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! .

Something worth saving

There seems to be stiff competition in any contemporary discussion of climate change to see who can be the most demoralizing.

It may not always be conscious but if you’ve joined many of these discussions, you will know what I mean. You have the harried, frantic campaigners, struggling to put the latest data into scientifically correct but humanly relatable disaster scenarios to motivate the apathetic masses. There are the still uninformed, who have somehow managed to get through elementary school and at least several years of modern life without paying attention.

Then of course, there are the denialists, who buck science and insist that because some scientist somewhere was wrong about something, climate change predictions are clearly wrong. Some of those are wishful, magical thinkers. Some are cynical manipulators who have a plan for getting theirs while the getting’s good.

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

And there are the prophets of the apocalypse with theories about gasses released from under melting glaciers and tipping points. They claim they are certain we have only a few more years to live no matter what we do. It’s hopeless and no carbon-cutting measures matter in the slightest. All the while these prophets of doom are still having children and paying for their children’s college educations. Most of them are also doing it without much attempt to reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, there is always someone ready to say humanity doesn’t deserve to be saved, whether we can or not. And that’s usually the point in the conversation where everyone either drifts away or descends into verbal trench warfare.

That cynicism pervades a lot of society, even beyond any considerations of environmental or social collapse. Post-modernism insisted that we grow up and cast off idealistic dreams of equality and interconnection. Now we are post-post-modern. Anything less than jaded nihilism is regarded as childish. And this self-righteous cynicism is taken to the point of illogical absurdities to avoid anything that smacks of vulnerability.

In this stifling morass, what could possibly provide any air movement, much less a breath of fresh air?

Well, something both childish and utterly logical, of course.

What is both childish and logical? It sounds like the first line of a weird joke. But the world actually got a real-life answer some months ago.

Greta Thunberg.

If you believe in science, imagine what a young, very intelligent, scientific and utterly logical mind must make of our world. For most of us, it doesn’t really bear contemplating for long. If stark reality were to be seen clearly by a very young person without any of the padding of social distractions and peer conformity, the result would have to be insanity.

When Greta Thunberg, a little girl in Sweden, first learned about climate change as a bright eight-year-old she was confused. Something didn’t add up. Her science books clearly marked out a problem with devastating consequences and a theoretical solution. It showed that adults all over the world knew all of this, and yet Greta heard no one talking about it. And she saw adults going about business as usual as if no such crisis existed, only occasionally putting something into a recycling bin.

Greta Thunberg - climate, environment, children, empowererment - from Twitter account 2.jpg

She went to her parents and then to teachers and finally to scientists a seeking the missing piece—something that would tell her it wasn’t really true, something that would explain the silence and lack of action she observed among adults.

Many children may have felt this disconnect, but they also feel the frustration and difficulty of acting outside of social norms. And that explains to them well enough why their elders dither. Greta has Asperger Syndrome, a neuro-diverse condition, which often results in a very logical outlook, great attention to detail and difficulty understanding social rituals and conventions.

Greta is that theoretical example of a logical, yet freshly innocent mind made flesh. Her initial reaction was sickness. She developed OCD and selective mutism. She was withdrawn and apparently disillusioned by age eleven.

But eventually she won a writing competition and became involved with a youth environmental group planning climate actions. During a phone meeting, she supported the idea of a school strike for the climate. If the kids really believed that their entire future rested on this issue, she reasoned, solving it should logically take precedence over education and everything else.

If science is real, why aren’t we acting like it?

But she couldn’t get support for the idea from others. A school strike required a lot of commitment and very likely some unpleasant consequences. Even though the other kids were activists, they weren’t there yet. They focused on organizing more standard demonstrations and Greta dropped out of the group.

Most kids—almost every kid—faced with their idea rejected by a group of friendly peers would be willing to let it go. But Greta, whether because of Asperger or because of utter personal stubbornness, didn’t care.

