Saving the World: It Starts with You

Every week seems to come with news of more trouble in the natural world. This week it was the report of dozens of emaciated gray whale mothers washing up dead on the U.S. Pacific coast, starved to death. Scientists say that only 10% of dead whales generally end up on the beaches, so this could be the remnants of a much larger die-off of yet another species succumbing to the drastic changes roiling our oceans.

If the oceans are in trouble, our entire planet is in trouble, as the oceans are our great climate stabilizer. It’s hard to imagine a warm, acidified ocean empty of most life besides, perhaps, jellyfish and creatures of the deep dark canyons. Yet this is where we’re going, and fast. It’s not clear whether anything we do now can reverse the huge planetary climate changes that have been set in motion by human population growth and industry.

So where does that leave us, as people who are aware of the unfolding catastrophe of climate disruption? Do we curl up and hide under the covers until the waters rise and sweep us away? Do we hedonistically make hay while the sun shines, telling ourselves that we all have to die anyway? Or do we roll up our sleeves and do what we can to adapt to our rapidly changing world, and mitigate the impact on ourselves, our children and all the other innocent species now in the crosshairs?

I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe that what we do now, as individuals and as societies, matters. In fact, a large part of our so-called environmental problems are really social and psychological problems.

In the last century, as the fossil-fuel and chemical industries have exploded, we humans have lost touch with our ancient connection to the natural world of which we are a part. Our leaders, in their climate-controlled towers, have forgotten that we are entirely dependent on plants and bacteria for our air and food—the forests and grasses of the land, as well as the plankton and plants of the sea. Perhaps they imagine an artificial world, like the Dome experiments, where the entire biosphere is created by humans. But what kind of existence would that be?

The great task of our time is to reconnect humanity with our planet, rekindling our awareness of our role as stewards of the great oceans and landscapes of our beautiful home. C.G. Jung, writing in the wake of the horrors of World War II, was prescient in his diagnosis of the problem of humanity as being a disconnect from our ancient reverence for the Earth. To heal our relationship with the planet, he said, we must first heal ourselves:

“The tempo of the development of consciousness through science and technology was too rapid and left the unconscious, which could no longer keep up with it, far behind, thereby forcing it into a defensive position which expresses itself in a universal will to destruction….This problem cannot be solved collectively, because the masses are not changed unless the individual changes. At the same time, even the best-looking solution cannot be forced upon him, since it is a good solution only when it is combined with a natural process of development. It is therefore a hopeless undertaking to stake everything on collective recipes and procedures.

The bettering of a general ill begins with the individual, and then only when he makes himself and not others responsible. This is naturally only possible in freedom, but not under a rule of force, whether this be exercised by a self-elected tyrant or by one thrown up by the mob” (C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 349; emphasis mine).

It appears that the best thing each of us can do for the health of our planet is to stay awake to what is happening, as painful as it may be to witness; to grieve the irrevocable losses of this great transition time; and to share our new awareness honestly and openly with those around us.

This is the work Joanna Macy pioneered with her Work That Reconnects, which invites us to deep empathy with the more-than-human world: grieving over the dying whale mothers and their doomed calves as we stare wide-eyed into a starkly changed future, remembering that such changes have happened before in geological time. Inevitably, the planet will restore herself and begin creating anew, in the fierce will to life that  philosopher Andreas Weber calls “enlivenment.”

Margaret Mead said long ago, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

More recently, political analysts like Erica Chenoweth have demonstrated that big societal changes can come from the concerted efforts of a relatively small percentage of the population: if just 3.5% of the population work hard for change, it can happen, and often does.

So if you care about the well-being of oceans, fresh water, forests and prairies and mountains…if you care about the well-being of every denizen of our beautiful planet… know that the best thing you can do is to stand up and be counted.

Share your feelings with friends and neighbors. Show up for meetings and rallies to protect the lands and waters in your backyard. Take the children in your life out into nature and open their eyes to the beauty and grace of our common home, Earth.

These times are filled with grief and upheaval, yes. But there are also so many opportunities, every day, to work for the thriving future we wish for our descendants and all the bright creatures of the planet. Now is our time. Let’s make good use of it.

Join me for a deeper dive into the inner work necessary for effective earth activism: “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future,” September 22 at the summit of Mount Greylock, MA; September 26 at the Transformational Language Arts conference in Scottsdale AZ; and October 20 at the Bioneers conference, San Rafael CA. More information here. 

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Extinction Rebellion 2019: Power Concedes Nothing Without A Demand

Last night I added the Extinction Rebellion frame to my Facebook profile photo, a gesture of support and admiration for the brave protesters around the world who are putting their bodies on the line to stop business as usual and focus attention on the most important matter at hand: restabilizing the life systems of our planet.

Greta Thunberg, our charismatic climate change Joan of Arc, told EU leaders bluntly this week, “Forget Brexit! Focus on the climate!” Here in the US, our political system is in an uproar over the Mueller report, which has had the effect of poking an already-angry nest of politician-ants, sending them all into a scurrying frenzy. And over in France, the mourning continues for Notre Dame, though people are questioning how it was easy to produce the millions needed to restore the cathedral, while money for restoring social stability and human services cannot be found.

