Standing for Love in the Forest of Sandisfield–A Microcosm of the World

Last week I went to a meeting of the Conservation Commission in the little hill town of Sandisfield, MA, which has many more trees than residents. Indeed, it has no “town” to speak of, just roads threading their way through forests, streams and lakes, making it ideal habitat for beaver, coyotes, deer, bear, and many other birds and animals, including the occasional moose.

But now, Kinder Morgan has come to Sandisfield.

For more than a year, the local Conservation Commission, composed of three residents who serve as civic volunteers, has been meeting with representatives of the giant multinational fossil fuel corporation, which has gas pipelines running for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles in my corner of the world: the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine, and on up to the big commercial tanker port of St. John, New Brunswick.

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Kinder Morgan wants to clear a site in the Otis State Forest in order to lay a pipeline loop that will—as I understand it—be a kind of holding tank for liquefied gas, giving surges of gas coming through the pipeline somewhere to go besides down to the depot.

The Otis State Forest project is not about providing gas to local communities; it’s not even about creating increased ability to move gas from one place to another. It’s just about creating a back-up pipe.

And for this glorious purpose, Kinder Morgan proposes to disrupt land directly abutting a section of old-growth forest at the heart of the Otis State Forest, removing a beaver dam and withdrawing about a million gallons of water from beautiful Spectacle Pond.

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The case has been discussed at the EPA, by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and in court for months now. Local heroes Jane Winn of The BEAT News and Rosemary Wessel of the NoFrackedGasInMass campaign, now a BEAT program, have led the legal charge to stop this unnecessary invasion of state forest, and the case is still in court: Kinder Morgan does not yet have the last permits necessary to proceed.

According to Jane Winn, “We still don’t know if any toxic chemicals will be released from the lining of the pipe and there will be no testing of that water.” Jane adds that we do know that Kinder Morgan wants “to tear up and reconstruct a third of the 73 Ceremonial Stone Landscape features in Sandisfield – destroying the spiritual link and desecrating our native history. (Would FERC allow them to dig up part of Arlington National Cemetery and replace it afterward?) This desecration of the CSL features should not be allowed – and the agreement among the tribe, Kinder Morgan, and FERC has not been settled – as much as Kinder Morgan’s representative tried to mislead about that as well.”

Jane, who filmed the entire Conservation Commission meeting, says that the “FINAL 401 water quality permit won’t be issued until March 27 – and could possibly be denied, appealed, or require an additional Alternatives Study.”

Nevertheless, the conversation between the Conservation Commission board and the Kinder Morgan reps last week was chummy, with the main discussion points being what kinds of plans the company has made to contain erosion when—not if, but when—tree felling and bulldozing start.

Sitting across the table from the Conservation Commission folks, in the shabby basement of an old school, the Kinder Morgan rep never looked directly at any of the 60 or so concerned citizens surrounding him. He looked like a nice enough young man—an environmental engineer who had no doubt gotten his degree some 10 years earlier, and gone right to work for industry.

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Conservation Commission meeting, March 2017

As he talked casually about cutting trees and bulldozing wetlands, I had a vivid image of the quiet forest out there in the blackness beyond the fluorescent lights of the meeting room. The owls swooping about in pursuit of mice; the coyotes ambling in their pack, looking for rabbits; the beavers paddling contentedly between the wooded bank and their den, adding some more mud and logs to create a snug home for the new litter of young ones.

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As though it were a steel blade ripping through my own gut, I felt the pain and terror that will come when Kinder Morgan bulldozes over the opposition and starts cutting the trees, gouging up the roots, ripping out the beaver dam. They are in a hurry to start because there are some guidelines (state? Federal? I am not sure) that enjoin them to cut the trees before nesting season.

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American bittern

One resident spoke up at the meeting on behalf of two rare endangered species that he said he often sees at the very pond they are talking about destroying: the American bittern and the sedge wren.

What will they do when they fly in from their migration to find their usual habit a muddy, gaping scar in the forest?

They’ll fly on to some other pond, state officials and industry reps would say philosophically.

