Trust... or the art of life amid crisis

I know how to trust.

Really I do. When I was younger, I traveled all over the world, met people who I didn’t share a language with and trusted them with my safety. I told people my story, my life, my vulnerability. I got rejected a lot or found that my story wasn’t important. And still I kept on being “naive.”

My children seem to be trying to train me not to trust. Since they grew out of toddlerhood and got past the stair gates, they have been getting into things, raiding the cupboards for slime-making ingredients, sneaking treats before dinner, hiding their dirty clothes and jumbled toys in the most ingenious places to avoid cleaning their rooms and memorizing my phone password every chance they get. I have learned that part of trust is trusting that kids will try to get sweets. electronics, dangerous chemicals and matches as soon as your back is turned.

Chick bird spring vulnerability trust - CC image via pixabay.jpg

Trust, in reality, means that if I give my first kid money to go to the store and buy bread and an ice cream, there is likely to be an armload of the worst junk food coming. If I give the money to the other kid, the money has a 50 percent chance of being lost on the way to the corner shop, but if it doesn’t get lost, the bread will come back along with a receipt for the devoured ice cream. Or at least the receipt will start the journey home.

But then again either might not happen. Nothing is guaranteed.

After many years break from community life and activism, I have joined an activist group again, this time focused on demanding emergency action on climate change from governments and corporations. It is a decentralized organization and yet one focused on coordinated, efficient and sometimes even risky action. It is also incredibly diverse, spanning the political spectrum and socioeconomic ladder. I sit next to students, psychologists, IT professionals, teachers and fast food employees in meetings. We don’t know each other and in order to accomplish the enormous task before us, we must trust each other.

I have to trust that our fellows will:

  • do what they promised, so that I can do my part in the work without having to wait too long on them,

  • not betray confidences to those that might stand against us,

  • forego temptations to pursue personal agendas that might harm our cause,

  • be honest,

  • care,

  • and not make careless mistakes that may endanger us all.

It is no small thing. I can see why a lot of people say they aren’t “joiners.” I am still more “naive” than most and the initial trust is not that hard for me. I trust that almost all of my fellows are good, conscientious and kind. I also trust that they are overwhelmed and busy. I trust that they will make mistakes and forget important tasks. And I trust that someday one of the few who are not conscientious will turn out to be an informant planted by institutions bent on bringing us down.

I am certain it will happen. But I also know that worrying about it will do little good.

After all this, you’d think I had trust down. But I don’t.

Recently someone in authority within the organization came to my group and asked us to do something that sounds like it could destroy much of the gains we have made over the past weeks. This person did not give details and insisted that authority and the traditions of the organization dictate that we must abide by these decisions.

I am confused. This is supposed to be a decentralized movement. How then, can we find ourselves under direct orders, required to follow instructions without understanding the reasoning? And part of the answer given is that things are bigger than we can see in the international movement. There are urgent actions needed for our goal and like soldiers on the front lines, there are times when we have to take orders as a matter of survival. Our mission to avert climate change is a matter of survival after all.

So, I am in a crisis of trust.

It would be immensely comforting to have a leader I could trust implicitly and automatically. That’s what my fiction is about. If you’ve read the Kyrennei series… well, I wish I had a Jace McCoy. But I don’t. We almost never do in the real world.

The reason Jace McCoy in the story—and his co-leader Dasha, for that matter—is so trusted and has the unswerving loyalty of J. Company is that he has been successful where so many others have failed. He has survived 40 years of guerrilla warfare against an immense foe. His gambles have almost always been right and he is a brilliant strategist and tactician. His people know that.

But they weren’t born knowing it. Each of them went through a process of becoming so loyal, including Aranka Miko. And in the end, he proves that her trust is warranted, no matter the cost to him personally.

Okay, that’s fantasy fiction. But that is why I wrote it. As dark as the Kyrennei series seems on some levels, it is actually a comforting fantasy to many. It is about the hope that we could have such trust among us in crisis.

And today there is no doubt that we are in a crisis of survival. I remember reading about the greenhouse effect in third grade science class in 1985. And now climate change is at the door and very little has been done since I was a kid to avert the looming disaster. Reports coming from scientists are increasingly desperate and our daily lives are being affected in ever increasing ways.

So, we need people willing to take risks and go into a massive struggle. We may not have a Jace McCoy but we do almost have a J. Company. There is one group that has achieved significant real results in forcing governments to take urgent action and that is the growing international movement of Extinction Rebellion. The structure and principles of this organization have been tried… maybe not for forty years, but they have been tested and have come through better than any of the many other organizations that have attempted this task. There is even a real-world sixteen-year-old prophetic voice of hope, just as in the my fantasy.

And yet I know that people are terribly imperfect. What I see right in front of me is a community movement poised at a fragile moment in new country and a leader with a heavy-hand and a plan that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t appear to follow the Extinction Rebellion model faithfully. And I am asked to believe that this leader is the genuine article. But I’ve only been with them for a few weeks.

Trust does not come easy this time, not even for me.

