What are we waiting for? Violence and climate change in our brave new world.

Finally, in the Sunday New York Times, a report giving empirical evidence of what we already knew intuitively, that climate change leads to violence, and that it’s going to get worse as the planet continues to warm.

For a couple of years now I’ve had a haunting premonition that violence is going to come even to the comfortable, beautiful corner of the world where I live.

We saw how fast tempers flared when Hurricane Sandy created gas shortages down in the New York metropolitan area.

What happens when our industrial food supply starts to fail, given the inevitable and already-occurring wildfires, droughts, tornados and floods?

When people get hungry, survival-of-the-fittest kicks in, and it will take serious riot police to keep order when the supermarkets run out of food.

The authors of the new report say that their findings “are particularly important for what they imply about the future. Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over the next half-century. Our results imply that if nothing changes, this rise in temperature could amplify the rate of group conflicts like civil wars by an astonishing 50 percent in many parts of the world — a frightening possibility for a planet already awash in conflict.”

Frightening indeed. What to do with this new knowledge?

The authors urge political leaders to “call for new and creative policy reforms designed to tackle the challenge of adapting to the sorts of climate conditions that breed conflict — for instance, through the development of more drought- and heat-resistant agricultural technologies.”

I hardly think that the answer lies in agricultural engineering.

In the time we have left before chaos sets in we should be re-localizing agriculture, setting up distributed energy networks and re-learning the old arts of drying, salting, canning and cold storing agricultural products.

Indian Line CSA, one of the first in the nation

Indian Line CSA, one of the first in the nation

We should also be disarming our civilian population and focusing on creating strong community networks of mutual support.

For all our cleverness, humans are just primitive beasts when our bellies are empty—primitive beasts armed, at least in Fortress America, with deadly assault weapons.

The nightmares of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan, not to mention Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, could easily start up here too, when food is scarce and sectarian violence begins to flare.

The truth is that we can’t rely on national and international leaders to undertake meaningful “policy reforms”—not when they are being held hostage by Big Carbon, Big Ag, Big Chemical/Pharma and Big Finance.

Delusional these corporate giants may be, but they will be going down with the ship holding fast to their belief in the value of limitless human economic growth, stable climate be damned.

We who believe that another world is possible need to hold fast to our own belief that the world won’t end when those giant glass towers in financial districts worldwide go down.

We can build that new world—not through technology and arms, but through community and collaboration.  Bottom-up, not top-down.

It’s true: we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  And given the impending climate crisis, there’s no point in waiting anymore.

Harvesting at Indian Line Farm, Berkshire County MA

Harvesting at Indian Line Farm, Berkshire County MA

I have a dream: the 20th century visions of King and Obama and the “fierce urgency” of our time

mlkihaveadreamgogoFifty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dreams with the American nation:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today!”

Today President Obama, himself the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, honored the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, telling us that because people in Dr. King’s generation marched for justice, “America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”


But Obama’s dream remains too limited.  He is still dreaming a 20th century dream of middle class jobs and security: the longing for a society offering  “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Such a scenario assumes the stability of the real workers of our economy: the trees and plankton that supply our oxygen and the microorganisms that make our crops grow.  It takes for granted steady, predictable rains and moderate temperatures.

We can no longer make such assumptions, and President Obama is wrong to preach to the nation as though 20th century problems and concerns were still paramount today.

Yes, the problem of the color line still exists in 21st century America.  The unemployed still need jobs.  The racial disparity in prison populations is disgraceful.  But these are not the most pressing issues of our time.

President Obama lauded the young of the 1960s for being “unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better.”

He argued that “that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.   We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains.”

In fact, we face even greater dangers today than in 1963, and it was dishonest of our President not to allude to the much more serious problems now bearing down on us full force: the juggernaut of global climate change.

The wildfires burning in California this week are the among largest ever recorded in the United States.

The rate of species extinction is faster now than it ever has been in the history of human civilization.

The ice melting at the poles promises to release heat-trapping methane gas at rates not seen since prehistoric eras.

Human population is on track to reach 9 billion or more in this century, way beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth.

We don’t know where all this is leading, but surely we cannot expect positive outcomes from these dramatic planetary shifts.

These interconnected environmental issues are the great challenges of our time, and it is to them that President Obama should have alluded, if he was being honest with himself and with the American people.

Whether or not the Syrians used chemical weapons against their own people; whether or not African Americans get to the voting booth; whether or not the American middle class sinks into poverty…all this will not matter at all when accelerating climate change begins to bring food shortages even to the most cosseted Americans.