Last August, when her school year started, she didn’t go to school. Instead she took a small sign and went to sit by a wall outside the Swedish Parliament building. She was on strike.

I remember seeing the early images of her sitting there, knees drawn up to her chin. She is in ninth grade this year. One kid. Alone.

I was an activist inclined kid. I know all too well what it is like to have idea after idea shot down. I might well have proposed such a thing as a teenager. I too am often accused of being too logical, too brutally real. I was also a loner, willing to stand out from the crowd. I instantly respected her and recognized her.

But when I saw her there alone, I thought, she was sweet and sad. And I thought she didn’t have a prayer. One kid. Alone. The news media will do a spot on that, because she’s cute and the world will move on, I thought. That’s one reason I have never done anything like that—completely alone—even though I’ve been sorely tempted.

The difference with Greta is that she just did it. And damn the social reaction.

It didn’t matter that no one supported her or joined her at first. It didn’t matter whether or not her solitary protest would make any difference.

You can imagine what it would be like for a kid—in today’s fast-paced, entertainment-focused world—to sit there all day. Not playing on a phone, just sitting and looking at people with her sign, occasionally handing out fliers.

All day? Try five weeks.

This is what makes me stop breathing for a moment. She not only did it, did what very few of us would even consider doing. She did it for five weeks.

Some people supported her. Some attacked her. She was told that she should stay in her place. She was told she should go to school and become a scientist if she cared. She was accused of being a slacker. She was accused of being a paid activist, trying to milk people concerned about environmental issues.

Science already tells us what we need to know. We have less than a decade to change. We don’t need Greta to be a scientist to fix this. She knows it. And we know it.

She writes, “Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ‘stop it’. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. Because either we limit the warming to 1,5 degrees C over pre industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.”

She got plenty of hate mail and in her responses on social media, you can tell she is vulnerable. It hurts her. She is a kid who has been excluded and bullied in some social situations because she was different. There isn’t one Asperger kid who hasn’t been.

But her response, unscripted and in her own slightly Euro-English diction, is the one thing I think might still save us: “Recently I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis) a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.”

Instead of giving back hate for hate. She gives back comprehension for why others are uninformed.

Greta posts on Twitter and Facebook, stating her truth in her own words: “Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself.”

Greta says her actions were partly inspired by the students of Parkland and their activism for gun control in the United States. Because of social media, she in turn was seen and heard far beyond what my jaded assumptions where early on. Now, half a year later, there are demonstrations of tens of thousands in mid-sized cities all over Western Europe, primarily led by teenage girls, inspired by Greta.

The demonstrations in major cities, like Paris, have been twice and three times larger than the more widely reported “yellow vest” protests that struck down some climate friendly measures. The mainstream media has largely ignored this response but it continues to grow. In the US, the response has taken the form of groups of kids visiting Congressional offices and demanding support for the Green New Deal.

Will this change every thing? Did Greta single-handedly push us into a new era.

I hope so. But I doubt it.

If the media continues to ignore the amazing response to her strike by young people across Europe and the United States, then it may well fizzle within another year.

I too am overly logical and I am older. I’ve seen how activist things work and what it takes to last. I’m realistic.

But there is one thing that Greta did that will never be wiped away. She gave me the certain knowledge that there is something in the younger generation worth saving. Now when I see the spiraling mess of climate change discussions with the usual race for the bottom of cynicism and disillusionment, I think of Greta and the rest of it becomes obsolete.

She went to the Davos climate meeting and she told world leaders, “When I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis.”

It took 1,500 airline flights to get delegates to Davos, a sizable climate impact. It took Greta a 32-hour train ride. She never lets up with that logical approach.

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.

When "no politics" isn't neutral

Imagine if a miraculous alien was suddenly transported into our polite, neighborly conversations, to our dinner tables or into our schools, workplaces and places of faith. The alien is miraculous because it can speak English perfectly and can physically participate in our activities without much difference.

