Imagining Peace on Memorial Day 2015: Thinking Beyond Our Gated Communities

We American civilians live peacefully and comfortably in a gated community the size of our country, guarded by our military and law enforcement officials. But would we have to maintain this guarded posture, at huge taxpayer expense, if we did more to wage peace in the world, instead of waging war?

It’s been well-documented that it costs much less to educate a young person than to imprison him or her. And yet we still continue to pour resources into prisons, and starve our educational system.

Wars are fought for the rich and powerful, but those who die, whether as combatants or as bystanders, are usually drawn from the ranks of the poor. In war zones across the globe, we find young men (and sometimes women) drawn into combat because they lack educational and economic opportunities at home, and thus are easily lured into becoming pawns in the ideological war games of the elite. A recent Rand survey of enlisted U.S. Army personnel found that more than half joined the Army because there were no jobs to be found at home.

Summer Solstice 2014 Photo by Eric Hernandez

Summer Solstice 2014
Photo by Eric Hernandez

Imagine what would happen if instead of bringing guns and chemicals to poor regions around the world, we brought libraries and laptops and laboratories. Imagine what would happen if instead of throwing our young people into the maw of poverty and violence, we cultivated them lovingly and raised them to be productive contributors to their hometowns and homelands.

Imagine if this loving mindset could be extended not just to human beings but to every living being on our planet.

This Memorial Day, I am grieving not just for humans, but for all the birds, fish, mammals and plants that have been sacrificed to human aggression and greed.

The “collateral damage” of war is vast and too often unseen, at least by those of us fortunate enough to live far from the battlefields. Once in a while we catch a glimpse of what those on the frontlines are living through—for example, this week the beaches in one of the wealthiest enclaves on Earth, Santa Barbara, California, are being fouled by an oil pipe rupture. Maybe when the privileged denizens of Santa Barbara see wildlife washing up on shore in pitiful oily carcasses, they will begin to understand the havoc caused by our heedless American addiction to oil.

Photo c. Kenneth Song / The News-Press Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepares to rescue a pelican covered in oil on the beach about a mile west of Refugio State Beach, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

Photo c. Kenneth Song / The News-Press
Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepares to rescue a pelican covered in oil on the beach about a mile west of Refugio State Beach, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

The truth is that the rich and powerful get behind movements for change only when they are directly negatively affected.

Witness what happened back in the Vietnam era, when America began drafting the sons of the wealthy elites, and those boys started coming home in coffins or maimed for life. Suddenly there was an anti-war movement with real teeth, and that war was soon ended, along with the draft.

To end the fossil fuel era it is going to take a similar punch to the power centers of the fossil fuel industry, and the Oil Kings won’t give up without a fight.

What’s called for here is not a fist-fight, but a moral battle, an appeal to the powerful to do what’s right for all of us, before we all topple over the edge of environmental destruction.

This Memorial Day, I honor the fallen—soldiers and civilians, birds and trees, mammals and bees and butterflies—and call on the living to step up to the immense challenge of our time: taking a giant leap forward in human evolution, beyond tribalism, beyond shortsighted greed and aggression, towards the loving, compassionate and wise species we are meant to become.

old tree

Elder tree. Photo by J. Browdy 2014

Skirmishes in the Gaian Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Pipeline for Mr. Nocera

Joe Nocera is one of my least favorite of the regular New York Times columnists. I almost always disagree with him; I like to read his columns just to see what kind of inane argument he’s going to concoct this time for an untenable position.

This time, he’s giving the finger to “environmentalists,” who are still embracing the “pipe dream” that it’s possible to stop the oil industry from mining the boreal forests of Canada in search of dirty shale oil. His column points out, gloatingly, that whether any of us like it or not, Canada tar sands oil will be coming into the U.S. and making their long, expensive, dangerous way down to the Texas refineries and ports—if not by pipeline, then by rail.


And, he implies, there’s not a damned thing the President, with his veto pen, or the public, with our outrage, can do about it.

How convenient that Nocera overlooked the big news this week when he sat down to write his column. It was more important to him to poke the hornet’s nest of environmentalists than to actually give his readers some meaningful content to thin about.

This week’s real news came in the form of two new studies produced by teams of scientists who concluded that a) 2014 was tied with 2010 as the hottest year on record; and b) anthropogenic climate disruption combined with human predation is causing unprecedented species extinctions in the oceans.

