Snowden and the Politics of Doing Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Love is not a luxury

I am not one to be prone to panic attacks, but I do admit to often being in a low-level state of foreboding, that sometimes elevates itself to full-on dread. It’s not a mystery; I know what my triggers are:

  • the latest news of human activity destroying life or making our planet unlivable, whether by warfare, industrial agriculture, chemical contamination, deforestation, fracking and drilling, leaking and spilling or simply burning fossil fuels;
  • the insanity of a vapid, rapacious, evildoer like Drumpf coming so close to setting up his vampire camp in the White House;
  • the horror of the violence inflicted over and over again on African Americans, Native Americans, undocumented Americans, female, trans and gay Americans;
  • violence and cruelty to the vulnerable, in whatever form.

The dread comes when it seems like this filthy tide of misery is rising, threatening to engulf all the beauty that still exists, day and night, moment to moment, on our precious planet.

I have realized over time that I cannot be an effective activist for positive social change if I let myself be overtaken by sorrow, anger, disgust and despair. If I allow myself to sink under the weight of all the injustice and horror of human “civilization,” I will simply lose it—it will be crawl-under-the-covers time, time to check out of the real world into the dream world, time maybe to never come back.

So I have to practice this strange form of double vision, where part of me remains open, aware and enraged by the suffering, while another part of me goes about her daily life drinking deep of the beauty of the newly risen sun shining through the dew-dropped spider web strung up among the brilliant blue morning glory flowers, mainlining this beauty like an elixir capable of granting me the strength I need to keep the dread at bay and go back out into battle.

It’s almost as if by giving my attention to beauty and good I can strengthen those forces in the world, whereas if I steep myself too long in fury and horror those negative emotions begin to take hold in me and drag me down into a sinkhole of despair that only gets bigger when I struggle to escape.

This is a difficult thing for me to articulate, because I have never been someone who believed in sitting on a meditation cushion and focusing on “the light” as a way to combat the darkness of the real world. Even the ivory tower of academia has always felt too removed for me, although lately, thanks to the activism of the current generation of college students, the lofty impermeability of the tower is wearing thin.

I’m not advocating retreating and withdrawing and pulling up the drawbridge against the dread of the real world. I’m just admitting that for me, and maybe for others as well, it’s essential to restore my energies for the good fight by giving myself permission to savor and spend time immersed in what it is I love and value: deep emotional connections with humans, animals and the natural world.

The key words there might be “deep” and “emotion”: I have to allow myself to really feel deeply my love for specific people, places and animals in my life. I have to take the time to honor and appreciate how much these connections feed me.


It may be one of the unheralded sicknesses of our era that we no longer feel entitled to the time to simply hang out enjoying each other’s company in real time (as opposed to screen time): cooking and eating a delicious weekday meal with family or friends; spending a couple of hours brushing and romping with a beloved pet; going for a long walk to a special patch of forest and sitting on a rock until the woodland animals forget you’re there and accept you as a harmless part of the landscape. These things take time, and time is what we seem not to have these days, or to deny ourselves.

At our peril. The sense of not having time, of time being regimented by the clock and occupied by a never-ending to-do list, is peculiar to the 21st century experience of being human, and it’s not a good thing, because that constant rushing from one task to the next keeps us living life at a superficial level—surfing through our lives, you might say, as though we were flitting from one website to the next. You can’t develop the capacity for deep emotional connections when you’re surfing…and without that capacity, you won’t be able to commit yourself passionately to any cause—or indeed, to anything at all.

So there seems to be a necessity of living “as if”—giving yourself permission to laugh, to love, to drink deep of the beauty of nature, as if innocent people were not being murdered by bombs and guns every day, as if the polar caps were not melting, as if the forests were not burning, as if the sixth great extinction were not advancing daily, as if the oceans were not being poisoned and warmed, as if the coral were not dying off, as if the bulldozers were not still grinding through the tar sands that will just accelerate all this death and destruction of everything we love….

It’s not easy to hold the awareness of all of this horror—and so much more—at bay. But we who care and want to work for positive change have to focus on love—on our deep, abiding love for this beautiful world and all the precious beings in it that we want to protect.

It sounds simple, like the Beatles line: All you need is love. But on a day to day basis, barraged as we are constantly by all the bad news and evildoers of the world, it’s hard to remember, and can feel like a cop-out or a self-indulgent escape from reality. It’s not.

It’s what “being the change” means. Live the change you want to see in the world, at a deep emotional level, and be part of a rising tide of hope and love that can sweep away the misery.

img_3727This is such an exciting time to be alive. There is so much potential for human beings to take an evolutionary leap away from the tribal competitiveness and heedless destructive ignorance of the past, stepping at last into our full potential as the sacred guardians of the complex ecological web of this planet, which we are finally beginning to understand. The leap won’t happen without our giving ourselves permission to honor our deep connections with each other and with Gaia; without our giving ourselves permission to love.

Hence the need to live, at least part of the time, as if loving was the most important thing we could possibly be doing with our precious time.

