Thursday, December 20, 2007

We are not helpless...

Events this week left me remembering the column my mentor Dana Meadows wrote about the depressing signs from the Arctic. (This from 2001, when the forecasts were that it might take fifty years before the Arctic was free of sea ice in the summer, a prediction that some reports are now saying was too optimistic.) The way Dana ended the column then rings true for me today.

"Is there any way to end this column other than in gloom? Can I give my friend, you, myself any honest hope that our world will not fall apart? Does our only possible future consist of watching the disappearance of the polar bear, the whale, the tiger, the elephant, the redwood tree, the coral reef, while fearing for the three-year-old?

Heck, I don't know. There's only one thing I do know. If we believe that it's effectively over, that we are fatally flawed, that the most greedy and short-sighted among us will always be permitted to rule, that we can never constrain our consumption and destruction, that each of us is too small and helpless to do anything, that we should just give up and enjoy our SUVs while they last, well, then yes, it's over. That's the one way of believing and behaving that gives us a guaranteed outcome.

Personally I don't believe that stuff at all. I don't see myself or the people around me as fatally flawed. Everyone I know wants polar bears and three-year-olds in our world. We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there's something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls."

Re-reading this, I have decided, again, six years later, to believe that these words are true. There is nothing wrong with me. I have decided (again) to believe that the way I feel is the way any sane person would on a rapidly sickening planet. I have decided (again) to believe that millions of people feel the same way, even if they don't wear those feelings on their public faces.

And I see the possibility -available to us as soon as we stop assuming there is something wrong with us – that we could decide together that we are not helpless, either. That, too, would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Everyday People

In the course of sharing my reactions to the latest snapshot of the Arctic I've been having some interesting conversations. In one a friend and fellow Vermonter asked: 'help me learn how to convey what everyday people ... and their local governments .. can do [in response to climate change.]

I took her question with me out into the fading afternoon light while I shoveled snow and did chores.

What can ordinary citizens do, both to lessen the extent of climate change and to prepare their communities to withstand the climate change that is already inevitable?

Shovelful by shovelful I came up with quite a list.

1. Don't leave the thinking about how to respond to climate change to the 'experts.' Ordinary people have all the authority they need on this issue simply by virtue of common sense and a stake in the future. Ordinary people are technically qualified to say that it makes no sense to produce more pollution than the Earth can absorb and that exponential growth cannot continue on a finite planet. Ordinary people are morally qualified to say that we shouldn't expect others in distant lands or future generations to bear the consequences of our actions. Ordinary people have the authority to raise questions about the viability of ideas like sun shields in the upper atmosphere or iron fertilization of the oceans.

If you must, find some resources that explain climate science in clear non-technical terms (you might try the Our Climate Ourselves resources page or this climate change simulator), but above all trust yourself. We need the logic ordinary people on the climate change question. We need the logic of grandfathers and teen-agers and home-makers and farmers and workers, the logic of stewardship and the instinct to care for future generations.

2. Trust and speak out of your own authority, but find ways to do so in the company of others. This is a collective problem that began before our births and will not be fully solved until well after our deaths. It is a problem that cuts across all the lines that divide us, a problem for anyone who eats, drinks, loves a child, cares about a community, or a river, or a tree on a city street corner. All sorts of inspiring organizations are emerging to facilitate collective action. Find the one that suits you (or start your own at whatever scale is right for you) and find solace in the way that the tiny drop of your one lifetime joins into the rising ocean of people who are ready for this problem to end. (A few vehicles for collective action on climate change in the US that I am aware of include: Step It Up, 1Sky, and Focus the Nation.)

3. Don't let a new coal plant be built in your community. See this graph if you wonder why. While supplies of oil are declining around the world, reserves of coal are massive. Because the odds of avoiding dangerous climate change if we allow electricity-generating coal plants to transfer the carbon in the coal from below the Earth's crust to the atmosphere are very low one of the most powerful places a citizen can act is at hearings in their region about any plans to build new coal plants.

4. Be creative about what is possible in your own community. Look especially for the opportunities that simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, build community, and buffer your community against instabilities of all sorts that could be triggered in a warming world. Organize your community to insulate the homes of anyone in your community who can't afford or isn't able to do so for themselves. This would decrease carbon emissions from wasted fuel consumption, bring your community together (with everything from pot-lucks and tool sharing to friendships built on the tops of roofs and ladders), and help create the kind of social network that will serve your community in the face of any of the likely threats of climate change, from droughts, to dangerous storms, to heat waves and public health crises. From community to community the opportunities will be different, but I'm willing to bet that all communities will have opportunities to cut carbon emissions while becoming healthier, safer, and more resilient.

I shoveled a long path, and so my list goes on, but I'll stop here for now, with more to come another day.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Voices of the Future

The other night at dinner I played a game with my younger daughter. If you were an animal what would you be? (Owl) If you could live in one other country which one would you choose? (Australia) If you could live in any point in history what would you choose? (Anytime before global warming).

There it is again. Climate change is on my kids minds a lot these days. And on the minds of their friends and the minds of children of my friends.

If we adults feel frustrated and powerless, imagine how the kids feel.

I know that it is well beyond my power to fix climate change for my kids, but I do wish I could give them some sort of voice, a place where they could speak and grown-ups would listen. A place where they could say what it is they wish those of us with the power to vote and drive cars and fly in airplanes would do.

I'm open for ideas about practical ways to that. You-tube video's shared on a web-page? Art, posters? Other suggestions?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tears For a Graph

My friend Diana told me a story once about the woman who was a teacher to both of us, Donella Meadows. Dana, as we called her, was working on a book chapter about food and hunger, and Diana, her research assistant, had just provided her with a stack of graphs about food and population growth from different regions of the world.

Dana looked through the stack one by one.... and burst into tears at the sight of the graph from Africa, where the increase in yield per acre had, in the most recent year on the graph, been overtaken by an increase in population. Africa was producing more food, but not at a rate that was keeping up with the numbers of new mouths to feed.

In the trajectory of those lines she read the story of hunger and suffering to come and wept for it. At least that is the story I have told myself. Not knowing the story until after Dana's death, I never had a chance to ask her what she felt or why she cried.

Until yesterday I had never cried myself in response to a graph.

Now I have. After skimming an AP article that you may have seen this week (Ominous Arctic Melt Worries Scientists) which explained that the already steady melting of the Arctic was increased dramatically this summer, I dug a little deeper into the recently updated data sets of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, found the graph you see at the top of the page, and burst into tears. This is the biggest one year decrease of ice cover in the entire data-set, which records a period of time nearly as long as my life.

I know all the caveats. After years working in laboratories and creating graphs of my own, I know that one data point doesn't define a trend. I know that the climate system is messy and noisy and not fully understood.

But I also know that the Arctic is a sensitive indicator of climate change, a place where changes in the Earth system show up first and more dramatically than elsewhere on our planet. As one person interviewed in the articles on this new result said, "Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary [in the coal mine] has died."

I was staring at the graph on our home computer when our ten-year old daughter walked past and asked what it was. I explained. Her eyes became wide, and tear-filled. "That's scary," she said. And then, after a pause, "Will Vermont be under water?"

What does a mother say to a question like this? Are data sets from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, like pornography, something to be kept out of sight of children? And what do you do with anger like this, the deep and rising anger, that the state of your child's world is so sad, and ugly and desperate?


Now that I know a little more about crying over graphs, I am no longer so sure that the tears in the story about Dana were as simple as tears of compassion for suffering to come. They might have been, but I think they might also have been more complex.

I think they might have been tears of rage and frustration and impotence, tears that came out of knowing that it doesn't have to be this way. The trend-line of a graph isn't the result of an act of God or a meteor from outer space. It is the result of human choices. That people make those choices not just in ignorance, but also, as the US climate negotiators are doing right now in Indonesia, while information about the trends is on the front pages of major newspapers, is enough, easily enough, to make one cry.

Tomorrow, I want to ask Diana, what happens next in the story, after the news from Africa, after Dana's tears, whatever their source. Diana will know the specifics. But I already know the general outline. She dried her tears and took out her pen, answered the phone, wrote another essay, taught another class.