The truth is, Joe Nocera, that unless human beings get out of our “business-as-usual” mindsets and get serious about slowing the rate of carbon emissions and taking seriously our role as stewards of the planet, those pipelines will soon be rusting silently like the rest of the junk of our civilization, from skyscrapers to factories, abandoned in the wake of the storms and food crises that will push human populations into collapse—just as we’ve pushed so many other species past the point of stability.

Think I’m over-reacting? Think I’m getting hysterical? Check out this round-up of recent reports and studies on climate change impacts by Dahr Jamail and then let’s talk. If you’re not seriously frightened by what’s happening to our planet, maybe you should consider lowering the dose of your anti-anxiety medication.

Meanwhile, funny, isn’t it, that the price of oil is going down down down. I’ve read a few attempts at explaining this phenomenon, which is having the positive effect (for the planet) of getting the oil industry to slow down its relentless drilling. The most plausible explanation seems to be that the Saudis are trying to put pressure on the U.S. shale gas industry, which is growing way too fast for the liking of the OPEC producers.

I say, a pox on all their heads! We don’t want natural gas fracking any more than we want Saudi oil or Alberta tar sands.

Solar and wind power may not be perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot better than fossil fuels. If we took some of the billions currently being poured into fracking, mining and pipelines and put them into developing good ways to store and distribute renewable energy, our children and grandchildren just might stand a chance of having the kind of normal lives we have enjoyed ourselves over the past century.

Joe Nocera doesn’t get this, of course, or maybe he just doesn’t care what happens to his own kids and grandkids.

When the United States turns into a dust bowl and the coastal cities are swept away by fierce storms and rising seas, maybe he’ll climb into one of those pipelines he’s advocating for and make himself cozy.

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

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

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

Another hundred children gunned down by fundamentalist militants.

Another police brutality case.

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

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

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

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

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

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

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

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


Letter to Sandra Steingraber: Civil Disobedience and the Fossil Fuel Monster

Dear Sandra,

I have been thinking about you for days now, ever since I heard the news that you were leading the peaceful protests defending Seneca Lake. Now you’re sitting in jail, taking your turn along with several others who also chose to serve jail time as an extension of the protest, rather than taking the “get out easy” card of paying a fine.

Sandra Steingraber going to jail

Sandra Steingraber going to jail

Thoreau would be proud of you! You are a living example of his famous injunction on civil disobedience, written from the jail cell that served as his bastion of protest against slavery and a war he knew was wrong: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

The machine of our time is the fossil fuel industry. It is an industrial monster, with mining claw arms, a drill bit mouth and a huge bloated body belching stinking carbon smoke. It has no eyes to see the destruction it causes, nor ears to hear the screams and wails of the innocent creatures—including human beings—mown down in its path or sickened beyond recovery.

Over four hundred members of We Are Seneca Lake blockade the gates of Crestwood Midstream and stand up to the expansion of dangerous gas storage in the crumbling salt caverns next to Seneca Lake and under the beautiful wine country of the Finger Lakes. Lead by renown biologist, author, Sandra Steingraber. Pictured; Yvonne Taylor, Gas Free Seneca, Doug Couchon, People for a Healthy Environment, Members of Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative, Seneca Lake Pure Waters, ShaleShock, DJ Astro Hawk. (PRNewsFoto/We Are Seneca Lake)

Over four hundred members of We Are Seneca Lake blockade the gates of Crestwood Midstream and stand up to the expansion of dangerous gas storage in the crumbling salt caverns next to Seneca Lake and under the beautiful wine country of the Finger Lakes. Lead by renown biologist, author, Sandra Steingraber. Pictured; Yvonne Taylor, Gas Free Seneca, Doug Couchon, People for a Healthy Environment, Members of Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative, Seneca Lake Pure Waters, ShaleShock, DJ Astro Hawk. (PRNewsFoto/We Are Seneca Lake)

You and a handful of courageous resisters have gathered on the shores of the mighty Seneca Lake, to put your bodies on the line to stop this monster at all costs, before it can carry out its federally sanctioned intention of making the fragile salt caverns beneath the water into a volatile gas depot.

Did we learn nothing from the tragedy of the BP gas spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Haven’t we learned that fossil fuels and pristine waters do not mix?

Drinking water is a finite and precious resource on this planet. We can find other ways to create energy—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydrogen—but if we pollute the precious aquifers and freshwater reservoirs upon which our very life depends, there will be no return.

I know you of all people know this well, Sandra. Your first book, Living Downstream, tells the story of how you uncovered a serious cancer cluster in your own hometown, caused by the toxic runoff of chemicals into the groundwater.

