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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against Mono-cropping, both Agricultural and Cultural

Did you know that there are more living organisms in a cup of healthy soil than there are humans on this blessed planet of ours?

This week I’ve been reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet with my classes (“Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice”); the book makes a strong case for the importance of maintaining biodiversity not just in the plants and animals we can see (big ones like trees and polar bears) but also in all the infinitesimal life that crowds into every square inch of our Tierra Madre, Mother Earth.

As I think about the teeming life in a teaspoon of soil, what really strikes me is how biological loss of diversity is a mirror of cultural diversity loss.

Human beings are relentlessly narrowing the sphere of possibility for many life forms on the planet.  And at the same time, our global culture is becoming more homogenous and limited.

Take the consolidation of the media, whether it be in publishing, TV and radio channels, or newspapers.  Where a thousand different voices used to sound, now there are only the monolithic behemoths: Comcast, TimeWarner, Random House, Bloomberg.

UnknownWhere there used to be a thousand different ideals of female beauty, now there is just this.

How different is this from the reduction of thousands of different varieties of corn, rice, wheat and other seeds, to just the One Great GMO Variety?

Well, as hard as the intellectual property lawyers try to clamp down on diversity, the unauthorized weeds spring up anew.

I feel like the work I’m doing to create the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is part of the resistance to cultural mono-cropping.

Instead of bowing to conventional celebrity culture, where the only important voices are the ones that have been anointed by the media gatekeepers, the Festival insists that every woman who writes from the heart has a story to tell that matters.

Conventional media dictates that anyone who gets a microphone must be media-pretty, articulate under pressure, and non-threatening to the political and cultural status quo.

Those who don’t fit this mold are consigned to the margins.

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, the margins come to the center, with spectacular results!

The Festival aims to provide platforms for those would not otherwise be heard—teenage women alongside older women, women who have never published before alongside seasoned published authors in a wide variety of genres.

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Festival presenter Amber Chand

While few of the 150 women presenting in the Festival have celebrity status or “name recognition,” they have something more special: they are women who write and present from their hearts, not for financial gain but for the pleasure and the power of sharing their perspectives and ideas with others.

The Festival aims to change the world one woman at a time by shifting from a celebrity-based mono-crop cultural landscape dominated by centralized media, to a diverse, vibrant, locally grown environment in which women are celebrated not for how they look but for what they think and write about the most important issues of our time.

Could it be that as more women speak from outside the mold of popular culture, the external world will change as well?

Changing the storyline: from limitless growth to sustainable planetary happiness

Today in my Writing for Social and Environmental Justice class we began to talk about the power of storytelling.

The challenge for the students in my class is to figure out the best narrative strategy, the best rhetorical approach, the best genre and format to inspire others to work with them for positive social change.

To get people’s attention, especially in the media-saturated social landscapes many of us inhabit, the story has to be well-narrated, fast-paced and compelling.  It has to deliver information succinctly and have a memorable “take-away” line.  It has to give us interesting, admirable protagonists and a complex plot, complete with tragedy, catharsis and antagonists we can love to hate.

It’s a pretty tall order!

The first step, of course, is being clear on your own values—what you think is important, what issue is the one that most grabs your own heart and mind.  Great change writing speaks out of a place of passionate commitment.

Great change writing says: “I believe this so deeply I am going to open my heart and let you see how this great injustice or destructive practice is tearing me apart.  I am going to let you see me in all the vulnerability of my rage, grief and passion…and I am going to convince you to care about this issue too—enough to be willing to stand up and take action.”

That’s the second part of great change writing—you have to give people a clear call to action, and at least show them the starting point of a path towards change.

It’s not enough to wail and point blaming fingers at all the injustices of the world.  You have to point the way towards remedies, solutions, action.

I ended both my classes today declaring my feeling of optimism in the future. I feel more optimistic today than I have in a long time that we will be able to solve all the many problems human civilization has created in its childhood—the past 500 years or so.

The tremendous challenges that beset us, particularly the environmental challenges which have the potential to completely wipe us out, can be solved.