The problem is, there are fewer and fewer places for wildlife to go. Why do you think we have coyotes living in cities, bears hanging out in suburbia, moose strolling along highways and train tracks? It’s not because they want to be there. It’s because they have nowhere else to go.

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Snow geese

I thought about this recently when I heard about the thousands of snow geese that died painful, torturous deaths because they landed on a toxic pond in Montana left wide open to the sky by industry. This is a common occurrence; it was only the scale of this particular mass murder that brought it into the news headlines.

I am as complicit as the next person in all of this. I will get up from my desk to heat some coffee on my gas stove. I will drive my car into town for groceries that are produced and procured using fossil fuels. I live with this knowledge every day: that I am part of the problem. Look at this picture long enough, and you see the very clear strands of complicity linking me and my lifestyle with the chainsaws buzzing in the forests, the pipelines snaking over the countryside, the water taps on fire and the rivers, lakes and ponds choking with contaminants and algae.

While it is good to acknowledge the lack of innocence, it does no good to beat myself up with guilt.

The question becomes, what CAN I do?

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Environmental activist Jane Winn accepts an award from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions

If I have money, I can share it with environmental groups like The BEAT News, 350.org, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, which are working hard through information, organizing and legal battles to hold industry accountable to the public good.

I can work with the ACLU, the honorable news media and democratic political groups to bring down the Trump administration as soon as possible, before industry hacks like Scott Pruitt and Jeff Sessions have a chance to totally wreck the environmental standards in this country.

I can run for office myself, with the goal of putting my values and vision to work at the local, state or even national level.

Jane Winn suggests we all work on the local level to get New England off of fossil fuels.  “The latest study, she says, “points out that we have a legally mandated shrinking need for fracked natural gas. Massachusetts is adding off-shore wind and storage. Towns are starting to aim for 100% renewable. All of us can work toward zero net energy – buy fossil-fuel-free electricity through Mass Energy and add cold-climate heat pumps to stay warm. Use electric stoves. Buy an electric vehicle.”

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Julia Butterfly Hill at the top of Luna, the California redwood she singlehandedly saved from the lumber industry

All very good, productive advice. Nevertheless, what I most felt like doing, as I filed silently out of the school basement and out into the cool dark Sandisfield night, was putting my own body on the line–chaining myself to an old-growth hemlock, let’s say, before I let it be cut down.

I felt like pulling a Julia Butterfly Hill, becoming a treesitter who could save the forest.

I wish I had that kind of courage.

As it is, I sit with my grief and my rage as the Sandisfield scene is played out in small rural towns in every corner of our country and beyond.

Kinder Morgan, Energy Transfer Partners and the rest of the fossil fuel gang have been running roughshod over people and wildlife and the natural world for long enough.

img_1557Yes, we love our electricity, our cars and our warm homes. But now we know we can get all the power we need from the great Source of all of us, the Sun—with a little help from other elements: Wind and Water. We don’t need to rape the Earth any longer to satisfy our short-term human wants and desires.

The tragedy of Sandisfield is a tiny blip in the almost unimaginably huge devastation humanity has wrought on our planet. Still, it’s in my backyard and I care about that forest and the life it supports. If each of us cared and tended for the land around us, our world would be a different place.

The problem of the corporations is precisely that they are too big, too amorphous and unrooted. The managers, board members, financiers and shareholders live far, far from the places they are destroying. They don’t care.

So my heartfelt question is: how can we reach these human beings, who literally have the power of life or death in their tiny, grasping hands? How can we get to their hearts and make them care?

I think we need to get these guys out of their office towers and into the forest.

And I suspect that the strongest thing I can do, with the talents and gifts I have been given, is to try to communicate to them, and all their henchmen and enablers, why it is so, so important—indeed, critical to all life on Earth—that they reconnect with the natural world, open their hearts, and learn what love in action looks and feels like, and the true value of what it can produce.

Love is the simple solution. If we lived in love, and acted out of love, every single problem we face would melt away.

And what a beautiful world it would be.

