Courage from wherever you stand

If there is one thing I wish I could give my readers these days it is the feeling that the climate crisis is like a war.

For some it is easy to see it as a war of us against them—us, the ordinary people who mostly want to do something about it, against them, the greedy one-percenters who run most of the industry and make most of the political decisions. But it isn’t at its core an us-versus-them war.

It’s an us-versus-ignorance war. Slowly the ignorance is falling away and we will focus more and more on fighting to mitigate the collapse of our ecological life-support system. But still it will be an us-versus-ignorance war. It will just be against the effects created by the ignorance of the past.

Even the wealthy have to eat and even if they may have bunkers, there is no possible future in which climate collapse goes forward unchecked and they don’t seriously regret not paying attention earlier. It is still primarily about ignorance. “Ignor-ance” has its roots in willfully ignoring and denying reality. That is what we are up against—the denial ignorance of the wealthy, the misled ignorance of the poor and the despairing and apathetic ignorance of everyone in between.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Plenty of people are saying that we need to respond to the climate crisis the way we responded to World War Two. It’s true on so many levels. The climate emergency is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and it will soon claim millions and then billions, if we do nothing. The scale is at least as massive as the second world war was and it will reach into every person’s life just as that war did. It will require many personal sacrifices, political focus, economic manipulation and social solidarity, just as that war did.

It already requires a great deal of courage.

Of course, there is the courage of people protesting and putting their bodies in the way of fossil fuel extraction, processing and transport. There are the people chained or glued to government or corporate doorways. There are those sitting down in front of police wielding chemical weapons and people standing in the middle of intersections, demanding that other humans do indeed stop business as usual, stop driving, pay attention and treat science as a real-world matter.

Some people look at these protesters, often dressed up or in a excited, bonded group, and assume it must be fun or they must be in it for the adventure. And there may be some who are in it for adventure the first time around. But a lot of people are doing it again and again. They are willing to be roughed up by irritable police on extra shifts and willing to spend long, cold nights in improvised cells. They know what they are in for.

That is courage. I’ve seen a lot of people grasping courage these days, more than I think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

There’s the courage of a young mother, so scared she’s trembling, who he accepts the role of press spokesperson for an action anyway, because all the people without babies are either on the blockade line or doing risky conflict deescalation work. There is no one else who can address the TV cameras. So she does it, even though she’s never been an activist before.

There’s the fourteen-year-old girl who signed up to learn to be a field medic with her parents’ consent, willing to wade into fields of tear gas and distribute clothes soaked in antacid to people gasping for breath. There’s the courage of those worried parents who know this is something she has to do.

There’s the woman who I watched stumble through a workshop presentation for new climate action volunteers in which two young men decided to pick apart her every statement. Walking to the subway together after I helped her lock up the office in the evening, she confessed that it wasn’t just her first workshop presentation but the first time she had ever spoken in front of a group of people in her life.

I have not chained myself to anything strategic or refused to move under police orders. Not yet at least. Some of my rebel friends are willing to forgive me this reticence because I have a disability and a disabled child. “Well, that’s why Arie isn’t out there getting arrested.” I’m the one teaching the medics and the deescalation teams. I’m the one holding the hands of new volunteers, giving a dozen pep talks a day.

But I’ve had to poke deep into my own reserves of courage. When I first signed up my family and close friends were all warning me to be careful, even asking me not to join Extinction Rebellion because whenever I have joined community organizations before it has always ended in pain, social rejection and deep depression. The fact is that, especially where I live in the Czech Republic, a disabled. middle aged woman with strange-looking eyes and awkward social communication is not well accepted. My family didn’t want me to go through all that again.

When I go into groups, I can’t make eye contact or play out the little exchanges of non-verbal communication. Mostly people don’t realize this or understand what it means. They just get the feeling that I’m aloof or uncool, or most oddly, calculating and competitive. The inevitable result has been a lot of social isolation. I join groups enthusiastically, get a lot of confused reactions and soon find myself mysteriously dropped off the invitation list.

So joining Extinction Rebellion, I was so scared that I lay awake all night shaking after every meeting in the beginning. But I knew I had to go anyway.

I wish I could tell you those fears were entirely unfounded. I will say that Extinction Rebellion tries hard to be open to all—people with disabilities, older people and people with children included. It’s a real topic of discussion and those discussions matter. I’ve never found a group where I did feel this welcome. But I have run into people who reject me out-of-hand, even in the consciously inclusive culture of XR.