The alien wishes to be polite and diplomatic, so it observes table manners and learns to say "please" and "thank you," but its understanding of social niceties is limited. Imagine then that you are appointed as a cultural ambassador charged with guiding the guest through our world.

And because it is 2018, people ask you to above all else avoid involving the alien in the contentious politics of the times. We want to give the alien a good impression of earth's development and human society after all. 

But unfortunately for you, the alien is very observant. First, you offer the alien something to eat and the alien asks what the dish served is. 

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

Creative Commons image by Fibonacci Blu

"Chicken," you reply.

"Ah, an animal," the alien says, tasting politely. "You humans eat these animals. It's the way your world works."

"Many people eat only plants," you say, feeling a bit uncomfortable. The other guests at dinner also look disturbed. "Would you prefer something vegetarian?"

And someone mutters. "Getting political already." 

The alien raises its equivalent of an eyebrow at you. "Oh, do some humans think it is better to eat plants than animals? Did you ask the plants how they feel about it?"

Someone mentions factory farming and the alien checks its research about earth.

"Oh dear, you're quite right," it remarks. "Factory farming is one of the things killing your planet. Those greenhouse emissions are causing wild fluctuations in your atmosphere. If you don't stop this type of agriculture and your use of fossil fuels, you'll be hard pressed to grow any food in a few decades. I hope those of you here are among the humans who don't contribute to such devastation."

Everyone stares at the alien and then down at their plates. The politicization of lunch isn't welcome.

After lunch you are ready to show the alien around. You go out to get into your car but the alien stops, staring at the vehicle. "Is there no other way to get there? Can't we walk or take one of your trains? This vehicle is contributing to the devastation of your planet."

The rest of the human delegation grumbles. More politics. 

Somehow you persuade the alien to get into the car and you drive to a local high school. At this point the alien needs to go to the bathroom. They do that on their planet too, apparently. So you take the alien to the restrooms. But of course, there are two restrooms. 

"Can I just use whichever one I want?" the alien asks. 

"No!" you reach out a hand urgently to stop the alien. It is your job to keep the alien out of controversy after all and this is a school. There are few places where people are more concerned about gender separation at the toilet bowl. You explain about human gender, a bit about reproduction and that the bathrooms are segregated.

"Oh dear," the alien mutters. "Do you do reproduction in restrooms? Is it necessary to keep the young ones apart to prevent premature reproduction?"

"No no," you explain. "It just makes humans uncomfortable to share a restroom with the opposite gender. So, which are you? Female or male? Do  you... er... grow the babies or fertilize the babies on your world?"

"Both," the alien replies. "We are a species with both of those parts in one individual."

It's hopelessly political to get your alien to the toilet, but you manage it (possibly by clearing everyone out of one of the bathrooms and declaring it temporarily genderfree). 

The alien then follows you into a classroom and sits quietly for a while, listening to the teacher talk about the ten most important authors of the past century. When the teacher opens the class up for questions, the alien raises its hand (or equivalent appendage) and asks how the teacher determined that those were the most important authors of the previous century. 

The teacher points to history books, popularity, cultural impacts and the wealth and fame of the authors. She is proud to point out that the list of ten authors includes one author of color and two women. 

"But I just learned that your female gender makes up half of the population. Are they mostly too busy growing babies to write?" the alien asks innocently. 

The teacher explains about historical inequalities and claims that we are now much more equal. She lists several more well-known female authors, though the alien is confused about why half of them use male pen names. 

Then the alien asks why only one of the authors on the list is a person of color. The teacher tries the same method of explanation, but the alien stops her. "The vast majority of your planet is populated by people of color. Surely, they wrote things, even if you didn't know about it at the time."

The teacher explains about borders and nations and says that while she didn't actually say it, she meant this was a list of the most important authors from your country and... er... well, your allies, which are mostly white.

"Is this why you put so much of your resources into war and killing the humans on other parts of your planet?" the alien asks. 

The teacher glares at you and the alien and states sternly that this is a discussion of literature, not politics, and you need to take your political rants elsewhere. 

