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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Honoring the Water Protectors of Standing Rock on Thanksgiving

So here we are at the start of the holiday season once again. The food stores in my New England town are mobbed with people loading up their shopping carts with turkeys and all the trimmings for a grand Thanksgiving meal. Christmas trees are beginning to appear at the farm stands and garden centers. The lights are coming on to ward off the early afternoon gloom. We are going through the motions.

On the other side of the country, there are some other kinds of motions going on this Thanksgiving season.

How about water cannons drenching unarmed and unprotected people peacefully protesting the pipeline that threatens their land and water?

How about mace, rubber bullets and all-night floodlights?

How about constant intimidation and harassment?

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This is what the Thanksgiving season is bringing to the good people of Standing Rock, North Dakota, and the friends and allies who are standing firm at the camp, determined to protect the water and resist the bullying from law enforcement and private security guards.

Yes, here we are at Thanksgiving, the holiday supposedly celebrating the way the Native Americans generously fed the European settlers, helping them avoid starvation during that first New England winter.

The Pilgrims didn’t repay the Native people well then, and that was only the beginning of the holocaust visited on Native Americans all across this continent.

In the history books, they make it sound like that was all a long time ago; like those old prejudices and oppressions are safely in the past.

But Andrew Jackson the Indian-killer is still on the $20 bill, and what we’re seeing in Standing Rock this Thanksgiving week shows that there is still no respect when it comes to Native Americans.

mapBe it noted that the Dakota pipeline was originally routed right next to predominantly white town of Bismarck ND. When the people there protested, the route was promptly changed. It didn’t require thousands of men, women and children, camping out for months; there were no water cannons, tear gas or rubber bullets used.

But when it comes to re-routing the pipeline away from Lakota sacred lands, and away from the Missouri River, which supplies millions of people with drinking water—the gloves come off immediately.

One shudders to think of how this might have been handled in the days before social media. In 2016, the North Dakota authorities are brutal, but they know the world is watching: there are many people, including celebrities, standing with Standing Rock in its quest to protect the water and land.

Still, here we are at Thanksgiving, and the news from Standing Rock is getting worse, not better.

President Obama has not responded to the pleas for help. There have been protests across the country, but with the sudden, unexpected ascension of Trump and the Republicans, Americans who might have thrown their weight behind Standing Rock have been distracted, making plans for the Electoral College March, the Million Woman March, and standing vigil at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

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From Trump Tower to Standing Rock, what we’re seeing is all part of a continuum of violence: violence against women, against less powerful identity groups, against animals and trees, against the land and the water and the oceans; against life itself on this great planet.

In the old days, what is happening now would have been depicted mythologically as a struggle between life and death, good and evil, the weak and the powerful.

But this time around a victory for the powerful is going to take us all a step closer to the Armageddon of climate change.

How can we open the eyes of the fossil fuel lords and the militarized police that are doing their bidding?

There are movements afoot to divest from the fossil fuel industry and from banks funding the Dakota pipeline. Money seems to be the only language these folks understand, so that may be an effective form of protest.

There are phone numbers to call, and plenty of opportunities to help out with much-needed supplies at the Standing Rock protest camps, as winter sets in.

This Thanksgiving, every American should give thanks for the Native Americans who, despite everything, are still standing firm as protectors and stewards of their lands.

People don’t like to think about this, but it’s true: there may come a time when we European settlers will once again call desperately on Native peoples’ deep knowledge of this land. Once again, Native generosity may be the only thing standing between us and starvation.

All over the world, as climate change sets in and modern industrial agriculture, trade routes and energy sources are disrupted, those who still remember how to nestle into the bosom of Mother Earth and live simply off what she provides—these will be the people who will survive the shocks that await human civilization in the Anthropocene.

Maybe the good people of North Dakota should think twice, this Thanksgiving week, before sending out the dogs and the water cannons, the tanks and the tear gas again.