What else do you do, when you heart is breaking, but keep on going, saying over and over, as beautifully as you can: this hell is of our own creation and can be ended, as it began, by the power of our choices?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Parsley, Leeks and A Share of Responsibility

In a press release yesterday from the UN climate change conference in Indonesia the Global Justice Ecology Project writes:

Indigenous peoples are here in Bali to denounce the false solutions to climate change proposed by the United Nations such as carbon trading, agrofuels and so-called "avoided deforestation" that devastate their lands and cause human rights violations. "This process has become nothing but developed countries avoiding their responsibilities to cut emissions and pushing the responsibility onto developing countries," stated Fiu Mata'ese Elisara-Laula, of the O Le Siosiomaga Society of Samoa. "Projects like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries) sound very nice but they are trashing our indigenous lands. People are being relocated and even killed; my own people will soon be under water. That's why I call the money from the projects blood money," he added.

These strong words have stayed with me today, as I walked the snowy hills behind my house and stopped in our greenhouse to pick vegetables for lunch and dinner. They stayed with me as I chopped and fried and baked the afternoon away while kids and neighbors wandered in and out of the kitchen and flurries of snow fell outside the windows.

These words challenge what I thought I knew - that channeling funds from the rich word to the developing world to preserve forests is generally good thing, for all concerned. But of course it matters for this, as for all sustainable development, how it is done, and by whom, and whether the local indigenous people are in control or 'in the way."

I feel certain that the world - and my own country - could address climate change in ways that produce fairness, share wealth, and bring healing. I can imagine dozens of ways to back off our pressure on the biosphere while giving stewardship of land and opportunities for innovation to people from communities who haven't had much of either for a long time

Such schemes couldn't happen without a lot of listening, to people like Fiu Mata'ese Elisara-Laula and to those denied power within our own society. They probably couldn't happen – or be sustained – without facing the parallels between the way the industrial growth society has treated the Earth and the way it has treated whole communities of people.

I can't prove that it won't be hard for us in the materially rich world to, as the indigenous people at the climate conference ask, shoulder our own responsibility for addressing climate change. But I do know that many of the steps that are open to us today, from buying less to using the power of our own muscles to get around, grow our food, and amuse ourselves, bring satisfaction in and of themselves.

I had the evidence for that in my own hands all afternoon, chopping vegetables grown by someone I love, to feed people I love, smelling the sharpness of leeks and the pungency of parsley. I know we can take on a fair share of this responsibility to protect the climate, and find things to enjoy in the process.

It is easy for me to say this about growing and eating local food as a way of taking responsibility for addressing climate change, and harder to imagine taking full responsibility for how many miles my family drives our car, or for those many winter nights when my community's wood-heating system can't match the cold temperatures and part of our heat comes from fossil fuel.

With access to land and experience gardening, the act of growing my own food requires only my decision to do so. Joint heating systems or a regional transportation network require not individual but collective action.

To get my kids to doctor's appointments and myself to a shopping district – both fifteen or twenty miles from where I live – without a car, is not something I have been able to figure out on my own. It will require a new train line or a bus system, something that could be created only by thousands of us pooling our resources and shifting our priorities together.

That makes it hard to live with the words of the indigenous people at the climate conference. It is hard to live knowing that my actions to take care of my family today put someone else's family in danger now or in the future. It is hard to feel powerless, on my own, to change the system I live within so that I don't violate my own values many times over each week.

In the grips of this kind of powerlessness, it is tempting to block out the information that makes the powerlessness so apparent, tempting to skim over the pleas of the indigenous people, for example, and go back to my busy life.

That's the reflex of course, that leaves the shape of our transportation and energy system in the hands of the mindless reinforcing cycles that concentrate money and power in a few hands and leave the wishes, values, and empathy of millions of ordinary people out of decision making, time after time.

Most of us in the rich world aren't being evicted from our homelands by carbon trading schemes or rising sea levels. But, until we find collective ways to create an infrastructure that allows us to take care of our families without hurting others, the habits and patterns of the industrial growth society take a toll on us as well, a toll measured in compromises with our own sense of ethics and self-respect.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Good News

A fact for today from a report by the Worldwatch Institute:

Wealth in the US has doubled since 1957, yet the number of people who say they are very happy has remained the same.

More isn't making us happier, any more.

That's extremely good news on a planet with billions of people whose basic needs are not met and whose life support systems are faltering. It means that we in the rich world can afford to share. We could use our wealth to restore ecosystems, help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change, invest in clean energy, all without 'giving away' something essential to our happiness.

All the statistics can do is point to the potential - that plowing some of our wealth into the communities of our brothers and sisters (human and non-human) wouldn't make us unhappy, and might in fact lift our spirits.

From Global Green Grants to Heifer International to Oxfam and American Friends Service Committee there are all sorts of ways to test this hypothesis, both near and far from home.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Beings Without Borders

Think about your left hand, feel it, move it, wiggle it. This hand that has been a part of your for as long as you have been a 'you.'

Think about the atmosphere. Colorless odorless air. Important, but not you. Air, out there, separated from you by the membrane that lines your lungs. Right?

Imagine life without your hand: hard, unpleasant painful, frustrating, it might be all of these. But, even hand-less, so many possibilities would remain before you – years and years of silly jokes and passionate embraces. Decades of walking in the wind and leaning backwards to see the tops of tall trees.

Now try to imagine life cut off from the atmosphere. Imagine your airway blocked, your body sucked under water or buried under deep snow. Without rescue your being would contract into a few last minutes of awareness. No more jokes, no more passion, the end of the feeling of wind in your hair.

So which is more a part of who you are, your limbs or the sky?

And why, against all the evidence, do we insistent that we are so small?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Another Reason to Cultivate Vision

If you need one good reason to discover your own vision of a future in which we have addressed climate change you should spend half a minute watching this video, produced by the US Chamber of Commerce as part of a campaign to rally voters against the Lieberman-Werner climate change legislation. In it you'll see a suburban family start their day, wearing hats and scarves indoors and cooking their breakfast over a candle flame before jogging off to work along an expressway empty of vehicles. A voice-over proclaims:

Climate legislation being consider by Congress could make it too expensive to heat our homes, power our lives and drive our cars.....Washington politicians should not demand what technology cannot deliver.

There is so much that could be said about this video, how it uses no facts about what technology can and cannot deliver, how it plays on fears of scarcity, how it neglects to mention the ways suburban families' lives might change if we don't cut carbon emissions.

But what I really want to say is: this isn't the future I see, when I close my eyes and imagine a society that has addressed climate change. I see city blocks filled with gardens and fruit trees, and local shops selling local goods. I see a renewal of manufacturing jobs providing honest important work and producing the infrastructure of a clean energy society. I see people who have considered the question 'what really matters' and oriented their lives around whatever answer they have found.

Even without the threat of climate change I'd choose that future over business as usual. I'm guessing, that, if they really felt they had a choice, most of my fellow citizens would choose it too. And, if they felt they had a choice, I don't think the fear of cooking eggs over candle flames is something that would keep them from their vision.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Barn Chores and Climate Change

Nora and I tromped down the hill together this morning, kicking through a deep layer of new white snow on our way to chores in the barn. We filled water buckets, cleaned out wheelbarrows-full of manure, refilled mangers with hay, fed a bottle of warm milk to the youngest calf. Outside the world was white and hushed, inside it was alive with the chatter of a seven year old, the munching of horses, the occasional bleat of a sheep.

We were cold by the the time we came home to our cups of tea and hot chocolate, but already, at the beginning of our day, we had done something together that was essential at least to the ten or so animals we cared for, and we had done it well and carefully. We had chatted with our neighbor who was milking cows and noticed the feel of snow on our eyelashes. By eight in the morning one child had done real work, tending, feeding and caring for the source of part of her own sustenance.

I would do this with her anyway, whether I held this huge responsibility to the future, or not. Whether I felt the need to find ways to live that contributed less to climate change or not. But, knowing that local organic food uses less fossil energy means that our wintery chores this morning gives my family, in a small way, an answer to "what should we do about climate change?"

In the world of policy makers and engineers that question is usually answered with ideas about technology and markets, both of which should, by all means, be applied to the challenges before us.