We already know what we have to do.  Reduce emissions, yes, but also restore the ability of the planet to absorb the emissions we do produce.

Judith D. Schwartz

Judith D. Schwartz

We are reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet this week, which is all about the potential of soil to become an incredibly effective carbon sink, if we just stop our bad agricultural practices and let the billions of microbes that inhabit each teaspoon of healthy soil do their work.

If we were to stop killing our soil, plants and forests with herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer-dependent agriculture and clear-cutting, it is possible that we could radically shift the whole disaster-scenario of climate change—fast enough to make a difference.

What we need is to start telling a new story, to which the broadest possible base of people can hear and respond.

It will be a story about how a beleaguered, tired, hungry, thirsty, oppressed people—that is, the majority of people on this Earth—realized that with just a few adjustments, they could live a much richer, happier life in harmony with the natural world.

It will be a story about how the economics of endlessly growing national product gave way to the economics of sustainable planetary happiness. How competition gave way to collaboration, with the recognition that we have the capacity to give everyone on this planet a good life if we shift our focus from rising profits for the few to steady well-being for the many.

If we were to start telling this story loud and clear, in beautiful, compelling, persuasive and well-researched ways, broadcast over the billion megaphones of the World Wide Web, how could people fail to listen?

Especially if we backed up the vision with concrete strategies for making it happen down on the ground.

345570804_640I am heartened by initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a working group of mayors from the major cities of the world who have decided not to wait around for the United Nations to get its act together, but to start working together independently towards a sustainable future.

C40 is changing the dominant narrative of gridlock and impossibility with its muscular can-do insurgency.

We can’t wait around for others to do it for us.  Each one of us has the power to be the starting point for ripples of change that can reach further than ever before in our brave new interconnected world.

What story will you tell?  What life will you lead?  What are you waiting for?

A true agricultural revolution has NOTHING to do with genetic engineering!

When I hear the term “genetic engineering” I cringe.

Could anything good come out of tweaking the DNA of plants and animals, and maybe someday humans too?

Is it safe—is it wise—for humans to play with evolutionary fire?

A recent New York Times  op-ed by a professor of agricultural economics and a physician from the Hoover Foundation warns that humans would be fools not to try to engineer wheat and other crops in order to tailor them to our rapidly changing environment.

Given that drought is going to be more common in the future, as aquifers are depleted and erratic weather patterns take hold, why not tweak the DNA of wheat and other crops essential for human survival, so that they are more likely to withstand the harsh conditions that will become the new normal?

I don’t want to be a knee-jerk Luddite, but really now—can we be sure that it will be safe to alter the genes of a plant that took thousands, if not millions of years to reach its present incarnation?

I actually think it might be possible to do genetic engineering of food crops in a safe and sustainable way.  But as long as Monsanto remains in control of agricultural genetic engineering, I cannot be trusting.  The track record of that company is just too abysmal.

According to the NYT op-ed, “Monsanto recently said that it had made significant progress in the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat,” which “will enable farmers to use more environmentally benign herbicides.”

Is there such a thing as an environmentally benign herbicide?

Monsanto, along with its henchmen in government, academia and think tanks, is still stuck in the old 20th century idea of unlimited growth.

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In that mind-set, we have to grow as much wheat as we possibly can to feed our burgeoning population.  No matter how many birds, butterflies or bats have to die under the plow of “progress.”  No matter if natural biodiversity is chemically poisoned to make way for the mono-crop.

No.

What if Monsanto had its way and all the wheat planted was drought-resistant.  And what if that year it never stopped raining?  Where would we be then?

We are fortunate to have seed-saving champions like Vandana Shiva who are working hard to make sure that our human heritage of genetically diverse, tried-and-true seeds are not totally lost in the rapacious maw of Monsanto.

What we need is a true agricultural revolution that has nothing to do with genetic engineering and everything to do with returning to local, regional food production.

To withstand the crazy weather that lies in our future we need more biodiversity, not techno-modified mono-cropping.

