slow down,” the first man says. “Everyone needs to slow down and pay attention.”

The Angel gives her wings a shake and then, tentatively at first, gives a few powerful thrusts. Whatever had been hampering them is gone now; they are miraculously whole and powerful enough to take her up into the sky. As she wheels up and away, she smiles to hear the little girl say to her mother, “Mommy, look! Up there! It’s the Angel! She can fly again now!”

This time, instead of tugging her daughter on, the mother pauses and follows the direction of her daughter’s pointing finger. “I see it! I see it!” she cries. “Bless us all, we have been visited by an Angel! Pay attention, everyone!”

As if on cue, the last rays of sunshine suddenly break through the thick dark clouds, down low by the horizon line over the river. The dirty gray water glitters with gold.

angelic sky

Photo J. Browdy

Pay Attention! It’s interesting that this message emerged for me on the very weekend when America’s attention was so powerfully focused on one thing, and one thing only: the Superbowl.

I have often thought, if only a fraction of the energy, creativity and money that we spend on our sports programs and events could be diverted to developing new ways of living sustainably, healthily and harmoniously on Earth, what a wonderful world it could be.

I imagine that the meaning of the Angel’s gong would be slightly different for each individual hearing it. What I heard was this: it is time to pay attention, and look to the youngest among us for direction.

Children are often far more open than adults to a broader range of perception and awareness. I worry, though, that even childhood is being polluted with mindless media, as I see little children with their eyes constantly glued to a screen, instead of looking up and about them at the big beautiful world.

The mother in me wants to slow down and drink in the gold glittering on the river, together with my children. The Angels may be among us more often than we can imagine. We just need to pay attention.

Photo J. Browdy

Photo J. Browdy

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.

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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.

New Year’s Resolution 2015: Re-entering Sacred Communion with Gaia

What would the world be like if the majority of us humans began to align our personal and political values with the ecological ethos of our Mother Earth?

Gaia believes in abundance. When she is in balance, each living being has its niche, and lives out its life in grace, receiving all the sustenance it needs, and taking no more than it requires to be healthy and fulfilled.

Gaia believes in equality. Every single aspect of the planet, from the needles on the fir tree to the whales in the sea, is essential and valuable. The rocks and the water and the bacteria in the soil are all equally beloved, and equally tended.

Gaia believes in synergy. Each element of the planet is seamlessly wound in to the whole, the web of life that functions simply and elegantly, nothing wasted, nothing forgotten, nothing in excess.

Gaia believes in communion. She lives in the present moment, eon after eon, entirely immersed in the creative beauty which she expresses in her every pore. She doesn’t live for the future, ambitiously, or dwell in the past, nostalgically. She focuses on the present and knows that in walking a path of balance and harmony now, she is unfurling a solid, loving bridge to the future for all time.

How hard could it be to bring our personal and political modes of being into alignment with the vast, pulsating beauty of Gaia’s model?

If we could rise above the narrow confines of the political and personal labyrinths in which we’re habituated to spend our time, we would see, with the sudden clarity of a lightening flash on a dark night, how simple and obvious it is. The Earth is our Mother, and she is showing us the way every second of every day. All we have to do is pay attention.

This New Year’s, I resolve to listen to my Mother and do my best to heed her call and follow her example.

This will not be work; it’s as natural as breathing. I just need to re-learn what I knew as a baby: that my primary relationship with my Mother is paramount. There is nothing more important than the sacred, reciprocal communion of our love.

New Year's Day 2015 Nova Scotia Photo J. Browdy

New Year’s Day 2015
Nova Scotia
Photo J. Browdy

Embracing the Darkness: A Solstice Reflection

Winter solstice is finally upon us.

As the days grow shorter and shorter, I know I’m not alone in feeling like following the bears and the toads into hibernation. Can’t I stay in bed today? Can’t I just pull the covers up and let the world pass me by for a while?

Surely for most of human history, the answer would have been a resounding yes.

In the summer months when the light is strong, we are pulled to steady, sustained activity, just like all the other animals and plants. And then in the winter, we have always been allowed to rest.

Now, in the 21st century, we must labor under the fiction that it doesn’t matter what’s happening outside our windows. As long as the power stays on, the cell phones are charged and the gas pumps keep running, we need to keep working at the same frenetic rate, month in and month out, all year round.

IMG_8536Here on the eve of a Winter Solstice combined with a New Moon, I want to take a stand for adjusting our rhythms according to the wheeling of our planet around its sun.

It’s dark now, here in the northern hemisphere; dark, cold and gray. In this weather, we humans have always lounged around our campfires and told each other the stories that keep our creative genius alive.

The advent of writing changed this, of course. With written texts, we could read any time, summer or winter, without waiting for the bard to be in residence and ready to recite.

In these dark days of winter, we need to return to the storytelling traditions of our forefathers and foremothers, but at the same time we should take care about what kinds of stories we’re listening to. Are we listening to stories that can inspire courage, hope, and greatness in ourselves and our young people? Or are we wasting our time with mindless, repetitive horror and nihilism?