But I know, from my own experience, that the universe of possibility for responding to climate change stretches far, far beyond cap-and-trade policy and carbons sequestration technology. Not always, but much of the time, this universe stretches in directions that are also beautiful, healthy, and full of meaning. This universe of possibility stretches, also in ways that could help build the kind of resilient communities that will have the best chances of riding smoothly through the instabilities of a changing climate.

For me and my family many of the possibilities are centered around taking care of our needs through our own work on our community's land. That's what makes sense to us here, in our rural river valley.

Elsewhere the intersections of what reduces greenhouse gas pollution, builds resiliency, and is fun and satisfying may look very different. Elsewhere this may look like watershed restoration or community theater or a rebirth of local manufacturing.

To know what is possible, to begin to imagine and create it, we need to ask not just the experts, but ordinary people in ordinary places. What are those intersections for the heart of Detroit, for the plains of Kansas, for the small towns of Mississippi?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Northeast Temperatures

A few weeks ago, University of Vermont extension agent Vern Grubinger gave a talk here about climate change and agriculture. He showed this graph which contains data from 56 weather stations in Northeast that have been operating since 1900.

It and many other useful slide-sets and fact sheets are available at the website Climate Change and Northeast Farming.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Planet. The Population. The Big Hug.

I'm just back from a fast paced walk. In the sleet.

These words leaping onto my computer screen via an advertisement from Ford Motor Company are the ones that sent me out into the gray afternoon, arms pumping, angry thoughts churning:

People really like the Earth. And for the most part, the Earth really likes people too. Actually, it could be the longest-term relationship ever. At Ford, we are doing everything we can to keep that relationship beautiful. So we are constantly creating technology that shows the Earth lots of love. The Ford Escape Hybrid, ever increasing MPG, ever-decreasing emissions. People and Earth. Exchanging gifts. No receipt necessary.

For a mile or so, my mind took these few sentences and ran with them.

"I love you, my dear Earth", I saw people saying, zipping about town in their Ford Escape Hybrids. "An ounce of CO2, a token of love, the perfect thank you for the longest-term relationship ever."

Ever increasing MPG, ever decreasing emissions? Perfect. We'll just ever-increase MPG to to infinity, ever-decrease emissions to below zero until one day driving a Ford Escape Hybrid will be an act of public service, sucking carbon right out of the atmosphere! No need for pricey complicated research into carbon sequestration after all, just a fleet of Fords.

As for people and Earth exchanging gifts, haven't we all known people like that, artists of the one-way exchange? All take, no gift. Thanks for dinner and here's the check.

So my thoughts unfolded as I walked, but I couldn't keep it up.

I started noticing all the little miracles of this ordinary day – the tingle on my cheeks of the cold rain, the dark branches of bare maples against the clouds.

We all know that advertising plays upon our deepest hopes - to have love, to be enough, to not be lonely, to be thought worthy. Is it so surprising that a team at Ford Motor Company thinks that being in a relationship, a beautiful relationship, with the Earth is one of those deepest desires?

Actually, how could it be otherwise, for we who evolved at the edge of forests, digging in soil, bending down at stream-sides to drink cool, clear water?

And there it is, the beautiful opportunity, right in plain sight: there are so many better, easier, more beautiful ways to fill our longing to reconnect than the unlovely and expensive Ford Escape Hybrid.

Maybe not everyone would agree that walking in the November sleet is beautiful or their heart's desire, but eating a fresh picked apple might do it, for a moment, or biking to work, or planting box gardens at the senior citizens' center. There are so many opportunities, many of them free, many of them cheap, all of them truly exchanges with the Earth, all of them sealing the bond of the longest relationship ever. These pursuits don't give the gift of a little less harm, the give the gift of no harm. Sometimes they even five the gift of restoration.

By the time my route came round again to home, the sun had come out.

A perfect rainbow, bright and unbroken, stretched the full expanse of the north sky.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hold on Tight

"Hold on tight, firmly in touch with reality, unshakably committed to your highest dreams. Feel the pain. Summon your strength over and over to endure it........Your anguish, sometimes so unbearable, is in fact the force through which you can help the world come a little closer to being all that it can be."

It is from the column, A Letter, Anguish, and a Rubber Band, by Donella Meadows.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

On Being Nice

I received a note today from a friend, a nice note, that said among other things that I am kind, serious, gentle, and generous.

Those are wonderful traits to be seen to carry.

But tonight, at the end of a long day, towards the end of a long year, I am beginning to wonder if gentle and kind haven't taken me about as far as they can on their own?

As the foundations of my childrens' world crumble – last Friday the World Meteorologic Organization reported that CO2 levels hit a record high this year – I am starting to search for other parts of myself, beyond gentle and kind.

I like my gentle, kind self, and all the gentle souls around me, good people with high hopes.

But in the midst of a social and economic system that creates unquenchable thirsts – for stuff, for possession, for power – maybe I (maybe you, too?) need to expand my identity to become gentle, kind, and generous, but also strong and unafraid of being thought 'not nice.' Still kind, still gentle, but using the voice mothers everywhere use to say, "enough is enough."

Sunday Morning Read Aloud

We came home from our Thanksgiving travels to find a new issue of Ranger Rick in the mailbox, and this morning our younger daughter and I snuggled up on the couch in the Sunday morning sun to read it.

We read about harp seals, threatened by melting sea ice, and China's golden monkeys, threatened by deforestation. The articles didn't exaggerate the dangers and they made it clear that scientists are busy studying the situation and conservationists are trying to help. But this seven-year-old missed the nuances:

"It's not only the polar bears going extinct, there's a harp seal named Haley and the golden monkeys," she announced as her older sister wandered by, hairbrush in hand.

And so here I am again, fourteen hours after debating our family's choices in gasoline purchasing with the older daughter, wondering what to say to the younger one about the world she's been given.

I refuse to accept that it has to be this way. Our children don't have to grow up hearing that their world is falling apart with the only antidote to despair the flimsy reassurance that scientists are studying the problem and conservationists are trying to help.

I don't want my children to grow hearing about fixes around the edges, I want our entire global economy to be oriented toward their future. I want every article I read aloud to them about every endangered plant and animal, culture, village, child, estuary, or ecosystem to say, truthfully, honestly:

This is a serious problem. All life is interconnected; so what hurts the harp seals (the island children, the soil organisms) hurts us too. Thankfully people everywhere understand this now, even if we didn't always in the past.

That's why everyone - your parents, your government, every business in your country – is re-orienting towards what really matters: you and your generation and future generations. That's why it costs so much to pollute or overfish or clear cut and why the most proftable business are the ones that are working to restore the ecosystems, produce clean energy, feed people, and build the soils. That's why people are choosing quality over quantity, buying only what they need.

These are big changes, and they are taking what must seem to you like a long time. We know that everything that matters cannot be saved, but you, and the harp seal and everything else, are worth our best effort and that is what we are giving you.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Power of the Powerless

As I do the dinner dishes our older daughter asks, "what kind of job do you think I'd be good at when I grow up?"

"Well, start by thinking about what you are good at and what you enjoy."

"Like what?"

"Well, you're a quick thinker, and you have a good intuition, and you're persistent."

"So, I'd be a good President?"

"We'll..... no I don't think so, because you don't like other people telling you what to do, and to become President, you have to do a lot of what other people, especially people who fund your campaigns, want you to do."

"We'll I wouldn't. I'd only listen to the people. And I'd put a limit on how much money the oil companies could earn!"

A short pause, then the kind of twist I never see coming: "Anyway, doesn't Mike's sell the bad kind of gasoline? The kind from the company that is trying to convince people global warming isn't real? "

(Perhaps your town has a Mike's, a gas station/convenience store that is owned by a local family, always supports local good causes, from the pre-school to the softball team, and lets everyone post flyers for lost cats and bake sales on the front door. Maybe your Mike's-equivalent is, like ours, the most convenient place to buy your gas. If it is, and if you happen to be discussing its brand of gasoline with a verbally undefeated ten-year old who has picked up a lot about climate change around the dinner table, you will likely find yourself choosing your next words carefully.)

"Well, yes...Mike's is a Mobil Station.... and Exxon Mobil doesn't have the best record of all the oil companies on climate change."

"So why do we buy our gas there?"