May we all give thanks for the blessings Mother Earth gives us constantly, without reserve, seeking nothing in return. May we learn to be grateful, and as generous in our turn. May we humans—all of us—rise to become the Earth stewards we were always meant to be. May we give thanks and honor to the Native peoples for showing us the way.

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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Snowden and the Politics of Doing Good

Go see Oliver Stone’s new movie “Snowden,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous hero, if you need reminding about how important a single human being’s act of courageous resistance can be.

Granted, Edward Snowden had his finger on the pulse of information far beyond the ken of most of us ordinary folks. But we can all relate to the ethical questions he faced, which the movie details so well.

To whit: At what point is it more important to listen to your own internal moral compass, even when it means going against “public opinion,” company policy or—in Snowden’s case—the entire power elite of the U.S. military industrial complex?

We live in a time when this is a question will come up with increasing urgency for more and more of us. Our age is one of unprecedented access to information, as “Snowden” shows in horrifyingly graphic detail. And once we know something—say, how a pipeline leak can foul and destroy an entire river ecosystem, or how a radiation leak can play havoc with ocean systems for years, or how deforestation leads to mud slides, or how climate change is already changing coast lines and destroying planetary weather balance—once we know all this, and so much more, what do we do with our newfound knowledge?

what-i-forgot-cover-draft-new-smThis question became increasingly central for me as I worked on my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, over the past several years. It was waking up to climate change that sparked my journey of looking back at my half-century on the planet, trying to understand how I had allowed myself to forget the connection to the natural world that had been so central to me as a child.

What I discovered was that as a young adult, I made some choices that led me to go with the predominant flow of American culture. Like Snowden, I was seduced by the possibility of attaining the American dream—my version of it being the husband, children, home, career. I put myself in the traces and began to focus on pulling that cart, and I found it took everything I had.

Not until the dream disintegrated along with my marriage did I pick my head up and look around me, instinctively seeking solace in the natural world but finding that things had changed a great deal since I was a dreamy child following the chickadees through the hemlock forest, or lying full-length on a high maple branch to feel the wind swaying through the tree.

While I had been focused on raising my family, trying to hold my marriage together and striving for success in my career, things had been going very badly for the chickadees, the hemlocks and the maples. Government policies and corporate greed, unleashed by the shortsightedness of millions of compliant citizens like me, had led us to the brink of a global catastrophe of biblical proportions.

There we sit now, on that brink. Did you notice the news, buried beneath all the election cycle noise, that the climate has now passed 400 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, far beyond the 350 ppm that gave the scrappiest of the climate change warrior-organizations its name?

This means we are on track to melt, folks. The polar ice caps and the permafrost on land will thaw, releasing ancient methane; the oceans will warm, throwing off the food chains and the weather; insects and bacteria will do very well, but many if not most of the larger species will rather quickly go the way of the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger.

Including, dare I say it, homo sapiens. Future historians, if there are any, should rename our species homo ignoramus—the stupid ones who knew how they could save themselves and the ecosystem that sustained them, but let it all go to hell.

We have come to a time, as the Deep Green Resistance eco-warriors recognized several years ago, when it will be necessary to think for ourselves and stand up for what we believe in, just like Ed Snowden did.

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This is dangerous business, as Snowden knew. He is lucky to be living freely in Moscow rather than locked up as a traitor like fellow information resistance fighter Chelsea Manning. The fossil fuel lords and their military henchmen take mutiny very seriously, as the brave water protectors at Standing Rock know well.

But there comes a time when you have to listen to your gut, even if it goes against your upbringing and socialization. You have to do what you think is right.

Of course, in a black and white view of morality, what’s right for you may be totally wrong for me. How do we reconcile the disparate moral compasses of a jihadist suicide bomber or an American bomber pilot or a tar sands bulldozer operator or a pipeline resistance activist?

Each of us has to make up our own minds, fully cognizant of the implications of our actions, the bigger backdrops against which each of our little lives play out. That is why I continue to believe that there is no more important role these days than that of an awake, aware, independently minded educator.

