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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did someone say CLIMATE CHANGE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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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