What do we do now, in this bleak autumn of 2017?

Autumn in New England is a beautiful season, when the trees delight us by transforming into brilliant torches of color—gold, red, orange, each tree seeming to compete with her sisters to be the most beautiful and eye-catching of all.

Not this year.

It seems fitting, symbolically speaking, that in 2017 the leaves are simply browning off: shriveling up and falling to the ground in the tree version of heat exhaustion as we plod through a September oppressed by record-breaking high temperatures. In the photos below, the colors on the left belong to October 2016; the almost-bare maple on the right was photographed in mid-September, 2017.

We can no longer talk about climate change as though it were a concern for the future, something our grandchildren will have to contend with.

It’s here.

The monster hurricanes hurtling up out of the super-heated ocean; the millions of acres of dead trees in the West, victims of heat-loving pine bark beetles; the dangerous wildfires consuming all that dead timber; the heat surges in places that used to be reliably cool, like the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic…the only natural disasters we can’t blame on climate change are the earthquakes, and those just seem like angry shrugs from Gaia, the earth goddess, ready to dislodge the invasive hordes of humans that have so disrupted her smooth, harmonious ecological systems.

If, as I’ve perceived for some time now, the personal, the political and the planetary are interlocking systems, overlapping rings in a Venn diagram of human existence, then of course it’s to be expected that the imbalances in the natural world are being mirrored and echoed in disruptions in the political landscape and in our personal lives and awareness.

You feel it, don’t you? To tune into the news is to receive a jolt of anguish, like a powerful electrical charge running through a downed wire—dangerous, unpredictable, out of control.

So a lot of us are tuning out, in self-protection. There is just too much bad news to absorb, and all the disasters are blurring together—the terrorist attacks, the natural disasters, the political horrors that daily revive prejudices and hatreds we hoped were long dead.

Those of us who still have the privilege and luxury of sitting on the sidelines—in safe, intact homes, with enough food and clean water, electricity tamely offering itself in sockets and gas at the ready on our stoves—we watch the bedlam going on elsewhere with dread, knowing that any day it could be our turn.

We’re frozen in the headlights of an inexorable future, just waiting and watching those brown leaves fall.

There have been other times in history when it was possible to see the storm clouds brewing, and people had the time and the choice to act. Germany in the 1930s, for example. With Nazism on the rise, some Jews and other targeted people saw the swastikas on the wall and made the decision to get the hell out while they could, even if it meant leaving behind all their worldly possessions. They chose life, and their descendants thank them for it.

There are eerie parallels with pre-war Germany in the United States today. Zombie haters rise again, and don’t even bother to hide their faces—why should they, with one of their own squatting brazenly in the White House itself?

But now not only is the political landscape roiling, but also the natural landscape. It’s a double whammy, the political and the planetary way off balance, and sucking all of us into a vortex of hurricane strength.

What should we be doing now? I think you know the answers.

Get to higher ground, literally and symbolically. Try to get yourself and your loved ones out of harm’s way, even as you acknowledge that in 2017 nowhere on Earth is truly safe.

In the dystopic futures that so many of our writers are imagining for us lately, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, or how big or well-furnished your house is. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career or where you went to college.

What matters, ultimately, is what has always mattered: the quality of our relationships. Our love for each other, and the way we express that love and caring. We don’t need electricity for that, or credit cards.

This is what John Steinbeck was showing us in the heart-wrenching final scene of Grapes of Wrath, when a young woman whose baby has just died offers her streaming breast to a starving old man.

Grapes of Wrath wasn’t science fiction. Steinbeck was describing the world as he observed it, to an audience that hadn’t yet felt that kind of dire need.

There is not much we as individuals can do to alter the future. The hurricane of climate change is already on its way; the political tornadoes spawned by the Republicans are already wreaking havoc.

Of course, we can stay engaged politically and work for a change of leadership in 2018. But we have to be clear-eyed about the fact that even under Democratic leadership, the U.S. has drifted into ever-more-dangerous waters.

Maybe it’s time to lower the lifeboats and try to get away from the mother ship while that’s still possible. By which I mean, lesson our dependence on nation and build up independence and resiliency on the local level, for ourselves and our communities.

If that sounds like libertarianism, well, we live in strange times.

We humans are located in the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram of personal, political and planetary. What we do in our personal lives radiates outward, with real, palpable effects.

The message in the sad brown leaves of autumn 2017 is this: now is the time to cultivate love at home, build up your resiliency and make friends with your neighbors. What else are we alive for, in these turbulent, discomfiting transition times?

 

 

 

 

Coping with Non-stop Catastrophe

I can’t help feeling a bizarre sense of surreality as I enjoy a lovely, peaceful, golden September afternoon here in New England while at the same time being deeply plunged into virtual reality, watching the slow but inexorable progress of Hurricane Irma across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

It’s like living life in a constant state of split-screen.

On the left, there’s my ordinary life, which (thankfully) is at the moment moving forward without much drama.

On the right, there are the dark clouds, howling winds and rising seas of the storms—literal and metaphorical—that are sweeping over other parts of the USA and the world.

The hurricane is an apt weather-metaphor for the tumultuous weeks since the American solar eclipse on August 21. We’ve had more intense news packed into these few weeks than seems possible.

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How are we to maintain our balance, focus and peace of mind when we’re being whipsawed from a Nazi/KKK riot in Charlottesville to an insane dictator in North Korea playing with nuclear missiles to an epic flood in Texas to the racist anti-immigrant president pardoning a known criminal (Sheriff Arpaio) and preparing to deport nearly a million hard-working Dreamers to record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast to the biggest, meanest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic to a once-in-a-century earthquake in Mexico…and it just goes on and on and on.