The morning after all this cames down I ventured outside to take a break from the messages online that bring troubling news. It’s chilly and bright with a stiff wind dropping the last of the blackberry blossoms.

And there in the duck house I found a miracle that I only thought might possibly occur. Baby chicks.

You see I have big black hens of the Australorp breed and I love them for many reasons. They’re hardy, have good homing instincts and they lay a lot of beautiful, large eggs with pale shells that come in handy for spring painting as well as eating. But they have one problematic breed characteristic. They are bad mothers. Apparently some people don’t think so, but my hens have shown absolutely no interest in sitting on their eggs in three years.

So, early this spring when one of the Indian Runner ducks that guard my vegetable garden against slugs started brooding and sitting on eggs, I replaced her eggs with the Australorp eggs. I have no male ducks, so she wouldn’t be able to have any ducklings, no matter how hard she sat on her duck eggs.

It was a fly-by-night experiment and I didn’t really think it would work. I also miscalculated how soon to expect the chicks and so I was completely unprepared for their appearance. The duck pen had not been secured and the chicks scattered out through the large holes in the wire fence into the empty lot next door. The adoptive mother duck could not follow them and she was frantic, calling them and flapping her wings, but the chicks ignored her.

I went out and waded through the knee high patch of giant nettles to herd the chicks back into the pen. Then I spent the next two hours shoring up the pen and catching stray chicks, which I could hear but couldn’t see because I’m ninety percent blind.

It would have been comic had anyone been watching me gingerly chase baby chicks around the yard while being careful not to step on those that stopped and curled into little gray balls. Oh yes, Australorp chicks are not handily yellow. They’re gray.

When I finally had everything that peeped contained, I peeked inside the coop. One of the chicks had fallen into the large water dish meant for adult ducks and was struggling to get out. The mother duck, thinking she had a duckling on her hand, was watching fondly, apparently assuming it was time for him to learn to swim.

I reached in to help the poor little chick out of the water but the mother duck struck at my hand with the speed and force of a rattlesnake. I jerked my hand back with a yelp of pain. I talked to her soothingly but continued to watch the chick, which was not drowning but should not be in cold water at all. Finally I made another attempt and earned a nasty bruise for my trouble.

Despite all my help in rounding up her adopted babies the mother duck was nowhere close to trusting me.

But my faith in the powers of life and mother nature was somewhat restored, even so. I could now ponder my own situation a bit more philosophically.

In some ways, I am like the mother duck. I have found something I passionately believe in and I have young, timid volunteers lining up with desperate hope in their voices. And anyone who looks like they might threaten that is libel to get bruised. I’m not particularly in the mood to take chances.

The tough little Australorp chick managed to get him or her own self out of the water dish and snuggle back into the mother’s warm feathers. He was still alive the next day.

I rigged up a small water feeder for the baby chicks in hopes that they would stay out of the adult water dish and made sure they had chick food. Each day I visit them several times, because the mother duck tends to accidentally upset the baby water container.

She doesn’t seem to be putting the chicks into the water as she might with ducklings. She’s keeping them warm and protected from the cold spring wind. And now she only hisses at me when I reach in to change the water and food containers.

Trust comes hard in these times. But I still believe in it, at least in theory.

An antidote to environmental depression

All I had to go on was a vague and anonymous Facebook notification. I followed my Maps app to the address but got lost when some of the Renaissance-era buildings weren’t numbered. A young Vietnamese immigrant with a child on her hip set me straight.

Finally, there was a sheet of paper taped to the mail box of a building in a narrow Prague street. A large Dagaz rune (which Ralph Blum called Breakthrough) tipped sideways was printed on the paper and repeated on one of the doorbells. It’s supposed to be a stylized hourglass, but my first impression was of the rune and a surprising good omen.

I rang, but there was no answer.

I gently pushed and the heavy wooden door creaked open. Inside was a dim hallway, like so many in the ancient city. A decorative railing ran around a spiral stairway and light filtered down from sunbeams coming through windows somewhere far overhead.

I passed a young man with long hair to the middle of his back, but then hesitated, glancing back at him. Prague is the kind of place where one might find new friends in a dimly lit stairwell.

“Are you with us?” he asked softly in Czech, addressing me in the informal grammar reserved for close family and friends..

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

“Probably.” I grinned, “if you’re the meeting.”

“Go right up,” he nodded and the welcome in his voice was again almost shocking to my battered nerves, accustomed to the acrimony and judgement so rampant in today’s society.

The sunlit room upstairs was filled with more of the same, open hands reaching to bring me into the circle, smiles and enthusiastic voices. I had come prepared for cynicism, long arguments, social cliques, power trips, poorly hidden political agendas and all the other problems that have plagued activism circles for decades. This friendly reception was already more than I’d hoped for, but would it turn out to be just a shiny package for the same old dead ends?

I took a seat and watched as the meeting unfolded. Someone took the lead but then quickly passed the speaking role to another. Everyone was introduced in 10 minutes. The agenda was on a board with precise times that were kept without strain. Plans and methods were explained with professional clarity as well as with heart. We broke into groups to discuss specific projects.

