Fossil Fuels R Us–but we can change, and so can they!

I am in one of those periods where I feel quite inadequate to comment on the events that dash across the world and national stages with madcap intensity.

What was it Shakespeare said? Life’s but a shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing….

And yet for those of us who are caught up in the moment, our hour upon the stage, what happens does matter, it does signify something—even if we can’t always tell what that something is.

The General and his lover

What does it mean that a much-decorated general, Director of the CIA, abruptly resigns after being investigated for adultery by the FBI?

Is this scandal really just about a simple affair with a younger woman, or do the General’s neocon tendencies, which had him presiding over the escalation of the disastrous war in Afghanistan and advocating open hostility with Iran, have anything to do with the alacrity with which President Obama accepted his resignation?

We’ll find out when the blockbuster film comes out, a couple of years from now!

Meanwhile, the drumbeats of war are booming in Israel/Palestine, right on cue after the American elections ground to their quadrennial conclusion.

Once again photos of bloody children pop up on our computer and TV screens.  Once again passionate voices on both sides of this eternal conflict are raised.  This is a pageant that has taken place so many times it has become predictable and stale, like the Christmas pageants that will soon take their places on local church stages throughout Christendom.

Scenes from Gaza, November 2012

Why can’t those people just get along? Americans wonder before flipping the channel.  Few of us are aware of the extent to which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to be fueled and armed by the taxpayers of the United States.

This is our conflict; we are responsible.  But as long as we dispassionately wait for someone else to stop it, it will continue to grind on.

The same is true with so many issues, from climate change to income disparity.  It’s time to stop waiting for someone else to step in and solve the problems, make the changes for us.  We have to do it ourselves.

There are a few encouraging signs that this is beginning to happen.

The 350.0rg “Do the Math” tour with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and many, many friends is making its historic way across the country, urging Americans to consider ways they can pressure the institutions with which they’re involved to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Scene from the Do the Math tour in New York City, 11/12

McKibben was talking about this last summer when I went to listen to him up at the top of Mount Greylock here in western Massachusetts, courtesy of Orion Magazine.  He invoked the successful divestiture movement of the international anti-apartheid struggle, which put enough pressure on the racist South African government that it eventually had to back down from its untenable position and begin working with the Black South Africans.

The sins of the fossil fuel companies are much bigger than those of the Boers: we’re not just talking about bigoted social policies in one country here, we’re talking about a mindset, policy brief and massive engineering effort that is inexorably endangering the entirety of human civilization on this planet, and indeed the well-being of all current life forms, perhaps excepting algae, bacteria and cockroaches.

And yet, it’s impossible to externalize the blame here, because the fossil fuel companies have only been trying to give us what we want: cheap and plentiful oil and gas.

It’s not their fault that we love their products so much we’re willing to do anything—including fight endless wars—to get it.

It’s incumbent on us to look inward and interrogate our own desires and dependencies in order to move forward.

Pressuring the fossil fuel companies to change is a good thing, as long as we’re willing to change with them.

Shifting to renewable energy is going to take a commitment from every player on the world stage today, from government leaders to manufacturers to the financial sector to ordinary consumers like you and me.

Let’s not allow the gloom of Shakespeare’s tragedies to engulf us and sap us of energy.  This play isn’t over yet and it doesn’t have to come to a bloody end.

Enough playing the handwringing Hamlet role!  Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work to solve our problems and write ourselves a better script.

Scheherezades of the 21st Century

I have been following the progress of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development from a distance, feeling jaded about the process and the possibility of positive outcomes resulting from this gathering of diplomats and social engineers.  It’s good to see the lively and vibrant displays of people passion outside the gates of the conference, but the real question is, when will those gates come down?

Gar Alperovitz

At the Strategies for a New Economy conference earlier this month, veteran progressive economist Gar Alperovitz pointed to our time as the moment when enough people wake up and notice that something is wrong.

“This is a critical moment in history,” he said; “the moment when people realize something is gravely wrong and are willing to think outside the box to find solutions.”

Alperovitz suggested that we are currently in “the prehistory of a major shift,” and that now is the time for those of us who are aware of what’s happening to “lay the foundations for new institutions and new systems” that are tailored to meet the coming challenges.