Facing fears doesn’t mean facing down only illusion. Much of the fear is real. Those protesters in France really did get viciously attacked by police while sitting calmly and quietly. Some people really did needlessly torment that first-time workshop presenter. And every time I play the role of social greeter at an XR event, I will get some hard looks and some cold shoulders, which cut deep because of the social context of long-term ostracism.

It’s a time for courage. Whatever terrors you have to face, now is the time.

And there is another part of courage we all have to seize together. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me some version of the question, “Isn’t it too late and hopeless anyway?”

There are a hundred arguments why the key strategies to mitigate climate disaster won’t work. Most solar panels are made in China using minerals mined at great environmental cost and then there’s the methane in the arctic lakes, all the tipping points we may have already crossed, And that’s just the science part. We have only just begun to demand real political and economic change and those systems don’t want to change. We may well not be able to bring our society to change quickly enough. And if we manage it here, will we be able to get China and India to join us? The odds seem awfully long on stopping CO2 emissions in the time frame scientists have said we must, if we want to avoid global calamity .

In 1938, when the allies signed the Munich agreement with Hitler to allow the Nazis to take Czechoslovakia in an attempt to deny the inevitable, people who warned of the encroaching tide of fascism were called “alarmists.” And then when the allied forces did go up against fascism, it looked hopeless. It looked like we had waited too long.

That’s what Hollywood portrayals of World War Two don’t show. They say they’re showing courage, the heroic battles in which good conquers evil in the real world. But the reality is that those French resistance fighters, those nurses in Blitz-torn London, those teenage girls holding the Eastern front in some Russian town, those Romani prisoners rebelling in a concentration camp, those boys on the Normandy beaches, those fighter pilots over the North Sea and those victory gardeners on the other side of the Atlantic waiting for husbands, sons and fathers to come home did not have good odds. We look back at them through the lens of what did happen. They fought and they won, so of course they had the courage to fight.

But it wasn’t an easy choice for many of them. There were times during the war when it looked very bleak. In our struggle now, it looks bleak. It looks like the risks we take and the sacrifices we make may be for nothing.

In that too, we need courage—not because we know we’ll win but because the only way to live well now is to fight this war against ignorance,

We are sorry but we must break the law

A rugged start in Extinction Rebellion deescalation practices

On a rainy Monday in Prague, a group of activists met in a neglected park near a major traffic artery -- Nervous, skittish and just beginning to pump adrenaline, they unfurled their banners in a few practice runs, getting them upside down more often than not.

The people I had trained as a deescalation team, mostly at the last minute in a rushed explanation of psychology--the prefrontal cortex, the door to the panic center of the brain and the principles of active listening--were so dazed that they repeatedly forgot to even go into action at all during the practice runs. About half of the deescalation team had done a few role-plays in my kitchen. That was it.

Rebel for life - Photo by XR Praha

Rebel for life - Photo by XR Praha

A large majority of us were first-time activists, barely having been to a few quiet (and completely legal) political rallies. And here they were preparing to flagrantly break the law.

But we got our signalling system drilled to the point where I was reasonably sure we wouldn't be hit by oncoming traffic and then we went into action.

Unsuspecting drivers whizzed by us while we politely waited at a red light. Then the first signaler called, "Blue team into action!" The small group with me started across the intersection unrolling our large blue banner, which read, "You can't outrun the climate crisis." . A minute later I vaguely heard the call "Green into action!" as the group with the green banner blocked the other axes of the intersection.

My deescalation teams were darting out into the traffic backed up in front of them, offering apologies, cookies and informative fliers along with their hastily trained active-listening and non-violent communication skills. Someone gave a warning shout about a motorcycle and I went for him.

I barely had to think of my calming techniques. My shoulders were relaxed, my hands nonthreatening as I loosely offered him a flyer. He smiled back at me under his visor and I thought things were going fine.

Then a van broke ranks behind him, lurched forward with aggressive honking and swearing. It had become clear that we were there to stay for at least a few minutes--seven minutes according to plan.

I immediately left the motorcycle driver and approached the van, which had stopped but continued to jerk forward in little starts toward our people at the banner. "I can see that you're upset," I said, forcing a little volume into my unwilling voice. "Can I help you?"

I never got the chance to exercise active listening and calm the driver down. By this time, our signal guy was bellowing at the driver with a megaphone and the van was physically pushing a teenage girl and a photographer into the middle of the intersection.

I think I said, "Please stop! This is dangerous!" The driver yelled incoherent curse words. I was torn with indecision for a second and then the chance to act was gone anyway.