I have rarely seen an activist meeting run so well, reaching goal after goal with no sense of rush.

Activism? Who has time for that nonsense these days, you might well ask.

The focus of this group is no mystery—taking real, practical action to force government agencies and industry to behave responsibly on the climate crisis. It was nothing short of our survival at stake and for once the activist proposals were not merely about leaflets or poetry slams or rallies. The work on the table was practical resistance to destruction.

Instead of being frustrated by a long, acrimonious meeting and incremental pace as I had in countless community organizations before, I had to question whether or not I was ready to jump into this swift flowing stream.

This was my first Extinction Rebellion meeting—out on the expanding fringe of the movement in Eastern Europe. And I had to hand it to them. Excellent organization. Solid tactics. Laser-focused goals. And the flexibility to learn in a new country.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

I have been struggling with deep environmental depression for years now. And a lot of that really is environmental—as in ecological. I grow my garden, hoard rain water, ride the train, recycle, try to speak up and all that. But it is clearly ineffective. For the past few years, I have looked for organizations to join off and on, but they were either inaccessible, just plain lazy or more serious about their donor’s goals than the real work at hand.

Keeping hope had become a chore. And a lot of serious environmentalists today have a lot of unpleasant things to say about hope.

So, is Extinction Rebellion just a bunch of well-organized naive idealists?

I might have thought so from just the one meeting. But deeper research reveals a strong foundation in realism and practicality. The movement is spread through local talks or lectures that summarize the status of climate science, describe the mounting effects of climate change and then outline the demands and strategy of the Rebellion. It’s a surprisingly anti-inflammatory, technical lecture to spread a revolution.

But even with level-headed words the scientific conclusions are pretty depressing. At the end of the talk, an opinion is given about whether or not we can still avert the worst effects of climate change even if we can generate the “political will.” The scientific jury seems to still be out on that. But there are plenty of reasons to believe we might not be able to stop a climate catastrophe that will seriously endanger our way of life and civilization no matter what we do today.

In the context of a motivational talk, this isn’t a logical way to convince masses of people. We are told that political and industrial leaders are ignoring the crisis and our best hope is to force them to pay attention and act through non-violent civil resistance. Yet we don’t even know whether or not it is already too late for them to avert disaster before they’ve even meaningfully started.

Still it’s real and honest.

Why do anything if the cause may well be hopeless? The Extinction Rebellion response is a question, “What does it mean to be human today?”

For me, it is about the quality of whatever life we have left. I have a choice. I can either live in a fog of depression and anxiety or I can do what needs to be done because it needs doing. Taking steps in the right direction is the only way out of depression I know of.

If that isn’t exactly a rousing pep talk, then so be it. Maybe the Rebellion is already rubbing off on me.

To my newfound co-conspirators in rebellion, I’ll give you some fair warning. I’m socially awkward, even a dork. I don’t do modern fashions. I can’t recognize faces and I can’t run as fast as I used to. I sometimes speak before I think and my daily life is pretty rugged at the moment.

But I have been in this kind of struggle before. I know about walking miles to distribute fliers and about herding cats. I know about long nights and the times when a lot of work goes for naught. I’m worth having around. I pack a good herbal first-aid kit and I’ve usually got food if you’re batteries are running low.

I have also always wanted to end my conversations and posts this way:

Love and courage! .

The first reason for outrage: Living with climate change

Your grown children scrape at the rock-hard ground with salvaged hand tools, trying to turn the baked mud. They have realized their dreams and they have professional careers but today—in 2050—everyone has to keep a garden to supplement the limited food they can buy at exorbitant prices.

A torrential flood came through last winter and took away what was left of the homes built in better times. But the water didn’t stay.

When the three-day storm was spent, all that was left was stinking mud on everything—tainted with the bodies of people and animals and with chemical spills. Now the drought has returned with a vengeance. It hasn’t rained in weeks and early spring looks like late summer used to look, at least in the sky.

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

There are no trees left. Those were cut long ago for fires and to build makeshift shelters when houses were destroyed by winter floods and summer brush fires. What is left are mostly the hardier sort of weeds. Even if they can plant the seeds they have left, your children won’t see much of a harvest. Just like last year, the insects are the only life that is flourishing and they swarm in clouds that can make breathing difficult on some days.

Even with their career jobs, they need this garden. Your youngest grandchildren—which you may well not be alive to meet, if you were in your twenties in 2018—sit listlessly in the dust beside the garden. The low-nutrient diet and grinding stress of survival takes its toll on both mind and body, especially for the youngest ones. They can barely muster the energy to cry, let alone play. They are wracked by sicknesses that your generation believed banished from your wealthy country forever.

They are still better off than the wretches your children see along the road outside, refugees from the south. Long lines of refugees were something you saw on the news. They are now something your children and grandchildren see on their doorstep and all along the high fences your children built to protect their scrubby garden.

The lines of people trudging by never end and they look like walking skeletons. They don’t beg as much as they used to. By now they know that your children don’t have enough for their own and they go on, hoping against all the facts to find a place with some rain… but not too much rain.