"We'll it's convenient. And Mike's is a local business. And the most important thing is that we try to drive as little as possible, not where we get our gas. I'm not sure how much difference it makes where we buy it from."

I get off lightly. She doesn't repeat any of the things I've told her and her sister over the years. [You know, Mom, even the little things make a difference; you don't drop your values just when they stop being convenient.] She is more concrete:

"If we give fifteen dollars to somebody it shouldn't be them. In my opinion. Anyway, maybe I should be a representative. Are there women representatives?"

"Oh yes, and senators too."

I know a conversational life-raft when I see one.


She's in bed now, the dinner dishes are done, and I'm trying to imagine what it must be like to be ten years old and know what we haven't been able to keep from our daughter – that climate change is real and serious, that lots of grown-ups are working really hard to fix it but that even if they succeed the Earth will keeping on warming for a long time.

If we who can vote, we who make decisions for household and business, feel powerless, imagine what it must be like, on this warming world, to be ten years old.

If you want to investigate the record on climate change for various oil and gas companies you might be interested in these compilations of information from the Sierra Club, and the Better World Handbook.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

One Of Our Biggest Challenges Remains Our Growth

In a recent report on their progress incorporating sustainability into their business practices leaders at Wal-Mart could have been speaking for the entire global economic system:

"In working to reduce our carbon footprint, one of our biggest challenges remains our growth. As we continue to grow, so does our carbon footprint -- even if it grows at a much slower rate. However, we see our expansion as an opportunity to have a positive effect on absolute carbon because being a growth company enables us to explore and invest in new technologies that may lead to carbon reduction."

I have been trying to think of an analogy for the challenge of working towards sustainability while continuing to grow. What's the equivalent from every day life?

Trying to climb out of debt by clipping coupons while moving into a more expensive house every year?

Trying to lose weight by eating lower calorie foods while increasing the number of meals you eat each day?

I understand the logic (the hope?) of the second excerpted sentence: that profits (resulting from growth) could fund the discovery and scale-up of ways to generate energy without generating greenhouse gas pollution. This is the best we can hope for within the paradigm of the industrial growth society, which tells us that a business or an economy can never afford to stop growing.

Even if it works, even if Wal-Mart's growth-powered investments provide the the world with zero-carbon energy sources in time to avert the worst of climate change, we know that there will be another limit - mercury, or toxins, or biodiversity loss, or something else – waiting just behind the limit of greenhouse gas pollution. And another limit behind that one. We know - deep in our hearts we have to know, by now – that this is a game that, in the end, cannot be won.

Waiting just beyond that realization is a universe of possibility. Wal-Mart could lead the world by changing its business model, saying it is big enough, turning from growth to development.

Maybe a vision of a 'big enough' Wal-Mart sounds impossible to you.

But I'm certain that it is more possible than the idea of future generations living good lives on this finite planet with an economy that cannot stop growing.

With Wal-Mart openly talking about the interplay of growth and sustainability, maybe that day isn't as far off as we might think.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I'll Have My Milk Without the Greenhouse Gases, Please

So many of the actions that would protect and heal the climate bring other benefits along with them.

Last night, in a talk on climate change and agriculture in the Northeast (by Vern Grubinger University of Vermont Extension Agent), I learned of another example for this long and growing list.

One of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas pollution in the production of milk is the nitrogen fertilizer applied to the fields that grow the grain fed to cows. It takes fossil fuel to produce this fertilizer, and and excess nitrogen in the soil, under certain conditions, gives rise to nitrous oxide, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

The cows that make the milk my family drinks, cows owned and cared for by my neighbors, eat mostly grass, and, when they do eat grain, they eat organic grain. And so there it is, a kindness to the atmosphere, on top of all the other blessings - the water that is kept free of nitrogen pollution, the good taste of fresh milk, the peace in a mother's mind that comes from knowing exactly what it is her children pour onto their breakfast cereal.

Nobody is claiming that milk production is a major contributor to climate change, but still, in this story, is a glimmer of a much bigger hope – when we really take on climate change we can do it in smart and beautiful ways, ways that heal the water, and the soil, and the pain in mother's hearts all at the same time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Calmly but Insistently

One of the most beautiful things I found in the people who gathered to study with Joanna Macy at Seeds for the Future II was their bravery, and their willingness to speak the truth of their own experience.

These people and people like them, who are willing to witness the agony of the wounded in Iraq, the sick children of Chernobyl, the dwindling salmon of the Northwest help me find, in my own reactions to their stories, my solidarity, my ability to care about and connect with a wider world. The people who share stories of reconciliation and progress, like a woman I just met who lived through the end of apartheid in South Africa, do the same.

In honor of these truth-tellers and for the truth-teller in all of us, the quote of the week is from a column Donella Meadows published in 1992.

SPEAK THE TRUTH. Speak it out loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power. Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence. All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as "enough." Human progress must be assessed not by quantity but by quality. Our consumption-crazed society has lost its its direction and its soul.

I can assure you that saying these things will not make you popular. But if they are not said, over and over, so often that they begin to supersede the contrary messages that now dominate our airwaves and our lives, we will lose not only our souls, but also the natural systems that might someday support more enlightened souls.

One Graph

My colleague Diana Wright has many talents: gardener, farmer, maple syrup maker, mother, and more. She is also one of the best people I know at finding data and making that data accessible and meaningful to people.

I thought of her when I saw this graph, because she has long had the idea of a news service that would send, at regular intervals, a graph about the state of the world, a city, a river, or an economy. In honor of Diana (and in hopes that I can entice her into partnership in searching out one powerful graph each week) here's the climate change graph of the week for me. It shows, as Hansen says, why "coal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact."

These graphs can be downloaded here along with a wealth of clear and helpful information on Dr. Hansen's website.

Burning Bright

On the journey home from the West Coast last month I met an interesting fellow traveler and we struck up conversation about sustainability and the future. In the course of conversation I gave him an article Dana Meadows had written that I had carried in my bag all the way from Vermont to California and then to Oregon. I wasn't sure I'd ever hear from him again, but recently, I received this email:

I just finished my first read through of Dana Meadows article. It was great. What can one say – “she gets it” and has a simple and powerful way of communicating. This led me to your website which is also inspiring and the discovery that she died at 59. Sounds like a soul that had burned very bright.

I agree, about the soul burning bright, and imagine that those of you reading these words who knew Dana Meadows would agree as well.

But we are all burning, aren't we? Literally. We are flames, our cells burning oxygen with every breath. We take the world into ourselves with every mouthful of food and every sip of water, transforming carrot sticks and peanut butter into movement and sound, into violence or poetry.

I wish we taught our children this truth, that they are moving flowing rivers, never, not even for an instant, stagnant, and never, ever separate from the ocean or from the clouds, or from the dark and secret life of the soil.

I wish our leaders knew it. I wish they all knew and acted as though they knew that, as Buckminster Fuller once said, we are not nouns, but verbs. (" I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.")

That is my image for the day - people as flames. The delegates at the United Nations, my seven-year old at her math assignment, the people – soldiers, insurgents, mothers, babies – on the ground in Iraq.

All of us, burning bright.

Second Chances

There is one very good thing, I find, in this intention to pay attention to sky, to earth, to neighbors and partners and children and wind: you keep getting second (and third, fourth, and fifth) chances.

Last night I remembered to go outside at dusk to say hello to the new moon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Remember, Part Two

Tucking my 10 year old daughter into bed, I realized (once again) that paying attention to the beauty of the world requires more than simply vowing to do so.

Daughter: Did you see the moon tonight, Mom?

Mother: Moon?

Daughter: Yeah, as you walked home from work. It was a little sliver, a sixth or maybe an eighth. It was sooo beautiful. You could see the dark part. That's the reflected light (said with authority.) That part was dull gray. And the bright part was glowing yellow! You didn't see it? It was right there.

There was nothing for it but to go outside (she, barefoot, wearing pajamas) into the freezing night to look for the moon.

But new moons set early, and this one was gone. My daughter was simultaneously disappointed at the absent moon and gleeful to be out past bed-time, barefoot on frosty grass.

As for me, the best that can be said is that I had enough sense to stand quietly for a moment in appreciation of the shinning stars above my head and the wide-awake child at my side.