Our safety people managed to get the two endangered individuals out of the way and I managed to stop the stream of cars behind the van by the simple expedience of stepping behind its bumper and standing still, thus avoiding a rush that would have seriously put the lives of my deescalation team--back in the traffic with cookies and fliers--at risk.

In the end, the crisis was averted but other drivers were upset because of the scene. One woman got out of her vehicle sobbing that her child was at home and she had to get to him, as if our protest truly heralded an immediate collapse of civilization. Our deescalation team hurried to listen, apologize and explain that we were only there for seven minutes. The tone reduced from panic to sullen angst.

Photo by XR Praha

Photo by XR Praha

Why take these risks, you might well ask, for a moment with a banner?

Of course, it isn't for the banner. Most of the drivers can't even see it. This is one of the basic tactics of Extinction Rebellion, one I was very skeptical about when I first joined. I wanted to protest big polluters and corrupt politicians. But as I read more and came to understand the psychological and socio-political dynamics of the situation I became less reticent.

This blockade, like every other Extinction Rebellion action, is part of a wave of disruption that forces the climate crisis into the forefront of everyone's minds and onto the front pages of every newspaper and the first minutes of every news broadcast. Without this disruption of the lives of ordinary people--without a shit-load of such disruptions--there is no way we will see change fast enough to avoid massive famine and economic collapse.

As just about every literate person on the planet has read by now, the latest IPCC report, which is a very conservative consensus of a lot of different scientific perspectives, gave us twelve years to solve the climate crisis if we wish to have any real hope of avoiding a vast collapse of our civilization and food-production systems.

That's not to say we have twelve years to START working on it. We have twelve years to implement changes in the global industrial economy so vast that there is really nothing to compare them to, though the build up to World War Two and the Marshal Plan combined are often invoked as an example solution. And so far, there is not one government on the planet that is truly taking it seriously.

But there is one that has at least pledged to do so, and that is the British government, where Extinction Rebellion really got started in April. The tactic of massive disruption achieved its first stated goal. The British government was forced to declare a climate emergency.

But more than that, it created an unprecedented storm of media coverage and public concern over climate change. Most of it wasn't even in support of Extinction Rebellion initially. But the more the media looked into it and the more people paid attention and read about the crisis, the more everyone realized how serious the crisis is.

We activists are not in a popularity contest. We are not out in the road risking our lives because we think that will convince someone to agree with us. We are an emergency siren. We are simply a wave of disruption that forced British society to wake up and pay attention and which will do the same in every place we can.

We are sorry. Really I am sorry. I want to apologize to the frightened woman with her child at home and to all the others who were just tired and heading home from work. We do not want to do this. I would apologize if I had to wake you up at night to warn you of a fire in the building, but I'd still do it. We have no choice but to disrupt life as usual and even to break the law. This is an emergency.

Climate doomsaying as an excuse to be lazy

And other guaranteed ways to make sure the oil companies win

It can feel utterly hopeless. The climate crisis is so vast that individual actions can’t really make any measurable difference. There is little sign that our political and economic leaders are willing to do what is necessary.

And even if they were, no one can guarantee that we haven’t passed key tipping points already. Some scientific models say we may have. Others say we will pass tipping points within a few years, long before any major economic changes can rectify the situation.

It is so easy to give up.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Why don’t I? Most importantly I don’t give up because of my sense of self identity and self respect. If I truly believed that the earth would be uninhabitable within 30 years, as some claim, I would not personally be able to “just enjoy life while I can.”

And frankly, I doubt that most people who express that nihilist view actually believe it either. There may be some who do, but to me a comfortable, entertaining and fun life without purpose would be hell. I don’t need a great, earth-shaking purpose but I do need some small incremental purpose. It is the core of who I am.

And secondly, I do have kids. I didn’t give birth to them, but I tried to. And if I don’t see any hope for survival beyond the next few decades, then I would have some serious ethical problems.

I spend a fair amount of my limited time free from the necessities of eating, sleeping, working and raising kids on being a climate activist, whether that is through my writing or more recently through helping out with a local Extinction Rebellion group.

It’s a challenge to stay motivated and feel like my incremental actions are worth anything. On the other hand, I want scientists to tell the whole truth. I don’t want them to skimp on urgency in order to spare people’s feelings. We need to know what we’re up against, even if that someday means knowing we have lost our chance to avert massive deaths.

But there is one response to climate change I find as infuriating and morally questionable as profit-seeking denial of science. That is doomsaying as an excuse to be lazy.

