What Lies Beneath: Of Mushrooms, Mycelia and Interconnection

On these warm, humid days of late summer, I have been walking the woods looking for mushrooms. There are so many to be found, and of such a marvelous variety!

Mushrooms mean more to me since I began to understand them as the visible fruits of the vast underground network known as the mycelium.

From Animate Earth by Stephan Harding: “Mycelia can grow at prodigious speed and explore space with phenomenal density. They can extend several centimeters a day and can infuse a mere gram of soil with over a kilometer of their intensely networked pipe-like cells….Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon.”

FullSizeRender 3Especially fascinating to me is the symbiotic relationship that has developed between trees (and other plants) and the members of the fungi kingdom. The photo-synthesizers turn sunlight into sugar, which they share with the fungi in return for a functional extension of their roots further and wider than the plant could achieve on its own. The fungi exchange valuable minerals and water for the precious sunlight-sugar, and in a healthy environment all prosper and do well on our rich Mother Earth.

I walk the forest moodily these days, spying mushrooms and thinking about what lies beneath. It seems like an apt metaphor to be exploring in our social landscape as well.

What lies beneath the visible expressions of life that seize our attention day by day?

What lies beneath the constant eruptions of violence in the world, from Orlando to Charlottesville, from Aleppo to Barcelona, from Nice to Mosul?

What lies beneath the visible evidence of climate dysfunction—wildfires, floods—and the inexorable biological die-off known as the Sixth Great Extinction?

What lies beneath the naked greed and egotism polluting the American political system? Where is this ugly cancer of racism and hate coming from?

Humans now have the neurological equivalent of mycelia, the vast extension of our nervous system through the World Wide Web. Information is our sugar, and it seems we are quite dependent on it—even addicted, you might say.

The thing is that our Web has grown up in a spiritually impoverished time, in intellectual, technical soils that are superficial and incapable of providing us with the nourishment we need to turn the sugar of information into harmonious, beautiful, ethically strong philosophies and ways of living.

When soils are constantly bombarded with chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and anti-fungals, they produce plants that are weakly rooted and susceptible to diseases and infections.

So too, when we humans inhabit social landscapes that are constantly saturated with negativity, devoid of hope and inspiration, we are susceptible to being taken over by campaigns of hate and sloganeering. We fall prey to violence, whether self-destructive (the opioid crisis, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, physical illness) or against others (domestic violence, sexual violence, hate crimes, gangs, economic bludgeoning and the brainwashed othering that results in racial profiling).

Our World Wide Web could be, and sometimes is, a nourishing network. The places I go on the Internet are places of reflection, ethical courage, and humility. I strive to dig my roots deep into this rich soil and at times make my own thoughts visible, mushroom-style, as I do in Transition Times.

But we learned in the 2016 American election that the hateful, spiritually empty areas of the Web are growing quickly. It’s like a Roundup Ready crop, fast-growing and seemingly robust, yet devoid of true nourishment for the spirit.

What are those boys who brought hate to Charlottesville doing this week, in the aftermath of their eruption into plain view? What nastiness are they readying for the weeks and months ahead?

Harding: “When ready to reproduce, previously invisible mycelia gather their hyphae together to form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms and moulds that sprout into the air….They can emerge quickly because the underlying mycelium is immensely effective at supplying concentrated hydraulic power to a specific point in the network on very short notice. Fungal fruiting bodies release spores tiny enough to ride on swirling currents of air, and thus they find new places fit for colonization. Vast numbers of spores are released—some bracket fungi growing out of trees can release some 30 thousand million spores each day.”

These days, we who believe in equality and justice for all must work harder to make ourselves visible. We must be outspoken and forceful like never before. We must send the spores of our clear understanding of love and inclusivity far and wide, becoming beacons of hope and monuments to “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

The mycelium of our movement must dig down and go far and wide, creating a rich substratum of thought and practice that counters the shallow, hostile soils of hate that have been spreading on the Web.

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It will be important, in the days and years ahead, to consciously work on building our connections in the real world, as well as in our virtual landscapes.

We have to remember, and teach our children, how to enjoy creative collaboration in real life. It can be as simple as sitting in thoughtful conversation or working together to make a good meal.

