What should we do with our one wild and precious lifetime?

It is the last Full Moon of 2012, but the sky is overcast here, with snow on the way for tomorrow.

Having the moon obscured feels appropriate, as I am searching for a clarity that continually eludes me.

One thing for sure: this is the new normal, me alone with my dog by my side, sipping a quiet glass of wine by the fire, while my sons are out with their girlfriends.

Get used to it, honey!

After 20 years of hardly ever being alone, now it is coming around again, the long quiet hours I remember from my twenties, when I had seemingly endless time to think and read and write.

It saddens me to think of how I spent those hours, poring over the dry tomes of literary critics and deconstructionists, writing my own oh-so-alienated prose in a weak attempt at mimicry.

I wish I had instead been traveling the world in those years, voyaging and adventuring, meeting interesting people and learning new things.

I went as far as Paris and came home attached to a Mexican.

Married to him, I found myself locked into an endless loop of returning to his home in Mexico City year after year.  There I learned first hand about the power of internal colonization; the subtle and not-so-subtle debasement of women in Mexican society; and how to dance, drink and have a superficially good time.

I spent the past 20 years in what seems in retrospect like hard labor, being the primary caretaker in my home as well as—for nine of those years—working two demanding academic jobs.

Now my second job is gone, eliminated by state budget cuts, and one of my sons is almost launched, having gotten his B.A. last spring and moved to Florida for a job.

I am at the threshold of a new period in my life, and this time, knowing how short and precious a lifetime really is, I want to be more intentional–to make the best use of my time.

That is where I am seeking clarity.  What do I want to be doing with my one wild and precious life?

Where should I be putting my energies? What do I have to give? What do I want to be doing with my time?

In the current issue of Orion Magazine, the environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth asks this question too, and provides some answers that I find useful as pointers for myself.

After discussing how likely it is that we are on the cusp of civilizational and ecological collapse, he asks, “what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time?”

His answers are fivefold: 1) Withdraw; 2) Preserve nonhuman life; 3) Insist that nature has a value beyond human utility, and proclaim this loudly to all and sundry; 4) Build refuges; 5) Get your hands into the earth.

This sounds like tremendously good advice to me.  I am especially glad to be reassured that my current retreat into solitary, meditative reflection is not a cop-out, but a necessary stage in the life-cycle of the bodhisattva for the planet that I want to become.

“Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind.  Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you….Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction.  Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel.  All real change starts with withdrawal,” Kingsnorth says.

Preserving non-human life, and proclaiming its inherent value…well, I can try, within my sphere, but let’s face it, the very fact that I type these words on an Apple laptop with my refrigerator whirring quietly in the background means that I am part of the problem.

As Paul Kingsnorth knows and has expressed eloquently, there is nothing any one of us can do that will change the fate of the 200 species that go extinct every day on our planet.

Even if we come together collectively, it will be very hard, maybe impossible, to stop the juggernaut of climate change now.

That’s why the idea of building refuges and relearning off-the-grid skills makes a lot of sense to me.

UnknownI have a persistent vision of building a kind of hobbit-house in the side of a hill, off the grid and sheltered from the coming storms, in the company of others who share my dream of resilience.

It is not for nothing that JRR Tolkien’s classic The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are more popular than ever in these opening years of the 21st century.

We are engaged in an epic struggle once again, faced with the spread of a Mordor-esque wasteland over the entire planet.

Will those of us who share the ethos of hobbits, elves and dwarfs be able to save the day?

Will enough of our contemporary wizards—scientists, they call themselves now—weigh in on the side of life and health rather than the oppressive bondage of the capitalist technocracy?

In Tolkien’s novel, Evil comes even to the sheltered little Shire, but is vanquished in the end by the forces of Good.

That is how the stories we like to tell each other go.  It remains to be seen whether reality, this time, will follow this “happily-ever-after” fairytale motif.

I don’t know how it will all end. But I do know that in these dark months of winter, when even the bright full moon is obscured, it feels right to be retreating within to reflect on how best to pursue the struggle in the coming years.

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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.

Looking Forward with Orion Magazine

The spirit of Henry David Thoreau was in the air last week at a gathering at his old stomping grounds at the top of Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts, hosted by Orion Magazine to celebrate the launch of its new anthology, The Thirty Year Plan.