An example, through an acquaintance who is also a responsible and hard-working climate activist, I ended up in an online discussion recently which devolved into a group of people I didn’t know having a mass “doom orgy.” It was in response to my acquaintance’s post but didn’t appear to involve him directly. A few dozen people were doing that online ricochet-in-your-own-bubble thing where one says something inflammatory and six other people try to one-up the hysteria and ten more try to top that and so on.

Pretty much it was a group of people, supposedly supporting climate activism who were saying “It’s too late. No action will save life on earth now. It’s the methane thing. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that everything is hopeless now is just stupid and in denial…” and so on and on.

They were obviously enjoying this titillating moment of doom-wallowing. And it pissed me off as much as a bunch of hillbillies with monster trucks gunning their engines and yelling, “F… Mother Earth!” And both scenes have about the same atmosphere.

My response was to say, “I hope you all didn’t have kids.”

Because most of these people were older than their twenties and likely many of them did have kids. It wasn’t that I think they’d be terrible parents in general or that I wouldn’t want little copies of them running around. It’s just that I am fairly certain if they had kids, they wouldn’t actually believe their doomsday statements. They are merely spouting off for the thrill and the self-righteous superiority they feel.

People who have kids can’t take so much pleasure in predicting total annihilation within the lifetime of the next generation. Or if they do, I pity their children. Hence my somewhat caustic statement.

I could respect a person who truly believed that they had scientific evidence that everyone is going to die in terrible suffering and starvation in a few decades, if they didn’t have children. I can’t very well respect someone who says they believe that but then goes ahead and has kids anyway.

They’re doing “business as usual.” They don’t believe their own rhetoric.

And worse than that, their rhetoric includes statements like, “No action will make any difference at this point.” The person I directly responded to had been ridiculing people who work for green energy and engage in political activism to get better climate policies. I would have been laughed out of the discussion if I admitted to working hard as an activist for climate justice.

The point of this verbal flagellation over climate doom is to absolve oneself and one’s cohorts of any need to take action or put out effort.

Climate activists are sometimes called scaremongers. Throughout human history tyrants have used scaremongering to drive groups of people to action usually to fight or exclude some group they are told to fear. Scaremongering implies a lack of evidence or reality. As such, climate science isn’t scaremongering.

Doomsaying is a similar tyrannical tactic used for centuries but instead of action, it’s goal is to freeze people into inaction, depression and apathy, or at times into panicked, chaotic flight. in the face of a real and factual crisis. Doomsaying is as heinous as denial.

In this case, doomsaying is actually the more virulent and damaging ideology.

Climate denial today primarily affects those who know they are in opposition to science and facts. People who refuse to acknowledge climate science are unlikely to change their minds until they are personally facing survival threats. However, doomsaying affects people who are aware and who are taking at least some small steps toward a solution. It demotivates and freezes those who would act and lulls those who know the danger but are inclined to laziness.

And so yes, I called out people claiming to be climate activists in the midst of their self-perpetuating hysteria of despair.

And it isn’t even about evidence and who is scientifically correct.

I am not a climate scientist. It is a real profession. It requires years of university-level study. I am not going to do some reading and a bit of “experimental research” as so many so-called “activists” have and start declaring my own conclusions. I don’t make my own science anymore than I do my own surgery or build my own computer.

I read the scientific papers as best I can. I know that the outputs of big organizations are watered down, as they always are in any document written by a committee. I know that governments give out information with an agenda attached. But in the end, I don’t see hard evidence of utter hopelessness.

And for me to throw up my hands and go live a life of entertainment and creature comforts because “it’s all hopeless anyway,” I would need more than absolute, incontrovertible evidence. I would need to give up on my children.

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.

Putting hope back into the holidays

It has been a particularly rough week here and a particularly rough year everywhere. Looking through my records I notice that last year at the winter solstice (a month and a half after the election of Donald Trump), the image I led my post with was that of a dying, red sun in a gray and gloomy forest.

We knew we were headed for hard times then, and now hard times have come. Wild fires raged across dry areas all autumn and areas that are not usually dry were parched with unusual thirst. More innocent people were shot down. Racism became more brazen and public. Several countries started violently fending off waves of refugees from worse-hit regions. 

The state of the outer world mirrors my intimate life this week. As many of my readers know, one of my children struggles with neuro-diversity that takes a toll on the health of the whole household. This week was particularly difficult--a lot of screaming, meltdowns multiple times per day, extreme stress and a lot of glass shards.