We all have the potential to create beauty in our lives, and to share what we have created with others.

As we tend to our social landscapes, we must also remember to value the often unheeded planetary systems without which none of us could survive for an instant: the plants that make our air, the clean waters we all depend on, the rich microbial soils and the vast fungal networks that provide the silent steady pulse of harmonious interconnection.

A task for these August eclipse days: pay attention to what lies beneath the surface of your life. Dig your roots down deep, and work with your neighbors, real and virtual, to build a healthy, vibrant community—for all life on Earth. Stand up tall and send out those positive spores.

Standing Rock: Frontline of the New Occupy Fossil Fuels Resistance Movement

The standoff at Standing Rock—where thousands of Native American men, women and children, along with many non-Native allies, are camping out to block the laying of a 1,170-mile pipeline to carry fossil fuels from North Dakota to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico—is more than just an isolated battle, the Sioux deciding they won’t allow their lands to be taken by force by the oil lords, and putting their bodies on the line to protect their land and water.

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Standing Rock is one of those moments, like the Occupy Wall Street protests, that we will look back on as a tipping point in consciousness; a moment when the lines of battle in the war to keep our planet habitable for our children became visceral and unmistakable.

Just as in Occupy Wall Street, we are seeing militarized police and guards attacking ordinary people who have taken to the public sphere to protect their right to a livable future. The same tactics are being used: escalating the pressure with an overwhelming force of armored vehicles, sound grenades, tear gas, pepper spray, police batons, tasers and rubber bullets until the violence starts and the rounding up of peacefully protesting civilians can appear “justified.”

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Law enforcement claims to be protecting public safety, but in fact they are acting as hired goons for the fossil fuel companies.

In a New Republic article this fall, Bill McKibben used the metaphor of World War III to describe the kind of all-out industrial effort that is needed now to shift our economy from running on fossil fuels to running on renewable energy sources like wind, solar, tidal, geothermal.

We need a Marshall Plan to ramp up and get the job done, McKibben declared.

2564906-H.jpgInstead of hiring a few guys to lay pipelines and fight off anyone who dares to protest, we need to mobilize an army of people who are dedicated to developing, producing and distributing alternative energy systems, along with converting buildings, transportation networks, farms and factories to run clean.

Tar sands, fracked gas and deep-sea oil rigs, along with the pipelines, tankers and refineries that service them, are part of the dead-end 20th century vision that we must abandon if we are to find our way out of the frightening labyrinth of the present moment.

It’s no accident that the nascent Occupy Fossil Fuel movement is being led by Native people, not only because their land rights are once again being flagrantly violated, but also because they have never fully bought into the fossil-fuel-based plunder economy, the economy of short-term gain, maximizing profits, and to hell with the consequences.

The leaders at Standing Rock have created a movement based on prayer and reverence for the sacredness of Earth, and people of all backgrounds from all across the country have responded with a resounding YES!

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While the mainstream media is showing once again its collusion with the Wall Street/fossil fuel barons that also control our government, by simply ignoring Standing Rock, social media has leapt into the breach, with citizen livestreams taking us right into the heart of the struggle.

14572425_10154635715284600_8219779230791003850_nYou can’t support a movement you aren’t aware of, which must be what the mainstream media is up to in willfully blinding themselves and their readers to the significance of Standing Rock.

Like Occupy Wall Street, like Ferguson, Standing Rock is not going to go away. The more the police try to repress the protests, the more they will spread.

Because the simple truth is this: a majority of us want to leave a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren.

We want future-oriented solutions—re-localizing energy sources via solar and wind, not thousand-mile pipelines strangling our country and putting our waterways at risk.

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We don’t want our hard-earned tax dollars to go for paying police to brutalize peaceful protestors at home, nor to support an endless military buildup to safeguard a corporate globalization that follows the same playbook worldwide of trashing local economies and environments.

Americans are not afraid of hard work. We relish challenge and delight in innovation. We have what it takes to head off climate change disaster.

In addition to supporting the Standing Rock protestors who are right now bravely occupying the front lines of the struggle for our shared future, we need to create our own Standing Rocks, our own front lines of resistance where we are.

The Marshall Plan of the climate change wars won’t be led by the Federal government. It will happen on the local level in towns and cities, as well as in global networks of like-minded people, like 350.org and the new Treesisters movement.