Keynote speakers at the event were Orion contributing writers Ginger Strand, Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben, all of whom seemed to have a common concern on their minds as they looked into the future: climate change.

Thoreau’s legacy of using writing as a vehicle for civil disobedience is a mantle that all three writers have already assumed, particularly McKibben, who is very much following in Thoreau’s footsteps in going beyond simply writing about activism to actually standing at the forefront of a growing activist movement.

Characteristically, McKibben wasted no time in reminding his listeners that it’s high time for decisive action in the quest to transition our global economy off fossil fuels.

“It’s not enough to go around changing lightbulbs or even buying hybrid vehicles,” he said.  “Individual change won’t do it, the math doesn’t add up.  We have to change the price of carbon to reflect its true cost to our environment.

“We will never be able to match ExxonMobil and the other fossil fuel corporations in money, but we do have people power, and we have to use it.  A lot of you are going to have to come down to Washington DC and get arrested with me!” he said to applause.

McKibben also suggested using the shareholder pressure that was successfully applied against apartheid in South Africa back in the 1980s, but this time putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry to reinvent itself as a renewable energy industry based on wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal.

Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben speaking at Bascom Lodge, Mount Greylock, mA

The Beauty of Renewable Power

 From the top of Mount Greylock there is a striking view of eight huge spinning wind turbines on a ridge not far away, over by Jiminy Peak.  Wind power has become controversial in New England, with some towns and neighborhoods arguing vociferously against the location of wind turbines in their backyards.

In Massachusetts there has been great opposition to the proposal to build a windfarm out in Nantucket Sound, and here in the Berkshire hills we have also had many people of the NIMBY mindset.

When asked to comment on the prospect of wind turbines being set up on mountaintops in wilderness areas, Bill McKibben was unequivocal.

“I love the wilderness as much as anyone, and I’ve spent a lot of time out in the Adirondacks, as far away from it all as you can get.  But I’d have absolutely no problem with a wind turbine being set up overlooking my favorite patch of forest,” he said.

“The real threat to the places we love is fossil fuels, not wind towers,” McKibben said, adding that he has little sympathy for Americans who complain about wind towers being unattractive.

“Our sense of what’s beautiful is going to have to change,” he said.  Wind turbines located in Vermont or Massachusetts force people living in these exclusive areas to see the results of our impact on the climate, McKibben said, unlike our usual practice of making people in other parts of the planet—the Maldives, or Bangladesh, or the mountaintops of Virginia, for example—do all the suffering.

Emphasizing that the technology already exists to shift to renewable energy, McKibben pointed to the fact that Germany is already breaking records with its distributed solar energy model.

In May, German solar plants produced a record 22 gigawatts of electricity in two days, equal to the output of 20 nuclear power plants.

According to a recent Reuters article, “Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.”

Solar panels sprout on roofs in Heidelberg, Germany

The Challenge of Getting People’s Attention

The contributors to the Orion Thirty Year Plan vision agree that the challenges we face in getting off fossil fuels are much more socio-political than they are technical.

One of the questions that remains intractable is how to get the public fully engaged with the issue of climate change, so that more people are willing to try Thoreau-style civil disobedience to force the politicians to do the right thing when it comes to regulating Big Oil—ending the subsidies on fossil fuels and giving incentives for the shift to renewable energy sources.

Elizabeth Kolbert said she was perplexed at the fact that she got a far greater response to a recent New Yorker article on child rearing than she generally gets on her much longer, more meticulously researched pieces on global heating.

“It’s something I think about a lot,” Kolbert said; “how to get people as interested in climate change as they are in raising their kids.”

Kolbert agreed with writers like Mark Hertsgaard, who suggested in his book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth that it’s pathological to do the kind of intensive parenting Americans are known for while at the same time ignoring the biggest danger of all looming over our kids and grandkids: anthropogenic global warming.

Sunset from Mount Greylock

As the sun began its spectacular descent towards the west side of the Greylock summit, and the assembled group went in to dinner and animated discussion at Bascom Lodge, it seemed to me that our charge was clear: to join leaders like Kolbert and McKibben in becoming change agents in our own spheres and out in the public eye.  We need to build a movement with a broad enough base of committed supporters to seriously challenge the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, as well as the massive inertia of the American public, which still has a tendency to imagine that life as we knew it growing up can go on for the next thirty years virtually unchanged.