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Prayers for Standing Rock: Holding the Light

Sitting in my snug house, my thoughts turn constantly to the thousands of people camping at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock, now under its first coating of winter snow.

I am not sure how to think about the 2,000 veterans who are arriving there this weekend with the intention of shielding the civilian water protectors from the brutal attacks of police.

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Although they come unarmed, in peace, it still seems like their presence may up the ante and draw even more violence from so-called “law enforcement.”

Violence is part of the mechanics of justice. Has there ever been a peaceful revolution? Power is never conceded without a demand, and rarely conceded without a breakdown of communication, a descent into the ancient human inclination to settle scores with our fists.

With the camp under an eviction order set for midnight Sunday, and the people there defiantly vowing to stay and resist, to hold their ground to protect the land and the water, it’s hard to know what to expect. Anything could happen. There is a lot of pressure being placed on President Obama to intervene, and he still might. Hope springs eternal.

What I know is that the Standing Rock confrontation is the strongest volley yet in the ongoing struggles to resist the might of the fossil fuel lords.

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Minutes later, these unarmed people, praying in and for the water, would be hit with mace by the police.

 

In Pennsylvania, when the frackers came and began leasing up the forests over the Marcellus Shale, the people there took it as an unexpected bonanza, and began signing eagerly on the dotted line. They couldn’t imagine what would happen next: the logging, the industrial-scale pumping stations, the noise, the tanker trucks, the poisoning of the surface and ground water with toxic chemicals.

Same thing in Oklahoma, where the people who sold their land rights could never have imagined that the fracking would start setting off earthquakes.

Ordinary people took the bait of short-term gains, accepting the fool’s gold of the frackers and drillers. In the Bakken oilfields of the Dakotas, as in the Alberta tar sands, it’s the same story.

But ordinary people are perhaps not quite as stupid as the fossil fuel magnates seem to think.

It may take time, but we do wake up. We are coming to appreciate the inestimable value of clean water, clean air, healthy ecosystems and a stable climate.

we-will-never-forgetBack in the 1990s–when Julia Butterfly Hill sat in Luna, the 1500-year-old redwood tree, to protect her from logging, and Rachel Corrie stood up to the bulldozers in Palestine and paid for her bravery with her life—news of their protests spread mostly through word of mouth. The mainstream media didn’t cover Rachel’s commitment to her cause until she was dead.

But now in the 21st century, we are all connected. I can bring the snowy camp at Standing Rock into bed with me on my smartphone. I can watch the police beating up elders and kids. I can see the exquisite dignity of the water protectors praying at the river bank. I can be with them, virtually, excruciatingly, in real time.

And that makes all the difference.

The days when corporate bosses and their hired goons could ride roughshod over protesters without anyone even knowing—those days are gone. We are all citizen journalists now, and each generation of digital natives is savvier than the last about how to use the communication tools available to us to spread the word and stiffen the spines of the larger circles of resisters and witnesses.

I fear another Wounded Knee could be in the making at Standing Rock. The police are trying to needle the water protectors into “riot” so that it will look justified when they call out the big guns to “keep the peace.” Will “law enforcement” actually take the risk of escalating from rubber bullets to real bullets?

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Water protectors being hit with water cannons in 28-degree (F) temperatures last month.

 

So far it’s been so inspiring to watch the Native leaders steadfastly resisting those incitements, standing firm in their commitment to a movement grounded in non-violent prayer.

This Sunday, December 4, 2016, we have all been called to pray with and for Standing Rock, and for the entire Earth—to pray that we human beings will come to our senses and stop destroying our home and each other.

img_0268Although I was not raised to pray in a formal way, I find myself increasingly drawn to a kind of prayer that borders on channeling: a deep meditation in which I ground my feet in the roots of a tree or a mountain, open up my heart to the high vibrations of the air, and let the streaming energy of the sun and the stars pour down through my head into the rich loam at my feet.

When I shared this practice with my Facebook tribe recently, others chimed in, saying they too had felt a similar call. I found it spelled out again by Sharon McErlane, who channels the “grandmothers of the light.”