This is what famine and drought look like and it’s what life will likely resemble in 2050 in the US Midwest and Southern Europe, if carbon emissions from coal, gas or oil burning and factory farming continue apace. According to the recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is the kind of impact we can expect from a 2°C rise in global average temperature, a level we’ll reach by around 2050 if we continue as we are and by 2100 even if we implement the more widely accepted agreements on emissions reduction.

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

A 2°C temperature rise doesn’t sound bad to many people in northern climates. The problem is that it is an average and it isn’t equally distributed. It also is a lot more drastic than it sounds for the earth’s climate. Even such a small-sounding temperature change would mean widespread drought.

Extreme weather events would hit temperate areas the way they are now hitting desert areas such as the Middle East. The areas hit today will become uninhabitable.

Still many people don’t register the realities of such impacts. Scientists often call out people who predict the collapse of civilization due to climate change. A 2°C temperature rise may be bad but it would probably not mean the complete destruction of modern industrial and consumer society. And most people in wealthy countries will still live, just poorer and shorter lives.

Scientists deal in probabilities and theories. They aren't supposed to look at impacts personally or allow emotion in. That prevents them from extrapolating out what their data would actually mean for their own family as I have done here. And even so, many climate scientists are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety and depression due to their understanding of what is coming and the lack of response from the wider population or the outright denial of many in positions with the power to change it.

If you are over thirty and your children are already half grown, this may be the fate in store for your grandchildren and great grandchildren instead. But he fact still remains, that this is the life we are creating. On paper the predictions don’t sound that bad for people in temperate climates. Most predictions focus on the fact that some more vulnerable areas which are already very hot will become uninhabitable either by flooding or extreme drought. Many people in the equatorial countries may die outright.

But those countries are far from the English-speaking world. And the predictions scientists put forward about us sound dry and theoretical. “Decreases in crop yields, increases in pest infestations and extreme weather events, increases in disease, spreading drought in certain areas and increases in coastal flooding.”

If you have never been bothered by any of these things and do not currently raise food from the land, it all sounds distant and like someone else’s problem. Many people assume it will simply mean that food is more expensive. But I have spent a fair amount of time in countries where this type of weather is common today, the countries likely to be hit hardest and earliest by climate change, such as Bangladesh. The weather that scientists predict for much of the American west and the Midwest and for large parts of Central Europe is the weather these vulnerable places already have and their dismal economic realities may be a crystal ball in which we can see our own future.

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Food is likely to become so expensive that many more people will have to be engaged in growing or attempting to grow food, even if it is only to supplement what they can buy.

The lackadaisical view of climate change so common in society today isn’t really surprising. On the one hand, we have dry predictions which give little indication of the wrenching realities they factually describe.

On the other hand, there are the more fictionalized predictions of the collapse of civilization as we know it and the death of whole swaths of the population.

One sounds incremental and abstract. The other is easy to dismiss as unrealistic and if it were actually likely, many people would decide it’s better to live with all comforts now than struggle to be one of the few miserable survivors in such a world. Better to die quickly is the trendy, distanced logic, so why try to fight it if we’re doomed anyway?

But neither of these is a real depiction of what climate change means for us and our families. The reality isn’t total annihilation and neither is it merely a matter of higher prices. It means a lot of real hardship and heartbreak. Life will go on unless global average temperatures reach the 4°-5°C-above-pre-industrial-temperatures range. But it will be a much harder life than it needs to be.

Climate change is currently the umpteenth reason for outrage. Many of us are so exhausted by poverty, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, war, ableism, denial of health care, general bullying and immediate environmental pollution that climate change gets put on the back burner or at least low on the activist’s list of grievances.

It should be the first reason for outrage and the rallying cry. Climate change effects everyone and it is the thing that across all underprivileged groups we have contributed to least but which harms us most. It is caused only slightly by individual actions and more by corporations and heavy industry. It is the most essential injustice and those who will suffer most from it are those who have no voice at all—small children and those not yet born.

At the new moon, I will paint another word picture about climate change—this time about the sort of effort and lifestyle it would take to prevent this level of climate change. Outrage is necessary and so is hope.

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

What will tip us over into emergency mode?

I'm told it's not nice to discuss climate change in the midst of disasters caused by climate change. I have waited for a month and a half now, but one natural disaster after another has struck. When then should we discuss the climate change that we are creating?

It's as if by speaking of some mythical devil, I might be jinxing those struggling to survive. It's as if by trying to avert worse disasters or to save countless lives in the future, I am somehow detracting from ongoing efforts to help the evacuees of today.

In the midst of Hurricane Harvey, a few weeks ago, I posted a question to a forum made up of primarily wealthy American and British intellectuals and Mensa members to which I was invited by a no-doubt regretful writer-acquaintance. I asked simply, "What type of disaster would it take for you individually to throw off business as usual and devote yourself to fighting climate change?"

