Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy

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Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.

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In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.

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A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

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An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

Are We Going to Stand By Silently in the Face of Ecocide? Hell no!

In my talk the other night, “The Personal is Planetary,” which I gave as the opening lecture of the Berkshire Human Rights Speaker Series, I set out to point to climate stabilization as the most important issue of our time, the one that dwarfs all the other social and environmental struggles we may be engaged with.

candian-oil-sands-615Most people know by now that if we don’t shift to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, the greenhouse gases caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels are going to wreck our planetary environment so badly that our beautiful Earth will become unlivable for most of her current inhabitants, including humans.

“We know and we don’t know,” I told the audience. “We know but we see no role for ourselves as change agents. We know but we’re afraid of the consequences of protest. We know but we don’t want to know. Life is comfortable; why rock the boat?”

I wondered aloud how bad things would have to get before we sunpower_maincomfortable Americans finally understand that it is past time for our active engagement in forcing our government and our corporations to do what needs to be done to ensure a livable future for us all.

Shocks can be necessary, and we’ve already had a few: Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy, along with regional droughts, floods and wildfires in many parts of the country, all weather-related events exacerbated by global warming.

But Americans are still pretty cushioned from the full effects of climate change. Around the world, for people of other nationalities and for millions of non-human species, things are already reaching a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, even impossible.

We Americans, privileged and coddled as we are, need to open up our eyes and take in the full enormity of the crisis that confronts us.

This is bigger than any individual war, even against evil empires like the Islamic State. It’s bigger than any individual social justice issue, even the ones I’ve spent a good part of my life fighting for, like women’s equality and anti-racism.

As I said in my talk, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to compare our role as bystanders to the destruction of the forests and oceans and all their inhabitants to the role of the ‘good Germans’ who watched the trains full of Jews roll into the concentration camps and professed to not know what was going on behind those walls.”

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, some of them my distant relatives. I’ve been taught all my life that we must remember this genocide, and others like it, so that it will never happen again.

And yet all of us are willing to stand by, deaf, blind and mute, as millions upon millions of innocent living beings on the planet are sacrificed to the maw of human industry in its current greedy, profit-driven guise.

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Fossil fuel extraction, from fracking to tar sands to deep-sea drilling; industrialized agriculture, with its chemical poisoning of the earth and waters; mining and deforestation; plastic garbage on land and sea; endless urban and suburban sprawl—all this is driving what scientists now refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction, which will only intensify as the planet continues to heat up.

Eventually, if we stand by and do nothing, we humans too will join the long death march to extinction, or at least to a total collapse of our ruinous global civilization.

Are we going to stand by and do nothing while the planet burns? Are we going to allow our government and our corporations to commit planetary ecocide? Are we going to continue to pretend that we don’t know what’s going on?

10453020_1454513064799672_5914704337046021387_oThis Sunday there will be an opportunity to take to the streets to demand effective action on climate change. Tens of thousands of Americans from all over the country will be converging on midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March to show the world that we care about our future and we know that our destiny is bound up in the health and welfare of the entire planetary ecosystem.

It is truly a legendary moment in the history of humanity. We have the grand opportunity to be the generation that succeeds in abandoning the deadly playbook of industrialized capitalism, and opens up a new epoch based on caring, balance and good stewardship of the Earth.

Endless growth of human industry is not possible on our finite planet—not without driving us all to ruin. The sooner we can adjust our economies and industries to this new worldview, the sooner we will all begin to learn how to recalibrate human activity accordingly, and redistribute the current massive imbalances of wealth so that everyone has enough—including all the non-human species that we must also learn to value and protect.

As I concluded in my talk the other night, “The future of so many living beings on this planet depends on our ability to overcome our fear, move beyond our silences and step into the power of our own transformative visions. Opportunities to work for positive change will open up as we begin to look for them. Now is the time for action, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Let’s not wait any longer.”

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PS: I was glad to see an excellent op-ed piece by Mark Bittman in The New York Times about the importance of the People’s Climate March. The Times is also providing a “Countdown to the Climate March” this week: here’s a story that goes behind the scenes with the organizers, featuring an interview with Bill McKibben.

Also, if you haven’t seen the new film DISRUPTION yet, here is the You-Tube link.  It begins with a quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass.  Check it out!

Life in the 21st Century: We Need to Build Resiliency or Be Swept Away

First a giant airplane loaded with people and fuel simply vanishes over the ocean. Then a wall of mud a mile wide slides down a mountainside and buries a small community of houses and people.  What’s next?