Along with Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, I say:

It is past time to stop feeding the greedy maw of the global corporate capitalist extractivist “limitless growth” economy.

It is past time to rally around the banner of Life and recognize the Divine in every expression of Life on this planet, from the tiniest plankton in the sea to the great pulsing soul of a mountain.

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Maybe one of the reasons I found the crash of the two Boeing 737 Max airplanes so unsettling was because the analogy to our current situation, as passengers aboard the capitalist machine, seems so apt.

The system has been programmed in such a way that even thinking, caring, competent humans are unable to avoid disaster.

I have the panicked feeling that we…are…all…going…DOWN.

But we are not there yet. And the protesters on London Bridge, like the youth climate strikers last month and the Green New Dealers in the US, are proof positive that the passengers are awake, aware and unwilling to go down without doing everything possible to overcome our suicidal societal auto-pilot.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Power and greed together, in the hands of the men (mostly white men) who rule this world, are a dangerous combination. Power and greed sent hundreds of those 737 planes out into the skies with a fatal flaw that caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.

Power and greed are ripping up the Amazon rainforest and razing the Canadian boreal forest; trawling the seas, fracking the land, and sending deadly poisons into our waters.

The sickening of Life on the planet, in all its forms including homo sapiens, is well underway. The extinctions are proceeding in an ever-accelerating cascade as the Holocene gives way to the grim, grimy Anthropocene.

Today I stand with Extinction Rebellion in spirit if not in body, to shout at that deaf, blind, deadly machine of global capitalism: NO MORE!!!

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The image reminds me of brave Rachel Corrie, who stood before an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 to protest the razing of Palestinian homes, and was crushed under its treads.

Protesting against powerful greedy men and their machines is dangerous. But we’re at the point where NOT protesting is equally dangerous.

Are we going to sit numbly in our seats as Life as we know it on the planet goes down?

Or are we going to get ourselves mobilized on the side of all the sweet innocents of this planet and do the best we can to steer the ship to safety?

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It’s not a matter of whether or not it’s possible to change course and avert disaster. We know what needs to be done, and we know how to do it.

We still have time to shift to renewable energy and regenerative agriculture, renounce ecocidal chemicals, build resilient cities and towns, repair and renew the frayed social fabric of our peoples and reconnect on a soul level with the other life forms who share our planetary home.

These shifts start with the personal, with our conscious decision to stand for Life; and move out into the political, as we link arms with others sharing our planetary goals and become a force that the greedy politicians and CEOs can no longer ignore.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

It was Frederick Douglass who said those words back in 1857, when the idea of abolition must have seemed quixotic to many. He went on, “Find out just what a people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted…. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

People, let us endure no more. So much depends on what we choose to do now.

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**For more inspiration, tune in to the Climate Change & Consciousness Conference (CCC19) starting today at Findhorn, Scotland; many of the keynotes, including Bill McKibben and Charles Eisenstein, will be streamed around the world to “hubs,” including here in western Massachusetts. And if you’re in the Berkshires, consider coming to my workshop on Saturday April 27, which will provide an opportunity to write and share about “climate change and consciousness” in good company. Namaste.

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World on Fire: Rebuilding Notre Dame is Only the Beginning

We don’t know, today, how and why Notre Dame’s roof caught fire on April 15. What we do know is that it happened on the very same day that the Extinction Rebellion protests also caught fire, especially in London but also sending sparks all over the world.

These direct action protests are reminiscent of the old Occupy movement, but with added urgency, as now we are concerned not just about income inequality, but about the much broader, more looming collapse of our planetary ecosystems and the very survival of life on Earth as we know it.

Various voices on social media have been pointing out that the roof of Notre Dame was made of some 1,500 giant, ancient oak trees, harvested from more than 50 acres of old-growth forest near Paris. Some accounts put the age of these trees at 400 years, meaning that they were seedlings in the 800s AD. They gave their lives to build that majestic cathedral, and now they have returned to the carbon cycle as ashes and dust.

The cathedral will be rebuilt. But what about the trees?

It is now rare to find a 50-acre stand of old-growth trees anywhere on the planet. The Amazon, under Brazil’s Trump-like new president, is being cut down at alarming, ever-accelerating rates. The boreal forest in the Arctic Circle is also being razed for oil extraction, timber and mining, as well as under siege from climate change. The great tropical forests of Indonesia and Africa are being harvested for lumber to build houses and furniture.

It’s one thing to harvest ancient trees reverently and use them to construct a sacred place of worship, as the medieval builders of Notre Dame did.

It’s another thing to clear-cut forests with giant machines and use them to build deck chairs.

Today we know how dependent we are on our planet’s forests and other plant life. The great Amazon rainforest is the primary generator of the weather patterns that enable us to grow food in the northern hemisphere. Tree roots support the mycorrhizal networks that nourish healthy soil. With every breath, we sustain ourselves on the oxygen they produce.

For me, trees have a value that goes beyond the essential “ecosystem services” they provide.

I am not a person who worships the divine in a church. When I want to connect with the sacred, I go to the forest.