We are being called to stand up for the light now, even as the darkness deepens around us, literally and figuratively.

We don’t need the Internet to connect our hearts and minds through the energy flowing down to us from the cosmos. We can do as the trees do, and turn that radiant energy to sweet nourishment.

Like every living thing on this planet, we were born to grow and to flourish. Human beings have been fulfilling that original mission all too well lately.

We need to learn to grow wisely now, in harmony with each other and with the vast pulse of life on the planet.

The protectors of Standing Rock are like the immune system of human civilization, come to fight off the aggressive cancer of short-term corporate profiteers. Let us join together to strengthen that immune system through our love and concern, our prayers and our actions.

I end with words from Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee that I return to over and over for guidance in these dark times:

….The ancient energies of the Earth are still alive and we do not begin to understand how they are responding both to the energy of change and our collective resistance. But rather than attempting any prophecy I would continue to be aware of what each moment is telling us, watching the signs in the inner and outer worlds just as a sailor would read the winds and tides.

And from within this darkening there arises a cry that we hold the light that is left, the light that is within our self and within the spiritual body of the world. So much as been lost, so much has been desecrated by our endless desires, but those of us who are aware of the sacred need to hold what is left, hold it in our hearts and real awareness. The light of the sacred needs our care and protection. Maybe at some time it will give birth to the child with stars in its eyes, to the future whose seeds are still all around us. Without our relationship to this light nothing can be born, and the darkness will devour any real hope. Those of us who are aware of what we were given, of the oneness that was awakening, are needed to hold true to life’s deeper purpose, the unfolding of the soul of the world. We need to stay attuned to the heart of the world and life’s essential message of love, however the drama in the outer world unfolds.

–from Darkening of the Light (Golden Sufi Center, 2013)

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Nova Scotia, Winter 2015

 

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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Late Night Thoughts on Love, Loss and the Urgent Need for Action

I had a rough night last night. I went to bed thinking about the April 15 “Blood Moon” lunar eclipse; unfortunately we could not see it here in the Northeast, but we certainly could feel the extra-intense full moon energy these past few days.

At some point in the wee hours I woke up to strong winds battering the house, and peering out the window I could see that our long-awaited springtime had been overrun by Old Man Winter again. Driving snow, accumulating steadily on the ground.

Shit. Yet another manifestation of the new normal of our wrecked climate.

After that I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually, bored with my own churning thoughts, I fired up my tablet and started reading The New York Times in bed. Bad move. The first article that caught my attention was about how hazardous materials, particularly heavy crude and gas from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota, are being sent by rail to ports in the Northeast in exponentially increasing quantities, with virtually no regulatory oversight.

The map below shows the rail lines from North Dakota to the Hudson River, where tankers take the oil up to the refinery at St. John, New Brunswick, on the magnificent Bay of Fundy.

I live just two blocks from a train line, and I see the tanker cars that rumble past twice a day.

The tracks go right through downtown Pittsfield, the largest town in Berkshire County, and they go through many of our most lovely wilderness areas too.

But compared to cities like Albany, where schools are apparently sited right along the railroad tracks, or Philadelphia, which narrowly averted a major hazmat rail accident just recently, we have it good here in the Berkshires.

The point is, we are kidding ourselves if we think that nasty crude oil spills and explosions only happen somewhere else, like Ecuador or Nigeria.

We are kidding ourselves if we try to imagine ourselves as innocent bystanders in the nightmare of industrial devastation of our land, waters and air, and the destruction of our planet’s biospheric life support systems.

If Humans Are So Smart, Why Are We Destroying Our Home?

Surface of Mars

Surface of Mars

Surfing around the web bleakly in the middle of the night, I found myself reading articles speculating about how the dead, dry planet Mars lost its ability to support life.

The most likely scientific guess right now seems to be a catastrophic asteroid hit that changed the climate. Somehow the magnetic field of the planet was damaged, which allowed its atmosphere to literally blow away into space.

On Earth, our undoing will be the result of our own relentless industriousness and intelligence.