Or if we’re going to tweak those genes, just because we can, let’s do it in ways that tailor crops to small regional environments, and forget about the herbicides!

Right?

Blessings on the blossom…

UnknownWhen I compiled the anthology Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, I put an excerpt from the Puerto Rican-American writer Aurora Levins Morales right up front, because what she had to say about the invisibility of working women was so powerful.

“Let’s get one thing straight.  Puerto Rico was a woman’s country….Whatever there was to be cooked, we cooked it.  Whoever was born, we birthed and raised them.  Whatever was to be washed, we washed it….Whatever was grown, we grew it…We were never still, our hands were always busy….Ours is the work they decided to call unwork.  The tasks as necessary as air.  Not a single thing they did could have been done without us.  Not a treasure taken.  Not a crop brought in.  Not a town built up around its plaza, not a fortress manned without our cooking, cleaning, sewing, laundering, childbearing.  We have always been here, doing what had to be done.  As reliable as furniture, as supportive as their favorite sillón.  Who thanks his bed? But we are not furniture.  We are full of fire, dreams, pain, subversive laughter.  How could they not honor us?

I have to admit that never, in all my years of studying the history of the Americas, had I even noticed the absence of accounts of these women from its annals.

But it’s so true.  What famous explorer could have sailed the ocean blue without his mother and/or nurse giving him the loving care he needed to survive infancy and childhood? What town could have been built without the crucial work of women supporting its foundations?

Just as we are often blind to the crucial life-giving value of women’s work, we also have a tendency to arrogantly overlook the essential work done by the foundation of the planetary biosphere. I’m talking about PLANTS.

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Without the plants—from algae and seaweeds in the ocean to trees and grasses on land—our planet would quickly become a barren desert.

Without the microbes in the water and soil digesting decayed matter and nourishing those plants, the entire food chain would collapse, with humans falling along with all other “higher” species.

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This Thanksgiving, I want to honor and thank the marvelous plants of our planet, who silently, efficiently and ceaselessly convert sunlight and water to living tissue, and give themselves without protest to nourishing the lives of so many other species on Earth.

As we enjoy our Thanksgiving feasts, let’s remember that none of this abundance would be possible without our unsung plant kingdom heroes, and let us perhaps take a moment to sing their praises, as in this simple blessing I learned from my son’s Waldorf teacher many years ago:

Blessings on the blossom, blessings on the fruit.

Blessings on the leaf and stem, blessings on the seed and root.

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For a more extended version of this blessing, see the Mohawk Thanksgiving prayer.

Amen.

 

PHOTOS COPYRIGHT JENNIFER BROWDY DE HERNANDEZ.

A Milkweed Railroad for Monarch Butterflies

I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.

close-up-of-monarch-butterfly-on-fingerA girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.

After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters.  I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.

UnknownWe watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed.  Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.

The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.

One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.

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“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son.  “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”

He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school.  By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.

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This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.

“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.

No.

This is how extinction happens.  One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up.  Life goes on.  But a hole opens  in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem.  When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.

Jim Robbins wrote last Sunday in The New York Times:

Monarch butterflies on tree trunks

Monarch butterflies turn the forest orange. They return to a specific mountain forest in Michoacan, Mexico, year after year.

“On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.”

Why are the butterflies disappearing?  It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved.  I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.

As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.

Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months.  For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.

tam_map_webThe long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed.  No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England.  Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.

It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.

And then human beings invented Round-up.

agriculture-impact-climate-change-monoculture-farm-photoThe tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture.  The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.

That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.

Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.

And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.

The bats die off.  The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads.  And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.

What can we do?

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY--biodynamic & organic

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY–biodynamic & organic

One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.

You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health.  Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.

It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today.  What goes around comes around.

We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.

05517F2I often find Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars munching away on my dill in the early summer, and I’m happy to share my crop with them.

Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.

Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.

Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.

This is not a dream.  This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.

What humans broke, we can fix.  We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet.  And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.

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