Life will go on, with or without us humans.  But the story of our species does not have to end in disaster.  There is still time to write a new ending to our 10,000-year adventure on this planet, if we get up the courage and the dedication to get moving now.

Moving beyond fear and denial, or: Whither Environmentalism?

I have been hearing two forms of gentle criticism from some of my readers.

One is: omigod, this is so depressing, can’t you write about something else???

The other is: okay, we get it, enough with the exhortations, start telling us WHAT TO DO about all this scary stuff you’re laying on us.

I have been pondering both these responses, wondering how use my time and energy in this blog most effectively.

My major goal is to awaken more people to:

a) the realities of climate change bearing down on us all;

b) the incredibly fast, harsh and irrevocable impact that human over-population and careless industry has been having on the flora & fauna of our world–the real 99%;

c) the way big corporate interests have a stranglehold on crucial areas of our political system, our media, and our food supply, and thus on our political, mental and physical health, as well as the ability to control what we see, what we think and how we think it;

d) the way our education system is falling into line and failing to rise to the challenges of educating young citizens who will be forces for positive change in this dismal scenario;

e) and yes, depressing as it may be to contemplate, the dire consequences that will ensue if enough of us fail to wake up and act now to shift human society and our interactions with the natural world (of which we are a part) in a very different, more life-enhancing direction.

So that brings us back around to this key question: what should we do?

Believe you me, if I knew, I’d be trumpeting it loud and clear on this blog.  I wish I could claim to be the next Messiah!

Times have changed since the Biblical days when Moses could part the waters and lead everyone to safety–although I do find myself thinking more, as the sea levels rise worldwide, about good old Noah and his ark.

Moses drew on metaphysical powers to help him through dark times, while Noah got out his hammer and used technology to weather the storm.

In our own time and place, we are busy looking for technological fixes; those who believe in divine intervention seem to be resigned to Apocalypse, preparing themselves for Armageddon and the ascent to another, nonphysical realm of existence.

I think I am beginning to get glimmers of a middle path.

Yes, we need to be applying ourselves to the collective task of using technology to enable us to survive climate change, but our technological efforts need to be driven by a new reverence for all life on this planet, out of which a new ethics can grow that will replace greed and selfishness as the driving forces of human industry.

***

In the latest issue of Orion Magazine, environmental activists Derrick Jensen and Paul Kingsnorth both express their frustrations with the current environmental movement.

Jensen takes movement organizers to task for their drift towards actions that are “fun and sexy.”  “The fact that so many people routinely call for environmentalism to be more fun and more sexy reveals not only the weakness of our movement but also the utter lack of seriousness with which even many activists approach the problems we face.  When it comes to stopping the murder of the planet, too many environmentalists act more like they’re planning a party than building a movement,” Jensen says bitterly.

This criticism speaks to the first category of comments about my blog–the “oh it’s too depressing to think about” crowd.  Let’s face it, this is a big crowd!  The environmentalist party-planners are trying to reach these folks, who were suckled from birth on cheery feel-good media, by presenting environmental action as fun and sexy, rather than as scary and angst-ridden.  It’s environmentalism on anti-depressants, and it fits a big swath of our population, who don’t want to dwell on anything sad or depressing, unless maybe it’s a movie that you know will ultimately have a happy ending.

Harriet Tubman

Jensen ends his column by invoking the spirits of Harriet Tubman, Tecumseh and the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, who were deadly serious in their resistance, and willing to do whatever it took to succeed.

People like to be inspired by memories of heroes past; one of my most popular blog posts has been “Let Your Life Be a Counter-Friction to Stop the Machine,” which recalled Thoreau’s famous refusal to pay taxes to support a government whose policies he did not believe in.

In all these cases individuals were inspired by moral outrage to stand up and resist the powers that be in order to change the status quo.

That is certainly what each of us needs to be doing, in our own spheres, in our daily lives.  We need to become more aware of what is going on around us; of our place in the ecological web, and how the small actions we take each day contribute to a huge assault on the natural world that will soon lead to a climate crisis that will force us, willy-nilly, to change.