Human beings are so smart, we figured out how to split atoms and make atomic explosions! Too bad we haven’t got a clue what to do about the residual radiation and radioactive waste—waste with a half-life measured in the billions of years.

We’re so smart, we figured out how to harness the carbon energy buried deep in the ground in the form of coal, gas and oil. We even figured out how to turn oil into a different kind of substance that’s virtually indestructible—plastic! We just somehow overlooked the fact that we might quickly bury ourselves in plastic garbage, and choke ourselves in exhaust fumes.

We’re the smartest species on Earth. But like the Grinch, it appears that we have one fatal flaw—our hearts are many sizes too small for our outsized minds.

If we were guided by heart energy—that is, LOVE—in the application of our amazing technological abilities, what a very different world it would be.

It’s Time For Those With Loving Hearts to Speak in Many Tongues, Translating Love into Action

If future beings ever look back, shaking their heads at the demise of Homo sapiens on Earth and wondering how this once lush green and blue planet turned dead and brown, I wonder if they will be aware of the anguish of some of us living through these bitter transition times.

Will they know that some of us tossed and turned through the night, seeking futilely for a chink in the armor of the corporate stranglehold on our planet? Will they see that many of us, in these end times, tried to stand up for our values; tried to put into action the love we feel for the living creatures that share our beautiful Earth?

Always, it comes back to the question that keeps me up at night. What can we do to make a difference, now while there’s still time?

For a wordsmith like me, the obvious answer seems to be to learn to speak more tongues.

Since the corporations who are so bound and determined to keep fracking and mining and bulldozing their way to Kingdom Come only understand the language of quarterly profit and loss, this is the way we must speak to them.

The almighty priests of the Bottom Line and their henchmen the politicians could care less about emotional blather of love and respect for life and leaving a livable planet for future generations. So let’s speak to them in terms of losses.

The insurance company guys understand already how irreversible climate change will lead to losses on a Biblical scale. The fossil fuel magnates must also be made to understand that they are driving us all down a rapid road to ruin—and no gates will be high enough to keep the floods, fires and starving displaced populations out. We’re all in this together—rich and poor alike will go down with our sinking Mothership Earth.

To the church-going folks, we can speak the language of moral commitment and social responsibility. This weekend is a holy time in the Jewish and Christian calendars. When we’re thinking about the Resurrection and the miracle of Passover, let’s remember how these ancient holidays celebrate LIFE. For those who are religious, how can you claim to follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus and allow the destruction of our planet to proceed unopposed?

To the ordinary folks who are just trying to keep their own lives on track, we must speak in a very pragmatic voice. It’s time to begin to pull together as communities and insist on re-localizing energy production (solar, wind, geothermal) and agricultural production in order to build resilience at the state and town level.

It’s time to insist on regulations that will put the safety of people and environmental ecosystems above the profit margins of corporations, and if the federal government won’t do it, the states and towns must step up.

Lying awake at night worrying and mourning is a poor use of my energy. I want to spend whatever time we have left raising my voice to motivate all of us who care to work tirelessly and passionately on behalf of the voiceless: the trees and the bees, the birds and the whales, the frogs, elephants and farm animals, and especially on behalf of the human children as yet unborn, who may never be born—or may be born into a nightmarish, unlivable world gone mad.

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014--western Massachusetts

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014–western Massachusetts

The Civilization We Grew Up In Is Already Dead. So now what?

“If we want to learn how to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.”

This is the last line in a fine essay by Roy Scranton, former U.S. soldier and currently a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton University.  The essay, published in the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone,” is one of those rare attempts to really lay out the gravity of the situation we face today, as humans on a rapidly destabilizing planet.

Readers of Transition Times have been hearing me give my doom-and-gloom warnings for years now.  But it’s very rare that such grim scenarios break into the gilded precincts inhabited by readers of The New York Times.

Here is Scranton:

“The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human.

“Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers.

“Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan

“We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction.

“If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.”

Yes.  We know this.  It’s actually what Scranton does next in his essay that most interests me.

He makes a turn into the humanities, arguing that since “studying philosophy is about learning how to die,” then we have now “entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Scranton reminds us that “the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What does it mean to live?’