I write this note to myself as much as to you. Remember this (even when there is work to do):

Go outside. Notice the sky. Feel the rocks and the soil and the crackling leaves beneath your feet.

In going to Seeds For The Future I traveled 3000 miles and spent thirty-days, in part to help myself remember to pay attention to the world I am so desperate to protect for my children.

One morning I sat perfectly still for as long as a fish-stalking heron did, which was a long, long time (during which my nose itched and my mind wandered). I don't know about the heron's mind, but she was so still she could have been a stump or a rock in the early morning mist. She struck, she swallowed, she went still again.

Another day, I sat where the river meets the sea for as long as it took for the tide to go out and come back in again, and I didn't do anything else but sit. I made no plans, not one refinement to project strategy or fund-raising plan.

It felt sweet. And rare. I realized how little of my time in this beautiful world do I spend tasting its sweetness. I vowed, on the airplane coming home, to change that.

There have been a few moments. One walk in the maples. One afternoon sifting compost onto the cleared beds of the garden. One wide-awake, eye-widening look at the full-moon rising over the hay-field (a glimpse I would have missed forever, had my ten-year not dragged me by the hand, away from the computer to the porch and the cold night air and the glowing orange disc in the sky).

Most days, I feel the opposite of that heron - motion punctuated by little bits of stillness rather than the other way around.

I don't long to spend my life in retreat, in silence and quiet. I don't want to spend these coming years of influence on the climate of my children's future on a mountaintop or a monastery. I want to be in motion, in motion that matters. But I'm trying to be a little more heron-like, trying to find the stillness before the swift motion.

Today - when a paragraph just wouldn't come out right, when there didn't seem to be any clear, honest words, just extremes of sentimentality and dullness, I turned off the computer, put on my sweater, and walked up the hill.

The pasture-edge smelled of hickory nuts; I heard a distant raven; I saw one golden apple tree,
on fire in the late afternoon sun.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Why I left my children (and my husband (and my job)) for a month

Leave home? For a month? In September?

If you are someone who puts down roots in a place, and particularly if those roots involve a garden in northern New England, you'll know that the words "leave home" and the word "September" don't fit well into the same sentence.

September is the culmination of seven months of planning and working that starts with seed ordering and the sowing of flats in March and April.

Not to mention that September is the month of the HARVEST - when tomatoes need to be canned, dry beans picked, soybeans frozen, pickles made.

The gardening mother of school-aged children who leaves town in September automatically consigns her spouse to mid-night sessions with the pressure canner. If those same school aged children happen to attend "school" at home then the same mother is also consigning her husband to steering through everything from the multiplication tables to spelling words and violin recitals under the burden of sleep deprivation.

If such a mother were also to have major work obligations in October (say a workshop or two and a large grant proposal) then should she leave town for all of September and the beginning of October, she would also be consigning her colleagues to extra work, or at the very least, more than the usual amount of last minute rushing around. (And, if her husband also happened to be one of her work colleagues, well then, what she is asking really would be extraordinary.)

So why did I do it? What I was I hoping to find in thirty-days on the other side of the continent that I didn't already have? What did I think I would find in Joanna Macy's teaching – from meditation to systems theory to the way that our despair for the world opens us up to our love of it – that would be worth asking so much of so many.

Well first there was clarity. Day in and day out I write and teach about the preciousness of the next ten years, the years when the odds are still good that dedicated action can keep the climate from dangerous runaway warming. But it is one thing to be clear about a window of opportunity and quite another to know what to do with it. I went to Oregon hoping to come home someone who was ready to live in a way she'd be proud to have future generations know about it. Someone who was awake to the plight of the world and doing something about it.

And then there was courage. Courage to break away from old patterns that weren't serving me or the world. Courage to say to my kids, 'we aren't going spend money on that even though everyone else you know has one, because plastic junk is part of the problem that is ruining your beautiful world". Courage to ask, in my community that is struggling just to keep up with barn repairs and committee reports, what more can we do? How can we be ready for the rough ride that seems so likely to be coming? Courage to turn away from all those seductive distractions - from trivial conflicts, from emailing while Rome burns.

Clarity and courage are what I went looking for. I can't say that I found them in large measure - though I found little glimpses of the nooks and corners of myself where they might be hiding.

What I found instead is the certaintity that what I need to do - and maybe you too – is exactly whatever it is that someone who did have clarity and courage would do, even (especially) while feeling unsure and afraid. No more than this, and no less.

So I guess it's good-bye retreat - welcome home real world.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Where Have I Been?

It's been a while since I've been able to add new thoughts and experiences here. Not because there haven't been new thoughts and experiences, but because there have been too many, coming too fast, and leaving too little time to synthesize, write, and integrate.

Since the last posting on this blog in June there's been an Our Climate Ourselves Roadshow, on the West Coast of the US, which was followed by an amazing, and still not fully digested, 30-day retreat on the Oregon Coast with Fran and Joanna Macy and 60-odd other activists and educators, Seeds For the Future II. That was followed by a week with the new class of Donella Meadows Leadership Fellows - who where here at Cobb Hill at the end of October. Now, as the days shorten and darken in Vermont I have a little more spaciousness, and more time for reflection.
Many of you, family, friends, and colleagues have asked me: what was it like? how have you changed? what did you learn?

I haven't answered you all very well yet; in some cases I haven't answered at all. But as the experiences and lessons churn, percolate, and digest words are starting to rise to the surface again.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Climate Bathtub

My first serious push into education about climate change came when I heard MIT's John Sterman share his research (with Linda Booth Sweeney) showing that many people harbor fundamental misunderstandings about the dynamics of the climate system. One of the most common misunderstandings they found was the expectation that CO2 levels in the atmosphere would stabilize if emissions were 'frozen' at current levels. This intuitive belief neglects the crucial information that CO2 is now being added to the atmosphere at more than twice the rate at which is is being removed. In other words, freezing emissions at current levels would mean that global society would continue to add twice as much CO2 each year as the planet was able to assimilate.

As the G8 leaders meet this week, unable to agree on even modest concerted action on climate change, this is a critical understanding every citizen deserves to have.

Now, inspired by Sterman and Booth Sweeney's research and via a project advised by them, climate change educators have a new tool at their disposal - a web-based simulator that shows the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere projected into the future under three different scenarios: business as usual, emissions freeze, and emissions reductions of more than 50% by 2070. The simulator uses the metaphor of a bathtub which is filled by CO2 emissions and drained by net removals.

I'd urge all of you climate change educators out there to give the tool a try in your presentations and trainings. If a picture is worth a thousands words, a simulation must be worth even more.

When I've heard John Sterman talk about the prevelance of this misunderstanding he frames it in terms of the education system not helping people comprehend rates (emissions and removals) that control the level of an accumulation. He may be right.

But I've been wondering lately if the misunderstanding isn't even deeper. We all know that over the long term you cannot fill a bath-tub twice as fast as it drains without the tub overflowing. Which leaves me wondering if the misunderstanding is not so much a problem with rates and accumulations as it is a problem with how we think about the atmosphere, something that appears to a casual observer as both static (we can't see the inflows and outflows) and endless (not finite, like a bathtub.)

Another possibility is that most people still do not know the simple fact that the climate bathtub is filling at more than twice the rate that it is draining; it maybe that this simple fact is lost in the complex way the climate story is reported.

The great thing about this simulator is that whatever the cause of the misunderstanding allowing people to experiment with this simple tool should help them sharpen their understanding of how the climate works and why we cannot wait to act.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Practical Visionaries

I just posted the newest essay in the Our Climate Ourselves Essay Series. Here's an excerpt.

This year my nine-year-old daughter has been studying inventions and inventors, and I’ve been learning about them through her. She particularly likes the stories about accidental inventors who were trying to do one thing, made a mistake, and recognized, sometimes years later, the usefulness of what they had done. She finds something very satisfying in these stories. With the unlimited opportunities a child has to make mistakes – fractions, spelling words, and irregular verbs – it must be thrilling to read about grown-ups who made mistakes and became famous and (sometimes) rich in the process.