It disturbs me that so far I’ve heard not a whisper of the question of whether this week’s Washington state mud slide was caused by logging and/or development.

Before and after image

Before and after image

Was there clear-cutting going on in the ridge above the little town that got buried?  Was the town itself part of the problem, the clearing for houses taking away the trees that had been doing the good work of holding the landscape in place?

The obvious culprit being blamed is simply too much rain, yet another example of our climate going haywire in response to the destabilization of too many humans burning too much fossil fuel.

I’m glad to see glimmerings of recognition inside the insular Washington DC Beltway that the effects of climate change are here and are only going to increase in the coming years.

Earlier this month a group of Democratic Senators staged an all-night climate change rally, Senate-style—meaning, they talked about climate change all night long to raise awareness and bring attention to the urgency of the issue.

Talk is cheap; action is what counts.

So far we have not seen nearly enough action aimed at shifting our economy towards renewable energy and “sustainable growth”—scare quotes because “sustainable growth” may, in fact, mean “limited growth,” anathema in American political/economic circles.

We know now that if human population and resource consumption continue to rise at current rates, we will simply decimate our planet, like the locusts we are coming to resemble.  That way lies death, terror and madness.

We have already altered the climate enough to keep the disasters rolling in—floods and droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, spring blizzards and summer heat waves…we’ve seen it all and this is the new normal for the rest of our lifetimes.

We need to acknowledge that building resiliency is of paramount importance in these critical years while there is still enough political and social stability to make the adaptive changes that are needed.

images-1Building resiliency means shifting to renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal—that is locally based all over the planet.  Forget about pipelines and oil tankers.  Forget about huge power lines criss-crossing the countryside.  We need to move towards a distributed energy model where each town and county becomes responsible for its own energy needs, and has back-up plans in place for the times when those floods and storms hit.

The same thing goes for food production.  Forget about shipping tropical fruits north to please the fancy of the WholeFoods crowd.  Forget about ripping up African rainforests to create palm oil plantations. We need locally based agricultural production that can sustain populations where they are.

We need to return to the resiliency of pre-20th century human populations, but now connected as never before by our awareness of the role we can play, for good or for ill, in the global biosphere.

We also need, unpopular as it may be, to curb human population growth.  Sharply. Now.

Those who live to tell the tale of the 21st century will look back on the 20th century as the unfolding of the greatest nightmares the human species has ever faced.

In the 21st century, all those disastrous chickens hatched by the petro/agri/chemical industries of globalized capital are coming home to roost, and none of us will be able to build a wall high enough to keep them at bay.

If we want to survive—if we want to bequeath a livable planet to our descendants– we need radical new thinking, backed by urgent and committed action.  Now, before the next mudslide, the next flood, the next wildfire sweeps more of us away.

Resisting the Energy Vultures

Today’s New York Times Sunday Review piece by White House correspondent Mark Landler, “A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy,” gives disturbing insight into the mindset not only of the men and women who preside over national foreign policies, but also into the media lapdogs who cover them.

Landler reports that China and the U.S., along with practically every other country in possession of a serviceable Navy fleet, are entering into “a new type of maritime conflict — one that is playing out from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arctic Ocean, where fuel-hungry economic powers, newly accessible undersea energy riches and even changes in the earth’s climate are conspiring to create a 21st-century contest for the seas.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of Landler’s sources, explains blandly that “This hunt for resources is going to consume large bodies of water around the world for at least the next couple of decades.”

Clinton has got the right metaphor there.  What Landler describes all too flippantly as “a watery Great Game” could well indeed “consume large bodies of water around the world.”

What neither Clinton nor anyone else interviewed for Landler’s article bring up is the cardinal question:  When the game is over, what will be left of the living beings that used to populate those waters in unimaginably vast numbers?

Landler describes the navies and drill ships of countries from China and the U.S. to Turkey and Israel jockeying for control of huge troves of oil and natural gas deposits that have been discovered beneath the sea.

Of especial interest to these circling energy vultures are the deposits beneath the Arctic ice.  Landler reports that “melting ice has opened up the fabled Northwest Passage,” making resource extraction in the Arctic more viable than before.

This offhand and veiled reference to climate change provides a window into the sociopathic mindsets of the men who rule the Energy Kingdoms.  The cowboys of global fossil fuel extraction are essentially warlords, relying on the national armies of their nominal countries of origin to clear the way of opposition to their reckless drilling.

From their warped point of view, global warming can be seen as a bonus.

