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.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Climate Change: So New in Our Human History

One thing that we try hard to convey in our trainings is just how recent the explosion in CO2 levels is, in the context of planetary history or even human history. We believe it's worth focusing on this for several reasons:

- it helps people comprehend our context more accurately - the speed and magnitude of change

- it helps diffuse feelings of wrongness or blame - part of the reason we are struggling to respond to this problem is its very speed relative to our evolution and our past

- it seems to help people absorb that these are not ordinary times, that we, by virtue of when we happened to be born, are called to respond to a unique moment in history.

Over the years we've experimented with a few different ways to convey this time dimension. We show a simple animation of human CO2 emissions for the past 10,000 years (since the beginning of human agriculture) with every second representing 100 years. The animation runs for about a minute and a half, with, of course, nothing happening for the first 87 seconds and then an explosive swing upward of the curve in the final few seconds (final few hundred years). The animation says it better than words can - we live in an unprecedented time.

Next week I'm giving a presentation before a climate change rally, and for technical reasons it won't work to use the animation, so I've been thinking about other ways to convey the time dimension of human-induced climate change.

Here's what I'm thinking of trying:

Imagine the journey of our species from its first emergence in Africa to the current moment as a walk across North America - from San Francisco to New York City. On this journey, San Francisco represents the point of departure, our origins, and New York City represents arriving at our current moment.

I plan to ask the audience to picture where it is in that journey that they would guess we humans begin to burn fossil fuels and disrupt the climate?

Where would you guess? Salt Lake City? Indianapolis?

Even though I know all the numbers I found myself surprised at what my calculations showed:

If the lifetime of Homo sapiens is represented by a 3000 mile journey, the burning of fossil fuels begins about 4 miles from the journey's end. In other words, the long walk from San Francisco, across the Rocky Mountains, the Plains, across the Mississippi, across Appalachia, and into New York State itself, all of that distance represents a period where we were creating culture and art and languages and stories, believing in things and acting in ways that did not disrupt the climate. Only the last four miles of that journey, through the streets of New York City itself represent the period of our experimentation with fossil fuels.

And, to carry the metaphor forward: the next ten years, the years scientists tell us are our window of opportunity for addressing climate change, are represented by just seventy-seven feet. On this long journey our ancestors met the challenges they faced for the metaphorical equivalent of three thousand miles. The next seventy-seven feet are up to us.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


One post back, I wrote about the work that keeps everything going, and about how - in this society at least - it is so easy to be blind to that work. But we don't have to be, of course. We can learn to see the cycles and the lives that make our own possible.

A lot of cultures are smarter than ours about ways to remember to see what it is that supports us. Ceremony, ritual, art, and prayer are all ways to do this. I've been thinking about this all week, but thinking about it is not the same as doing it; thinking about the importance of noticing and being grateful is not the same as noticing and being grateful.

So here: one tiny drop of gratitude in a day of meetings, emails, and deadlines.

Little Bird Business

Yesterday the high hill where I walk
belonged to the little birds
who were going about their little bird business
in the pine tops and on the fence posts.
I believe there is nothing more black than chickadee-black,
nothing more white than chickadee-white.
Half an ounce of feathers and flesh can move, can sing, can call the world to attention.