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?