We need teachers at every level of education who are dedicated to developing the capacity of young people to understand and analyze complex information, to weigh and debate different points of view, to use empathy as a pathway to decision-making, and to be open to shifting their views as their understanding increases.

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Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were both thoroughly indoctrinated by the military, but were still able to think for themselves and sacrifice their snug insider positions in service to the greater good. If they can do it, any of us can.

No need for spectacular defections or heroics. All that’s needed is a steady ongoing commitment to sifting through the barrage of information coming at us all the time, and pointing our internal compass at DO NO HARM or even better DO GOOD.

If you want to call me a pie-in-the-sky do-gooder, so be it. I can live with that.

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World War III Has Begun: Which Side Are You On?

Although you wouldn’t know it from scanning the front pages of the mainstream media, a major battle in what Bill McKibben has called World War Three, the war to save the planet from human destruction, has been going down in Indian Country for the past six months.

Thousands of Native Americans, members of a whole host of tribes, have gathered at Standing Rock, North Dakota, to protest the North Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL), which was sited by the Army Corps of Engineers to run dangerously close to the Missouri River and the Standing Rock Reservation.

But as the protesters say, they are not just defending Indian country, they are defending everyone who relies on the Missouri for water—and not just humans but all life.

If there is anyone to look back at this turbulent period in human history on Earth—now coming to be known as the Anthropocene—they will surely wonder at the suicidal tendency of human civilization in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Why, they will ask, would such an intelligent species willingly—even enthusiastically—engage in the poisoning of its waterways and underground water resources; the destruction of its forests; the chemical contamination of its soils and oceans; the overheating of its precious atmosphere by relentless burning of fossil fuels? Why would humans put so much of their intelligence and technological prowess into developing ever more lethal weapons of mass destruction, used to bludgeon each other? Why would they preside blithely over the extinction of millions of other species, the vicious ripping of the great ecological web of life on Earth?

Why indeed?

I know it’s hard for any of us to escape the clutter of our everyday lives, with the constant pressures and worries that beset us on the personal level. But this is precisely what is being asked of us now.

The courageous defenders out at Standing Rock dropped their ordinary lives to be part of the historic encampment protesting the stranglehold of the oil companies on our waterways and our lands. They are fighting in the courts, through the media, and most importantly with their physical presence, standing up to the bulldozers, the attack dogs and the pepper spray.

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Image source: Democracy Now!

This is what McKibben’s World War Three looks like—it’s already begun. It will be fought locally, as communities and individuals wake up to the implications of the destruction and decide that hell no, they won’t take it any more.

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Oil and gas pipelines in the U.S. Image source: https://projects.propublica.org/pipelines/

In my own corner of the world, we are under assault from General Electric, wanting to create toxic waste dumps right in the middle of our small rural towns. We have a gas pipeline being constructed, despite vehement protests, through a pristine old-growth state forest. We have oil tanker trains running constantly right through our communities. Despite a thriving organic and biodynamic farm renaissance, we still have far too many pesticides, herbicides and fungicides being used locally, and too many trees being cut down.

I have been thinking and writing for some time now about how important it is to align the personal, political and planetary in our own lives and in the way we relate to the world around us. On all three of these levels, 21st century American life is way out of balance.

It is time to focus, each one of us, on using our brief lifetimes to create balance and harmony on Earth. Sometimes the way to harmony leads through protest and discord, as is happening now in Standing Rock. Sometimes it can be as simple as choosing to support local, low-impact agriculture rather than industrial agriculture. Leaning on our political representatives to move faster on policy that will shift our society to renewable energy is key.

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Wind farm in Ireland. Source: http://www.iwea.com/_wind_information

There are so many ways to get involved in this War for the Planet, many of them quite peaceful. The important thing is to get off the sidelines. Get involved. Feel the potential of this moment—it’s literally a make or break period for the future of humanity on Earth, and many other living beings too.

The brave defenders at Standing Rock are reminding us that we are all “natives” of this Earth, and we all have a stake in protecting her. Which side are you on?

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