Creative Commons by Binny V A of Flickr.com

Creative Commons by Binny V A of Flickr.com

It wasn't the first time I had posted about climate change in the group and I knew most of the members were concerned yet apathetic about the issue. This time not one person responded to my embarrassing and socially inappropriate question.

Good intellectuals in polite society don't call out the economically comfortable over emergencies that require a frugal lifestyle to solve. It isn't done. 

Yes, I should know better. And I do. I didn't pursue the issue and I have held off, thinking I'd speak up more when at least the worst of the late-summer "disaster season" had passed. But after two record-breaking hurricanes, massive flooding and my home state of Oregon disappearing into smoke and flames, I've just about had it with polite society. And now Puerto Rico has been swallowed.

Every year the disaster roster grows. Every year the flood is the worst ever or in 200 years or in 1,000 years, meaning worse than the one the year before as well. Every  year fire season in the west gets longer and more deadly, with parched grasslands literally exploding like gasoline. 

Extreme weather, the most clearly identified consequence of human-induced climate change, just keeps getting more extreme. And each time scientists gather data so that they can later in their professional, polite manner explain with facts and figures--in long, non-soundbite quotes--how these events are connected.

And after each disaster people reset their inner alarm bells to a new, more extreme "normal." 

Very few people ever throw down their iPhone or car keys, stomp their foot and yell, "All right! That does it! I'm ready  to work on surviving and curbing climate change."

But this is what we will do someday. Life could have been easier if we'd done it ten or twenty years ago. But we will do it eventually, like my children finally doing their homework after much dithering. We only get to choose when we face our ecological debt, not if.

It's worth considering how much bigger or closer to home the disasters will need to be before we make a commitment of time and energy appropriate to the level of this crisis. 

If you are ready, here are some things I know of that each of us can do:

  • Speak to your friends about climate change every day. Don't be quiet, just because everyone else is quiet and the corporate-sponsored media downplays the findings of science and the truth of your own senses. This is a crisis as true as any war or medical emergency. It has to be front and center all the time. Pentagon analysts say climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism. The media, politicians and corporations don't want to focus on it because it isn't profitable, but we have to.
  • Write letters to the editor, call and write to political representatives and to corporations involved in fossil fuels, factory farming, automobile manufacture and other key industries and ask them to help curb climate change. Tell them your business will go to the companies that do the most.
  • Support high profile climate action efforts like Greenpeace and Standing Rock. Donate if you can, volunteer, send food and supplies.
  • Organize local groups concerned with climate change. Demand local discussion about climate change in local media, city halls and schools. Don't lose sight of the fact that we are fighting for the survival of our children, as surely as a parent researching a deadly disease that has attacked a child. This is a fight we have to win. 
  • Continue to recycle, insulate your home, upgrade your light bulbs and acquire solar panels. You have probably already done some of this. Technology keeps improving and this sector can also provide you with a good job, if you're looking. Encourage your friends, family and neighbors to take these actions and support local recycling and green energy initiatives.
  • Reduce as much of your consumption as possible. Hang laundry, rather than using a drier. Cook your own food, rather than buying heavily packaged, prepared foods.
  • Think carefully about necessary trips by car or plane. Invest in an electric bike if that would significantly cut down on the miles you have to drive a car. Do the math and you may be surprised at how easily you could bike as part of your routine. Take trains, buses or carpools whenever possible. Spend time researching the options and developing options with your neighbors. Our lives really do depend on it.
  • Buy many things second hand. Repair appliances, rather than buying new. Buy items that last longer. Avoid plastic products that will fall apart quickly. Avoid items with lots of packaging. It seems like minutia but don't loose sight of the fact that this is a fight for survival, primarily the survival of our children and grandchildren.
  • Grow at least some of your own food. Learn to can and dry food. Learn to work with wood and build things. Acquire--second-hand if possible--heavy-duty, long-lasting, non-electric hand tools. Keep chickens or other animals you may need. Step by step become as locally self-sufficient as possible. Enter into barter arrangements with others doing the same thing. Bypass the corporate world as much as possible. It is not only generally better for the environment, it is also good preparation for surviving the part of climate change we can no longer stop. 

This sounds like a lot to do. And it is. That is why I talk about it as a major commitment and a cessation of business as usual. If everyone was working on curbing climate change it wouldn't have to be a major full-time job for us, but for now it does need to be, until it is the focus of our governments and businesses as it should be. The only question before each of us now is whether or not this is my own personal tipping point. 

My list is clearly not comprehensive. Please add your own strategies for curbing and surviving climate change in the comments. Thank you.

Slogging through to gratitude

What does the abortion debate have to do with gratitude? They both strike at the core of what type of spirituality you practice, for one thing.

You are probably as sick of the argument as I am. It rages on with passion, hate, violence and self-righteousness on both sides, though the facts surrounding the issue haven't changed in thirty years.

It isn't just about being "pro-life" or "pro-choice" depending on one's religion. There's the disability rights angle. There's adoption. There's overpopulation and environmental crisis. It is an issue with tendrils reaching deep and wide.