You leave school and head toward your workplace. On the way, the alien seeks to clarify its understanding. "These divisions are very important on your planet, I see. You divide people up into two genders and you have all these lines on the ground that divide people and it is very important what color your epidermis is. Why is this? Do different kinds of humans need very different things or have very different abilities?"

"No," you admit. "We don't. But people used to think that we were very different. We now know that we aren't. But some of the divisions remain."

"Even you were concerned about which restroom I should use," the alien says. "So you have not abandoned the divisions."

"That's true," you say. "I was trying not to get political."

"So, keeping one gender out of the other restroom is not political?" the alien asks. "And keeping hungry and endangered humans on the other side of a border is not political and letting them in would be? Bombing other humans is not political but talking about it is? Killing and eating either plants or animals isn't political but talking about it is? And killing your planet isn't political, but mentioning it is?"

"Yes, you're getting the idea," you sigh, already exhausted. 

"You humans don't like it when something is about power or politics. I can tell that," the alien says. "I really want to be polite. How can I avoid political topics when it seems like they crop up everywhere?" 

"You probably should avoid criticizing what we do," you mention hopefully.

The alien nods. This is good diplomatic advice.

At your workplace, you show the alien how the company you work for functions, all of the different jobs and you get into economics and how people work for money in order to then buy those things they need to survive.

The alien is quiet during a lot of this. Finally, it nods and does its equivalent of a smile. "I think I see now. You divide people into these groups by color and nation and gender, so that you know that mostly brown humans should do the hard jobs that get paid very little. Then they can pay to live in places that are broken, polluted and unsafe and eat food treated with chemicals that are destroying your planet. Some paler humans are also doing these hard jobs and living in these unsafe areas too and that causes a lot of strife. I can see now why you try to pay attention to the divisions."

Your colleagues stare at the alien with open-mouthed shock.

The alien continues. "I see that the pale females can do very busy jobs that get paid a bit more than the hard jobs. They are also close to the pale males, so that they can provide pleasure to the males.. Mostly the pale males make much more money and they do jobs that you feel are very important, but they mostly consist of sitting and telling the brown and female humans what to do."

Your superior who asked you to keep the alien out of politics gives you a meaningful glower.

You gently take the alien by something like a shoulder and move away from your colleagues. "I told you not to criticize us," you say with some irritation.

"I wasn't criticizing," the alien says, with a bewildered look in it's ocular nodes. "I was just checking to see that I understand these important realities of your world. I wouldn't want to wander into the wrong restroom or job."

"All right, whatever," you say. "Let's go someplace even you can't make political." 

You take the alien to your community of faith. You belong to a spiritual path that is very tolerant, open-minded and apolitical. Surely, the alien can't find anything to criticize here. 

You walk in and you are greeted by many different kinds of people. Everyone is friendly and loves meeting the alien. They all exchange pleasantries. It's true that mostly the white people are in the center of the room, talking loudly. People of color are there though. They are happy and fairly quiet. The leadership is shared between women and men. The female spiritual leader even does a lot of the talking, while the male leader sits, looking dignified. 

The only person who cannot come in is your friend who uses a wheelchair, but several of the people in your faith community visit him at home. And there is a blind woman who sits at the back of the space. She is included by being there and she is well liked because she mostly smiles quietly.

You listen to an uplifting service about divine love and acceptance, about hope and reassurance for your purpose in life. What a relief! You are glad you came. 

You look around to see how your alien friend liked this apolitical inspiration. The alien is doing the equivalent of putting its head in its hands and sobbing. 

"I thought you said you didn't like being political!" the alien cries.

"This wasn't political. It wasn't about who is in power and who isn't," you explain. "This is a place where we find hope and peace." 

"You find hope by continuing to destroy your planet at an alarming rate without mentioning it? You find peace by enforcing silence about the divisions and inequities in your daily lives?" The alien looks utterly confused. "This is all about power and politics."