Who would have thought, a decade ago, that the cell phone would take Africa by storm, Alperovitz reminded us.  In the same way, it could be that distributed solar-generated power—each home and business hosting its own power generator on the roof–will become the standard in the decade to come, particularly if the real costs of fossil fuels are brought home to industries and consumers.

Yesterday in the course of a desultory lunchtime conversation about changing weather patterns, one of the people around the table, a bigtime financial executive, mentioned that he’d heard the Arctic ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

I took his comment to be about the negative impact of climate change on the environment, and began talking about the methane bubbles that have been rising up out of the deepwater beneath the ice pack, suddenly and disastrously finding access to the open air.

But no—his point was quite different. To him, what was interesting about the melting of the ice was that it put previously inaccessible oil beds suddenly within range of development.


What difference will all the UN treaties in the world make to the health of our planet if the power brokers sitting in their comfortable climate-controlled glass towers in New York don’t understand the urgency of moving away from fossil fuels?  My financier friend was actually planning to fly down to Rio this week on business, but it was news to him that the Rio+20 conference was going on at all.

Gar Alperovitz described our current economic system as “stalemated, stagnating and in decay—neither reforming nor collapsing,” and this sounds like an accurate description to me of our tightly intertwined political, financial and industrial sectors.

All of us ordinary people are held like flies in the sticky web of corporate capitalism, which is squeezing us ever more tightly in the bonds of rising prices, scarce jobs and inescapable debt.

Where will it end?  Alperovitz called on the conference attendees to become the historical change agents within our communities—to go home and seize every opportunity to develop the frameworks for the transition to a different kind of future.

To me, as a writer and teacher of literature, it was interesting to hear him calling in particular for an emphasis on new kinds of narrative.  In order to imagine new solutions to what seem like insurmountable problems, he said, “we need to tell new stories.”

Maybe’s Twitterstorm yesterday, in which hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world besieged Twitter with messages in support of ending the fossil fuel subsidies, is the start of a new story—a global story, authored collectively by kindred spirits worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether we will be able to figure out a way to preserve and extend our current technological sophistication while moving into a sustainable, harmonious relation with our planetary home.  Many who are currently trying to read the future predict a violent collapse of our human civilization, with a dramatic loss of human population and a return to a much simpler, low-tech kind of life for those who survive.

The only way the latter scenario will be avoided is if the technocrats and the bureaucrats and the financiers start listening to the ordinary people outside the gates, and understanding the full implications of their dependence on a capitalist economic system of endless growth fueled by destructive fossil fuels and the despoiling of the environment.

So yes, let’s start telling those new stories by every means possible—by Twitter, by blog, by radio, TV and film—around the lunch table and across the backyard fence.

Tell new stories as though your life depended on it. As in fact, it does.

To Avert Climate Change Disaster, Connecting the Dots Must Go Viral

As of 8:30 a.m. EST this morning, 10,000 Facebook folks had already “liked” the new “Connect the Dots” campaign, which encourages people around the world to connect the dots between climate change and extreme weather.

That’s a good number of “likes.” But what we really need is for the concept to go viral, the way the Kony 2012 campaign did a few weeks back.

It will require the attention of millions of people, particularly those in the driver’s seat of climate change—that’s you and me, my fellow Americans—to turn this global heating juggernaut around.

Lately I can’t seem to stop asking myself why it is that so few people I know are willing to focus their attention on the crucial issues of our time: climate change, the chemical poisoning of our environment, the steadily accelerating wave towards what scientists call “the sixth great extinction event on Earth.”

I often feel like Cassandra of Troy, who was able to see disaster in the future of her beloved community, but was under a curse, imposed by the god Apollo, of never being believed or listened to.

It’s not so much that people don’t believe what’s coming (although we certainly have our share of climate change deniers in the U.S.)—it’s that they just don’t want to hear it.  They don’t want to know.

Maybe this is simply the animal in us coming out.  Like my peaceful dog, who sleeps by my side without any thought or concern for the future, we humans focus on the immediate tasks at hand—making a living, bringing up children, keeping the house clean, exercising, shopping, planning birthday parties, you name it—and we get so wrapped up in all that busyness that we are able to blot out the daily dying screams of millions of birds and animals, the rip and tear of millions of acres of forest going down before the chain saw and bulldozer, the sobbing of millions of children who go to bed hungry every night, the ever-increasing militarization of our world civilization, and the sinking knowledge that those in control of all those weapons and surveillance systems do not stand for good.