It will happen when enough of us have the courage to come together, as the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have done, to say YES! to a livable future.

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Moving from Anger and Cynicism to Gratitude: Thanksgiving in Dark Times

It’s Thanksgiving time, the time when we’re supposed to be counting our blessings and giving thanks. Given the current bombardment of bad news, it’s hard not to feel cynical.

Do I give thanks for the American justice system, which once again has valued the rights of a white man over the rights of a (dead) Black man?

Should I give thanks that a growing roster of universities are finally being pushed to take fraternity gang rape seriously, after years of turning a blind eye?

Maybe I should be giving thanks that the Kinder Morgan fossil fuel group, responding to public outcry, is thinking about routing its gas pipeline through “an existing utility corridor” rather than through backyards and recreational areas in the heart of Berkshire County, the tourist-friendly resort area where I live.

It’s easy to get angry about the injustice and casual brutality of our world. And one of the problems of modern existence is that when something bad happens, we know about it almost instantaneously, and have to grapple in our own hearts and minds with its disturbing reverberations.

Any wonder why so many people in media-saturated modern societies turn to drugs (prescription and recreational) or alcohol to get some relief?

I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s happening in our world, even when the news is very bad. But we do need to find ways to retain our own sense of balance and inner resilience in the face of the constant heartbreak that characterizes contemporary life.

I try to remind myself, at Thanksgiving time and all year round, of all the things I do truly have to be thankful for.

I give thanks for the protesters who have been standing up to the fracking and drilling industry giants all over North America, and indeed all over the world. I am thankful that Sandra Steingraber has been released early from jail, so she can spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

I give thanks for the many innovative scientists who are working hard to develop viable alternative forms of energy, from better solar panels to clean battery cells to geothermal, tidal and wind generators. I am thankful for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, leading the way towards a clean-energy future.

I give thanks for the health workers who are at this very moment risking their own lives in order to bring the Ebola epidemic under control. I thank all the health workers, worldwide, who give so much to others day in and day out.

I give thanks for my family, friends and comrades—for all the good people who are working in their own spheres to be sources of love and compassion.

On dark days like this one, it can be hard to feel confident that the human capacity for love and empathy will prevail over the less admirable side of our nature; that our ethical intelligence and social creativity will succeed in tempering our greedy self-interest and destructiveness.

Every day presents opportunities to live in ways that elevate the human condition and spirit. Even the greatest events in human history always depend on the actions of individuals, each within our own sphere. All we can do, as human beings alive on the planet in these frightening transition times, is strive to embody love.

We won’t always succeed; no one of us is perfect. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us place ourselves on that arc, with gratitude for being able to help it bend towards justice now, in our own time.

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Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

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So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

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There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Bypassing the Old Boys’ Club

As we move exuberantly into the second half of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, my mind is sparkling with memories of the powerful, indeed heart-stopping moments that have already taken place at Festival events this season.

DSCN4609Grace Rossman extending a powerful poetic hand to the drowning Ophelia in so many girls today; Ruth Sanabria impersonating both her mother and the fascist regime that unjustly imprisoned her in a fierce poem about the impossibility of stamping out the love between mother and daughter; Kate Abbott celebrating the cultural diversity of the Berkshire hills as she works quietly and steadily to make it more visible; Barbara Bonner eloquently describing the spirit of generosity that seeks and needs no recompense.

The list could go on, and it will, as the Festival continues to unfold day by day this month, and throughout the year in the on-going readings, workshops and writers’ circles that will be taking place under the Festival banner.

This is important work we’re doing together at the Festival—creating multiple entry points and platforms for women writers to step into the spotlight and shine.

The truth is, such opportunities are still all too rare for women writers, and creative women more generally.

Overall17-316x173At the end of February, just in time for Women’s History Month, the non-profit, all-volunteer group VIDA published its annual Count, revealing the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s voices in literary and upscale magazines and journals.

Overall14-316x173I invite you to take a look for yourself: the results show clearly that in literary circles (think The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The Nation and the New York Review of Books), the old boys’ club is alive, well and holding steady at an average of 75% male voices represented in their pages over the past year.