Here is what our President should have said today:

‘I have a dream that Americans will step into a leadership role in the great fight of our time, the transition to a sustainable, renewable-energy-based society.

‘I have a dream that people of all nations, all creeds and from every culture on Earth will embrace our common challenge of finding ways to mitigate human damage to the planet, and adapt to the changes that are rapidly coming our way.

‘I have a dream that men and women from all over the globe will stand together, knowing that divided we will fall, but united we have a chance to safely ride out the storms that face us.’

My own personal dream is that our political leaders will stop lying to us, and will summon us to step up to the great ethical and empirical challenge of our time: creating lifeboats on which our children and grandchildren may sail safely into a sustainable future.

Queer Visions of a Better World

Bradley Manning at work

Bradley Manning at work

The news this week that Private Bradley Manning had come out as Chelsea made me think first that truth is way stranger than fiction, and second that it makes perfect sense that one of the most courageous warriors of our time would be a queer woman.

Gloria Anzaldua, who has been one of my heroines since I first read her seminal work Borderlands/La frontera back in the 1980s, always insisted that queer folk have a special role to play in bringing about a change in human consciousness—moving us from the patriarchal mold of the past 5,000 years or so to what she called “a new mestiza consciousness,” a much more holistic, inclusive, planetary awareness.

Anzaldua extended Virginia Woolf’s famous statement, in her anti-war tract Three Guineas, that “as a woman, I have no country.  As a woman, I want no country.  As a woman, my country is the whole world,” giving it a new queer mestiza twist:

Gloria Anzaldua

Gloria Anzaldua

“As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover.  (As a lesbian I have no race, my own people disclaim me; but I am all races because there is the queer of me in all races.)  I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world and our participation in it, a new value system with images and symbols that connect us to each other and to the planet.  Soy un amasamiento, I am an act of kneading, of uniting and joining that not only has produced both a creature of darkness and a creature of light, but also a creature that questions the definitions of light and dark and gives them new meanings.”

Because queer folk have lived in their own bodies this awareness of being more—more than meets the eye, more than can be limited by any label or category—Anzaldua believed that they would be able to lead the way towards a new human civilization founded not on dominance and subordination, not on hierarchies of value, not on black-and-white binary systems, but on synthesis and what she called “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity.”

Some, like Anzaldua herself, would be called upon to become what she called nepantleras, boundary crossers and bridge builders who would go through the wounds and pain of traumatic life experiences to access courage and wisdom to lead others into a new awareness of human potential.

Chelsea Manning is such a nepantlera.

Several years ago, in a class I offered on human rights, my students and I watched, horrified, a recently leaked video called “Collateral Damage,” which clearly showed a group of American soldiers in a helicopter searching out and gunning down unarmed Iraqi civilians who were simply talking together on a quiet, sunny, bombed-out village street.

Still image from the Wikileaks Collateral Damage video--before the machine guns started

Still image from the Wikileaks Collateral Damage video–before the machine guns started

The language the soldiers used as they hunted down their targets was straight out of a violent video game, which is probably where they had learned the shoot-em up skills they displayed.  But this was no game.  Of the several men who lost their lives that day, one was a journalist on assignment for the Western media, armed only with his digital camera.

My students and I agreed that we needed to know that this kind of behavior was taking place under the banner of the American flag.  Keeping us in the dark about the reality of what was happening in Iraq, at the cost of enormous sums of taxpayer monies, was a violation of the rights of every American citizen in whose name this war was being fought.

Many obviously agree: the clip “Collateral Damage” has now been viewed more than 14 million times on You-Tube. Only because of the courage of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange of Wikileaks, both now branded political heretics, did we find out this information.

imagesWe like to think that America is a free country, but it turns out that our freedom has very carefully regulated borders and boundaries.  We are free to dissent as long as we have a permit.

The World Wide Web knows no such boundaries.  It is truly a queer space, a space that has room for every kind of human activity and belief.  In exercising her freedom to circulate information on the Web, Chelsea Manning ran afoul of those who would try to dam the flow, controlling access to knowledge.

Some insist that it is essential that knowledge be controlled, in the name of national security, counter-terrorism, American interests, etc, etc.

It’s past time to start asking questions about whose interests are really served by restricting the free flow of information.

Are we going to become another China, where all individual freedoms are subordinate to the will of the State?  Has it already happened?

What all totalitarian states have eventually learned is that the more human beings are repressed, the more our will to resist is strengthened.

In this country, for the past few decades, our attention has been dulled by the opiates of the entertainment media, consumerism and drugs of many kinds.  A majority of us have slipped without even realizing it into a new form of labor bondage, in service to the almighty Bank, by whose credit and in whose debt we live.