---

There are infinite variations of what might happen in that scenario with the miraculous alien. But the bottom line is that what we consider to be political is all about who and what has the power to destroy or gain in our world. That is the heart of politics. 

To stay silent on the most pressing issues of today, the divisions, injustices and destruction in our world is a brazenly political act. It is an open declaration of support for the existing divisions and the ongoing injustices and destruction. 

Many institutions and groups today say they want members to refrain from bringing politics into the group or activity to avoid strife. Whether this is done in a community of faith, a school or other institution or a commercial enterprise, it is not politically neutral. Instead it is a declaration of a political position protecting the status quo. 

Due to toxic rhetoric and events, many of us are exhausted. And this leads to many well-meaning calls for certain spaces to be apolitical, places where injustice, race-relations, environmental problems, human rights issues and war won't be discussed. These topics are stressful and painful for a lot of us.

The problem is that silence is not "neutral." And in fact there is often no "neutral." When the lives of vulnerable refugees, black boys on the streets or any other people are at stake and one side is engaged in killing them and another side is trying to stop the killing, there is no such thing as "neutral." You either defend those being harmed or you are supporting the injustice.

Likewise when one group is being publicly maligned and trashed because of characteristics they could not choose for themselves and that group is either absent or not strong enough to respond, there are no bystanders. 

There is no neutral. If I do not speak up I become part of the bullying and so I have sometimes spoken up in spaces declared apolitical because to remain silent would be a political act. 

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.

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 good things about hard labor

The sun's going down through the budding trees on the ridge. It's nearly time for a well-deserved break. Come join me for a cup of tea--mint, wild oregano, maybe a pinch of echinacea smelling of last year's honey bees.

The last rays dazzle gold through the greenhouse walls. I pat the final arugula starts under the rich soil. Then I lug a full watering can from the rain barrel to sprinkle the seedlings, greens and herbs. The last frost may not have come yet and it is still just a tad early for the drip lines.

Public domain image

Public domain image

My steps are slow. My arms and legs feel like heavy weights. But the animals are fed and the rest of the starts watered. The only thing left is to read a story to the kids.. This evening we read a story about a rain forest frog and several poems on cats as the light fades in the sky.

My hands are dry from the soil. Lavender, pine and sage salve with olive oil is good for that. I sit rubbing it on in the dim kitchen. The only light comes from my husband's video screen, a Beltane candle in the shape of a leaf and the dying light of the sky.

I have to handle my mug carefully now--with hands slick from a thick layer of salve. A sip of tea, then another. Relaxation flows down my back.

Spring days are long, filled with digging in the earth, hauling water, separating fighting kids and cooking meals. My neighbors largely don't live this way. They are exhausted too, but more likely from screens, meetings, offices and shopping. Not a day passes when I don't hear someone question my different way or call it some form of "extreme."

Extreme? To cook one's own meals? To grow a garden for food and medicine? To insist on food made from raw materials? To expect that children's play should mostly be active? Even to insist that children have tasks to help with at home? 

In some places people love the idea of "the simple life," but rarely do more than make token passes at it. It isn't simple. Not that I've seen. But neither is it extreme. 

It is a conscious way of living, a choice to make--not once but in every moment of every day. You have to know why you're doing it each moment. Otherwise, how can you keep making that choice?

Here are some few of the advantages of the conscious life:

  • Self-respect
  • Moments of beauty
  • Less chemicals
  • The ability to take the problems of the world less personally
  • More healthy days
  • Satisfaction of the primal instinct for food security
  • Muscles that ache in a good way
  • Happy taste buds
  • Confidence and competence 
  • A sense of the ground beneath your feet as living being
  • Peace within

There is nothing quite so good as that moment of peace at the end of a day that was as much physical as intellectual, where a job with modern technology is balanced by the sheer physicality of growing one's own food and medicine and where physical labor is balanced with space for creativity. It is too easy to take the world's brokenness personally, unless  you have your own grounding.