The same is true in the film industry, the theater industry, and in the television industry. 

It’s the same in book publishing, which may be one reason why women are so interested in exploring new opportunities for self-publishing and self-promotion.

publishing_quadrant1222These days in publishing, it’s like the Berlin wall coming down—gates thought to be invincible are simply crumbling away, with their keepers revealed in all their flabby ordinariness.

Having spent far too much of my life not even trying to take myself seriously as a writer because I knew exactly how high the odds were stacked against my success, I’m excited about the DIY spirit of the new publishing landscape.

I’ve got a book that’s almost ready to launch, and buoyed by the lively, can-do spirit of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’m thinking seriously about bypassing the old boys’ club entirely and taking responsibility myself for getting my words out into the world.

No more sitting on the sidelines complaining that “they won’t let us in!”  No more waiting to be asked to dance.  No more hiding my light for fear it won’t be appreciated.

BFWW-square-logo-2014If all of us women started supporting each other and working collaboratively to create the opportunities we all need to shine, we could change the creative cultural landscape for the better, turning those red and blue pie charts a lovely shade of purple.

What a beautiful world it would be!

Passionate Selfies

Why is it that girls are still being encouraged to take up less space, while boys are encouraged to bulk themselves up?

In my gender studies courses at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time talking about the insidious influence of the media on both girls’ and boys’ self-image.

Girls receive the message that the ideal girl is thin and pale, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes.  She’s sexy but not threatening—if she’s smart, she doesn’t flaunt it the way she does her big boobs and shapely legs.

Boys, on the other hand, are rewarded for being assertive and athletic.  It’s a good thing if they take up a lot of space in the room as well as a lot of airtime in any social context.

It is no coincidence that girls are disproportionately affected by eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia—psycho-somatic illnesses marked by a distortion of one’s self-image and a manic desire to become smaller.

Girls with these eating disorders imagine themselves to be fat, a horrible three-letter word, no matter how waif-thin they starve themselves into becoming.  Bulimics binge-eat and then purge, vomiting up their meal before it can be converted to the dreaded fat on their bodies.

Anorexics just starve themselves, and often add demanding exercise regimens to the mix to make good and sure they won’t be fat.

Meanwhile, boys abuse protein powders loaded with steroids to make themselves bigger and more muscular.

Yesterday I went to see a screening of the new short film “Selfie,” made right here in Great Barrington MA by filmmaker Cynthia Wade and photographer Michael Crook, who spent a week in our local high school talking about body image and self esteem with teenage girls.

Unknown-3The girls were encouraged to take “selfies” (ie, smart-phone pictures) of themselves, daring to focus in on the parts of their faces that they liked the least.

One girl complained of the roundness of her face, another of her bushy hair, another of her red cheeks, another of her prominent nose.

But through guided discussions about body image and beauty, and the process of creating a photo show of their “selfies” and video-taped interviews of themselves and their mothers for the film, they were made more aware of how superficial it is to obsess over the places where their own human faces fall short of the air-brushed ideal.

Obviously many agree, since the film is in the process of going viral on You-Tube, with nearly a million views in the past few weeks.  The 3-minute version is up to nearly 5 million views!

Unknown-4Beauty is so much more than what we can see, the girls and the film audience concluded.  It is not about conforming to some pre-established, often totally unrealistic ideal.  How boring would it be if every girl looked like Barbie, and every boy looked like Ken?

Yesterday’s New York Times discussed the “Selfie” film, along with a new trend among adolescent girls to share “uglies,” that is, selfies that are deliberately staged to portray the self-photographer as “ugly.”

The Times seemed to think this was an advance—that girls who were unafraid to show themselves making “ugly faces” into the camera were more liberated, less browbeaten by media stereotypes.

To me, a much more profound advance would be represented by girls whose “selfies” were not about their physical appearance at all.

What if women and girls channeled all that nervous energy over how we look into our work in the world instead?

Following the screening of “Selfies,” Berkshire International Film Festival Director Kelley Vickery presented the short film SEPIDEH, which created quite a buzz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.  Made by Danish director Berit Madsen, the film is a documentary that follows the life of the titular teenager, an Iranian girl who grows from a young girl obsessed with Albert Einstein into a woman engaged to be married and heading to university to study astronomy.