Yule necessary hope holiday wish meme.jpg

I feel like I'm fighting for my life and the only thing I can fight is a person even more vulnerable than myself, who is not to blame. If that is not a mirror of the outside world, I don't know what it is. 

I hear the stealthy "scritch!" of a match struck across the table while I'm getting dinner and my hand automatically lashes out, ready to grab, knock something out of her hand if necessary, defend the home...

My hand freezes with inches to spare. The tiny flame catches on the wick of first candle in the Yule wreath. Anxiety wars with guilt within me and nearly drowns my little sigh of gladness. I am so tired of fighting disasters moment by moment and of being on guard every second in between.

I stifle the yell in my throat and say, my voice shaking a bit, "Thank you for lighting the candles, honey. Please be gentle." 

And for once she is. I watch closely, pausing in the midst of loading plates. There are moments like this. That's one reason I have to be on guard. I never know what to expect. I can no more relax in my home than we can let our guard down in the world beyond these four snow-proof walls.

It is trite to take such a small, glowing thing--a literal candle flame moment--and expound upon it to fabricate a message of hope. "Don't despair for even a struggling child lit a candle." 

But it does bring me a moment of gladness. It is more in the noticing that there are such moments, not the act itself. 

After a morning of getting the kids to school for one of the last days before break, I walk up the hill to let the chickens out. Snow crunches under my boots and I have to give the door an extra tug against the frost.

I turn back to the trail down the ridge and take a long breath of crisp, cold air. The solstice sun is still below the horizon but pink and gold light sparkles on the ice crystals that adorn the bare branches of the fruit trees. A moment of beauty.

I give thanks for the cold. It will help a bit to beat back the climate-change-exacerbated invasive pests that plague our region. And I hope against hope that this is a good and natural cold snap, not one created by melting ice and shifting currents. I pray for more snow, ballast against another summer of drought. 

In dark times, you never know when the next moment of beauty or respite will come again. It's about noticing--taking that breath and noticing. 

The winter solstice is about hope. It always has been in northern lands. Here on the 50th parallel where we get only seven short hours of real daylight at this time of year, the return of the light is a big deal. 

But we won't see much difference for weeks yet. The hope of this season is symbolic and a bit forced.

That's okay. We hope because we must. 

My friends, many of you write that you are certain that climate change has already passed the crucial tipping points. Many of you are aghast at how bigotry and hate have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, proving that the relative civility of years past was a result of suppression rather than deep social change. Many of you despair of finding common ground, even with those you love, let alone with people in other regions of the country or the world. 

And there is no denying this darkness. I will not try to tell you it is not real or that I can promise some sort of supernatural hope. I do not know for sure that the light will return in these areas, as it does in the sky. 

I know only that without hope, you fall and die or become so angry or jaded that you feed the roots of pain and suffering. 

The winter solstice and essentially every holiday modeled after it by various religions--Yule, Christmas, Hanukkah, Dong Zhi et al--they are all at the core about hope--not because it is real, but because it is necessary.

Hope because the alternatives are not feasible. 

Embrace those near you who are willing to embrace. May the holidays you hold dear bring you joy and peace and some much needed comfort. 

But above all may they strengthen your most necessary capacity for hope.

Who would I have been in the days leading up to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or US slavery times?

In 1996, I sat in a class of American college students on a study-abroad program in Olomouc in the Czech Republic. A Czech man just a few years older than us came in to give a lecture about life in the 1980s under Stalinist totalitarianism and the Soviet occupation. I don’t remember the exact details of the lecture but it was good. It was moving and detailed and real.

I was the only one in the class who knew much of it already and who spoke Czech. I had been to the country before in 1992 and had my mind exploded during a week in a rustic cabin with a group of young people who had been quiet dissidents three years earlier, copying down illegal protest songs by hand in tattered notebooks.

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

Creative Commons image by Xabier Otegi

I absorbed the university lecture eagerly, asking several questions at the end to draw out interesting parts of the man’s story. Then I made myself stop. I didn’t want to hog the space and I knew I should let the others ask. But when I looked around there was not one hand raised.

One of the American college students, sprawled in a chair at the back of the class, drawled, “Yeah, that’s the difference over here. Americans would never have put up with that.”

It sounds like a cliche but I really felt like something hit me in the chest. I had no breath. Before I could recover, the class broke up and the lecturer exited quickly, while my classmates put their notebooks away and went out for an afternoon of Czech beer.