Sometimes I really envy my friends and neighbors who are able to cheerfully ignore what’s going on in the background, and focus on making the best of each day they’re given.

Sometimes I think that’s what I should be doing too.

Why torment myself with the constant awareness of spiraling crisis, especially if I can’t do anything about it anyway?

But there’s the rub.  I do have something to offer to the fight to connect the dots and raise the necessary momentum to push Americans, potentially the most powerfully innovative, can-do people on earth, off their couches and out into the trenches of turning this crisis around.

I have my voice, which thanks to the internet can be amplified around the world and swelled into a great chorus that cannot be ignored.

Over the last few years, I have made a study of change agents—otherwise known as activists.  I know full well that every single one began as I am beginning, just sitting with the burning knowledge that things are not right, and that change is possible.

The great Bill McKibben began his climate change work in his classroom, working with a group of tech-savvy college students who realized that the Web could be used to raise awareness about the necessity of keeping carbon emissions to under 350 ppm in order to head off extreme and irrevocable climate change.

In 2007, Bill and his students launched the first iteration of and were off and running, using the incredible tools of social media to connect people, places and events all over the world.

This is the thing.  We have the ability, as never before, to see the Earth as a whole system; to understand that every creature and community on the planet is vital to the functioning of the whole and has the right to a peaceful, prosperous life.

We as humans have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and we know full well that the damage we are causing with our reckless, destructive, indifferent ways is wrong.

We need people from all over the world, but especially Americans and Europeans, who have been responsible for so much of the damage, to come down on the side of right, on the side of life, on the side of justice.

Yes, it’s going to mean making lifestyle changes.

Yes, it’s going to take some focused attention on the local, national and international levels.

But if we do nothing—if we continue in our unconcerned merry ways, too busy and distracted to get involved—then we will wake up one morning facing some much more severe lifestyle changes.

One morning it will be us waking up to a howling tornado flattening our town, or a raging flood sweeping away our Main Street, or an oil slick blackening our local beach, or a spike in food prices that makes even the basics no longer affordable.

It’s time to connect the dots, people, and pay attention.  Add your voice to mine, and let’s go viral with a campaign for a sustainable planetary future that cannot be ignored.

Bill McKibben: The Sky Does Not Belong to Wall Street!

Thanks to the magic of You-Tube, we can see a terrific 6-minute speech by Bill McKibben today, linking the fight to save the climate to the fight against the Wall Street tycoons.

He’s planning another big action in D.C. next month: setting up a ring of protesters around the White House, standing siege until the real Barack Obama comes out–not the zombie who’s actually considering letting the oil industry raze the boreal forest in Alberta and run a leaky pipeline all the way to the Gulf.

We need our Obama to stand up to those guys and remind us why we elected him!

Let’s hope Bill McKibben and company can free the real Obama from the stranglehold of Big Oil, so he can be our champion in the White House, as we so hoped he would be.

“The sky does not belong to Exxon.  They cannot keep using it as a sewer into which to dump their carbon,” Bill reminds us.

Barack, are you listening?

Resisting the Zombies: At what point will we stop bearing witness to ecocide and begin to act?

My favorite chapter in Derrick Jensen’s new book Dreams is entitled “Zombies.”  Jensen describes the corporate elite as zombies, that is, as “flesh-eating…mindless monsters who are not only to be feared for their insatiability and ferocity, but because their sickness is highly contagious….Zombies eat human flesh, but they are also as relentlessly omnicidal as corporations.  They destroy forests, grasslands, rivers, oceans, mountain tops, and the mountains themselves.  They consume everything, and they shit out plastic” (367).

For Jensen, “zombie capitalists” are especially terrifying, because “on the one hand, they pursue their prey–I mean, profits–with an unfeeling, unrelenting, insatiable mindlessness, unheeding of all the pain and suffering they cause in their victims–I mean, in the resources they exploit (I mean, develop).  On the other hand, they fabricate extraordinarily complicated rationales for their zombie economics (or zombinomics) and for the further zombification of the world and all its inhabitants” (368).

