Which side are you on?

This past week was a perfect illustration of how many compelling distractions there are to the main business at hand.

After all, it’s much more interesting to focus on the good news of a Supreme Court blessing for gay marriage, or to follow the spy-novel intrigue of the Edward Snowden case, or to watch President Obama set foot in the tiny prison cell that kept Nelson Mandela captive for 18 years—much more fun than thinking seriously about the elephant in the room, climate change.

I was happy, and somewhat astonished, to see Obama finally seize that elephant by the tusks and deliver a speech that acknowledged how important climate change will be to our collective, planetary future.

Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

In the speech, Obama declared that “the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists…have now…acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

“As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader — a global leader — in the fight against climate change.”

To me what’s most important in this speech is that way that the President is appealing to the country as a father. 

Those of us who are parents know that there is no higher priority for us than the welfare of our children.

We practically kill ourselves to provide for our children.  We go into debt to buy them high-quality food, medical care and education.  We go without so that they can have whatever it is that they need.

We would never knowingly feed them poison.  We would never knowingly do something that would undermine their future.

And yet, let’s be honest: most of us are doing just that, all the time, every day.

If you buy your kid a fast-food meal, you are contributing to the Monsantification of the world.

If you drive your car, heat your house with fossil fuels, or run your air conditioner, you are contributing to the super-heating of the atmosphere.

The vaunted American lifestyle is the problem.  President Obama didn’t quite come out and say so in his speech, but it’s not hard to read between his carefully calibrated lines and see what he is implying.

“Someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?”

Yes, of course we all want that.

We don’t want to end up shivering and starving in a blighted, devastated world, knowing that it was our own greed and short-sighted stupidity that brought us to this point of no return.

If we care about our own dear children, we need to make improving our relationship with the planet a priority.

That means no more poisons, no more GMO food, no more fossil fuel extraction at the expense of the natural environment, no more heedless burning our way to kingdom come.

As the President said, “those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.”

Will have to live or die with the consequences of our decisions, that is.

Are you willing to condemn your grandson or granddaughter to a short, miserable existence on Earth, brought to a rapid end by climate-induced super-storms or famine?

I’m sorry to be so bald about it, but these are the stakes.

Which side are you on?  And what are you willing to do to ensure that future generations on this planet have a chance to enjoy the abundance and beauty that we and our parents have taken for granted?

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Talking Union with my Dad: A Father’s Day Tribute

I got my love of narrative and my awareness of social justice very early in life, from my father’s vast repertory of American folk songs.

My dad, Joe Browdy, learned guitar as a teenager in the 1950s, taking his inspiration from the great folk singers of the time, like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Cisco Houston, The Weavers and the New Lost City Ramblers.  He developed his repertoire while working as the music counselor at the camp where he and my mother met, and he continued to sing and play guitar for audiences while he earned his B.A. in history at Oberlin, and his law degree at NYU.

Joe Browdy and Alan Chartock

Joe Browdy and Alan Chartock

Some of my earliest memories are sitting with a group of relaxed, happy people by a crackling bonfire listening to my dad belting out his signature songs, with everyone joining in on the chorus.  Although there were some special children’s songs in his repertoire, he didn’t censor his songbook for me and my brother: we learned about the tragedies and the murders, the drunkenness and the fighting, wars, poverty and injustice, making sense of it as best we could over years of repetition.

Although he got busy with his law practice around the time that I was born, my dad  never stopped singing.  On Friday nights we’d get into the car around 8 p.m. for the two and a half hour ride to our country house in Hillsdale, N.Y., and to keep himself awake my dad would start singing, my mom adding her sweet tones in harmony on the chorus, my brother and I joining in sleepily when we knew the words.  On Saturday nights all through my childhood, our entertainment was to build a fire after dinner—outside in the summer, in the living room in the winter—and sit around it for a few hours, my dad leading us in the familiar songs that took us traveling far and wide in time, space, and experience.

The folk song tradition is a living oral history, passed from one generation to the next.  As soon as we could, my brother and I learned how to play guitar, and the words and tunes of those old songs now live on in us, and in our children who are learning them too.  With folk music, it’s not about the perfection of the sound, or the accuracy of the lyrics: it’s about the interest of the stories being told through music, and the emotion with which they’re conveyed.

My father has the ability to make the songs he loves come alive through the heartfelt nature of his singing and playing—getting slow and quiet for the tragic love songs, letting it rip and roar on the fighting union songs, modulating into a plaintive tone for his signature delivery of “One Meatball,” about a poor man who is sneered at by the waiter because all he can afford to buy is a single meatball for his dinner.  When my dad plays guitar, he’s not just singing some songs, he’s taking us on a journey through the American spirit.

