Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lessons From Climate Change - One

When I started this blog, I decided to call it "Climate Teacher" largely to remind myself of my belief that as much as it is a problem to solve,  climate change is also a teacher for humanity, reflecting back to us important lessons about our own nature and the nature of our home, the Earth.

Yesterday, snowshoeing through our woods in the midst of snow flurries and wind, I decided that, with the start of the new year, it would be a good time to reflect on and try to articulate some of those lessons, at least as I see them.

Here's the first one:

Climate change teaches us that the destinies of all people and all nations are tied together. 

When Brazil cuts is deforestation rate we all benefit by the additional carbon dioxide that Brazil's forests can sequester. When the US misses the opportunity to adopt climate legislation that could have catalyzed the beginnings of a clean energy revolution, the whole world suffers from the additional greenhouse gasses that will be emitted in the coming years and decades as a result.

One thing that people always discover when they test emissions reductions scenarios with our climate model, C-ROADS, is that without every region of the world participating, its not possible to limit emissions enough to keep future temperatures within safe bounds.

In the old world, the world before climate change, it might have been better if nations worked together, but they didn't HAVE TO. In the old world, nations expected to solve their own problems.  Climate change is a challenge that solve together or not at all.

In the process, our attitudes and our institutions will need to slowly (or not so slowly!) shift until they come to reflect the physical truth that our single atmosphere, for better or worse, ties us all together.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Visions, Part Two

Photo credit:Wikipedia
Here's what can happen with visions:

In a previous post, I wrote about time spent  thinking and sketching about a flower garden in need of rejuvenation and a new goal of making space for more medicinal plants, including the European black elderberry, whose flowers and berries can be used to make a tincture which really helps fight off colds and flu. Right now we buy our elderflower extract from Israel, and I've been thinking that it would be another step towards meeting our own family's needs more locally to grow our own. Plus elderberry bushes are beautiful, and attract pollinators and butterflies.

So, there on my little map of the north garden sits a single circle where the elderberry, once we find it, will someday grow. Some years ago when we tried to start a black elderberry bush, seedlings were very hard to find. The more common Canadian elderberry was easy to find, but not the black variety, which is another species.

But, just one day after my sketching and dreaming, Phil tells me he has some news. He decided to go looking online for black elderberry and found a source right away. And, you can't plant just one black elderberry, it turns out. First of all, every plant needs a companion for pollination if you want to harvest any berries. And then, there are varieties to try, with interesting foliage and different growth habits. So we need at least three. And, did I realize, they grow to be 10 feet high?

So now we will have elderberries in the spring!  But not just one, and not in the spot I imagined, which is much too small for a full grown bush. I'm not sure we have room for three, but maybe a neighbor will want to experiment with one of them.  Now there are conversations to have and sketches to redraw.

That's how it goes with visioning, at least in my experience. The simple act of stating what I would like to see happen opens possibilities and and quickly presents new questions. It works that way with little visions, for bushes and gardens, and with bigger ones, for revitalized economies and cooperation on global challenges. One needs to be willing to work with whatever comes our way, be it three ten-foot shrubs, or three new partners from across the world.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Looking for Hope? A Book Recomendation

In a time of environmental crisis, how can we live right now?

That's the question posed by editor Martin Keogh in a new collection of essays, Hope Beneath Our Feet, that I've been reading, bit by bit, since I unwrapped it Christmas morning.

The book is full of beautiful, short, often meditative essays, by well known writers like Barry Lopez, Bill McKibben, Barbara Kingslover, Michael Pollan, and Vandana Shiva, and others who aren't quite household names, but have an important message to share, like my friend Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, or fellow Vermonter (and recent candidate for governor) Susan Bartlett.

As I make my way through the essays in this book each one so far has spoken to me, offered me a little gift, an insight  or a reminder of something important..

One of the themes of the essays gathered here is acceptance. The Earth is changing, by virtue of human activities. We can accept the changes, see the resilient ways in which the earth rebalances itself, and do our best to work along with that power. Opeyemi Parham puts it well in the closing words of her essay, Waking Up From Despair: "I choose to feel power in the earth as it responds and reacts to humanity's actions. I choose to take my fear and breathe it into excitement. The earth, older than I can even imagine, is reshaping itself."

Another theme is the clarity that can emerge for us in facing up to the extent of our current crisis. We are being forced to choose to recognize our interconnection and interdependence. In her essay, Do the Will of God, Come What May, Alice Walker writes that "our suffering on this small planet is about learning enjoyment. Choosing peace over pain and destruction. Growing into a
comfortable universality. Letting go of pettiness. Dissolving tribalism, nationality, speciesism."

And several of the essays remind us that nothing, including dire predictions of our failure to meet the current challenges, is certain. Historian Howard Zinn puts it particularly well in The Optimism of Uncertainty, "We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible."

I'm going to keep this book handy this year, as the kind of antidote to discouragement and cynicism and as a reminder that it's not over until it's over and that none of us are really alone in these challenging times.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Visions, for gardens and for the world

My sister-in-law and brother gave me a journal for Christmas. They know that this is one of my favorite things, all those blank pages, waiting to be filled in with notes, or observations, or new ideas. A blank journal, to me at least, is ripe with possibilities.

Today, I initiated my new journal. On the first page is now a (long) list of 2011 projects. They range from the very practical and urgent (paint the house, fix the rotting board by the basement door) to the more optional and fun (build a wood fired oven for baking bread). Following the list are sketches of gardens and plans for changing and improving them (fewer perennial flowers in the north garden, more berries and medicinal herbs, more cooking herbs, closer to the house).

The list is, without doubt, much more ambitious than one family could accomplish in one year. Based on past growing seasons and past lists, we'll take care of some items, do some things that never made it onto the list, and carry some things forward to 2012. The vision of fewer flowers and more berries and herbs will be a gradual transformation that will unfold over several years. But having the ideas in my head and the sketches in my journal helps me work with the gardens and see the possibilities. The iris that have spread out of control are really in the cranberry bed, I see that now from my afternoon's sketching, and when the snow melts and the ground thaws, I'll know what to do. And I now know to keep my eyes open for a black elderberry seedling, which is hard to come by, and I know where I will plant it when I find it.

My friend and teacher, Donella Meadows, said that she never started a project, whether it was a sweater to knit, a book to write, or a garden to plant, without first envisioning the finished project in her mind. Her devotion to the practice of visioning influenced me, and I try to hang on to that practice, not just for gardens, but for the projects we undertake at Climate Interactive, and for the world that those projects are aiming to contribute to.

For me, visioning is easiest for gardens, and still pretty easy for grant reports or model sectors (though neither the gardens nor the models ever come out looking exactly like my vision for them; both gardens and computer models are not, it turns out, precisely controllable).

I have to work harder and look deeper to imagine a sustainable world, to envision the world that I and so many others are working to create. But it's not actually that hard. The seeds of the future are, after all, around us all of the time. Out of the  actions of the young people I met in Cancun I can see the wave of grassroots organizing that could produce the political will for change. Watching my neighbor Stephen drive the horses across new snow I see the revitalized agro-economy of our region. Warmed by wood heat, my computer powered by electricity made from cow-manure, I see and sense the renewable energy revolution.

I've never yet pictured perfectly the finished garden from the depths of winter, and I don't believe I or anyone else can really see how a sustainable world will look and work. But even in dark times, one doesn't have to look that far to see seeds of possibility, calling for our energy and attention. And those are good starting points, for choosing next steps, for little garden plots, and for big wishes for the future, too.