She is drawn to the mistakes, but I, from the vantage point of middle age, am drawn to the aspiration. How did Bell dare to believe in the telephone or Edison in electric light? Or the Wright brothers – what made them crazy enough to try to fly?
One of her books is a photographic history of the Wright brothers. As we looked through the book together, I first noticed the airplanes, fragile-looking creations of canvas and wood. Then I noticed the pilots, strapped in place with nothing but ordinary clothing between their tiny, vulnerable human bodies and the ground hundreds of feet below. With each flight they must have risked death; the book shows one photograph of splintered wood and torn canvas, all that was left of a crash that badly hurt Orville and killed his co-pilot.

We looked through this book on a day when the news was full of reports of melting polar ice and ocean dead zones and slower than expected recovery of the ozone hole, and there was something in these photographs that raised my spirits. Without doubt many of the products of our inventive spirit – from the atomic bomb to the internal combustion engines that fill our atmosphere with more pollution than it can tolerate – are causing grief all around the world, but these old photographs renewed my hope that our species may find its way through these dangerous times of our own creation.

It was the yearning visible in almost every photograph that raised my spirits.....

Find the rest of the essay here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What Can We Learn?

(This post continues the series of questions that I've found useful once the science of climate change begins to sink in. Click here for Questions #1 and #2 and #3.)

Climate change has a lot to teach us about how to live well and decently within the capacity of the Earth to support us. But we will only learn those lessons if we look for them, if we keep our sights not only on changing light-bulbs but also on changing ourselves and our communities.

What does climate change tell us about our economics, an economics where fossil fuel can still be cheap even when we know that greenhouse gas levels are close to the tipping point where climate change could begin to feed upon itself?

What does climate change tell us about nationalism, when there are no boundaries in the atmosphere and when the lives and livelihoods of people who’ve never owned a car are threatened by choices made by those who own several?

What does climate change tell us about happiness and security when our headlong pursuit of both have carried us beyond the climate’s ability to support us?

What does climate change tell us about our democracy, when the resistance of special interest groups is able to keep an entire country from moving forward to address the problem?

And so on.

The only thing I can think of that will make the inevitable climate change losses bearable is the possibility that through facing these losses and acknowledging our role in causing them, we may come to understand our place on the planet and learn how to live in that place.

But if we don’t stop to look for lessons in the climate crisis, if we just try to manage, accept, and adapt, we loose our chance to become wiser and stronger. We loose our chance to figure out how to fit into the rest of biosphere. Of all the important conversations to have about climate change I believe that this one - what can we learn – is the most important of all.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Can You Do, Where You Already Are, With What You Already Know?

(This post continues the series of questions that I've found useful once the science of climate change begins to sink in. Click here for Questions #1 and #2.)

As the reality of the need for massive and immediate cuts in carbon emissions sinks in, for some people only one thing seems to feel right: starting tomorrow, they must change everything about their lives, and devote everything they have to this survival crisis.

But pretty quickly, other realities come back to mind. Mortgages, debts, college tuitions, health insurance. Nothing is as simple as it first sounds, and the next stop in this thought progression seems often to be: if I can't devote all of myself to this crisis then there is nothing for me to do. It is hard to look at addressing the potential extinction of one's species as a part-time avocation.

Many other people have great ideas for tackling climate change, if only they were president of a massive environmental group, or a car manufacturer, or a Senator. Too bad they are 'only' a student, a mother, a preschool teacher, an editor.

That's why another question I often ask groups who are working out their response to climate change is:

What Can You Do, With What You Already Know and the Relationships You Already Have?

We don’t know how to live as a planet of over six billion people. We don’t know how to cut our carbon dioxide emissions by more than half while providing a better life for all the people, all the children, who don’t have a sufficient food, shelter, and security today. We don’t know (or remember) how to share like that. We don’t have all of the technology that we will need. We don’t know (or remember) how to live happy purposeful, satisfied lives while being frugal with our use of energy and materials.

Not knowing how to do this, we must learn. And it won't be good enough if that learning is just embarked upon by people who get paid for it, or people who can afford to quit their jobs. And it won't be good enough for the only learners to be the "leaders" at the "top."

Who's going to figure out how to expand the local food network in your city? Who's going to get the bike paths built and the train routes re-established? Who's going to write the new songs that make meaning and purpose and some kind of beauty out of the terror and change that we are living through? Who's going to talk to children about it, and who's going to insulate the water pipes for your frail, elderly neighbor?

There is a paradox here: this massive global problem is the result of small decisions by ordinary people, and it's eventual, miraculous solution, if it comes, will likewise be the result of small decisions, made with courage, by you and me, ordinary people alive in an extraordinary time.

So ask each other, push each other, admit that we can't, most of us, drop everything, that we aren't, most of us, leaders of national stature, and start from there. What needs doing that we know (or can learn) how to do?

Monday, May 14, 2007

John Seed's Climate Change Roadshow

I'm just back from an inspiring two days at Earthlands in central Massachusetts, where John Seed, an astonishingly powerful teacher and guide lead a group of folks from around the region from the heights of imagining and describing the world we really want to see to the depths of looking at and sharing our individual and collective sorrow, fear and anger at climate change and all the other tragedies of this time. I'll offer more reflections on these two days soon. For now, I simply urge any of you who have the opportunity to learn at John Seeds feet to seize it. He'll be in the Northeast for about one more week, before he returns to his home in Australia.

John's schedule takes him through New York and New Jersey next. Details can be found here. And the workshop itself is described in John's own words here.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The First Step Towards Addressing Climate Change Is Facing Its Reality

(A new addition to the Our Climate Ourselves Essay Series, first published in Common Dreams.)

In a past column I have written about a narrow window of opportunity, a period of perhaps as few as ten years within which humanity must make dramatic reductions in worldwide CO2 emissions or run the risk of unleashing dangerous cascades of “runaway” warming. In this scenario, warming would begin to feed upon itself and outgrow the human power to slow it, leading to shifts in temperature, sea level, ocean currents, rainfall patterns, and ecology with the potential to disrupt coastal cities, agriculture, and ecosystems.

Minimizing this risk calls for massive improvements in energy efficiency, decreases in consumption, and a rapid shift to clean energy. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that all of this is possible if we were to get serious about public investment and incentives for a life-serving energy system, but ten years is a short window for going about such large scale change, especially in a nation that has not yet gathered itself to rise to the challenge.

A few hours and a little research will provide all of the information you need to come to your own conclusion about the above assessment. But then what? If you find yourself agreeing that we have ten years to address a problem of human survival and that addressing it will require very deep changes in much that we take for granted, how do you find the response that is right for you, whoever you are? What’s a fifth grade teacher to do? Or a grandmother? An artist? A carpenter? A student? here for the full essay and here to receive email notification when the next essay is added to the series.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

What Do You Want?

(This week, I'm offering four sets of questions that seem helpful in inspiring and empowering action on climate change. Click here for Question #1.)

Question #2 What Do You Want in a World Beyond Climate Change?

Our emotions help us pay attention and take action, and they give us energy for making change, but they don’t tell us what that change should be. It’s not enough to want global warming end, to want greenhouse gas pollution to stop and everything to be OK. Everything isn’t OK, and it won’t be until we create ways of meeting our needs that don’t dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. How do we want to get to work in the morning? What kind of work do we want to do, for that matter? Until we can imagine and create more sustainable ways of living and making a living, we can’t have the safety and peace that we crave.

What do we want our world to look like once we have left fossil fuels behind and entered the age of renewable energy? How will people be living? Where will they live? What will they be doing? Whenever I’ve created time and space in a workshop to allow people to really explore this question for themselves, the images and ideas they describe make one point very clearly: a society that has addressed climate change has the potential to be much more beautiful, much more fair, and much more life-affirming than the society we have today.

When I ask people what they want out of a future that has responded to climate change, I don’t hear only of rooftop solar panels and windmills – although there are plenty of both in the visions people share – but also of the rich world sharing with the less rich, of thriving farms in every community, of healthy, delicious local food, of cities full of gardens and bike paths and canals full of clean water, and of a human society so wise, so clear in its purpose, that it has surrounded itself with wilderness, allowing the rest of the life of the planet to go on about its work in peace.

A person who knows what it is she wants for the future has taken the first step towards discovering where to act today, because a vision tells you what to feed and what to let wither. Only by knowing the future you want, with such clarity that you can see it, taste it, almost feel it, can you recognize all the parts of what you want that already exist, from the biodynamic farm in the neighboring town, to the car sharing collective down the block, to the courageous political champion of greenhouse gas controls. The seeds of the future are all around us, but they are only easy to spot once you've imagined the wonders that they could give rise to.