Listening to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US supreme Court and the protesters screaming for all they were worth from the gallery, I thought of that remark and of Jan Palach, the student who lit himself on fire in protest of the Soviet invasion of 1968. Palach is a symbol of the final and most extreme protest when oppression has become so immense that dissent is easily silenced, dismissed, buried or imprisoned.

Things have gone from bad to worse in the US in the past two years. The quiet corporate coop that made a mockery of electoral democracy for decades has become overt. The extreme racist, misogynist, eco-cidal ideology that was threatening before has taken more and more power by more and more unjustifiable means.

Plenty of readers will sneer at my title and say that I should not compare this to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Czechoslovakia or slavery times. We are not seeing people shot in the streets… well, except when they are black and vaguely suspected of something. We can still protest. We cannot compare ourselves to Jan Palach and those who had all of their other options taken away.

And that is true. We still can protest. And that is why those screams made me think of Jan Palach. Those protesters hauled off by security were mocked by many. They screamed as a man credibly accused of sexual assault, a man with clearly stated misogynist and extremist views was given lifetime power over us.

They yelled and made a scene and they were ultimately powerless to do anything. The charade of “democracy” went on with smug indifference. Those in power snicker and call their “tantrums” futile and petty.

But it is not nothing to scream at injustice and the destruction of a democratic country. It is not nothing. It is the one thing that still stands between us and the likes of Jan Palach. We can still scream where it is heard. He couldn’t without ending up being tortured in a dark cell.

There is a meme on Facebook that says “You now know what you would have done in Nazi Germany. You’re doing it right now.”

The idea is that the early days of Nazi Germany did not look so different from our current situation, a terribly polarized country with a ridiculous, extreme right-wing faction gaining popular support among a certain frustrated portion of the population while most of the traditional powers tut-tutted and insisted that any resistance be done through their channels. Most of the middle class and intellectuals were sure for a very long time that it wasn’t really that bad, that these nuts would not get total control. They considered the Nazis to be deplorable certainly but not a real threat.

And most people either were swept up into the extremism because they were easily swayed by advertising and razzle-dazzle or they disliked the extremists who gained power but just grumbled quietly about it and mostly made sure not to take any great personal risks.

The thinking behind the meme is that the beginnings of Nazi Germany looked a lot like the United States today and so it is now easy to tell what kind of person you would have been then. And in some ways that meme is right. We have far different technology and public discourse and we are more aware of totalitarianism than most people were then. But the same dynamic is clearly visible, the same divided groups and the same vulnerability to manipulative extremism.

I don’t compare our times to the height of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Prague or slavery times. I do compare our times to the run-up to such moments in history. We are still in the stage where we can scream and not be shot—most of us. We are not yet faced with the choice Jan Palach perceived—to live in utter oppression or to die loudly enough that the scream will at least break the oppressive silence.

And so I ask myself who would I have been in the days leading up to the darkest times in history?

And today I know the answer.

I would have been a writer who wrote the truth even if it meant losing jobs—and eventually a career—over it. I have done that. I have lost jobs and lost my hard-fought career in newspaper journalism with one of the best national newspapers in large part because I wouldn’t tow the line and I broke out of the mold of the celebrity-focused, reality-impaired news too often. I had a couple of run-ins with censorship of historical facts and ended up on the NRA’s journalist “hit list” before I was done.

I would have been a member of a vulnerable group who could not get work or participate in mainstream society in my own country because of the self-destructive way that country was organized which directly excluded my group. Because of that I would have been forced to leave the country and spend my life far from my home and family. I left the United States twenty years ago because as a legally blind person I could not be independent and fully participate in society without public transportation, which is today one of the greatest needs for everyone to combat climate change. Because I am legally blind, the community I emigrated to does not entirely accept me either, but I do have public transportation and so I can have a normal life, a family and a job. The same was true of many who fled destructive regimes for other reasons—less-than enthusiastic welcome but a chance to live.

Whether I stayed or left, I would have been active in protest movements, organizing as long and as hard as I could. I led protests against the war in Iraq in my city, even though it cost me another job and impacted my health. But for a long time I would not have been among those who dropped everything to protest full-time or risked the most. I participated in actions to support Greenpeace blockaders who did risk their lives to protest US imperialism and environmental destruction. I was terribly afraid when I was almost caught by military police while bringing food to an encampment. All I risked that time was a trip to the local jail, a fine and a record. But I quaked with fear and because I was trying to adopt children and didn’t want the possible bureaucratic repercussions, I didn’t ask to take on a riskier role in the protests.