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There is something in the way trees send their roots deep into the Earth and their branches way up to the sky that symbolizes for me the role of all life on Earth—rooted here, and yet connected and energized by our Sun and the entire Cosmos, which we still barely comprehend. I go to the forest to try to understand more deeply who I am and what I am here to do.

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral reminds me of the task before me; before us as a human species. Yes, we have to rebuild Notre Dame. But even more importantly, we have to rebuild the health of our planet.

We have to mobilize to push world leaders—political, business, financial, industrial—to take immediate, effective action to reverse the existential threat of climate disruption and environmental destruction in order to avoid planetary and civilizational collapse.

We don’t have to stretch very far to imagine our world on fire.

IT IS ON FIRE.

It’s not hard to imagine the collapsing spire of Notre Dame representing the extinction of yet another species on Earth.

For now, the stone structure still survives. The rose windows are still intact. It’s still possible to rebuild.

But we will not be able to rebuild the Amazon rainforest or the boreal forest in Alaska, Canada, China and Russia. If the forests go, the climate will be disrupted beyond the point of repair. The Holocene will be over, and the Anthropocene, the brief period of human ascendancy, will also come crashing down.

Life will persist on Earth. Gaia will regenerate. But it will be the end of civilization as we have known it.

There is still time to put out those fires. This is, as I wrote last week, an all-hands-on-deck moment. Whatever your gifts and abilities, now is the time to put them at the service of Life, of Beauty, of the Sacred understood as inextricably in relationship with the Earth and the Cosmos.

Rebuild Notre Dame, yes. But that is only the beginning.

 

An All-Hands-On-Deck Moment

In reading the recent back and forth between Jeremy Lent and Jem Bendell, I have the feeling I’m watching two great intellectual stags locking horns, jockeying with each other for dominance. These two climate philosophers are quite polite as they tear into each other’s work, and I think they both mean well. But do we have time, really, for this kind of academic jousting?

Does it really matter whether we counsel “transformative hope” (Lent) or “positive deep adaptation” (Bendell)? Does it matter whether we say social/environmental collapse is “likely” (Lent) or “inevitable” (Bendell)?

Both thinkers are really going for the same outcome, which is a cultural shift into confronting the seriousness of our current predicament (as a species, but also in terms of the stability of our planetary ecosystems). Both acknowledge that we may have to take some time to work through our despair and grief over the inevitability of change; and that ultimately we will need to turn to our neighbors and do our best to salvage what we can as we power down the old western civilization and power up, hopefully, the “ecological civilization” Lent has been calling for.

I am grateful to both of these guys, along with George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg, for getting climate breakdown and social collapse out of the realm of dystopian cli-fi and into the mainstream media.

Yes, what they are saying is scary. We are living through scary times—not just because of the current occupants of the White House, but because of the increasing chaos in our planetary life support systems. The Holocene is coming to an end, the Anthropocene is beginning, and it’s going to be a hard time for most species on Earth—human beings very much included.

We have to talk about this, and we can’t sugar-coat it. We humans need a wake-up call in the strongest terms, and sometimes a little fearmongering is necessary. It’s all very well for Charles Eistenstein to say that we need to come at the climate issue from a place of love rather than fear, but let’s be real. How many of the 7.6 billion people on the planet are in a strong enough relationship with Gaia to be motivated, purely out of love, to work hard to resuscitate and stabilize her?

But if you show people pictures of wildfires, flooding, hurricanes and droughts; if you tell them that agricultural systems are threatened, that climate refugees are already on the move, and that the entire natural food chain is collapsing both on land and sea…well, you might just be able to get their attention.

Right now we’re in a kind of agonizing slo-mo catastrophe. Sometimes it’s so slow that you can fool yourself into thinking everything’s fine. That’s why the work that Lent, Bendell, Monbiot, Thunberg and other activists are doing is essential—saying loud and clear, in no-nonsense terms, that THINGS ARE NOT FINE.

Although the Gaian indicators have never been worse, I find myself more hopeful now that I was a few years ago, when even a “good guy” like President Obama was posing with fossil fuel pipes behind him and refusing to kill the Keystone XL. At least we don’t have that kind of liberal hypocrisy running the show anymore.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal make me hopeful.

The Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion make me hopeful.

Student climate strikes make me hopeful.

The worldwide interest in the Findhorn Climate Change & Consciousness conference makes me hopeful.

I find hope in my own small contributions towards waking people up and helping them find their way to what Joanna Macy calls “active hope.” For example, in the workshop I’ll be giving here in the Berkshires on April 27, “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary for a Thriving Future.”

I would like to see Jem Bendell and Jeremy Lent go out for a beer and work out their ego-driven differences with some good old-fashioned humor and humility. We need all hands on deck now, pulling together into the thriving future we yearn for.

We are the World: A Rededication of Transition Times

It’s been a long time since I’ve written regularly in Transition Times. There’s a reason for it: the calamity of Trump stealing the 2016 election. After that, the bad news began to come so fast and furious that a) it was impossible to keep returning the volley, so to speak, with sufficient intensity; and b) life became exhausting, demoralizing and depressing. It was hard enough to live through each day, let alone write about it with the depth and clear thought that I have come to expect from myself in Transition Times.