If the Arctic ice melts, so much the better–it’ll make it easier to get those billions of barrels of oil out of the sea and into the global market.

No matter that deep sea drilling has been proven to be highly risky and lethal to the environment.  Hello, does anyone remember BP in the Gulf of Mexico?

Imagine a spill like that going on in frigid northern waters.

Imagine billions of barrels worth of oil or gas gushing into the Arctic Ocean, to be picked up by the currents and spread all over the world.

Imagine the destruction of marine wildlife, and indeed the entire marine food chain, that this would entail.

NY Times reporter Landler doesn’t waste time contemplating such grim scenarios.  The focus of his article is “gunboat diplomacy,” a glamorous new competition among national navies to dominate the oceans, seen strictly in utilitarian terms.  His only mention of fish, or indeed any maritime creature, is a brief aside that icebreakers are being sent into the Arctic circle by countries like China and Korea, “to explore weather patterns and fish migration.”

Landler’s article, which is billed as “news analysis,” reveals the extent to which the chillingly disturbing values of the Energy Kings have permeated not only the governments who are supposed to be regulating their industry and safeguarding the natural world, but also the media “watchdogs,” who are obviously sitting cozily in the laps of Big Oil.

Questions of environmental sustainability and health are simply outside the picture for these folks.  It’s not relevant to them whether or not the polar bears survive.  They don’t care about the coral reefs, or the plankton.  They don’t care about whales.  Their only concern is the bottom line.

What is the most effective opposition to such monomania?

Trying to think of persuasive strategies gives me a touch of hysteria.  We could appeal to their love of seafood!  Wouldn’t they miss their caviar and oysters?

They will figure out how to grow these in tanks.

We could appeal to them as property owners: what’s going to happen to their beachfront homes, not to mention their office towers in coastal cities around the world, when the waters begin to rise?

They will have armies of lawyers figuring out ways to make the taxpayers bear the burden of their lost properties.

We could appeal to their brand image.  Does Exxon-Mobil really want to go down in history as the biggest perpetrator of maritime omnicide in world history?

They will throw this back at us, and rightly so: they were just doing their job of giving the consumer what she wants, a steady supply of affordable energy.

It’s true that we all share the blame for this tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. It’s also true that we have the power to stop it.

How? We need to demand that the rights of the denizens of the natural world be respected.  A new Declaration of the Rights of Nature has been written–it needs to be circulated, popularized and upheld.

We need to insist that our politicians report to the people, the taxpayers, not to the corporations. Yes, people want energy; we want cars, we want electricity.  But we want to direct our tax dollars into R&D of renewable sources of energy–solar, geothermal, wind–not into dangerous oil and gas extraction or nuclear fission, and not into dirty coal mining either.

We need to call the mainstream media on its dereliction of duty when it presents one-sided reports like Landler’s industry white paper today.

Extracting those billions of barrels of oil buried below the earth’s surface miles beneath the sea would not just be a death sentence for marine life.  It would drive the nails on the human coffin as well, along with all the other species on this planet who will not be able to adapt to the erratic climate extremes of floods, droughts and storms that will inevitably ramp up once the planet heats beyond the point of no return.

Under these circumstances, if the governments won’t listen, radical action may prove a necessity.  The French Resistance to the Nazis were considered criminals in their own time and place, but look like heroes to us today, with the power of hindsight.

We are in the midst of a new, much larger Holocaust now, one that threatens not just one group of people, but all of us, and our natural world as well.

Each of us has a choice to make.  You can go along with the crowd, watching impassively as the train leaves the station for the gas chambers, or you can dare to raise your voice in opposition, and maybe even to throw a wrench in the gears of power.

Each of us is going to die sooner or later.  Wouldn’t you rather die knowing you had done your utmost to make a difference, to safeguard the world for your children and all life on this planet?

Building on the Keystone “victory”–from endless growth to steady states

In his Op-Ed in today’s NY TimesMichael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Administration only agreed to put off the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline because of “not-in-my-backyard” pressure from Nebraskans, which had little or nothing to do with the urgent issue of cutting carbon emissions in order to avert climate disaster.

“For green groups,” Levi says, “the shortest route to blocking fossil fuel development appears to be leveraging local opposition.” The problem with this approach, from Levi’s point of view, is that there is going to be “local opposition” to green energy initiatives like solar and wind farms too.

What Levi, like most Beltway insiders, doesn’t seem to appreciate is that the green movement is not just about opposition.  It’s about positive action.  It’s not just about environmental protection.  It’s about social change.