In those other times, I still would have adopted children from a vulnerable group, despite disapproval from many sides. I have done that. I would have been one of those people who held down a hearth and cooked food and let people traveling to protests or fleeing from danger sleep in their home. That too I have done.

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Michelle of flickr.com

I would also have been among those who eventually became too exhausted by hand-to-mouth work and health problems to go to most protests. I am exhausted. Most protests are too far and too difficult for me to get to anymore. Then again, needy children keep me tied down. I would have been one of those who found a small corner to hide in when I got older and less physically strong. I would have continued in small ways to resist personally and to give help to the endangered ones who crossed my path.

I would have been among those who wished to do something significant, to join the “real resistance,” but didn’t first because of fear and later because of those who already depended on me. I have fantasies of helping refugees from war-torn and climate-devastated regions. I have fantasies of going off to live in camps at places like Standing Rock to put my body between the corporations and the destruction of the earth’s climate and our children’s future. But I haven’t done it. I am less afraid now that I am older. There is less at stake because there is less of my life and no career or adoption process left to lose.

I would have been a quiet ally to those most targeted by the oppression. I would have stood up for them against social bullying and helped if I could. But I wouldn’t have had either the energy or the capacity to do much that really mattered, because I am also not among the privileged and because even when I don’t fear for my own life and livelihood, I fear for my children, and because of distance and lack of funds and reticence toward cold, hard living.

I would not have been a hero or one remembered by history. I would not have been a collaborator or someone who willfully didn’t see what was happening. I would have been willing to sacrifice a job or a career, but not my family in order to tell the truth. I would have done small things to help those worst affected and felt guilty that I didn’t do more. I would have been among those taking carefully measured risks. And unless I was among the unlucky few—like say Heather Heyer— I wouldn’t have paid the highest price. I know because that is the kind of character I am in our current story.

Have you let yourself think this through? Who would you have been?

Avoid falsely easy answers. You may be among those targeted by hate today but there are likely others who are in greater danger—assuming you have the leisure to be reading my blog.

If you are among those most targeted today, consider that victims also had options back then. Would you have been among those who left early, who found a way out or a way to fight back? Would you have been among those who covered their ears and prayed that it would not go so far? Would you have been among those who blamed your friends and neighbors or joined with them in mutual aid to survive? What is it you are doing today? Are you lashing out at allies or frozen with fear or getting your children to safety and building alliances?

And if you are part of a group that is not yet targeted, who would you have been then? Would you have been the bystander who knew a bit of what was going on but chose not to get too involved? Would you have been the one who who shut their ears and eyes to the suffering of others and the devastation of their homes? Would you have had the courage to use what rights you had to say “no,” to protest loudly when you could and to give aid quietly?

Who would you have been? A lot of the wondering has been resolved in the past two years. Who are you now?

Children of drought: Dry dust and roaring flood

Wet, singed air. A heavy blanket of heat interrupted by eddies of cool. That sizzling sound that comes from the earth. Blessed, blessed rain. After long drought, rain at last!

There is nothing quite like the smell and the sound of rain on a parched landscape. The Summer Solstice brought the rain here--unexpected, unpredicted by the weather services. The storm winds lashed the land and broke our prime plum tree like a match stick. Still it was a gift at that.

We'd had three months of drought and the impact on agriculture and the municipal water is dramatic. Our small town is trucking in drinking water daily. and what is usually a lush verdant landscape in June is parched yellow and brown like the semi-desert where I grew up.

This isn't the semi-desert though. It's soft, green Central Europe.

Creative Commons image by Kate Russell 

Creative Commons image by Kate Russell 

Yet climate change has brought the drought, pushing the arid climate of the Balkans north over the past ten years. Both winters and summers are drier and warmer. For several years there have been water shortages but this year is the worst anyone can remember.

And with the drought comes another kind of desperation up from the south. Trails of refugees,, clinging to tiny boats to cross the salt water and then walking in lines so long you don't see the end.

The media doesn't report their stories much. You see a mother with a small child alone, no men. They two are huddled against a fence, sleeping on pavement for three days while they wait for authorities to say whether they will be deported back to a place with no food and certain death in the war. We know little more of their stories. 

And most people don't care to know. It isn't about opening up to a ragged and persecuted few anymore. Now we are seeing the first lapping waves of what will be a roaring flood. Climate refugees.

In Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Egypt they once fed themselves. It was dry but they had methods of conserving water. Now, there simply is no water to conserve. Nothing will grow without water. And there are millions upon millions of people who cannot under any circumstances be fed in those lands of much greater drought. And we are well aware of the chaos even our little drought has caused.