Live at the Linda Norris Auditorium, Albany NY

Live at the Linda Norris Auditorium, Albany NY

Dad’s repertoire includes cowboy songs, songs about the laying of the train tracks across the West, and songs about the building of dams across mighty American rivers. There are feisty union songs from the 1920s and 30s; songs inveighing against the greed of bankers and bosses, and lamenting the hardships faced by miners, factory workers and farm hands. There are stirring political songs, about the founding of the United Nations, or the dream of world peace.

There are work songs from the African American South, about picking cotton or working on a train line, and older songs from the slave times, about dreaming of freedom, and making a break for it.  There are songs—some sad, some funny—about traveling around the country during the Dust Bowl refugee time.

There are many love songs, most of them mournful, bluesy songs about loves lost to drowning, train accidents, or just never heard from again.  But there are also some sweet romantic ballads about lifelong happiness spent by the side of one’s beloved.  The songs never fail to come alive when my dad adds his voice and driving guitar to the mix.

These days, my dad sings for the public most often with the Berkshire Ramblers, led by his old friends Alan and Roselle Chartock, and joined by a varying cast of other folk musicians.  But I still like it best when we sing together around a fire, not for an audience but just for our own amusement and delight.  This Father’s Day, I want to thank my dad for sharing this powerful, inspiring musical legacy with me, and so many others.  May the circle be unbroken!

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When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one

For the union makes us strong.

 

Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, solidarity forever

For the union makes us strong.

No more fish in the sea?

Last summer when I was in Nova Scotia, I wrote about how startled I was to struggle, in the local supermarket, to find anything but frozen fish with origin stamps of China and Southeast Asia.  The fresh fish offerings were meager, taking up just a small portion of the case allotted to them, and besides the lobsters, only the ocean trout and small haddock filets were wild caught.

product-lg-seafoodLast week, in a Puerto Rican supermarket, I had an unhappy feeling of déjà vu as I searched in vain for any locally caught seafood at all.  There was no fresh fish counter there, just a case of packaged frozen filets and shellfish, every one of them with their label pointing to China or India.

When I asked the locals about whether it was possible to get fresh fish on the island, they shook their heads.  “Maybe if you meet the fishing boats at the dock, they might sell you something,” one man told me.  “But it all goes to the restaurants and resorts.”

Other than crabs, there were few sea creatures to be seen on the beach, either.  One morning we watched a local man with snorkel gear and a fishing spear go back and forth in front of the beach collecting lobsters—undoubtedly illegally.

The only coral we saw was bleached and dead.

The amount of plastic garbage on the beach and in the coastal waters was depressing.

And although there was some bird life, it was thin, even in the beautiful coastal land designated as a “national wildlife refuge”: a single frigate bird, a couple of pelicans, a handful of herons and sandpipers.

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What frightens me is how quickly we normalize whatever situation we live in.

It’s normal now to live on an island surrounded by magnificent turquoise waters and not be able to find fresh local seafood to eat.

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It’s normal to buy water in plastic bottles and throw them casually away, without any clue of what happens to them once they’re deposited on the curb for the garbage men to pick up, and it’s normal to find those bottles washing up at the beach.

I_Fresh_Market_FishIt’s normal to return to the U.S. and find, in the local gourmet food store, a big gleaming fresh fish counter, with huge slabs of “sustainably farmed” salmon, leaner wild-caught Alaskan salmon ($25 a pound!), swordfish steaks, flounder filets, sea bass from Chile, fresh shellfish of every description.

Here in the heart of Empire, it’s normal to remain ignorant of the fact that this kind of abundance is rare, and carefully manufactured.

And when those who can afford that $25 a pound fish go abroad, they travel in bubbles of luxury that keep them cushioned in the comfortable delusion that all is well.

After all, in the restaurants at the resorts, there’s fresh salmon on the menu.  Never mind that it arrived on this Caribbean island packed in ice, on a flight from a fish farm in New Brunswick, New Zealand, or Scotland.

It’s normal, now, to feel sad but resigned to the fact that fish and seafood is becoming a rarity.

As omnivorous human beings, we have other choices. No seafood available?  Eat chicken then, or vegetables.

But what about the shorebirds and the ocean food chains that have evolved in tight symbiosis over millions of years?

Try telling a pelican or a seal to go eat some chicken.

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On the southern California coast this spring, there has been a wave of emaciated, starving sea lion pups washing up on the beaches.

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Starving sea lion pup being transferred to a rescue center for rehabilitation.

They’re starving because the fish their parents and grandparents caught so easily have been trawled up by factory fish vessels, frozen in plastic pouches and sent around the world on ice.

This is the new normal.

I am not resigned, and I will never get used to it.

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