I'm a person with a significant physical disability. I can easily imagine the sheer rage experienced by those who live with disabilities that are widely considered "abortable," in that many people think a child would be better off dead than living "that way." 

I'm also an adoptive parent of two children who never went home from the maternity ward. Their birth mothers did have reasonable access to abortion as a possibility in a country with universal health care, but they did not make that choice. 

I might well have some strong opinions on this issue, but I find that I am not firmly on one side or the other.

I am a woman. Yes, I think women and all people should be allowed to make their own choices. I become irritated when men dictate what women should do with their lives. I know women who were raped and then shamed for it--assumptions made about them. I have a capacity for feminist fury.

But I am not pro-choice at all cost, even so. I don't think there is a clear line between unborn and alive. 

I'm not pro-life or pro-abortion in this. It is more that I am anti-back-alley-abortion. On the surface, it's as simple as that. I don't think abortion is any great thing. Overpopulation is a serious issue, but still if we respect any life we should respect all life. 

Yet I know the results of anti-abortion laws. Throughout history and geography they do not generally result in fewer abortions but rather in more risky abortions and more deaths from infection and accident. That's my primary stand on the issue in terms of society, laws and politics.

In terms of ethics... well, it does come down to religion for me as it does for many people, except my ethics are different from those preached by that brand of Christianity that is so sure of its single, universal "truth.".

In the most recent debate I witnessed on this issue, a woman was lecturing on scripture and the "fact" that God is the only one who can choose to give life or to take life away. She said that makes abortion wrong, no matter what, and makes the pro-choice stance immoral.

This was at least a calm and rational argument. The comments were kindly but firmly put--an assumption that everyone must agree with the scriptures running through the text. The only question open to debate was the interpretation of those scriptures.

But what if you don't accept the most basic premise. How so God is the only one who can take life away? What did you eat for breakfast this morning? If it contained meat or even eggs then you clearly participated in taking life away.

And what about wheat or vegetables? I'm looking at you, vegetarians on moral grounds. How can you prove that those lives--the lives of plants--are different and that you can take away those lives so that you might live but not another kind of life? I know there are lines in those scriptures taken to mean that humans are above the rest of nature, but again I do not accept those scriptures as proof. You must find something beyond human constructs to insist that humans are above all others.

I do understand that if one's religion takes the stand that God is something outside of you, not within each living being, then the issue of abortion becomes highly divisive. However, we have to accept that not everyone shares our religion and if they don't, then it makes no sense for them to be bound by the same scriptures.

My religion mandates that I have to work every day to ensure that I take no more life than I truly need, that I am not a force for needless death and destruction. I have to be conscious about the fact that other beings have to die in order for me to eat, have shelter, stay warm, read, use the internet and so forth. I have to try to give back in kind. 

And I have to give thanks, consciously and openly.

That's the law of my religion. Very few people follow this law and if I respected only people who do or insisted that all people must abide by it, I would be made ridiculous. I accept that it isn't the law of someone else's religion.

For me God or the Gods are not entirely separate from us. They also don't force anything upon us. In the end, every decision of ethical value is fully in our hands. If we had no choice we would also have no ethical responsibility. We are not forced to have a child by some external will of God and so we are truly responsible.

By being alive we make choices, including the choice to continue living. We choose and we must accept in every moment of our lives that we have come to the situation we are in through a combination of circumstances and our choices to accept or reject those circumstances.

All possibilities may not have been open to us. The poor have fewer choices than the rich. Money equals the ability to choose what to do with that wealth after all. But in the end, even the poorest has made choices. And morality is most basically about our acceptance of that.

We choose to take life in order to eat and thus to continue to live. This choice is made easy for us because we psychologically feel that the lives of those beings we eat are not the same as our own life. It is harder when the life is an unborn child and the need is not just to slake momentary hunger but rather the need to choose one's path in life. It is harder but both take away life.

Choose well and know that there is a cost.

You do not eat without the deaths of others. Only arrogance can claim that those lives--even the lives of radishes--are less important than your own. You accept this. You eat anyway and you try to live without needlessly taking life. That is all. You have no need to judge the choices of others in this question, which is ultimately between each private person and their gods.

Interconnection: A child's encounter with new life


My normally hyperactive, constant-motion child sits for hours by the box on the back veranda--cuddling, cooing, coaxing. 

Once in a long while, I predict a parenting moment correctly. I decided to take on the responsibility of a litter of kittens during my kids' middle childhood. And it took planning. 

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Creative Commons image by Sergey Ivanov

Some might ask why i would plan to contribute to the overpopulation of small furry creatures. My first reason is that I always felt a measure of guilt that I had my first beloved cat spayed fourteen years ago, before she had a chance to have even one kitten.

I watched her pine and grieve over other kittens. She almost adopted a kitten who came to live at our neighbor's house. He followed her around a bit, but didn't stay attached to her.

All this was made extra poignant by the fact that I was struggling with unexplained infertility at the time and it eventually led to adoption. Some small part of me wondered if my inability to have children wasn't a kind of karmic retribution, even though I know all the theories claiming that spaying is the kindest thing we can do for our pets. 