Such visions seem to be very individual and personal. You may see rivers full of salmon, I see parks in the middle of every city and people with time for playing games with children and walking along winding paths. Someone else will see a smooth-running, highly efficient transportation system, and a distributed network of energy generation. Together, we have a good chance of seeing enough complexity and possibility to describe something worth working very, very hard for.

And so, whenever you invite another person, or a roomful of them, to share what they would really like to see in the future of their wildest dreams, you help that future ease its way into existence.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

After the Science, How Are You Feeling?

One side of empowering people to respond to climate change is to offer insights and understanding about how the climate system works. This is necessary, even critical, as much an art as a science, and often the subject of this blog.

But, when it comes to helping people find their strength and power for responding to climate change, the facts and figures can only carry you so far.

Effective conversations about climate change, in my experience, depend upon a willingness to pose questions, as much as they do on having answers.

And so, this week, I offer four questions that I've found helpful in climate change conversations. Use them as I've posed them, or create your own variations. Ask them of yourself, or at the dinner table, or after you show An Inconvenient Truth to your church group, or in whatever way seems right to you.

Question # 1: How Are You Feeling About Climate Change?

This is a question that is easy to gloss over, especially if you are feeling compelled to lead a group away from the bad news about the climate situation and straight to all the wonderful possibilities for addressing it.

But to rush past acknowledging the reality of how climate change make us feel is to loose valuable information. These feelings may be difficult, or strong, or uncomfortable, but they also serve us, inform us, and strengthen us, as long as we don’t deny them.

When the facts about climate change sink in with the groups I've lead, fear is a common reaction. People fear for the people they love who are going to have live through the coming decades, and also for the delicate natural places they love, and often for the world's poor and powerless who will have the fewest resources for coping with climate change. Will there be more terrible storms? Droughts? Extinctions? Your impulse, whether you are a leader of a group or talking to your children, may not be to acknowledge these fears, but they do have a purpose. Fear reminds us to us pay attention. Just as fear helped our ancestors pay closer attention to their surroundings after a glimpse of a predator crouched behind a tree, our fear of what might happen if we don't address climate change can keep us focused and energized.

Where some feel fear, others fear anger. Anger tells us that there is something that needs our protection. The integrity of the atmosphere and the future prospects of our children are at risk, and our leaders can’t – or won’t – respond to that risk. Under the circumstances anger is a healthy, survival-promoting response.

Sadness allows us to recognize what is. Already there are losses as a result of climate change. We’ve seen the images of New Orleans, we know the coral reefs are dying. We know that priceless, unique, irreplaceable elements Earth’s life have already been lost forever. And we know that there will be more losses, as the decades of carbon dioxide pollution we have already released continue to impact ecosystems and weather patterns. Our sadness allows us to recognize these changes, and our own contributions to them.

Our culture doesn’t approve of the emotions most likely to triggered by an understanding of climate change: anger, sadness, and fear. We are raised to be hopeful, optimistic go-getters. But our life support system is crumbling and we don’t have a clear plan for restoring it, or even easing off some of the pressure on it. Under the circumstances, anger, sadness, and fear are normal, healthy emotions. Suppressing them requires energy that could be better spent on bringing ourselves into balance with the Earth.

Expect to hear about fear, sadness, and anger, when you ask people how they are felling about climate change, but make room for happiness and excitement, too. In my living room talks, excitement and a sense of hopeful expectation aren’t as rare as you might think. In the words of one woman, in one audience, “This is the chance we finally have to find out what kind of people we can be. If it weren’t for this I might have gone through my whole life as an ordinary person, but now, in figuring out how to respond to this challenge, I must expand what I am capable of.”

It takes some bravery to ask another person, or a roomful of them, how climate change makes them feel. But if you are willing to bring forward the topic, you offer people the chance to discover that they are not alone in the intensity of their feeling, but are in fact normal people in a dangerous situation, passionate about the future of their world.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Global Warming and Democracy

"Our founding fathers warned us that democracy can't last unless we are willing to fight for it in every generation. Wars are not the only kinds of fights, and foreign dictators -- or foreign campaign contributors -- are not the only threats to government of, by, and for the people. If we want our democracy back, our battle has to be, as was that of our founding fathers, against the corrupt power structure that rules us."

That's a line from a newspaper column my mentor and teacher Donella Meadows wrote in in 1997.

I remembered it this week when I read the transcript of a a talk delivered to the National Press Club on February 26, 2007 NASA climate expert James Hansen.

Hansen's talk presented five recommendations he believes could solve the problem of climate change (or at least the US contribution to it).

(Pay attention to the word solve. In this time of rising worry about climate change we can't lose sight of the fact that to scientists like Hansen this is still a solvable problem.)

Three of his five recommendations have to do – not surprisingly – with limiting carbon emissions. These steps include placing a moratorium on the building of more coal-fired power plants until carbon dioxide sequestering technology is fully developed, charging for carbon pollution, and putting energy performance standards on buildings and vehicles.

The fourth involves increased study of the behavior of ice-sheets, so that we can better anticipate their reaction to a warming world.

These proposals are large and sweeping, and the sort of thing we've come to expect from clear thinking climate scientists like Hansen. Could we accomplish them, the US would be doing its part to make sure that carbon dioxide levels don't rise into the danger zone.

But it was Hansen's fifth recommendation that really caught my attention, and reminded me of Donella Meadow's writing, because his fifth recommendation had nothing to do with climatology and everything to do with democracy.

Hansen says, "The global warming problem has brought into focus an overall problem: the pervasive influence of special interests on the functioning of our government and on communications with the public. It seems to me that it will be difficult to solve the global warming problem until we have effective campaign finance reform, so that special interests no longer have such a big influence on policy makers."

In systems terms, democracy is a feedback loop that connects the people with the ability to sense a problem – from scientists to residents of New Orleans' low lying neighborhoods – with those with the ability to take steps to solve it, including Congress and the Federal government. When special interests overwhelm those voices then the feedback loop of democracy is delayed and weakened.

And now, when there is no time to loose, that is something we really cannot afford.

To save ourselves, we just may need to save our democracy, as well. But it means that we need to stop thinking of climate change as an "environmental" problem. We can only live on this planet if we organize ourselves to be open to the signals it sends to us. A government that can listen to scientists, to farmers, to Alaskan natives and coastal fishermen, would be a government much better poised to receive the signals of the planet in time to respond to them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Joanna Macy: Thoughts on Gratitude

A few posts back I wrote about some of the challenges I ran into in a recent climate change presentation/discussion as I invited a people to look for and share their sense of gratitude for the Earth and all it provides.

I also shared this experience with Joanna Macy, someone I consider a great teacher and guide in the work of creating a sustainable world. Her response was so helpful I wanted to share it so that it might benefit others as well.

Joanna wrote:

If we are serious in our desire to play a positive role in a dangerous and scary time, then gratitude provides us with firm grounding. It allies us with the larger forces of life itself, and its longer story. Gladness is a stronger place to come from than fear and guilt. In relationship to climate change, it helps us avoid the pitfall of demonizing nature.

On Earth Day, in a large gathering, we did Gratitude Open Sentences in pairs, right after all singing together "Gracia a la Vida." The particular, ordinary things celebrated in that song primed the pump, inspiring all to do the same--for it's particular things, not abstractions, that charge us with energy.

The four sentences were:

Some things I love about being alive in Earth are...

A place that was magical to me as a child...

An Earth-other (animal, plant, stream, etc.) that for me was a teacher of the heart is/was...

(Touching my face, I touch Gaia and I am grateful for this part of Gaia.) Some things I appreciate about myself as a living part of Gaia are...

If you want to learn more about Joanna Macy and her work visit her website or find one of her several excellent books, perhaps Coming Back To Life.

Where Does The Atmosphere End; Where Do Our Bodies Begin?

Last night, I walked out onto our porch to shake out a dusty rug and the wind blew a gust of warm spring air across my face.