So I shifted my outrage to social media, where I could share a multitude of other people’s thoughtful writing about resistance on many fronts. I shifted my writing practice to work on a novel that allowed me to lighten up a little and play with satire, even as I also made environmental resistance the engine of the plot. I’ve continued to teach leadership for social and environmental justice at the college, focusing especially on strategic communication: learning from those I call Worldwrights on how writing can right the world. And I’ve deepened my commitment to offering purposeful memoir as a technique not just for exploring the past, but also for understanding our difficult present, and envisioning a better future.

And now I find myself here, in the early days of another spring. There are still peepers trilling in the wet woods of my home in western Massachusetts. The birds are busy with mating and nesting. These deep terrestrial cycles soothe me, even as I know how endangered these bright creatures are in the face of climate disruption and environmental destruction. Of course, they don’t know or care about the future. Their blessing is to be entirely focused on the present.

Is it our curse then, as humans, that we alone of all the other animals possess the magic of prophecy? I have written of myself, here at Transition Times,as a kind of Cassandra. Back when I started this blog, in 2011, very few people were paying attention to the threat of climate change. Bill McKibben and Al Gore were outliers, preaching to a fringe that was perceived, even in smart precincts like The New York Times, to be standing in the way of progress.

Now things have changed. Suddenly The Times has a Climate beat. It’s not only Elizabeth Kolbert sounding the alarm on species extinction over at The New Yorker. And New York Magazine, previously mostly a style rag, broke a blunt and influential story by David Wallace-Wells about the social chaos that climate disruption will bring, if not addressed immediately.

Although the news is still depressing as hell, I’m reassured that the major news media are now paying attention. I don’t feel like such a mad, lonely voice crying in the wilderness over here at Transition Times. Somehow, because there are more reporters on the beat, it feels like a good time to rededicate myself in this blog, and think about how I can best be of service in my mission of “writing to right the world.”

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I am co-hosting a local “hub” of the Findhorn Climate Change & Consciousness Conference happening this month in Findhorn, Scotland; we’ll be presenting some of the keynotes from the conference, along with related pre-recorded interviews, and leading discussions afterwards. My co-host, Rosa Zubizarreta, led an initial circle recently, gathering some friends to simply speak what is in their hearts and minds as they have become aware of climate disruption. It was a moving, disturbing session, as people voiced their fears and their stubborn hope that a path to a viable future can still be found.

Several women (the gathering was mostly women) spoke of their terrible grief, as they understood the realities of ecological systems collapse. I remember feeling that way and I realized that while I still grieve every day for the losses we are facing, I am now more focused on what Jem Bendell calls “deep adaptation”: preparing myself–emotionally, spiritually and in practical terms–to live on into this very uncertain transition time.

I have always hoped that Transition Times would be a place where people could come for inspiration, and I see that we need inspiration now more than ever. My plan going forward is not to respond to the day’s outrages; not to keen and wail in grief at all the destruction (of forests, of reefs, of all the beautiful creatures who have been our companions throughout the Holocene, but are now fading away as we advance into the Anthropocene). Or at least, to tell these tales of woe only insofar as they help to ignite the passion of resistance, so that we can, like modern-day Noahs, conserve what we can as the flood waters rise.

It is not that I’m going to be Prozac-cheery and pretend everything is just fine. Far from it. I am going to engage in dialogue with the Worldwrights I respect and admire—activists of social and environmental justice, Gaian warriors as I call them, after Joanna Macy’s more Buddhist idea of Shambhala warriors. I am going to look for hope where it is to be found, while at the same time being honest—sometimes bluntly so—about where we are headed as a civilization.

CoverIn Margaret Wheatley’s latest book, which I shared with my leadership students this spring, she uses John Glubb’s model of cyclical civilizational collapse to show how western society is in the classic end stages, headed for a big fall. And yet, she says, we have to do the work that is ours to do, moving beyond fear and beyond the false promises of savior-style hope.

At the end of my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, I said that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in circles of kindred spirits, “doing hope together.” I still feel that way, even though my understanding of “hope” has changed. I no longer hope that we can sustain this present civilization. I see now that what western society has created is totally unsustainable and so destructive, not only for the natural world but also for the vast majority of human beings.

Along with other transition thinkers, I have shifted away from the idea of “sustainability,” towards the promise of “regeneration.”

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From the ashes of western civilization something new will rise. There will be some humans left to greet the new day and start the task of creating the next version of life on Earth. Those who make it through what Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning will probably be the people who have remained indigenous through all the upheavals and torments of the past 500 years of European colonization; those who live in places not swept away by climate havoc, and who still remember how to subsist in harmony on the land.

Here in Transition Times, I will share what I am learning about deep adaptation, regeneration and how to prepare oneself, spiritually, emotionally and practically, to live through the times that are coming. I will share my own journey honestly, and hope that others will be inspired to share their thoughts too.

This is what “doing hope together” looks like to me now, here on the edge of what some are calling planetary systems collapse. To look out into the world with love and with courage; to say resolutely that we stand for the best values humanity has developed over these past few millennia of recorded history; and that we stand against the greed, shortsightedness, aggression and hatred that has been ascendant too long in western civilization.