“In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — ‘What does my life mean in the face of death?’ — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

These are the kind of questions I ruminate about daily.  It comes back to Mary Oliver’s signature question, in her haunting poem “The Summer Day”—“What will I do with my one wild and precious life?”

We never know if our own deaths are right around the corner.  Will the truck driver around the next bend be distracted by his phone, cross the yellow line and blow me to oblivion?  Will my next physical exam reveal a terminal illness?  It could happen any time.

But as Scranton says, the climate change issue is much bigger than any of our individual lives.  It’s about the future of human civilization on the planet.

He ends his essay provocatively, saying that the problem of climate change cannot be solved by “buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning.” What is needed is a profound philosophical shift; to go from a civilization built on the illusion of endless growth and consumption, to a steady-state civilization that the planet can sustain.

We need to realize, Scranton says, that the human civilization all of us grew up in “is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Yeb Sano breaks down speaking about the devastation in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, and begs the climate negotiators to act decisively to curb carbon emissions

Watching the desperation on the faces and in the voices of the climate negotiators from sea-level nations like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, it’s clear that these folks have already absorbed the lesson we in the higher-terrain countries have yet to confront.

We cannot go on with business as usual any longer.

Not if we want to bequeath a livable Earth to our descendants.

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki speaking out

Severn Suzuki said it all, so eloquently, speaking to a climate change summit way back in 1992, when she was just a girl of 12.  Are we ready to listen yet?

Earth to Obama: Come in please! Or do we have to take to the trees to get your attention?

Of course I knew it would be too much to expect President Obama, during the second Presidential debate on Tuesday, to actually break the great taboo of contemporary American politics and mention—Shhhh—climate change.

But I didn’t expect him to come out pandering so shamelessly to Big Fossil Fuel.

Yes, he managed to create a mild distinction between his position and his opponent’s.

Romney is 100% for exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we can possibly get them up out of the ground.

Obama, on the other hand, is 100% for exploiting fossil fuels as fast as we can possibly get them up out of the ground.

And oh yeah, he’s not against throwing a little money at solar, wind and biofuels (let’s not even talk about how destructive existing biofuels like ethanol have actually been on multiple levels—let’s give the guy a break).

While Romney just wants to hammer home the assertion that his Administration will bring us lower gas prices (no doubt as a result of all the frantic drilling he intends to support), Obama is interested in encouraging conservation by raising fuel economy standards, an idea right out of the late 1970s if I ever heard one.

A 21st century idea would be to get rid of oil subsidies and insist that the price of gas and oil reflect the true costs of its production and consumption, which are actually way higher than whatever the current price of a gallon of crude might be.

Then there’s coal, which both of these guys are apparently in favor of continuing to exploit.  Did someone say “mountaintop removal”?  Just point Romney/Obama at the mountain, and let’s go!

The nadir of the whole energy discussion of the second Presidential debate came when, in response to a little goading from Romney, Obama said he was “all for pipelines.”

In nearly the same breath, he proudly proclaimed that his Administration has supported lots of oil and gas drilling on public lands—how many leases, and what percentage of increase or decrease they may represent from the Bush years, may be a bit fuzzy, but the gist is clear: both Romney and Obama are all for opening up our public lands to drilling, in the name of energy independence from foreign fuel sources.

Oh Lord. The truth is that our dependence on so-called foreign fuel suppliers (who are mostly multinational corporations anyway) is the least of our worries.

The one thing we most need to be focusing on is the one thing that no one wants to deal with at all.

The effect of global heating, caused by the ever-escalating burning of fossil fuels worldwide.

And instead of working soberly and swiftly to turn the climate juggernaut around, our politicians are acting like easy-going traffic cops, just waving those bulldozers and oil rigs right on through.

***

Take the Keystone pipeline, which both Romney and Obama were unabashed in supporting.

Did you know that right at this moment, there are dedicated Earth defenders sitting in trees in Texas, trying to block the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Daryl Hannah at Keystone XL Pipeline protest, October 2012

Why?