Unknown-2In the film, Sepideh wears a hijab and no make-up.  She’s much more interested in studying and star-gazing than in making herself attractive in conformity with some pre-established ideal.

Her passion for learning and her determination to achieve her goals are paramount.  And in the end, these shining characteristics succeed in attracting to her a suitor who has every intention of helping her become the outstanding woman she is meant to be.

So should it be for every young woman.  Teenage girls should be focused on zeroing in on their passions, defining their goals, and going after them.

What could be more beautiful than a girl who knows what she wants, is fully ignited with a sense of purpose, and is pursuing her dreams at full tilt?

Ronan Farrow’s Beacon of Hope

“One of the most difficult things to do is to infuse in young people a sense of empathy and a larger world…to give them a perspective that is more macro and less narcissistic,” Jon Stewart said in his recent interview with Ronan Farrow.

Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow

Farrow, when asked how he came by his desire to make a positive difference in the world, replied that it was growing up in a “mini-United Nations” sort of family (many of his 13 siblings were adopted from all over the world, some with serious physical or mental disabilities) that gave him the desire to become an agent for positive change on a worldwide scale.

Mia did something right to have set such a force in motion!

Ronan Farrow was a prodigy, going to college at my home institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, at the tender age of 11.  Although I never had him in class, I remember seeing him on campus, his bright blond hair always a stand-out, his small frame bent beneath a heavy backpack of books.

He went on to Yale Law School at 18, after serving a two-year stint as a youth ambassador at the United Nations; then became a Rhodes Scholar, worked at the State Department, and is now about to launch his own cable news show.

At 26, he’s done more than most of us will ever do.

I am quite impressed by the agenda he’s set for his show.  It will be news aimed at a youth audience, specifically designed to spark the empathy Stewart referred to, and not only that but to give his audience concrete options for taking action on the issues and situations presented.

Every show will have a “call to action,” Farrow said, and “a menu of things to do”; ways “to move the needle” on important issues.

I have noticed from my years of working with young people on social and environmental justice issues that they get very impatient and turned-off by discussions of problems that don’t also include solutions, preferably along with ways that they can get involved in moving the solutions forward.

It must be his twenty-something instinct that is prompting Ronan Farrow to put his talents and connections to work in creating just the kind of show his own generation is longing for.

It will have the celebrity pizzazz that his handsome face and famous name brings; the erudition and seriousness of purpose that his education and professional experience has provided; and with any luck, it will be a real beacon of active hope for millions of potential young change agents.

Go Ronan!  It is great to see a young person who is so clearly in the flow of living his purpose.

Of Oil, Honey and the Future of Human Civilization

do_the_math_image_1I have been reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, with a group of students in a course called Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice Advocacy that I’m offering for the first time this semester at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Oil and Honey tells the story of how McKibben founded 350.org with a group of his students at Middlebury College in 2009, and how together they went on to become the most visible American environmental organization of our time, leading the U.S. protests against the Keystone XL pipeline and creating an international movement to put pressure on governments and policy makers to quickly and decisively address the mounting threats of climate change.

Most recently, McKibben has been focusing on divestment as a tactic to push the fossil fuel industry to shift into cleaner forms of energy production.

Taking its cue from the successful anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s, the strategy is to awaken enough ordinary citizens–including college students, church-goers and workers of every stripe–to the perils of climate change, and get them to press their hometowns, companies, churches and colleges or schools to divest their endowments, retirement funds and other collectively held investment portfolios from the fossil fuel industry.

It seems like a good strategy, and yet it did not elicit much enthusiasm from the students in my class.

They were more interested in thinking about how to educate younger kids about the beauty and value of the natural world, and moving from that basic platform out into activism.

Kids today spend so much time indoors, in front of screens, that they have little sense of connection to nature, my students said.  And without that connection, it’s very hard to understand why it’s important.  What’s all the fuss about?

This is what it’s about.

Bill McKibben asks us to “do the math” and understand that if we were to actually succeed in burning all the fossil fuels that are currently in the ground, we would heat our planet to a level not seen for millions of years.

It would definitely be game over for human civilization, and it would take millions of years for the planet to restabilize.

What it is about this simple math that human beings today do not want to see and understand?