As Arundhati Roy put it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.  On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Stop. Listen. Can you hear the better world that is laboring to be born now? Send her strength with every breath you take, knowing that the world breathes you as you breathe her. There is no separation. It’s become a cliché but it’s true: We are the world. And in the cycles of deep time, we will rise again.

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Thanksgiving 2018: Giving Thanks for Kindred Spirits, Here at the Edge of the Climate Disruption Cliff

This year Thanksgiving has fallen on the coldest day of the season here in New England. Sunny but frigid, the streets are quiet as everyone huddles at home around fires and heaters. It’s a reminder of how human beings living in the north have always needed fire to warm us, whether that fire comes from trees recently alive or those ancient fossilized carbons known as coal, gas and oil.

Today I am giving thanks for being warm. I am giving thanks for having a loving family with whom to spend this holiday, laughing and talking over a delicious feast.

I am giving thanks and even as I do so, I am feeling guilty for the abundance I enjoy, and thinking about the suffering of others that I contribute to just in the simple fact of heating my house or driving my car to my parents’ home.

I’m feeling so uncomfortable about Thanksgiving this year that it’s been very hard to begin writing my annual Thanksgiving post for Transition Times.

I’m feeling guilty about my own enjoyment in the face of others’ suffering (and not just human others, but animals and all life on Earth are in my compassionate thoughts today).

I’m feeling guilty as I realize that the obliviousness of myself and others to our collective impact on the Earth—so clearly on display in the American tradition of Thanksgiving—has brought us to the cliff of climate disruption, upon which we perch today.

Many people I know are not fully awake to the danger of our moment. They’re still going about their lives as though the next few decades will unfold as they always have in our lifetimes: with some personal change and political turbulence playing out against the predictable stability of our ever-giving environment.

This is the premise that continues to fuel our debt- and growth-based capitalist economy. We borrow against the future, expecting growth and appreciation to continue to carry us along.

How_many_earths_2018_large-768x1261Intellectually many of us know that humans have now outstripped the carrying capacity of the Earth—Thanksgiving occurs nearly four months into overshoot territory, where we humans have officially consumed more than the planet has to give. We are eating our principal now.

We know this…and yet we continue to eat, burn fossil fuels and buy goods that take more resources to make than the Earth has to give. And every one of these actions takes human civilization inexorably closer to the edge of that cliff….

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the luxury of being able to sit in a warm house on a cold day, contemplating the end of the world as I have always known it. If the IPCC scientists are right, this is a luxury I may not have much longer.

Worldwrights copyThis Thanksgiving, I give thanks for all those who are awake and working to back-peddle us away from the edge of the climate disruption cliff—brilliant thinkers and social influencers like Stephen Harrod Buhner, Charles Eisenstein, Mary Lyons, Joanna Macy, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, Daniel Pinchbeck, Nina Simons, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, Daniel Christian Wahl, Andreas Weber, Terry Tempest Williams and many more, whose ideas enliven and inspire me as I work on my Worldwrights book about leaders for social and environmental justice who have used writing to right the world, and written purposeful memoirs about their own journeys.

Sometimes, as I go about my work of publishing, editing, author coaching and teaching, not to mention my own writing, I wonder if this is the best use I could be making of the precious time we have left. Is there something more important I should be doing to help wake people up to the danger, and turn this gigantic ship of corporate capitalist doom around?

I keep coming back to how critical it is that we communicate with each other, building resilient communities through sharing our hopes, dreams and visions.

That is what my work of purposeful memoir is about: looking back in order to better understand how we’ve arrived at the present moment (as individuals, as societies and as the world civilization known as the Anthropocene), with the ultimate visionary goal of aligning our personal values with our political and planetary presence in order to create the thriving future we all want to live into.

And doing all this together with others. Purposeful memoir is not only a path to individual awareness, it’s also a profoundly valuable community-building technique.

I give thanks for this work that is mine to do, and for the community of kindred spirits who offer strength, courage and wisdom for our collective journey into the future.

I give thanks for you, reader—welcome to the table! Together we can, and we must, change the world.

Gilgamesh vs. Noah: The Epic Battle for the Future

We are living in epic times. Mighty planetary changes are underway, and perhaps our pop culture is so obsessed with superheroes because only legendary heroes could successfully battle the dragons we face today.

I have been writing Transition Times for seven years now. When I started this blog, I was following the lead of environmental activist writers like Bill McKibben, Mark Hertsgaard, Elizabeth Kolbert and Derrick Jensen, who were sounding the alarm about climate change and biodiversity loss, translating the sober measurements of science into terms a lay audience could understand.

In the climate change movement then, the watchwords were “mitigate” and “adapt.” We could mitigate the damage that climate change would cause by reducing carbon emissions, trying to keep things more or less under control while we busied ourselves with adapting, by, for example, shifting to renewable energy sources and hybridizing flood- and drought-resistant grains.

Meanwhile, wildlife biologists were keeping track of the grim march of the Sixth Great Extinction, already well underway—not only for animals but also for marine life and plants on land and sea.

