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.