I sat in a cafe with my husband on the eve of the Solstice. It was our first time out together in months. The kids are on their annual overnight school trip  It was a rare treat and we sat eating grown-up cuisine and little goblets of iced coffee and tiramisu. 

Gods, we needed it.

We had been at each other like irritated cats for weeks. Every criticism bites and there is plenty to criticize. We're exhausted and neither of us gets done what we're supposed to most days.

He talked loud about despair: "The politics in Europe and America are just spiraling into hate and I can't even blame them. Left or right, it doesn't even matter. Someone is always there to take advantage of the frustration and hype fear."

I try to get him to speak more softly in the restaurant, but he doesn't care anymore. "Yeah, people hate immigrants. But these aren't the kind of immigrants we used to get. Those were the small business people who wanted to seek a better life, political dissidents and intellectuals. Now we get everyone, whole countries, because they are starving. Climate change, you know. The deserts are taking over. People fight over land. Wars and hunger push people out and they come here. But we're too small and if we really took them in, we could end up a minority in our own country."

Before you sneer at that final line, ask a Native American if it is possible for migrants to take over and make you a minority in your own country. Climate change is that kind of phenomenon--so massive that it will likely move whole populations within our lifetime. 

I tell him about the children in cages along the southern border in the US. We know more than most about the trauma of separation that will follow those children for a lifetime. Our own children started their lives in orphanages. They were materially comfortable, but one screamed almost non-stop for the first two years he was home, a high-pitched terrified scream that both drove you away and broke your heart at the same time. The other kid still totters around speaking in baby gurgles most days nine years later, even though she tests average for IQ. 

This is not an "Oh well, they had to go to mandatory summer camp," kind of thing, Separation from family in childhood, being housed in impersonal environments and the terror of not knowing when or if familiar people will return cause lifelong trauma.

Creative commons image by Freedom House of Flickr

Creative commons image by Freedom House of Flickr

My husband shook his head. "What are we supposed to do?" He gestured helplessly toward the main road of town. Cars were backed up miles, not even crawling. We got to the cafe on bikes. 

It's a single lane road. In places two large modern cars cannot meet and pass each other safely unless one stops. Our once rural area is over-crowded and parched. The local school is bursting at the seams. That's what he means.

In America, there is lots of open space and the refugees are more like a trickle than a flood. Here in Central Europe--without large oceans to both sides--the decisions about compassion are getting harder. 

"What we do is be the kind of people we want to be. I don't know if we'll survive, but I won't send innocent people back to die at the hands of terrorists and I won't support putting children in cages." That's my answer. Not a great one. Principled but light on solutions.

My husband has always espoused humanist values and I realized that this past year he has not wanted to talk politics and social issues the way he used to. He hasn't just been prickly at me. He's frustrated, even hopeless. He turned his face away, but he still had lots of words--loud and angry words and none of them constructive. 

When he quieted, I gave him what little scrap of hope I still have. "When I was a kid in the 1980s, the intellectuals and activists--the people like we are today--were convinced there would be a nuclear war. A lot of people really believed my generation wouldn't grow up."

He nodded and let me speak for once. He had been on the other side of that possible war in the old East Bloc and doing  mandatory military service for a totalitarian Communist regime for part of that decade. 

"But it didn't happen. Then there were parts of the ocean that were technically dead. Environmentalists believed they would take centuries to recover. But they recovered faster than expected. Now if you look at climate change and migration, the bare facts are grim. It looks like we're headed for massive disaster in a few short years. And it is a very serious situation. We have to do what we can. But the earth regenerates better than the bare facts indicate. It's about resilience. I don't know what will happen, but it is likely to be something no one is predicting right now."

For once he didn't argue or criticize. I can't say I gave him hope exactly, but for a few days afterward things have been more peaceful at home. The rain helped. We walk around each other on egg shells, trying to be polite and considerate in the hectic schedule and amid the needs of the troubled children we've made our family with.

Each day we choose our own qualities, our soul, our values.

If we choose to put children in cages today or put up razor wire to keep out starving refugees, we become that. If we choose to struggle for what we can, to fight climate change with our garden beds and bicycles and hand-lettered signs, to fight drought with rain barrels, drip lines and solar panels, to fight hunger with lentil soup and tortillas and to fight despair with stories and songs, then that is what we become. 

Are we choosing to live our values and thus make our own survival harder? I don't know for sure. I only know that survival without meaning is the road to depression.