Compared with figuring out how to survive a hurricane, or how to clean up a city devastated by one, my split-screen dilemma is trivial. But it is a strange polarity that I must navigate every day: staying aware of all the dire circumstances people are living through, while not getting so caught up in that virtual reality—other people’s lives—that I neglect my own, or become immobilized by anxiety and depression.

41DVsVYbnRL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_I wonder if this will be a new diagnosis for the psychiatrists to label and record in their DSM? They could call it virtual reality anxiety syndrome, with complications of depression and insomnia.

Part of the anxiety comes from the awareness that it’s only a matter of time before the camera comes swinging around to me and my part of the world. Right now all is peaceful…but the big one will be heading my way soon too, whether it’s an unprecedented snowstorm or a New York City bombing or car attack or water poisoned by chemicals or a crazy man going amuck with a semi-automatic rifle. All of this has happened already, and will continue to happen…there is no escaping the rapid and deadly beat of life in the 21st century.

So the question becomes how to live with this knowledge while remaining open, empathetic, curious, upbeat—how to live each day as a marvelous gift to be unpacked with delight, while sending love and concern to the other half of the screen—the people who have the misfortune to be dealing with the storm systems now.

How do we keep enjoying life without being overcome with guilt, sorrow and rage at the way others are, at the same exact minute, being forced to suffer?

I am doing the best I can. How about you? I’d be very grateful for any suggestions you may have about how to manage “virtual reality anxiety syndrome” better.

And now, back to you, Irma.

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“Houston, we have a problem.” Heeding Harvey’s Message for Humanity

Water is Life.

Unless it’s coming at you by the trillions of gallons, blown on hurricane-force winds. Then water can be death. And death also lurks in the water that lingers after the storm, contaminated with chemicals, fossil fuels, sewage and decomposing bodies.

Although evangelical preachers may be tempted to blame the storm on the sins of individual Texans, the blame must be spread much more widely, and it has nothing to do with conventional Christian understandings of sin.

We have brought this destruction down on ourselves by our actions and inactions—that much is true. And we have the power to right the wrongs and avoid or at least lessen the catastrophes still to come.

I don’t know if anyone has done a “budget analysis” of which country, on a per capita basis, bears the most responsibility for climate change, but I bet America is right up there at the top.

On a deeper level, Americans have been the great influencers of the 20th century, especially the post-World War II era when the fossil and chemical industries really took off. In trying to keep up with the Americans, the rest of the world followed suit, and everything seemed almost too good to be true, for a while.

What gave us the arrogant notion that Mother Earth would endlessly tolerate the warming of the oceans, logging of the forests, chemical dousing of the prairies, wholesale destruction of millions of species and industrial-scale torture of domesticated animals? Did we really expect to be able to mine and drill and burn and drain and pave without any consequences?

I don’t believe in “Mother Earth” as a Kali-like goddess bent on vengeance; but as Gaia, a living system striving to stay balanced and flourish through every living particle of her being, our planet will naturally seek to return to the steady state that humans have destroyed in the past fifty or so years.

Gaia has her own ways of curbing an invasive species. Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts, earthquakes, epidemics…these are not acts of a vengeful God but the natural biofeedback methods of our planet, seeking stasis and harmony.

This is no comfort to Texans going back to destroyed homes and neighborhoods this weekend. It’s no comfort to the rest of us on the East Coast, keeping a wary eye on the next hurricane churning in our direction across the Atlantic, Category 3 Hurricane Irma.

 

In the old days, a preacher could look out at a grieving, distressed congregation and offer the solace that death and disaster were part of God’s plan. The message was to bow our heads and humbly accept the suffering as part of the human experience.

But these early 21st century “natural” disasters are neither divine retribution nor a cross we must bear as the price of being human.

The mind-blowing tragedy of Houston and the surrounding area is the simple result of human arrogance, shortsightedness, greed and stupidity.

  • Build petro-chemical plants on salt-water marshes along the ocean and see what happens.
  • Build housing developments on low-lying land along rivers and bayous and watch them flood.
  • Burn fossil fuels as fast and hard as you can, even when you know the consequences of over-heating the atmosphere—can you really feign surprise when storms come up out of the hot oceans?

Harvey was preceded by Sandy and Irene and Katrina…it will be followed by more and more staggering storms, until we finally get the message: we cannot continue to live as though the world were our sewer.

We cannot continue to focus our intelligence on developing ever-more-destructive weapons and toxic chemicals, on engineering feats that ride roughshod over natural habitats and drive other members of the Earth community over the cliff of extinction.

Our intelligence is desperately needed now, but in the service of Life, not Death.

Water is Life. Air is Life. Earth is Life. The good Fire of our Sun is Life.

But only when these elements are balanced and respected. Out of balance, rendered toxic, they spell our doom.

It is late, but not too late, to pull our planet back from the brink of the major reset she’s tracking towards.

If the preachers want to send a useful message, how about reminding people of our responsibility to steward the Earth? When the floods came in Biblical times, Noah built an Ark, not just for himself and his family, but for all the creatures on Earth.

We must recognize our entire planet, our Gaia, as a precious, sacred Ark of Life, for which we are the pilots and tenders.

She is sending us wake-up call after wake-up call. Are we awake yet?

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Hurricane Harvey from the International Space Station, 8/25/17. Credit: NASA European Pressphoto Agency

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