Seven years on, the scenarios I was absorbing with shock, outrage and fear at the beginning of Transition Times have come true, and then some. Monster storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, melting glaciers and tundra at the poles, staggering biodiversity loss, climate refugees (both human and non-human)—all of this has moved out of the realm of science fiction into the daily headlines.

Hence our desperate casting about for superhero help.

In the United States, the Gilgamesh crowd is in power—you remember Gilgamesh: the brawny young king who murdered the guardian of the cedar forest and cut it all down to build his grand city. Later in his epic he wanders around the world searching unsuccessfully for a route to immortality, strangely symbolizing the downfall of all humans who think only of short-term gain: you can’t take it with you.

Those at the helm of the U.S. economy today are willing to cut it all down. Who cares about helping endangered species? Who cares about national parks or ocean sanctuaries—drill, baby, drill! Who cares about the national debt? Print some more paper, acquire some more debt, let the suckers who come after us figure out how to pay.

And pay we will. The entire Earth community will pay for the savage destruction of climate and environment underway now. It’s not just the Sixth Great Extinction, it’s also a planetary reset we’re witnessing in these early years of the 21stcentury, on the scale of the shift from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic eras, when the dinosaurs went extinct.

But this time, it’s not a meteor shaking things up on Earth. It’s the planet’s most successful species, homo sapiens—the smart apes—ruining things for everyone.

I am not proud to be a human being these days. I am not proud to be an American.

But I do cling to a tattered shred of hope in remembering the much-vaunted ethical, moral compass of humans, and the legendary innovative ingenuity of Americans.

If climate change, habitat and species loss continue unabated, we will be the first species on the planet to knowingly bring about our own destruction. For make no mistake, humans will go down with everything else on the planet. A few may survive—but civilization as we have created it, a la Gilgamesh, will go down.

Is this something we are really willing to have on our collective conscience?

Especially when we could have prevented it?

I take hope from the fierce rhetoric of Pope Francis, and other activists who are firing up environmental protection with religious fervor: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a great example of a scientist who is appealing to the faithful, and also using pop cultureto reach the masses.

What’s needed now is a dramatic shift in cultural worldview: from Gilgamesh to Noah, from swash-buckling drill-slash-burn to the moral and technological leadership that gets an Ark built before the floods come.

Because the floods, they are a’comin’. They’re already here, along with the wildfires and droughts and heat domes and all the rest of it. The wild animals are feeling the stresses as much or more than humans…there’s no AC or helicopters coming for them.

Meanwhile our politicians are still busying themselves with archaic ideas like national borders and tariff tit-for-tats. Climate change knows no borders. Noah didn’t ask to see passports as he loaded the climate refugees, human and non-human, into his ship.

We are all Earthlings now. If there’s any upside to climate change, it may be that the fact of our global, interspecies interdependence is now blazingly clear and undeniable.

In the epic of the 21stcentury, we’re at a crossroads. Who will we follow, Gilgamesh or Noah? If we want to save ourselves and as many other beloved Earthlings as possible (plants, insects, birds, animals, marine life), there is no time to waste.

Noah is in all of us, and we’re all in this together. If we have the will, we can find ways to mitigate and adapt and survive what’s coming.

Can we find the will?

Every day is a cliffhanger lately…tune in next time for the next chapter of “Gilgamesh vs. Noah: The Epic Battle for the Future, No. 2018.”

Facing the Zombies of the Trump Apocalypse

What can justify the tearing of toddlers from their parents? For Trump and his toadies, it is the parents’ unlawful entry into the United States—crossing the border without proper documentation.

Please think about this for a moment from the parents’ point of view. What could persuade a parent to take the terrible risk of crossing into the US at this moment in history, with small children in arms, without proper documentation?

Obviously these parents are fleeing something really terrible in their own countries. So far I have seen no current reporting about what’s going on in Central America that is pushing parents to grab their kids and make the perilous trek north. In the past we have had mostly young men coming north to try to make money to send back home to their families. What’s with the surge of entire families this year?

I hope we’ll start to see some journalists looking further upstream as this summer’s tragedy unfolds, and asking that all-important question: WHY?

Meanwhile, Trump is playing the hard guy for all it’s worth. He wants his wall, and he’s using traumatized children as the victims and pawns of his latest bullying. He wasn’t able to push the G7 world leaders around, but children in cages are easy targets.

This from a man who is only a generation or two removed from being an immigrant himself, married to an immigrant.

The alt-right who are supporting him are the slavering descendants of the racists of yore…the ones who had no qualms about tearing infants from their enslaved mothers (even when they themselves had fathered those infants). The ones who perpetrated systematic ethnic cleansing by kidnapping Native American children from their parents and detaining them for years in “boarding schools” that were much more brutal than today’s “tender age detention centers.”

What we’re watching today is not new, and its antecedents are not just Nazi concentration camps, which infamously separated families—though in the end most of them ended up in the same place, the gas chambers.

Trump has brought these dark episodes of human history back to life and reanimated them with a flourish of his executive order pen. In this horror flick, the evil zombies of history are back in action, and they care nothing for ethics and morality; they seem to be able to sweep aside any obstacle with a leering, bloody snarl.