I will get my cat spayed and I already have more prospective adoptive homes lined up than I have  kittens to fill them. But I feel a sense of relief having gone through with it.

My second reason has to do with my children, who I finally did find at the end of my own long road. Having a litter of kittens at home was one of my great childhood dreams (which went unfulfilled along with the shiny black dress shoes I coveted).  Beyond that, I believe that watching birth and the bonding between a mother and her young is a fundamental part of education that is often missed by human children today. 

If I could persuade my ducks or hens to exercise their parenting instincts I would have baby chicks as well. But the only easily observable mother around turns out to be our new cat, a flighty year-old adolescent herself. She was abandoned as a kitten and we adopted her after my first cat died. 

We waited to allow her a litter of kittens before being spayed--for her sake and for the education of our next human generation. 

The kids watched her grow heavy with a drooping belly. They wondered as her behavior changed, while she searched for security and struggled with the pain of birth. They ran to me at least twenty times, calling out that the kittens were being born. And each time it was a false alarm.

Finally one afternoon, my six-year-old son came to me with round, solemn eyes. "The kittens are there," he said. "They are already born."

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by SuPeRnOvA of Flickr.com

I hurried to look and sure enough the cat, who in retrospect I realized had been strangely quiet that day, lay with four tiny vaguely rat-shaped bundles attached to the tits on her underside. 

Still it was my older child who was most overwhelmed. Though she usually has great difficulty controlling her impulses, she took to heart admonitions against picking up the newborns and sat occasionally stroking their backs with one tentative finger for as long as we would let her in the evening. 

Getting her to sleep that night was as difficult as it has ever been on the eve of a major holiday. She lay in bed wriggling with delight and anticipation, believing the tiny beings in the cat's basket would be running and romping with her the very next day.

Kittens do grow quickly, but not instantly. In fact, their timing is well calibrated to teach small humans--who can conceive of about a week but no more--the rudiments of patience. 

The children observed the chewed off remnants of umbilical cords on the kitten's bellies. Now they watch as the kittens totter about and open their eyes. They learned amazing amounts from this, so much more than they absorb from school or books. 

And the thought that so many children today never get to closely observe this process of new life gives me pause. No wonder we are so disconnected from life and our interdependence with the natural world. This seems to me to be such a fundamental building block--as crucial as reading or addition. 

The simple awe-inspiring beauty of kittens is nigh unto to universal. An acquaintance passing by on a bike ride thanked me profusely after my children showed her the kittens. I was momentarily perplexed, but she explained that seeing them was just what she had needed.

The calming and centering effect on children for whom every day at school is a struggle is clear. I do hope this time I have done right by all.

The real-world test of Ayn Rand's theories

Here's that moment when we realize--thirty years on--that an ideological icon was actually a sellout. 

When I was in college Ayn Rand was huge. Everyone was obsessed with her work and her insistence that people should never ask for or accept help from society. She equated even the most conservative "social programs," such as Social Security and Medicare for retirees, with "slow rot" and stepping stones on the road to Soviet-style communism.

Her theory was that if your disability or illness is so great that you can't be completely independent, you simply "lack value." And implicitly you should allow yourself to die without complaint.

Creative Commons image by  Elvert Barnes

Creative Commons image by Elvert Barnes

Yet unknown to us at that time, Rand had already accepted social help to cover medical expenses. Her poisonous theory is still spread as gospel and she never publicized the fact that she realized she was wrong in the end.

A social worker revealed in an interview that Ayn Rand was brought to financial hardship toward the end of her life due to huge health care costs for lung cancer--almost certainly linked to her life-long addiction to cigarettes.

Though the social worker said Rand resisted the decision for some time, she eventually gave in and accepted Social Security and Medicare as a means to keep her household afloat. She never publicly admitted this or recanted her public shaming of those who made similar decisions. She also never rescinded her vehement denial that cigarettes cause cancer. 

If you delve deeply into Rand's theory you find that her main objection to Social Security and Medicare as well as other social programs is the fact that they are considered a right. She repeatedly labeled all those who accept any sort of mandated social assistance as "parasites." While she agreed that charity is possible and not evil in and of itself, she insisted that anyone in need must simply wait for random charity and no one should ever be given sustenance simply because they are a human being.

Your ability to "produce" was to Rand the entirety of your "value."

In some ways, Rand may have been naive. While she experienced some hardship early in life, the period of misfortune was brief and not marked by illness or disability in her family. In fact, she rarely addressed the issues of illness or disability in her writing. On one rare occasion she wrote only, "The small minority of adults who are unable rather than unwilling to work, have to rely on voluntary charity;"

One reason Rand's theories are still so popular today is that they have a cohesive internal logic. If you accept the tenets of her theory--that only humans have any value as living beings and that all people of value can produce enough to satisfy their own needs despite any difficult circumstances or discrimination against them--then the theory is well-laid out and seems to lead to inevitable conclusions.