Well, you probably realize that the bitumen that pipeline is designed to carry is so thick and sludgy that it has to be mixed with toxic chemicals in order to make it flow.

You’ve probably heard about the damage that could be caused by a spill from a pipeline like this, if the chemicals leaked into the major aquifers that are along the way.

This on top of the destruction of the forests that is already happening on a vast scale to get those “tar sands” out.

On top of the chemical contamination of our aquifers from hydro-fracking for gas.

On top of mountain-top removal and strip-mining for coal.

On top of the whole lousy cap and trade system, by which dirty Northern-hemisphere commercial polluters can continue to pollute as long as they buy credits in Southern hemisphere forest preserves—except that what’s actually been happening is that first they buy the preserves, then they log them, then they replant with palm oil trees, heavily sprayed with pesticide, herbicide and fungicide to keep the rainforest from returning, and then they proudly collect their credits for having maintained some semblance of soylent green!

All this is the reality behind the puffery that passed for politics at the debate last night.

What is our national energy policy?  For both the Republicans and the Democrats, it’s drill faster!  Drill harder!  Drill everywhere possible!

President Obama chided his opponent at one point for thinking only of short-term prospects.

“We have to think about what’s coming in 10, 20, 30 years,” he said, the implication being that we shouldn’t entirely neglect the prospects of wind and solar energy.

But the truth is that if we continue drilling at the rate both candidates support, there won’t be a stable environment left to build an alternative energy future for our grandchildren and future generations.

They won’t be building wind turbines and solar panels in 2050, they’ll be building underground shelters and modern-day Noah’s arks.

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Still, yes, I am going to go grumbling to the polls on Nov. 6 and pull the lever for Obama.  There is no question in my mind that he is the better man.

I understand that right now he is trying to walk the centrist line and please as many American constituencies as he can.

But once re-elected, he must be pushed to take a stronger stand on environmental policy, including energy policy.

If that means that more of us have to take to the trees in protest, well, so be it.  I always did love climbing trees!

No, we’re not crying wolf

I gain a shred of hope for the future when I read about the heroic efforts of Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, to draw attention to the criminal exploitation of the Arctic by fossil fuel prospectors.

Last week Naidoo braved hosing with cold water in the frigid temperatures of the North to take a stand on a huge Russian oil platform.

It was a publicity stunt, yes.  But how else are we going to attract the attention of the multitudes who need to know what is being done under the radar in the new Arctic Oil Rush?

As the pack ice melts at a historic pace, the fossil fuel industry is moving in.  Never mind the fact that oil spills in these waters will be almost impossible to stop.  Never mind the fact that this is the last refuge for so many endangered species, from polar bears and seals to whales and seabirds. Never mind that the more oil we pump out of the bowels of the earth, the faster we’ll wreck our fragile climate.

I am doing a lot of pondering lately about tactics.

The Occupy movement here in the States seems to have largely fizzled.  Oh yes, a couple of busloads of protestors did go down from NYC to Tampa to protest at the RNC—and it’s true that the hurricane warnings put a damper on people’s enthusiasm to venture forth.

But if Kumi Naidoo and his team can brave the Arctic to climb the side of an oil rig, it seems to me that we ought to be able to mount a better protest at our Stateside behemoth, the Republican National Convention.

But no.  The mainstream media is reporting on the Convention in level terms, as though it weren’t a circus aimed at gutting what is left of the social contract that, at least since FDR’s time, Americans have come to consider a birthright. It reminds me of how reporters went along with the “WMD mushroom cloud” nonsense in the build-up to the invasion of Baghdad, or how they all but waved American flags in our faces when publishing the photos of the American soldiers killed in Iraq.

Hardly anyone has bothered to remark on the fact that we just passed our two-thousandth dead American soldier in Afghanistan this summer.

These deaths just creep upon us, the same way that oil rigs spring up like weeds in previously pristine waters, along with aquaculture farms, chemical runoff, GMO seeds and fracking wells.

It all happens so quietly and so deftly, while we are busy trying to pay our bills, or getting in a little vacation, or saying farewell to another loved one who has succumbed to cancer.