Because it is.


audre_lordeNOTE: My title is a take-off on Audre Lorde’s famous essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” Poetry, as she lived and practiced it, was love. A few lines from the essay that I go back to again and again: Poetry “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought….Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

–from Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press, 1984, 37-38.

From Orlando to Dallas and beyond: dreaming of a homeland to be proud of

The weather here in Nova Scotia has been stormy, but that’s nothing compared with the storms sweeping across my homeland, the USA. I write the word “homeland” with an inner cringe…can I really call this violent place home? Home is supposed to be a place of refuge; a sanctuary. I feel that about my island home here in Canada, but when I contemplate going back across the border, I can’t avoid an instinctive sense of fear and foreboding.

According to the astrologers, Mars is in Scorpio now—pretty potent times, when the god of war meets the sign known for intensity around death and sexuality. That might have “explained” the tragedy in Orlando. But the steady beat of innocent Black folks being gunned down by law enforcement officers for misdemeanors—or no crime at all—cannot be explained by anything except a racist society full of trigger-happy cops.

And this latest episode in Dallas defies any explanation. I am not satisfied with the official story, that a single sniper was able to kill five cops and injure several more people before being cornered in a parking garage. I have not seen any convincing evidence proving that the young man they killed in the garage with a “robot bomb” was in fact the sniper they were looking for. Eventually I assume they will show the forensic evidence linking the bullets found in the bodies to Micah Johnson’s gun, but even that kind of evidence could be trumped up.

I fear that this young veteran, handily dead, could be taking the fall for a sinister conspiracy aimed at further destabilizing the country and giving the police permission to “get tougher.” Which seems to mean, use more of their military surplus equipment against their own homeland citizens.

I read an article by an ex-cop who said 15% of cops are good people who would never commit a racist act; 15% are racists just waiting for an opportunity to strike; and 70% are just ordinary folks, susceptible to the prevailing culture in their community and police force.

Those percentages are probably about right when applied to the U.S. population at large, too. Clearly what needs to be worked on is the prevailing culture—the structural racism, the structural elitism, the deck stacked against the poor, no matter the color of their skin, and the way it’s becoming almost impossible to climb out of poverty if you’ve been born into it.

This bigger picture is what can be so hard to get from the media, which converts everything into sound-bites, “status updates,” or even, lord help us, tweets. Everything moves so fast, we are kept busy just trying to stay abreast of what’s going on, with little time or energy for contemplation.

Meanwhile, out there beyond the personal and political, the planet herself is getting ever more out of balance. The floods, the wildfires, the toxic algae blooms, fungi killing off amphibians and bats, the sudden death of entire populations of birds, reindeer and seals…it’s all part of the bigger picture of a planet gone deeply awry.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the violence and political mayhem we are seeing in the world is connected to the inner turmoil in human beings. We are the consciousness of the planet. We alone among all species are able to understand history and predict the future. We know the consequences of our actions and we live and die according to moral codes.

All of us who are sick at heart in these days of horrendous violence at home must understand that what we are seeing in the U.S. is just a pale echo of the massive violence Americans have inflicted on people in other countries (from Vietnam to Iraq, from El Salvador to Afghanistan and on and on), as well as—on an even bigger scale—on other living beings on the planet, from iconic creatures like elephants and lions on down to coral, fish and butterflies, not to mention all the beautiful members of the plant kingdom.

Since we have allowed the arming of our civilian population with military-style weapons, our country is turning into the same kind of war zone  experienced by people in other countries, and animals everywhere.

And more of us are becoming infected with that conflictive kind of consciousness, dominated by fear and its twin, aggression. The inner landscape mirrors the outer landscape, with devastating consequences for those caught in the crossfire.

Neither fear nor aggression will get us where we need to go, as individuals, as a society, or on the global scale. Nor does moral exhortation seem to have much effect. The only real solution has to be the deep, structural one: redirecting our resources away from weapons and war, towards education, well-being and an economy that gives every human being the opportunity to live a peaceful, satisfying life.

You may say this is utopian. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” There are many economists who understand that we have a choice whether or not to base our global livelihoods on the death-and-aggression-focused military-industrial complex, or on “right livelihood,” the kind of activities and industries that make people happy, well and fulfilled, and at the same time protect and care for our planet and the myriad other creatures who live here too.

While honoring all those—and there are so many—who have fallen prey to our violent culture, we must keep in mind the bigger picture, and the magnitude of what is at stake. The violence perpetrated against Black people at home is the same violence being perpetrated against so many others, in all the places in the world where we sell and deploy our vaunted American military weapons and expertise.

Let’s dare to imagine a future in which Americans are famous and respected not for the size of our military budget, but for our leadership in stabilizing our planet and making it a safe, prosperous home for everyone. We can do it. And we must.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Did someone say CLIMATE CHANGE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geological_time_spiral for HOP for web_0

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voting for Sanders: Because a Little Birdie Said So!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That way does not lie safety—it lies collapse.


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

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

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

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



Transition Times: Personal, Political, Planetary

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After Paris, Searching Upstream for the Source of Terrorism

Thanksgiving Refugees, Past and Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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