It’s sickening to watch the craven Republicans going along with this madness, as they went along with the tax cuts for the wealthy despite huge deficit increases. Now they’re whetting their lips for the real prize, cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs. Meanwhile Trump is planning his military parade and an expensive new military reality show—oops, I mean military program—called Space Force.

But we’ve been here before, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote has never been proven wrong: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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Berkshire MA residents Jana Laiz and Barbara Dean standing up for human rights and social justice in America

Good people are on the rise now. Protests are happening all across the US. Lawsuits are being brought daily against Trump and his mad minions. The Mueller probe continues. Journalists are upping their game, calling out the lies and asking the hard questions.

So much rides on the coming elections in November. Until then, Americans, we must hold on to our values, remembering who we are and what we stand for. We must not allow our thinking to be distorted by the mind-fucks of this misbegotten so-called president and his sycophants.

To be honest, I am worried about fraud and hacking in the 2018 elections. I am worried about a manufactured crisis that will throw Americans into disarray, a la 9/11. I am worried that Americans are just too unhealthy, in so many ways, to create a healthy society.

But these fears and anxieties go nowhere and help no one.  Every American of principle has a civic duty to stand firm against the onslaught of the Trump nightmare, vanquish it, and work towards creating the dream of MLK, Abraham Lincoln and so many other good leaders. If we stand together, we shall overcome.

Purposeful Memoir as a Tool for Earth Activists

Recently I presented a slide lecture called “Navigating Climate Change in Uncertain Times: Cultivating Personal and Political Resilience for a Thriving Future.” But as often happens, I had to come up with the title months before I actually sat down to write the lecture, and in the interim my understanding of what I wanted to say shifted.

If I had to write the title now, it would be more like this: “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary Through Purposeful Memoir: Exploring the Past to Understand the Present and Envision the Thriving Future We Yearn For.”

It’s too wordy, but so far I have been unable to simplify these big ideas into a more succinct wording.

Truly, what I’m after is something big here, something potentially transformative on a grand scale.

And yet it starts very simply, very close to home: sitting down, preferably with others, to explore one’s own life experience and how it has been shaped and impacted, whether we’ve realized it along the way or not, by the political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

In the lecture, I used my own life experience as an example, exploring the years between 1962, my birth year, and 2011, the year I woke up to climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction—which, not coincidentally, was also the year that I started writing Transition Times.

The political events of those 50 years in America include several wars, from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; the Civil Rights and feminist movements; the stealing of the election by Bush Jr. in 2000; and the complicated ups and downs of Congressional politics in relation to the environment.

The planetary events are perhaps less familiar, especially to those who, like me before 2011, were not paying much attention to the planetary backdrop against which we foregrounded our lives.

But put together, decade by decade, that “backdrop” loomed large. Each decade since the 1960s, the population of the Earth’s most successful invasive species, Homo sapiens, has increased by one billion people. We went from 3 billion or so when I was born, to 7 billion in the early 21stcentury, and we’re on track to reach 8 billion by 2020.

Data from the EPA and NASA show the steady rise in global atmospheric carbon over these decades, accompanied by rising air and sea temperatures and melting polar ice.

And in these decades since the first American endangered species list was created in 1967, hundreds of species have been added to the list of those threatened by extinction. It turns out that 1994, the year I earned my Ph.D., was the worst single year on the list, with 129 species added. Of course, I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

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Source: World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/endangered-species-wait-an-average-of-12-years-to-get-on-the-list

The power of aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir is precisely that it focuses our attention in a new way.

It’s not just for those who want to write a full-fledged memoir. It’s also a valuable tool for anyone who is ready to understand their lives as part of the broader story of the relationship between human society and our planet.

It’s a way of understanding more deeply how we got to our present crisis moment on the planet, individually and as a society; a way of taking stock of the past and present in order to gird ourselves for the challenging work ahead.

Too often, people take up activism only in the political realm. They go out to fight politically for the planet without having done the deep inner work of understanding who they are, where they come from and how they were socialized and educated by their family and culture.

This inner work of purposeful memoir can be difficult because almost everyone alive today will have to confront their own complicity in the steady destruction of the global ecosystem—the swift and inexorable erosion, over the past 50-plus years, of the health and wellbeing of all life on the planet, including of course ourselves, human beings.

What-I-Forgot-Cover-draft-NEW-smAs I worked on my own memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, I went through all the classic stages of grief as I realized the full extent of the loss that has unfolded during my lifetime.

Allowing ourselves to feel the grief is important, as Joanna Macy has been telling us for a long time; and we can channel the anger that arises from the tragic, relentless loss of life into a powerful force for Earth activism.

When we gather together to write and share how our personal stories have intertwined with the political and planetary happenings of our time and place, we are strengthening ourselves as a collective force for positive transformation of self, society and world.

We are, as I put it in my memoir, “doing hope together.”

Emily Dickinson famously described hope as:

“the thing with feathers –
that perches in the soul –
and sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

As we navigate through our perilous moment of climate change, political disruption and environmental destruction, we can use purposeful memoir as a way of tuning into to our own inner resilience while listening for the never-ending song of hope that pulses through all life on Earth.