It’s about a shift from a mentality that seeks to keep growing our energy-dependent economy indefinitely, to a mentality that seeks a sustainable steady state.

Steady states are anathema to capitalism–a quarter without growth is a quarter wasted, as any CEO would tell you.

But steady states are exactly what have made our planet a livable environment for the past several thousand years, during which the human species, along with countless others, has thrived.

Rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline is just a small step in the right direction, towards a society that puts effort and money first into reducing energy consumption, and second into developing energy infrastructure that has the lowest possible impact on the ecological web of life.

The Michael Levis of America don’t understand that this is the real push behind the green movement today.

Yes, we’ll seek allies where we can find them, and make use of whatever sources of power we can find (even pro-oil Republican Nebraskans) to achieve our goals.

But our movement is not about “leveraging opposition.”  It’s about mobilizing support, through raising awareness about the threats to our civilization and our planet if we continue along with business as usual.

It’s also about leading the way towards the alternatives that are already within reach if we choose to veer off the beaten path into new, much more stable territory.

Endless growth is a social model that has proven itself to be highly unstable, whether we’re talking about national economies or energy systems.

It’s time to use our intelligence as a species for the good of ourselves and our planet.  There is really no other way forward.

But what can we DO?

It’s not enough to simply lament the disappearance of species, or the poisoning of the air, water and soil of the planet.  The urgent question of our time is WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT?  How can any of us–how can I–act to staunch the hemorrhage and resuscitate this dying patient, our planet, before it’s too late?

Let’s review the options.

There is political reform, through various channels: appealing to our duly elected representatives and/or supporting environmental groups that lobby these politicians and try to pressure the relevant federal and state agencies charged with protecting the “natural resources” of our country.

I have to say that I am quite skeptical of this approach, which doesn’t seem to have worked at all in the 40 years or so since I first became a Ranger Rick reader and aware of the environmental movement.

Things have gotten much worse for the natural world in my lifetime, despite all the efforts of big, well-funded groups like the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, or even Greenpeace, the most radical of them all. Greenpeace is the most willing to go out on a limb to protect species and habitat, but its actions have failed to make the kind of global difference we need.

There is international peer pressure to do the right thing–conventions, treaties and protocols.  Even as I type these words, I inwardly despair.  From Kyoto onward, the U.S. has been the bully who refused to play nice in the community of nations whenever it’s come to putting the common good before the holy Free Market.

There is actually going around the blowing up the worst aspects of civilization, like dams, power plants, cell towers and chemical plants, as the proponents of Deep Green Resistance advocate.  Eco-terrorism, anyone?

Or there’s crowd power of the Occupy Wall Street variety, which certainly seems right now to hold the most promise.  ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead said.

But how to convince those crowds that the fate of seals, bees and goldfinches–not to mention the oceans and the boreal forests of North America–is actually more important than the injustices of economic inequality here in the U.S.?

Of course, it’s all important.  I have several friends who are on unemployment now and having serious trouble finding jobs.  If the Tea Party had their way, unemployment itself would be a thing of the past, a quaint relic of the old New Deal.  We can’t let these radical conservatives shred our social safety net, and we do need to start creating jobs again–green jobs, of course.

But there is no single issue more urgent than climate and environmental health, because if our climate goes haywire and our life support systems here on Earth fail, folks, we are all going down with the ship.

How to convey this to the crowds who are willing to turn out to protest economic injustice, but give it a miss when the issue is global warming?  How to convince people that what we should be demanding as we flood the squares and Main Streets of our country are well- subsidized options to reduce our energy consumption?

Doesn’t sound very glamorous, but the truth is that there’s nothing more important to be fighting for right now than subsidies to install solar roof tiles, like they’ve been doing in Europe for a decade already; and solar hot water heaters; and geothermal ducts for large buildings; and affordable green tech cars.

As Mark Hertsgaard and others have been saying, it’s not enough to make individual green lifestyle decisions, like recycling or composting or turning out the lights when you leave the room.  These individual actions are all well and good, but they’re not going to make the dramatic change we need to get our climate back into shape.

For the kind of change that will save the polar bears and the walruses and the coral, we need our government to step up and protect the interests of its people.  Not the interests of the corporations which have collectively driven our planet to the brink of ruin with their shortsighted greedy ethos of extraction and exploitation.

Government by the people, for the people.  And for the environment that sustains these people in a web of life that includes all living beings on this planet.

How to say this in a way that will light up the imaginations of the 99% and ignite an unstoppable movement for change?

I will keep trying.  What more can I do?

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