***

It is January, 2012, and when I look out my window I see brown grass, not a speck of snow.  It was 54 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday, for crying out loud!  You won’t find this story in the New York Times, but Brad Johnson’s recent report in  Alternet paints an unmistakeable portrait of serious climate change, not in the future, but right now:

“Fueled by billions of tons of greenhouse pollution, a surge of record warmth has flooded the United States, shattering records from southern California to North Dakota. “Temperatures have reached up to 40 degrees above early January averages in North Dakota,” the Weather Channel reports. Cities are seeing late-April temperatures at the start of January — Minot, ND hit 61 degrees, Aberdeen, SD hit 63 degrees, and Williston, ND hit 58 degrees, all-time record highs for the month of January.”

All very nice in midwinter, but what happens next summer, when temperatures are suddenly 40 degrees above average?  We won’t be laughing then, will we?

Which brings us back to the second criticism of my blog, that I only talk endlessly about the bad news, and exhort people to act, without giving any concrete suggestions for what to do.

Paul Kingsnorth

It also brings me to Paul Kingsnorth, whose long article in Orion, “Confessions of Recovering Environmentalist,” will be the subject of an open conference phone call on January 18.

Like Jensen, Kingsnorth is critical of the environmental movement–not for being too party-oriented, but for being too “utilitarian.”  Kingsnorth deplores environmentalists who have happily jumped on the technological fix bandwagon–the solar farm, wind farm, sustainable energy crowd–who are fixated on finding new ways to continue our same old depredation of the environment–just more sustainably.

“Today’s environmentalism,” he says,  “is…an adjunct to hypercapitalism: the catalytic converter on the silver SUV of the global economy. It is an engineering challenge: a problem-solving device for people to whom the sight of a wild Pennine hilltop on a clear winter day brings not feelings of transcendence but thoughts about the wasted potential for renewable energy. It is about saving civilization from the results of its own actions: a desperate attempt to prevent Gaia from hiccupping and wiping out our coffee shops and broadband connections. It is our last hope.”

Kingsnorth declares he wants nothing of this “soulless” form of environmentalism.  “What is to be done about this? Probably nothing. It was, perhaps, inevitable that a utilitarian society would generate a utilitarian environmentalism….But for me—well, this is no longer mine, that’s all. I can’t make my peace with people who cannibalize the land in the name of saving it. I can’t speak the language of science without a corresponding poetry. I can’t speak with a straight face about saving the planet when what I really mean is saving myself from what is coming.”

Disturbingly, Kingsnorth ends his article by telling us he’s turning his back on the environmental movement, and striking off on his own.  “I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

What he means is that he’s going to go and quietly reconnect with the land herself.  That’s important for all of us to do.  But I can’t advocate “going out walking” as a strategy for the urgent task of changing human relations with our planet.

More positively, Kingsnorth calls for a renewed “ecocentrism,” as opposed to the environmentalism that he sees as having become hollow and “plastic.”

“The “environment”—that distancing word, that empty concept—does not exist. It is the air, the waters, the creatures we make homeless or lifeless in flocks and legions, and it is us too. We are it; we are in it and of it, we make it and live it, we are fruit and soil and tree, and the things done to the roots and the leaves come back to us.”

That is indeed the central message I have been trying to send in my blog posts about “the environment.”  We are part of the web of life on this planet, and every tree that falls, every bird that is poisoned, every tree frog that goes extinct, is a leaf on the great tree of life that includes us humans too.  Kill all the leaves, and the great tree will die.

Tree of Life--Guadalupe, by Jane Lafazio

***

What to do?  Don’t stand there asking what to do!  Look around, roll up your sleeves and get busy!  Offer your talents to the task.  If you can write, start writing and share your thoughts with ever wider circles of readers.  If you can farm, start an organic CSA.  If you are an engineer, you should be focusing on renewable energy.  If you are a chemical engineer, you should be calling out the Monsantos and the Dows, even if it costs you your job.

We all need to be working on overcoming our media addictions and our socially reinforced tendencies to pull the covers over our heads.  We need to be engaging, Occupy-style, with our political system, and sending a clear message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.

There is so much to do, and so little time.  Let’s get out there, each bearing our own gifts and energies, and turn this earthship around.

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