It’s easy to hear it on these beautiful days of spring renewal. It’s what sets the leaves unfurling and the flowers turning their faces to the sun. It’s what animates the birds to build their nests and the bees to gather pollen to make their honey season after season.

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Photo J. Browdy 2018

As we work through purposeful memoir to align the personal, political and planetary, we can clearly see the preciousness and the fragility of life on Earth, and we come to understand our own potential to be stewards for the planet, and active guardians of other species.

We tap into the strong current of hope and life that constantly encircles this planet and begin to cultivate the deep awareness and resilience to become a beacon for others, each of us a little light in the vast global shift towards, as Charles Eisenstein puts it, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

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Terry Tempest Williams

At a recent climate change panel discussion in Albany NY, purposeful memoirist Terry Tempest Williams talked poetically about our responsibility to the generations still to come.

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying we will see beyond our own time and act accordingly,” she said.

Purposeful memoir can help us locate ourselves as a strong link in the chain between past and future, understanding our individual lives as part of the broader political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

Doing hope together, we can engage in the joyful, sacred task of building bridges, plank by plank, into the thriving future we yearn for—not just for ourselves and other human beings, but for all life on Earth.

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Photo J. Browdy 2017

After a Bloody Valentine’s Day, A Meditation on the Human Heart

Many times before in human history violence and mayhem have prevailed, people have wailed and groaned with fear and pain as anger and hatred have roiled society. We’re in such a time now, of personal and political suffering, compounded by the planetary environmental imbalance that threatens, tsunami-like, to blow us all away.

Literally and figuratively, this is a bleak, frightening time to be alive, and everyone I know is feeling the weight of everything that is going wrong. The daily news of mass shootings, civil wars, refugee crises, xenophobia and hatred writ large and small—not to mention the extinctions, polluted landscapes and waterways, and continued unbridled greed of the captains of the industries that are destroying our individual and ecological health—well, it’s overwhelming.

It’s been a while since I posted on Transition Times, and overwhelm is part of the reason I’ve been quiet lately. Another reason is because I try to resist being purely reactionary in my TT writing. Lately the outrages and calamities have come so fast and furious that if I tried to keep up, I’d spend all my time denouncing the bad guys and bewailing the latest tragedy. That’s not how I want to spend my precious time, or yours.

Sages like Margaret Wheatley are counseling now that we try to move beyond hope and despair, to the realm of what she calls “faith.” I think she means that when we take the longer view, and give up our fear of change, we can rest assured that no matter how things unfold in the short term, in the long run everything will be OK.

Well, in the long run you and I will be dead, and there is a release in that, no matter what you believe about the afterlife or rebirth. In the long run, our Mother Earth will regenerate and new, marvelous life will flourish here on the planet, the DNA spiraling on as it did when some of the dinosaurs became our present-day birds.

So in that sense, yes, eventually all will be well. But that still doesn’t absolve us of responsibility now, in our own time, to do what we can to alleviate suffering and cultivate individual and ecological health, harmony and balance.

One thing I can do is try not to be a mirror for the violence I abhor. It doesn’t mean I’m putting my head in the sand, it just means that, as with the ancient Buddhist practice of tong-len­, I can try to breathe it in and transmute it, in my own being, to compassion that I breathe out.

For example, with the most recent horrific school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, I feel the suffering like a rain of fire. The suffering of the victims, and also the suffering of the shooter, alone in the world, evidently left to his own violent, mentally disturbed devices. Now he will spend the rest of his life in prison, and that will be no real atonement for the innocent lives he snuffed out.

I breathe in the horror of that scenario, and although my first thought is of gun control, and rage that the politicians who could make things better continue to sit on their hands and mouth sanctimonious prayers—I try to breathe through that too, and think about how all of us are caught in webs of fear, greed and power-lust not of our own making, unhealthy systems that hold most of us fast, no matter how we try to struggle free.

It’s the systems that need changing, but change always starts with the personal and radiates outward. The question is always, how can I touch the heart of another human being and melt its hardness with compassion and love?

We live in a time of hard-heartedness. Callousness and indifference reign, nowhere more evident than in the U.S. government.

listening for Gaia copyBut I won’t let them harden me. I will continue to cup my hands around the fragile flame of loving-kindness that burns indomitably at my core.

We human beings are born loving. Every infant turns its head blindly towards its mother, searching for love and comfort. Our entire ecosystem runs on the pure positive energy of the Sun, which shines its love down on all equally, warming the seeds and nourishing the plants without which we humans could not live a moment.

Yes, the circle of life includes pain and suffering. Predators have to eat, but when the system is in harmony, death feeds life.

tree heart copyRight now Western civilization is in a death-frenzy that is not life-giving. Let us admit that to ourselves, and imagine the many ways that we could seize the opportunity now in front of us to transition to a healthier system.

It all starts with the human heart. In the wake of this bloody Valentine’s Day, I want to use my heart to send love out into the world, and meditate deeply on what I have to give that is positive and life-affirming.

That is the only way we can be the change we want to see in the world.

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