Part of it is simply that we’re so easily distracted.

The big news yesterday was that Federal Aviation Administration will now allow airline passengers to use their computers and tablets right through take-off and landing.  We can be in front of our screens to the very last second of the day!

Meanwhile, while we’re busy on our computers, not paying attention, the fossil fuel industry is going around the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline by massively investing in railway terminals, lines and cars for carrying its tar sands oil down to refineries and tankers on the coasts.

B3029FCC-5228-4E57-B879-F8A83ABF036B_mw1024_n_sAnd up in the darkness of the Russian tundra, 30 Greenpeace activists are languishing in cold solitary prison cells, held without trial for the crime of trying to raise awareness about the destruction of the Arctic by Russian and international oil drilling.

Where is the outrage?

In the book Oil and Honey, McKibben ingeniously compares corporate behavior to bee behavior.  Corporations are like bees, he says, in being relentlessly “simple” and focused on their one crucial task—for bees, making honey; for corporations, making profit.

They don’t change their focus, no matter what.

But humans are more complex than that.  We can change and adapt to new circumstances.  We can recognize and act upon moral imperatives.  We don’t have to follow suicidal corporations blindly over a cliff of their own making.

Although it’s true that the alarming dependence of Americans on screens of every size can get in the way of a connection to the natural world, on the other hand, the fact that so many people are networked together through the media presents great opportunities for activism and change.

With my students this semester, I’ll be thinking about how to harness the power of the media to create a different kind of swarm—not following our current corporate leaders, but moving in an entirely different direction.

We’re not alone—there are many groups working on this now, from the Transition Town movement to the Pachamama Alliance to even such formerly mainstream organizations as the Sierra Club.

The task: to awaken a critical mass of people, worldwide, to the reality that we are living in an end-time of biblical stature; and to get them to understand that we have the power to change the storyline from doom-and-gloom cataclysm to a positive shift into a whole new relationship of humans to our planetary home.

Working cooperatively, bees are able to turn small grains of pollen into vast tubs of honey.  Human beings can do that too–when we work together for a common cause we can do almost anything.

So what are we waiting for?

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The Cabal Behind the Curtain

It’s hard to understand the kind of person who would be taken in by Mitt Romney’s absolutely unsubstantiated claims that he’ll be able to magically produce 23 million new jobs in the next four years, and raise take-home pay while he’s at it.

Do people really think Mitt is a magician?

Watching him struggle to appear mild-mannered and fangless during the debates—an effort that translated into a zombie-like smirk—I began to understand him as the puppet he is, a marionette whose strings are pulled by the cabal behind the curtain: the Koch brothers and their ilk, along with Big Fossil Fuel, Big Pharma, Big Chemical, Big Ag, Big Free Trade, Big Finance, you name it.

Now, it’s true that that gang has their tentacles in Obama too.  You can see the strain the President is under, trying to please his popular base while also keeping his pockets open for the big under-the-table donations that keep his campaign afloat.

Guys like the Kochs hedge their bets.  Whichever of the two parties wins, they’ll carry on just fine.

But if it’s Romney/Ryan, their agenda will take a great leap forward.

We’ll automate and outsource jobs like crazy, to satisfy Wall Street—the hell with Main Street.

We’ll drill and frack and mine and bulldoze our way to oblivion, and call it Kingdom Come.

We’ll appoint more social conservatives to the Supreme Court, and put women back where they belong: barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

We’ll drastically increase our military spending, at the expense of social welfare programs.  Those who dare to ask for help with affording health care, education, or retirement, not to mention simply being able to eat regularly and keep a roof overhead, will be asked coldly: Can’t you borrow from your parents?  Or, are there no workhouses?

Not only that, but the first thing we’ll do in office—day one!—is pick a fight with the Chinese over currency manipulation.

Yes, Obama is the better of the two choices, for all the reasons he has laid out himself during the Presidential debates.

We must re-elect him, and continue to work to strengthen the progressive movement over the next four years, so we don’t backslide in 2016.

But part of this work must be to stand up for true democracy in our supposedly democratic nation.

Stein and Honkala arrested outside Hofstra U on Oct 16

The detention of Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala last week was reprehensible, and I am glad to see they are filing suit—at least that way more people will know what happened to them when they tried to enter Hofstra University to participate in the presidential debate there.