‘Look upstream,’ you admonished us then. ‘What we need more than a cure for cancer,’ you said (still recovering from cancer yourself) ‘is strong action to prevent cancer, which means strong regulation against environmental pollution.’

Now one of the magnificent Finger Lakes is under direct threat of contamination. A gas rupture there would ruin the drinking water for tens of thousands of people; destroy the aquatic environment for millions of fish and other lake creatures; and severely impact the recreational use of the lake.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Is it really worth the risk? Can’t a safer place be found to store gas, away from the fragile ecosystem of the lake?

It’s beyond disappointing that our government caved to the fossil fuel monster in granting a permit to put a gas storage chamber beneath the floor of Seneca Lake. The people can do for ourselves what our craven politicians could not. We can make our lives “a counter friction to stop the machine.”

You are showing us the way, and I am with you in spirit, helping to spread the word and extend the protest into the potent realm of cyberspace.  It’s time to banish the fossil fuel monster once and for all.

In solidarity,


NOTE TO READERS:  Please read the comment below which gives more ideas for taking action in solidarity with Sandra and the other Seneca Lake defenders.  For starters, visit this site and voice your support:

The People’s Climate March: Taking the Evolutionary Leap of Radical Democracy

The People’s Climate March in New York City is just one manifestation of a huge sea-change sweeping through our culture. Or perhaps “seeping” would be a better verb—this shift in awareness is not happening with the tsunami force of a revolution, but more with the steady, determined drip-drip-drip of water undermining rock.

Humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, we love everything that’s new and innovative, we all want to be out ahead of the curve when it comes to technological breakthroughs and new ideas. On the other hand, we hold tight to the received wisdom of our forebears, living by enshrined writings thousands of years old (the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, Confucius, etc.) or hundreds of years old (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights).

We have established elaborate educational, political and legal systems designed to hold us to a particular form of society, permitting free, innovative thinking only along narrow channels carefully defined by the interests of business and commerce.

The arts and humanities, traditionally the realm of creative, imaginative exploration, have been steadily starved in this brave new world, which can only imagine creativity in the service of profit.

What happens to a society that can only envision creative energy in an instrumental, utilitarian light?

We become a society of robots. We lose our connection to the soul of the world, the anima mundi that sustains us humans along with all other living beings on the planet. People’s Climate March, which is happening not only in New York City but worldwide, with 2,808 marches and events in 166 countries, bears welcome witness to the fact that the sparks of creative, independent thinking have not totally gone out.

There are many, many people worldwide who are aware, and aghast, at the failure of our political and business leaders to act in the best interests of the people and all the beautiful, innocent creatures who are slipping away into the night of extinction day by day due to the relentless human assault on our shared planet.

We are here, we are aware, and we are engaged. We are not going to stand by silently and let corporate greed and shortsightedness overwhelm us.

It is true that business and government have a stranglehold on official channels of communication, education and social change.

They control the curricula taught in our schools, what appears on our major media channels, and what projects and areas of creative exploration are funded. They keep us in line with the debt bondage of school loans, mortgages, car payments and the fear of not having enough money in the bank for a comfortable old age. We’re so busy running on the treadmills they’ve set up we have no time or energy to think about changing the system.

Or do we?

So far, the one social area that has not been overtaken by corporate/governmental control is the World Wide Web. It’s still a Wild West space, a place where you can find everything and everyone, from dangerous sadists to beneficent spiritual leaders. There’s room for every kind of idea out there to percolate through our collective consciousness. And make no mistake: the energy we’re seeing in the People’s Climate March is fueled in large part by the distribution power of the Web, the ability to get the word out and get people fired up to come together to take a stand.

We saw it happen in the Arab Spring, where people used cell phones and texts to organize themselves to resist oppression.

We saw those people get beaten back, the promise of their revolution squashed by the entrenched power of men with guns and tear gas.

The rise of the Islamic State, like the rise of Al Quaeda and the Taliban, is all about conservative forces resisting change.

I am just as afraid of men with guns and tear gas as the next woman. I am happier making revolution on my laptop than in the streets. But at some point we have to come out from behind our screens, get off the treadmills of debt bondage, look around us at the beauty of the world, and say: this is what I want to live for, and this is what I’m willing to die for.

Terry Tempest Williams.  Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Terry Tempest Williams. Photo by Cheryl Himmelstein

Environmental activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams, in her book The Open Space of Democracy, says that the time has come to “move beyond what is comfortable” (81) in pursuit of what she calls a “spiritual democracy.”

“We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt,” she says.