During this time, the military-industrial-financial-media corporate conglomerates have grown huge and menacingly well-armed, to the point where it seems almost impossible that those of us who dare to imagine another way of living—another way of relating to the planet and to each other—might prevail.

We must not allow our vision of a better world to be limited by those who are currently in power.

We must insist on the freedom of the World Wide Web as a queer space for those who understand that “our country is the whole world.”

Chelsea Manning, I salute you!  You had the courage to shine a light into the dark corners of our government, no matter the consequences, and now you courageously step into the full measure of your own identity.

May we each learn to be so bold.

A Prayer to Mother Earth

Amazon rain forest

Amazon rain forest

In an emotional speech this week, the President Rafael Correa of Ecuador announced that he would be opening more of the country’s pristine Amazon rain forest to oil drilling, cancelling an earlier initiative to have wealthy countries fund the maintenance of a huge natural reserve.

The money simply did not come through, and Correa felt he had no other choice but to start selling oil drilling permits to the highest bidder, to keep his small country afloat.

This is terrible news for the planet.

Once again, short-term gain is being put over longterm health.

My mind immediately leaps to all the animals and people who live in that green and glowing forest, who will soon be hearing the whine of the chain saw and the roar of the bulldozer, and smelling the bitter odor of ancient oil fouling land and water.

Species we have not even met yet will perish.

Of course, this is happening every day, all over the planet.  But when you hear about yet another safety wall being breached, opening up a brand new, as-yet-untouched area to drilling, you have to stop and say a silent prayer.

A prayer to what, to whom?  What power can stop the relentless spread of our destructive species over this globe?

To me it seems clear that only Gaia herself can do it, by her usual methods—fire, flood, famine, great shaking of land and sea.  Epidemics of viruses and bacteria.  It has happened before and it will—it must—happen again.

I know I sound apocalyptic here, but apocalypse is in the air.

I don’t believe in a conventional form of afterlife, but I do believe that when we die our bodies return to the earth, and our spirits return to the energetic field of the planet.

We will return to the great dance of life in this biosphere.  Time is different there—fluid, stretched, endlessly long.  Our little human lifetimes are no more than brief flashes, like the shooting of stars against the August night sky.

Human beings do represent a great leap from the last dominant species on the planet, the dinosaurs.  But unlike the dinosaurs, when we perish it will be by our own hands—by our drills, our combustion engines and our inability to curb our own numbers.

My prayer is to our great Mother Earth, that she welcome us back into her bosom when we fall, and bring us back into the fold of endless regeneration.  If some of us humans survive the cataclysms that await, I pray we become wiser in our use of our tremendous, tragic intelligence.

We are the Albatross

Lately I have been wondering how on earth it was possible to live without plastic.

I’m not even talking about marvelous inventions like disposable contact lenses, PVC piping, or neoprene wetsuits.

I’m just thinking about my kitchen routine, and how much I rely on—and take for granted—a never-ending stream of plastic wrap, plastic bags, and plastic containers as I go about my daily business.

I am so habituated to using plastic that I really had to ponder a while on the question of alternatives, until finally I remembered glass.  Of course, my grandmothers must have had a big shelf full of glass jars that they washed and re-used to store food in.

I also remembered that back in the 1980s, when I visited my in-laws in Mexico, I was surprised to see that they did not have any plastic wrap or boxed plastic bags in their kitchen.  They put things like cold cuts on plates, covered with another plate.  They left their leftover soups, stews and rice in the cooking pots, and placed them in the refrigerator with the lids on.

It also astounded me to see that in that household of seven, with numerous friends and relatives always dropping in for a meal, there was no trash container in the kitchen.  My mother-in-law saved plastic bags that she got when she went, once every couple of weeks, to the supermarket, and used these to collect the small amount of garbage that accumulated day to day.  Their little dog ate most of the food scraps, and they just didn’t generate that much of any other kind of garbage.


Because they bought their meat and produce from the little market down the street, carrying it home in their heavy-duty mesh bags (once made of straw, by the 1980s these were made of plastic threads).  My mother-in-law had a round wire egg basket that she’d bring to the market to refill.  The poultry would come from the butcher stand wrapped in paper, and rice or beans would come in brown paper bags.

There was just hardly any packaging.  And packaging, I’ve come to realize, is what generates most of the kitchen garbage in an ordinary American household like mine.