Creative Commons image by  DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by DonkeyHotey of Flickr.com

One thing Rand never seemed to understand, but perhaps finally did grasp as she lay receiving tax-payer funded cancer treatment is that there is no great difference between government road construction and Medicare. Sure, the Medicare beneficiary is an individual receiving something, while a road seems to be something everyone benefits from all at once.

But when you get right down to it, the individual driver driving down that road is only different from the Medicare recipient in that a car can drive over anyone who stands in the way--for instance, the men, women and children who stood on the roads in Honduras asking for tips from drivers for having filled in gaping potholes after Rand's theories were explicitly adopted in that country and no "social program" was around to fix the roads.. 

Had Rand simply written some books and been quoted by some intellectuals this might all have been something to laugh about, but her influence has been far reaching. Companies--such as Sears--have adopted her philosophy as a management blueprint and been devastated within a few years. Whole countries, including Honduras, have been brought to poverty and devastation by her theories.

I cannot count the times  I have seen Rand's theories used to shame or dismiss people facing disability or illness, environmental concerns or racial prejudice. Over the past twenty years, since my college days, Rand's theories have migrated from upper-middle-class intellectual circles to the halls of power., especially in the United States. 

Representatives Steve King (R-IA), Mike Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Allen West (R-FL) became her devotees. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) promoted her book on the Senate floor. Alan Greenspan slipped her theories into economic policy. The list of senators and representatives--mostly Republican--who give Rand credit for inspiring their careers is long and she has in no small part inspired the current right-wing take-over of that party..

The most dire problems of the United States--from climate change to authoritarianism and vast economic inequity--stem directly from the lifestyles and corporate policies of the wealthiest ten percent (or even one percent) of the nation. For many years, this group considered Rand's philosophy to be a kind of secret pleasure--a way to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness and yet something that probably shouldn't be widely circulated to avoid embarrassment.

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Creative Commons image by Matthew Hurs

Rand tantalizes young adults with the dream that satisfying momentary whims and ignoring burdensome ethics can be considered heroic. She still gifts college students in expensive liberal arts schools with an imagined identity as guardians of virtue and justifies a moralistic way to look down on people who take a long-term or interconnected view. 

Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The continuing influence of Rand's work and her lack of openness about her own use of social programs takes her beyond hypocrisy into another realm entirely.  She took the benefits and allowed people with disabilities and illnesses to be ridiculed and humiliated in her name for decades (and likely generations) to come. Today it is difficult to say how much suffering has been caused by policies she inspired. 

That said, there are days when I wish the wealthiest one percent who largely control corporate policies in the United States would take a closer look at her theories. If we are to take Rand literally, she would have us believe that her theory is not wrong but her actions were a mistake. She should have saved more of her wealth earlier in life in order to be able to cover her medical expenses or she should have invested in better private insurance. Her concept is that selfishness coupled with forethought and intelligence will always lead to the best results.

So, each person should save (i.e. conserve) according to their possible future needs. It should follow that a person should conserve other things besides money. If trapped on a desert island, Rand would surely advise conserving one's resources of food and fresh water. 

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

Creative Commons image by  Andrew Toskin

However, today corporate leaders continue in a spending spree--throwing money, fuel and non-renewable resources into the system as fast as they can in order to generate momentary wealth without regard to the disasters of debt, resource depletion and  climate change they are creating for themselves. 

Rand made it known in no uncertain terms, that she didn't believe in anything like "the common good." She stated several times that she didn't believe environmental concerns were very serious. Once she wrote, "Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is wholesale death."

At the time when she wrote this, the wealthy could easily pay more to live far from environmental pollution and Rand would no doubt have considered that to be the ethical response. But just as lung cancer caught up with her, climate change is now catching up to the wealthiest in our world. The internal documents of large oil and coal companies, when leaked, have shown that those who set corporate policy know the truth, even while they fund denialist campaigns to spread disinformation to the public. 

It is eerily similar to how tobacco companies hid scientific proof that cigarettes contribute significantly to the risk of lung cancer but denied such knowledge to the public in Rand's day. Rand was fond of saying that knowledge is key to exercising good self interest and many tobacco leaders at the time realized smoking wasn't in their best interest, while Rand herself believed their propaganda. Knowledge was in that case a viable defense. 

But today even the wealthiest have little hope of escaping the effects of climate change, which are unlikely to be as simple as a gradual trend of warming in which buying real estate further north might be considered a solution. It is in things like this that Rand's theory begins to unravel.

The one percent know of--or at least their hired scientists have documented--the threats to their own security posed by climate change, and yet their self-interest does not goad them in the right direction. Similarly no purveyor of Rand's theories--not even Rand herself--is willing to die of preventable causes rather than accept Medicare to pay the  bills.

When these tenets of the theory fall, the internal logic disintegrates and each part of it falls in a line of dominoes. Self-interest does not lead to the good of the individual, and the good of the individual is inextricably interconnected with others. 

Randism has been proved to be a false and hollow economic theory as surely as Marxism. And if Karl Marx can be blamed for a host of horrors brought about by those who used and abused his theories, then by the same token Ayn Rand leaves a similar legacy. to that which she most despised