The Kumi Naidoos and the Tim DeChristophers and the Rachel Corries of the world jerk us back to reality and remind us that while we weren’t paying attention, the thieves got in and began “minding the store.”  In their own fashion.

Their tactics are always the same.  Catch people unawares; get them to sign documents ceding their rights; then systematically go about the business of resource extraction as quickly as possible, with as high a profit margin as possible.  Get it done before the sleeping populace awakes, before the regulators notice anything amiss, before people and animals begin to sicken and the lawsuits begin.  After all, the legal process can be held up in appeals for generations, and meanwhile how many fortunes can be made?

What should our countering tactics be?

Visibility is important: hence the merit of the Greenpeace approach.

Building a movement is important—not just among those willing to camp out in city parks, but among senior citizens and the middle class, unemployed white collar workers and soccer moms, as well as the marching band kids.

People need to realize that this is deadly serious.  No one is crying wolf here.

If we don’t act now to break our fossil fuel addiction, our time on this planet is almost over.

Maybe if we’re lucky, we can come back as bacteria or cockroaches.  But humans?  We’re just about done.

 

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.

Groan.

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 350.org’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.

Help Wanted: Strong Leadership on Climate Change, Starting Immediately

Now if only President Obama could show the same leadership on climate change as he has just demonstrated on the divisive same- sex-marriage issue.

The same narrow-minded interests that made same-sex marriage such a boogeyman for the President are also controlling the GOP-dominated boardrooms of Big Oil, from Mr. Cheney on down.

These people seem to be motivated by one thing only: the bottom line.  And they seem to be able to think only as far as a quarter or two ahead.

They don’t see that they are driving us as fast as possible over a cliff from which there will be no recovery.  Or maybe they see, but just don’t care.

It was with great appreciation that I opened up The New York Times Opinion pages today and saw the indefatigable James Hansen offering the lead op-ed, once more displaying his vision and leadership in 1) insisting that the comfortable NYT readers pay attention to the imminent and grave threat of climate change, and 2) offering a practical solution for bringing about the swift change of course we need to avert disaster.

Those of us who have been thrown into gloom by the prospect of Canada scraping down the boreal forest to exploit their tar sands will be somewhat heartened by the strong language Hansen uses to condemn this approach to “solving” the peak oil crisis.

Alberta, Canada: from boreal forest to tar sand devastation

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

This is not some crazy Armageddon-spouting evangelical talking here.  This is James Hansen, senior scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The way to head off this catastrophic scenario, as Hansen and many other scientists have been telling us now for at least a decade, is to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense, and Hansen has an easy, no-nonsense solution for forcing Americans to change our ways and start doing what we have to do to save our planet and our civilization.

“We should impose a gradually rising carbon fee, collected from fossil fuel companies, then distribute 100 percent of the collections to all Americans on a per-capita basis every month. The government would not get a penny,” Hansen says. “This market-based approach would stimulate innovation, jobs and economic growth, avoid enlarging government or having it pick winners or losers. Most Americans, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they paid in increased prices. Not only that, the reduction in oil use resulting from the carbon price would be nearly six times as great as the oil supply from the proposed pipeline from Canada, rendering the pipeline superfluous, according to economic models driven by a slowly rising carbon price.”

As Hansen observes, in practice what we have been doing is just the opposite: “instead of placing a rising fee on carbon emissions to make fossil fuels pay their true costs, leveling the energy playing field, the world’s governments are forcing the public to subsidize fossil fuels with hundreds of billions of dollars per year. This encourages a frantic stampede to extract every fossil fuel through mountaintop removal, longwall mining, hydraulic fracturing, tar sands and tar shale extraction, and deep ocean and Arctic drilling.”

These subsidies must stop.

Canada and the US must stop playing poker with the future of our children and our planetary epoch.

All of us, from President Obama and Prime Minister Harper right on down to each one of us ordinary folks who drive cars, heat our houses and run our air conditioning, need to stop pretending that business-as-usual can continue any longer.

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