“It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few” (87)

Williams calls for a radical recognition of the interdependence of all life on Earth. “The time has come to demand an end to the wholesale dismissal of the sacredness of life in all its variety and forms,” she says. “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” (86)

If we humans could step into our destiny as the stewards of our planet, the loving gardeners and caretakers of all other living beings, we would harness our incredible intelligence and creativity to re-stabilize our climate and do what needs to be done to ensure the well-being of all.

Williams calls this “the next evolutionary leap” for humanity: “to recognize the restoration of democracy as the restoration of liberty and justice for all species, not just our own” (89).

DSC_2200WIf we are able to take this leap, we will not only avert climate-related disaster on a Biblical scale, we will also overcome many of the social problems that we currently struggle with. “To be in the service of something beyond ourselves—to be in the presence of something other than ourselves, together—this is where we can begin to craft a meaningful life where personal isolation and despair disappear through the shared engagement of a vibrant citizenry,” says Williams (89).

Williams’ small gem of a book grew out of a speech she gave at her alma mater, the University of Utah, in the spring of 2003, as America was rushing into its ill-conceived War on Terror in Iraq. She describes her heart pounding as she got up to make a speech advocating a different form of democracy than that embraced and espoused by all the conservative friends and family sitting in the audience before her.

Challenging one’s own friends and family, betraying one’s own tribe, is the hardest aspect of being a social revolutionary. You have to question the very people you love most, who have given you so much and made your whole life possible.

But if we become aware that the social systems that gave birth to us are the very social systems that are undermining the possibility of a livable future on this planet, can we continue to just go with the flow, to avoid asking the difficult questions?

Or will we become change agents who work slowly and steadily, drip by drip, to awaken those around us, those we love most, to the necessity of undertaking “the next evolutionary leap” in the human saga on the planet?


The Solutions are Hidden in Plain Sight–if you look through 21st century eyes

IMG_4806A lot of us in the Northeast are doing our share of grumbling this year about the Arctic air that just won’t go away.  Usually March is the time when the winds start to blow, the sap starts to rise, the snow melts into the thawing earth and our thoughts turn to snowdrops and crocus.

This year, we’re still in the deep freeze with a hardpack of snow on the ground, and no end in sight.

It’s all part of the erratic weather of our climate change era.  The question for all of us now is, how, beyond bitching and moaning, are we going to respond?

Most of us just shrug and turn the dial on the heater up a little higher, not thinking about what that very small, ordinary act really entails.

If your thermostat is wired into an oil burner or a natural gas furnace, like most homes and apartment buildings in the Northeast, then when you turn up the dial in response to the bitter cold you are, perhaps unwittingly, enabling, supporting and becoming an integral part of the very industry that is relentlessly destroying our climate.

The fossil fuel industry is not some demonic force outside of our control.  It’s just a human business that is responding to human needs for energy—lots and lots of energy.

We Americans are used to getting what we want, and what we’ve wanted, in the 50 years I’ve been on the planet, is ease.  What could be easier than turning a dial to make your house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, or gassing up your comfy car before you get on the freeway?

1_RussetLikewise in terms of agricultural production—we like to get our vegetables pre-washed and sometimes even pre-cut, all even-sized, no blemishes, laid out attractively in faux crates under spotlights in our upscale grocery stores.

When we buy that bag of potatoes or carrots, we’re not thinking about the tons of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and fossil fuels that went into making it easy for us to throw these items in our shopping cart.

We’re not thinking about the bees, butterflies and other valuable insects that have been driven to population collapse by industrial agricultural practices; or the huge dead zones in the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where fertilizer and chemical run-off from the Midwest runs down to the sea; or the millions of birds that are affected each year by the toxic chemicals we spread over the landscape.

We’re just throwing that bag of veggies into the cart, or turning up that dial.

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard of Industrial Capitalism has been revealed—and lo and behold, he wears the ordinary face of each one of us.

Every step we take on this beautiful, battered planet of ours matters.

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

I am heartened to know that this very weekend, one year after the big climate change rally in Washington DC that I attended in the hopes of pressuring the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL pipeline, thousands of activists, most of them college students, will be raising a ruckus at the White House gates to insist that the politicians stop gambling away their future.

Here in my backyard, in the Massachusetts-New York region, people have woken up to the fact that mile-long trains of crude oil and gas are being run through heavily populated neighborhoods.

We’re moving to block gas fracking in western Massachusetts as the sight of contaminated tap water in fracking regions brings the dangers right home.

We’re also starting to get serious about making solar energy accessible to homeowners and businesses.