It has been a while since we’ve felt warm breezes in this valley where snow is still piled in shady places and the first spring wildflowers are only now beginning to bloom, and the sensation kept me on the porch long enough to look up at the night sky.

This is what I talk about and write about every day, I realized, rug in hand. This warm air. Those moving clouds. This is the atmosphere I talk about with terms like 'parts per million’ and ‘gigatons per year’. Colorless, odorless, invisible, it envelops all of us, all of our lives. The atmosphere is what moved through the tree-tops the first night I slept outside by myself. It blew up river from the ocean as I walked to the University each day of all of those years in graduate school. It ruffled my baby’s hair the first time I carried her outside. Now at this moment, as I write these words, it enters my body as I breathe in. What was, moments ago, 'the atmosphere' is now alive in somebody’s daughter, somebody’s mother. And what was moments ago, the solid substance of my body is now, 'the atmosphere.'

This sounds like poetry and metaphor, and I suppose in a way it is. It is also simple biochemistry and physiology.

We should stop polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases because our survival depends upon it. And as we work to stop that pollution we might draw strength and inspiration from the realization that the atmosphere is also our deepest swiftest link with the rest of the planet, the flux that connects us to the oceans and forests and meadows of an entire world. We might stop and notice our breathing, and realize that between us and the atmosphere there is no boundary at all.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Vulnerability Of Gratitude

In my last post, I wrote about how fun it was to participate in Step It Up gatherings last weekend. But I didn't say too much about how I actually used the opportunity to talk with a group of kids and parents about climate change.

I assumed that since all the gathered people were dedicating their Saturday morning to a rally, they were already convinced that climate change is real and serious and needs dramatic action; so I didn't say much at all about how the climate system works, the signs of climate change we are already seeing, or the technical solutions that we could draw upon to address it.

The organizers had also urged me to not thrust too much gloom and doom on all the children in the audience; a need I was feeling with enhanced sensitivity since my own two daughters were in the audience. I also knew that other speakers were going to talk about everything from the political moment to compact fluorescent light-bulbs.I knew that most of the crowd was going to walk to the nearby Dartmouth College Green to hear more speakers and visit informational tables and booths. In other words, they were going to have plenty to listen to and learn from.

With all this in mind, I arrived with the goal of giving them time to talk to each other rather than listen to me, and I focused on two themes that I felt pretty sure wouldn't be repeated by others in the day's program.

The first one was gratitude. I talked about how climate change is making us aware of services the Earth has always been providing us, but that we are becoming conscious of those services only as we so overtax them that they begin to falter. This was the first time I talked about gratitude in a climate talk so explicitly, and it was more than a little unnerving to start right out with it, while kids were fidgeting and people were coming in and out of the room. But driven by my sense that one of the most important things I have to learn from climate change is how to be a grateful recipient of the Earth's gifts and how to talk openly about those gifts with others, I launched in anyway, not all that gracefully or articulately, but with determination.

I was rewarded with one of those moments that graces groups from time to time. As I started to talk about gratitude all the fidgeting and whispering suddenly stopped. There was a stillness and collective intentness that I wish I had been better prepared to use. What seemed to bring this stillness forward were these words:

"I imagine that all of you have had something that was very precious to you that you lost, or that you almost lost, and the losing or the almost losing was what made you realize how much you loved and appreciated whatever it was. Climate change is something like this, an experience that can help us realize how much we love and care for our home the Earth."

The moment passed pretty quickly, and when I asked people to think about and then share what they were grateful for from the Earth there was another one of those moments that graces groups from time to time: a moment of awkward silence. I hadn't done what was needed to make the group safe enough for people to share what they were grateful for. We hadn't introduced ourselves (too many people, not enough time) and hadn't developed a feeling as a group. Five minutes into my presentation (the first of the morning) we were still a bunch of people coming to an event, not a group. In retrospect I think it would have been much better if I had asked people to turn to their neighbor and share their thoughts rather than asking for people to speak them to a group of close to one-hundred people.

I learned something important from this awkward silence: to share their gratefulness for life and the Earth is an act that makes people vulnerable.

This is something I've known for a long time about vision - that in this culture it is scary to speak up for what you really want for fear of being laughed at or called naive or unrealistic or a dreamer. But until this moment of awkward silence I hadn't thought about expressing gratitude as an act that could make people vulnerable. It makes sense to me though, in this culture where we are so conditioned to feel as though we don't have what we need (that sweater, that car, that pair of shoes) we don't have much practice at expressing gratitude for what we already have been given. We don't have much practice seeing our gifts, feeling our appreciation, and certainly not talking about those gifts and feelings publicly.

I find a few theories forming in my mind:

1. Connecting gratitude to climate change is important and has the potential to touch people.

2. Cultivating the practice of speaking one's gratitude publicly is an act of courage and an possibly an act of social change. Like speaking a vision, speaking gratefully is rare and is a gentle push against the assumption of the industrial growth society.

3. Building people's capacity to speak about gratitude takes more planning and intentionality than simply asking the question: what are you grateful for? And it requires the facilitator/leader to have done her own work at being uninhibitedly grateful.

I'm eager for the next chance to weave gratitude and climate change together, and also eager to learn from the experience of others with more experience at drawing out people's expressions of gratitude. What are the key pre-conditions that allow it?

I'll end these thoughts with those questions, and save my observations about the second theme of my presentation - vision – for another time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Like tens of thousands of Americans this past Saturday I participated in rallies calling on Congress to pass legislation to enable the US to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. The Step It Up website now has a very moving slide show of images of some of the more spectacular of these events. If you went to one of these events in your own hometown, I hope you left feeling as inspired as I did. And if you didn't attend a rally (or even if you did), you really ought to view the organizers' slide show to get a sense of just how many people are demanding national action on climate change and to enjoy the creativity and good spirit they are employing to demand it.

Highlights for me of the day:

1. Speaking to a large group of elementary school children and their parents and neighbors in Norwich, Vermont, just north of here. I've never spoken to a crowd containing people wearing large polar bear suits, or one in which quite so many helium balloons escaped to slowly drift to the very high ceiling. (What do you imagine is more interesting to a small pod of third grade boys - a middle aged lady talking about appreciating the Earth or the giggle-producing vision of a flock of escaping balloons (even if the balloons are imprinted with the image of the Earth?) Actually I am proud to say that I held my own versus the balloons and against the pull of the extremely well-laden cookie table. Even the adorable two-year old with her belly showing who really wanted to share the stage with me didn't completely steal the show.

2.Sitting with my girls leaning on me from either side hearing our senator Bernie Sanders describe the legislation he's sponsoring along with Senator Barbara Boxer. After answering endless questions from a nine-year-old along the lines of "why did President Bush say that" it was a tremendous pleasure to watch them listen to such an articulate and passionate politician in a room of a hundred or so people. I keep telling them that while global warming is a serious issue, there are adults who care, who are acting, both ordinary people and political leaders. This time the caring and the leading were obvious and I didn't have to say a thing.

3. Coming home from the rally in Norwich to harvest greens for a salad from our greenhouse and to plant a second crop of spinach. Little things – like stepping into that greenhouse from cold, gray, snow-covered April into something that felt more like early June – are what convince me that all sorts of pleasures and luxuries await us in the post-fossil fuel world. We may not receive so many plastic wrapped packages of lettuce from California here in Vermont. On the other hand, we'll get to walk down to the greenhouse and harvest the fresh beautiful heads ourselves, or buy them from a neighbor and support our local economies.

4. Later that day, walking a mile or so with my kids and our Hartland neighbors, their assorted signs and excited dogs, catching up on local news and people's lives, meeting the man who just moved into the house across the road, and realizing that every one of these fifty-five people had set aside Saturday chores and commitments because they care and believe they can make a difference.

Two final reflections about Step It Up Day:

Senator Sanders told the Norwich crowd that our job was to keep up the pressure, to continue finding ways to tell Congress they need to make passing strong climate change legislation a top priority. This was a fun and powerful day, and it also raises a question: what's next?

And, as I look back on the day's events I'm moved by the way that a small group of organizers, by providing an outlet for people to act on what they feel and know, were able to release a tremendous and powerful wave of activity. And I'm grateful that the organizers worked so hard to enable that wave and grateful that so many thousands of people leaped into the opportunity they created.