Here in Canada, we are mandated to separate our garbage carefully.  The bottles, cans and plasticized paper containers go in one bin, the paper and cardboard in another, and the compostable items in a small bin under the sink.  Then there’s the “trash.”  That’s the one where all the miscellaneous plastic packaging and used plastic bags go, and it tends to be the most bulky.

Since I watched the marvelously poignant and persuasive film BAG IT a few weeks ago (shout out to my friend and neighbor Anni Crofut for making us dinner and sitting us down to watch the film!), I have not been able to look at plastic trash in the same way.

The film starts from a simple question: why on earth would we use as our primary disposable material an indestructible synthetic chemical known to be an endrocrine disrupter and carcinogen?

And yet we do, over and over, in vast quantities.  We buy our drinks in plastic bottles and toss the empties in the trash.  We walk out of the superstore with carts piled high with groceries packed into small plastic bags.  We bring home our carrots in one plastic bag, our potatoes in another, and if they don’t come pre-bagged, we pull off a plastic bag from the conveniently placed roll and fill it ourselves.

Most of these bags will be dumped into the trash bin by the next day, and we’ll put them out of our houses in bigger plastic trash bags, and not give another thought to what may become of them next.

Some of our plasticized culture is being used to build huge land-fill mountains visible from space.  But a lot more of it is ending up in the oceans, where it becomes an indigestible, non-degradable part of the food chain.

These photographs by artist Chris Jordan, of dead albatross on Midway Atoll, near Hawaii, tell a tragic story.




Look a little deeper into what’s happening to our thoughtless use and disposal of plastic, and you’ll learn about the vast gyres of rotating plastic trash out in the oceans, some as big as the state of Texas.

You’ll discover that the chemicals that compose plastic are gyrating around in human blood streams and fat as well, causing cancer and hormonal malfunction. 

American plastics are exported all over the world.  My Mexican mother-in-law now has plastic wrap and plastic bags in her kitchen, and if the plastics industry had its way, so would households from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and beyond.

Plastic is a fabulous, miraculous material and of course it’s not something we can imagine of doing without.  But there is such a thing as compostable plastic, made of  plant-derived chemicals that do break down again.

IMG_2956IMG_2954Once the Canadian government mandated that compost had to be disposed of in compostable bags, manufacturers like Glad stepped right up and began producing the necessary product.

It’s not even much more expensive than petroleum-based plastic bags—this box of 20 bags sells for $2.99 here in Nova Scotia, and I bet if I shopped around I could find them for less.

This is an issue where ordinary consumers can have a big impact.

We can remember to bring our reusable bags to the grocery store, including the small bags or containers for produce and bulk foods.

We can wean ourselves off plastic bottles for drinks, except on those unavoidable occasions, like in airports where we’re not allowed to bring in our own bottles of water or other liquids.

We can be much more thoughtful about our use of plastic wrap and other disposable plastics in the kitchen.

We can talk with our friends and families like my friend Anni did with me, trying to gently raise awareness.  We can even bring it up with our local government officials and see if we can get local ordinances passed banning plastic bags in supermarkets.

I am proud to say that the little town of Great Barrington, MA, where I live, is one of the first towns in the country to do just that.

The plastics industry would like nothing better than for everyone to use as much plastic as we possibly can, and throw it away just as fast.  What happens to the trash is not their concern.

But if we care about the health of our oceans, airs and land, as well as the very chemistry of our bodies, it is our concern.

And we have more power than we realize.  The fossil fuel industry depends on the docile cooperation of all of us fossil fuel addicts.  Sometimes I really think that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on between the fossil fuel, agri-chemical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries, who act as a giant many-tentacled cabal that sucks us in, addicts us to their products, and then watches complacently as we become sick and dependent on expensive tests and treatments.

We do not have to fall for this any longer!  It’s not hard to eat healthy, it’s not hard to bring your own bags to the supermarket, it’s not hard to ride your bike or at least decide to purchase a hybrid car next time around.

IMG_3145 copyWhat is hard is to isolate yourself from a contaminated natural world.  It simply can’t be done.  Our land, oceans and air are an extension of us.  We are the world, the world is us, as Joanna Macy recognized long ago.  That’s why we have to be concerned about what’s happening with the plastic trash in the oceans, or the greenhouse gases in the air, or the toxic chemicals in the soil.

The bottle caps and syringes that the poor albatross is carrying around may be bigger and easier to see, but the truth is that each of us carries an unbearable burden of toxins in our own bodies every day.

And we’re doing it to ourselves, by our own unconscious collaboration with the industries that are sickening us and our world.

It’s time to say ENOUGH, disengage ourselves from the herd, and stand up for what we know is right.  Be the change.  Be the change.

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