UnknownThis week’s New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about a little-known scientific program to create a controlled thermonuclear fusion power plant.  Unlike the current fission plants, which burn radioactive fuel and generate dangerous waste, the fusion plant, if it were successful, would run indefinitely on seawater and lithium, with no waste.  It would be ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

Talk about an audacious plan!  You have to hand it to human beings, we are nothing if not hubristic.  It is our greatest strength and our most glaring weakness.

Why spend billions on creating an artificial sun here on earth?  Why not just learn from our cousins the plants, and start to use the sunlight we have more efficiently?

It’s time to take off our grimy 20th century glasses and start looking at the world and ourselves through 21st century eyes.  When we do, we’re going to find that the solutions to all the problems that beset us have been hidden in plain sight all along.

Infectious Hope

One of the things we are thinking about in my classes on social and environmental justice is whether it’s better, as an activist, to put your energies into a top-down or a bottom-up strategy.

Should we be trying to pressure governments, politicians and international organizations to do the right thing when it comes to, say, climate change policies?

Or should we be trying to ignite a whole series of grassroots, local, community-based changes?

Obviously it’s not an either-or proposition—it’s important to work at all levels.

But I notice that when I think about the big picture, I feel impotent and despairing.  Who is going to stop the massive deforestation of the planet?  How are we going to get the fat cats in corporations, governments and the United Nations to understand how critical it is to maintain forests and healthy agricultural soils so that they can function as the effective carbon sinks they are meant to be in our delicately balanced terrestrial eco-system?

It’s remarkable to note how my despair turns to hope when I turn my attention to the many local initiatives that I know are going on all over the globe.

When I think about how my hometown, Great Barrington MA, will be one of the first in the world to actually BAN PLASTIC BAGS in stores, my heart swells with pride.

Hope fills me to learn that Seattle is creating an innovative “Food Forest” in a city park, aiming to improve public health by regenerating public land into an edible forest ecosystem created using permaculture principles to reduce agricultural climate impact, improve local food security, provide educational opportunities, and celebrate growing food for the benefit of all species.

And when I hear that some of the incredibly powerful billionaires on the planet are using their money to try to turn the climate change juggernaut around—for example, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson—it makes me believe that all is not lost.

Both despair and hope are highly contagious.

It is easy to pay attention to the constant stream of depressing news and believe that the game is over, so there’s no point in trying anymore.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesJust as green plants poke their way stubbornly through asphalt and even the most blighted landscapes are always striving to regenerate, our Earth always tends towards life.

Every single species alive on the planet today, from humans to microbes, has survived many cataclysms and tough times in the past.  Just as we have before, we can rise to the challenges that face us today.

It really doesn’t matter whether your preferred approach is lobbying Washington DC or starting a Transition movement in your town.

The important thing is to stay alert, stay active and engage with others who understand that the choices we make day by day can, cumulatively, have a critical impact on our planetary future.

We cannot afford to be complacent or ignorant, and neither can we afford the luxury of despair.

Put your hope into action, one day at a time.  I truly believe that the bridge of hope we build together can take us over these dangerous times, into a future bright with promise.

Coming your way: the first-ever Sustainable Civilization Olympics

I know I’m exposing myself to hailstorms of rotten tomatoes and eggs, but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t care about the Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics either!

Every time one of these big annual sports events come around, all I can think about is if only people would put the same energy and enthusiasm into sustainable living on our planet, what a beautiful world it would be!

It’s fine that people want to spend all their time and energy toning up their bodies and becoming world-class athletes.  Hey, whatever floats your boat!

But if you’re going to become a badass athlete, why don’t you put your strength and prowess to work for the planet, super-hero style, rather than settling for winning medals and giving your ego some strokes?

The bare truth is that if we human beings put our collective minds to it, we can solve any problem.

Melting-Glaciers_in_Himalayas_top-10-list.org_-300x198Global warming, water shortages, acidification of the oceans, clean energy, you name it, we can handle it—if we just focus our time, resources and energies behind being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Here’s an idea: why don’t we have a Sustainable Civilization Olympics, complete with livestreams in the labs and testing grounds so that we can all follow along as various teams make progress on solving our global problems?

For those who can’t get excited about anything unless competition is involved, well, go for it!  We can have teams, play-offs, Super Bowls, you name it!

Just let’s get the job done, for heaven and earth’s sake!

And then, once we’re back on an even planetary keel, maybe we can spare the time for the kind of mindless entertainment that floods our airwaves each year on SuperBowl Sunday.

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