What stories are you and your children listening to in these darkest days of winter? What stories are you living? What are you doing with these precious dark dreaming days?

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My suggestion is to dive down deep into the darkness. Don’t hide from it. Don’t let the mind games of electricity persuade you to pretend that the Solstice doesn’t matter.

Sun and moon, earth and stars, cold and ice, bare branches and still boulders. Now is your time, and our time to get to know you.

Slowly, slowly, the days will grow longer.

For now, let us give the dark its due. Let us embrace the quiet, introspective time the Solstice encourages. Let us meet with like-minded souls to raise a glass to the joys of darkness—and the eventual return of the light.

Photos c. J. Browdy 2014

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 350.org 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.

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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?

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Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy

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Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.

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In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.

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A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

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An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

Are We Going to Stand By Silently in the Face of Ecocide? Hell no!

In my talk the other night, “The Personal is Planetary,” which I gave as the opening lecture of the Berkshire Human Rights Speaker Series, I set out to point to climate stabilization as the most important issue of our time, the one that dwarfs all the other social and environmental struggles we may be engaged with.

candian-oil-sands-615Most people know by now that if we don’t shift to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, the greenhouse gases caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels are going to wreck our planetary environment so badly that our beautiful Earth will become unlivable for most of her current inhabitants, including humans.

“We know and we don’t know,” I told the audience. “We know but we see no role for ourselves as change agents. We know but we’re afraid of the consequences of protest. We know but we don’t want to know. Life is comfortable; why rock the boat?”

I wondered aloud how bad things would have to get before we sunpower_maincomfortable Americans finally understand that it is past time for our active engagement in forcing our government and our corporations to do what needs to be done to ensure a livable future for us all.

Shocks can be necessary, and we’ve already had a few: Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy, along with regional droughts, floods and wildfires in many parts of the country, all weather-related events exacerbated by global warming.

But Americans are still pretty cushioned from the full effects of climate change. Around the world, for people of other nationalities and for millions of non-human species, things are already reaching a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, even impossible.

We Americans, privileged and coddled as we are, need to open up our eyes and take in the full enormity of the crisis that confronts us.

This is bigger than any individual war, even against evil empires like the Islamic State. It’s bigger than any individual social justice issue, even the ones I’ve spent a good part of my life fighting for, like women’s equality and anti-racism.

As I said in my talk, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to compare our role as bystanders to the destruction of the forests and oceans and all their inhabitants to the role of the ‘good Germans’ who watched the trains full of Jews roll into the concentration camps and professed to not know what was going on behind those walls.”

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, some of them my distant relatives. I’ve been taught all my life that we must remember this genocide, and others like it, so that it will never happen again.

And yet all of us are willing to stand by, deaf, blind and mute, as millions upon millions of innocent living beings on the planet are sacrificed to the maw of human industry in its current greedy, profit-driven guise.

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Fossil fuel extraction, from fracking to tar sands to deep-sea drilling; industrialized agriculture, with its chemical poisoning of the earth and waters; mining and deforestation; plastic garbage on land and sea; endless urban and suburban sprawl—all this is driving what scientists now refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction, which will only intensify as the planet continues to heat up.

Eventually, if we stand by and do nothing, we humans too will join the long death march to extinction, or at least to a total collapse of our ruinous global civilization.

Are we going to stand by and do nothing while the planet burns? Are we going to allow our government and our corporations to commit planetary ecocide? Are we going to continue to pretend that we don’t know what’s going on?

10453020_1454513064799672_5914704337046021387_oThis Sunday there will be an opportunity to take to the streets to demand effective action on climate change. Tens of thousands of Americans from all over the country will be converging on midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March to show the world that we care about our future and we know that our destiny is bound up in the health and welfare of the entire planetary ecosystem.

It is truly a legendary moment in the history of humanity. We have the grand opportunity to be the generation that succeeds in abandoning the deadly playbook of industrialized capitalism, and opens up a new epoch based on caring, balance and good stewardship of the Earth.

Endless growth of human industry is not possible on our finite planet—not without driving us all to ruin. The sooner we can adjust our economies and industries to this new worldview, the sooner we will all begin to learn how to recalibrate human activity accordingly, and redistribute the current massive imbalances of wealth so that everyone has enough—including all the non-human species that we must also learn to value and protect.

As I concluded in my talk the other night, “The future of so many living beings on this planet depends on our ability to overcome our fear, move beyond our silences and step into the power of our own transformative visions. Opportunities to work for positive change will open up as we begin to look for them. Now is the time for action, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Let’s not wait any longer.”

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PS: I was glad to see an excellent op-ed piece by Mark Bittman in The New York Times about the importance of the People’s Climate March. The Times is also providing a “Countdown to the Climate March” this week: here’s a story that goes behind the scenes with the organizers, featuring an interview with Bill McKibben.

Also, if you haven’t seen the new film DISRUPTION yet, here is the You-Tube link.  It begins with a quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass.  Check it out!

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