You wouldn’t know from reading the mainstream media that Stein and Honkala were taken by police to a secret detention facility and handcuffed tightly to metal chairs for eight hours, without being allowed to consult their lawyers or staff.

Thank goodness for Amy Goodman, who broke this story and has refused to let it die, broadcasting “alternative debates” on Democracy Now that give the other three candidates on the November ballot a chance to have their views heard on national television.

Goodman is a model for the kind of alert, engaged and impassioned citizenry we desperately need in the coming decade, when the economic and environmental challenges we face are going to be increasingly dire.

We don’t need more goon cops in riot gear to maintain order, we need more ordinary people taking the time and energy and yes, the risk, to stand up for our rights to a safe, sustainable future.

After we re-elect Obama, those of us who understand what is at stake need to get to work with redoubled energy on building a broad coalition of people who care about our future and are willing to lead the way in making the necessary changes to ensure that human civilization survives on this planet.

This is a struggle that concerns all of us: we need to work across ethnicities, across gender, and across nationalities to engage the young and the old, the faith-based groups, centrists and leftists, the elites and the working class.

We can’t let a few shortsighted, greedy, impossibly foolish billionaires hijack our future.  It’s ours to save—or to lose.

Governor Deval Patrick of MA Gives Exclusive Interview on WBCR-LP

How cool is it to have the Governor of Massachusetts stop by the small offices of WBCR-LP, Berkshire Community Radio in Great Barrington to give a one-on-two interview with local amateur radio show hosts Graham and Barbara Dean?

Governor Deval Patrick takes questions from Graham and Barbara Dean in the studio of WBCR-LP FM on July 3, 2012

It was citizen journalism at its finest.  Barbara, having met Governor Deval Patrick at another event, simply asked him if he would be a guest on her radio show.

He said sure, she followed up with his staff, and the rest is history!

The half-hour interview will be rebroadcast and streamed on July 11 on the Deans’ show, Common Sense Songs, between 8 and 10 p.m.

The Governor had a lot to say about the hot topics of health care affordability, education, and labor relations.

Calling himself a “labor man,” because of his childhood experience of how his mother’s life improved dramatically when she got a job at the U.S. Postal Service and joined the union, the Governor was also positive about teachers and their union, saying that the secret to an effective partnership with teachers is “respect.”

Lots of politicians talk about respecting teachers, but their actions say otherwise.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at WBCR-LP, Great Barrington

Governor Patrick seems to be different.

Under his leadership, new emphasis has been put on “bringing a culture of innovation into every school” by empowering and supporting teachers who have new ideas about how best to meet the needs of their students.

“The question is, how do we tailor education to meet kids where they are,” the Governor said, recalling his own “great public education on the South Side of Chicago.  I had inspiring teachers, who loved me and loved teaching and were thinking about educating the whole child.”

He also talked about the importance of focusing on the “whole person” when it comes to health care, and he was justifiably proud of his record in making Massachusetts one of the most progressive states in the country in terms of health care reform.

“Rather than limiting ourselves to the usual choice between doing nothing and going all the way to a single payer system, we made a decision here in Massachusetts to pick a third option, a hybrid, private, market-focused solution in which we require everyone to buy insurance, but we subsidize them if they can’t afford it,” he said.

Under the Governor’s leadership, premium growth in the state has gone from 16% per year to less than 1% increase in the past year.

It made me proud to be a citizen of Massachusetts to watch Governor Deval Patrick taking the time to give a serious, thoughtful interview on our hometown low-power radio station.

As Barbara Dean reminded the Governor at the outset of the interview, he is only the fourth African American to be elected Governor of an American state.

I am glad to be among the many who gave him my vote, and I rest easier knowing he is on the job in Boston, working for ordinary people like me.

Deval Patrick just published a memoir, Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life, and an e-book, Faith in the Dream: A Call to the Nation to Reclaim American Values.  Youthful politicians who publish memoirs often have their eye on moving up the political ladder.

I hope that Patrick has the stamina and courage to keep moving on and up in American politics.  We need more strong men like him to come forward and stand for integrity and social justice in American politics.

 

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