Jensen imagines a “realistic zombie film” being made, in which “the remaining humans”–the ones who haven’t been consumed or infected yet by the zombies–are “refusing to resist, but instead hoping against reason that the zombies will stop on their own, that the zombies will undergo a miraculous awakening…or that if they personally could just live sustainably, then their shining examples will cause the zombies to suddenly stop, look at the torn flesh all around them, and say, ‘What have I done?  I need to make this right!’….In a realistic zombie movie,” Jensen says, “too many humans would try to stop the zombies by gardening, taking shorter showers, recycling, petitioning.  In a realistic zombie movie…many of those humans who opposed resistance would be revealed near the end to not really be on the side of the living but rather, unbeknownst even to them, already among the living dead” (369).

Unfortunately, all too often, even those who profess to be on the side of justice and environmental sanity are eventually shown to be soulless creatures of the corporate capitalist zombie machine.

It seems that the minute an authentic human leader arises who has the possibility of successfully resisting the zombies and making real change, s/he is either smeared and discredited; corrupted with financial payoffs; driven mad with frustration by repeated, humiliating obstructions; or simply imprisoned or killed off.

Thus we have watched with horror as our beloved Barack Obama, the young man we came to know and love in Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope, has slowly had the soul sucked out of him by the zombification crucible of politics and media.  The face remains the same, but the eyes are hollow, and the spirit is clearly guttering.

Bill McKibben is still holding out valiantly against the zombies–maybe it’s that pure Vermont air that is keeping his head clear of contagion so far.  Derrick Jensen has some harsh questions for Bill, though, which I think are entirely reasonable.  Given the steady destruction of the planet by the zombie forces of corporate capitalism, Jensen asks, “Would McKibben ever countenance the physical dismantling of infrastructure in order to stop civilization from killing the planet?” Jensen’s question, “for McKibben and for everyone,” is: “What is your threshold?”  At what point will we stop bearing silent witness to ecocide, and begin to seriously resist?

The reason the Occupy Wall Street protests have so seized the American imagination is because the young people out there on the street are so clearly NOT ZOMBIES.  Not yet, anyway.  They have not been corrupted; their souls are intact.  That’s why they can see so clearly that what the zombie nation accepts as normal–the enrichment of the few on the backs of the masses–is not normal at all, and is neither just nor sustainable.

There is another up-and-coming activist who is right now wavering on the border between zombie and human.  His name is Van Jones, and he’s the man behind the Rebuild the American Dream movement.  Jones is all about developing “green-collar jobs”; in other words, rebooting the old American Dream in a new, more sustainable version.  Unlike Occupy Wall Street, Jones comes armed with a nice bullet-pointed list of “demands.”

Nothing wrong with his list.  But it’s just not radical or visionary enough to ignite the minds and hearts of the young people out in Liberty Park Plaza.  Even the way his website is presented, with red-white-and-blue stars and flashy campaign-style graphics, is very likely to turn a lot of the Occupy Wall Streeters off.  It reeks of zombification.

When you look into Jones’ bio, you see why: “Jones served as the green jobs advisor in the Obama White House in 2009 and is currently a senior policy advisor at Green For All. He also holds a joint appointment at Princeton University as a distinguished visiting fellow in both the Center for African American Studies and in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.”

I’m sorry, but once Princeton and the Woodrow Wilson School get their hands on you, zombie contagion is almost assured.  You may not want to become one of them–the elite, the 1%–but like it or not, you will be beholden to them, and they will begin to mold you in ways you won’t even be aware of.

For example, contrast that slick Rebuild the Dream website, completely cleansed of its grassroots origins, to the Occupy Wall Street website, with its livestream coverage of the chaotic goings-on down on Liberty Square.  The livestream may be focusing on a dark corner, but you can hear people in the background singing together and talking in real human-speak–not the carefully crafted politician-speak of Rebuild the Dream’s “demands.”

I don’t like to dis Van Jones, any more than Derrick Jensen likes to dis Bill McKibben.  All of these men, including the old Barack Obama, are heroes for our time for having dared to at least try to resist.  Bill McKibben is still holding out, and we need to applaud him for it and help him in any way possible.

But most of all, we need to help those kids out in Liberty Square.  We need to make sure they know that what is best and most powerful about their nascent movement is the fact that it is not slick, not uber-organized, not hyper-networked.  It’s human, and I still dare to hope it will stay that way.  I still dare to hope that a real resistance to the zombie elite might just be getting underway.

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