JP Green House is an urban homestead in Boston.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Love in a Time of Cataclysm

I was in the garden, digging up the last of the potatoes on Monday, when I got the news about the trial results for the Lobster Boat Blockade.

It was a big moment for the climate movement. Defendants Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara, had spent a day last May in a tiny lobster boat called the Henry David T., blocking a massive shipment of coal to Brayton Point Power Station in Fall River, Massachusetts, as a protest against the fossil fuel use that is causing climate change. Their trial would be historic--the first use of the "necessity defense" in a case of civil disobedience for the climate, in which they would claim that their actions were necessary to protect the planet and the human species.

In the end, after months of preparation by lawyers, activists and defendants, the DA chose to do something remarkable. After dropping or reducing most of the charges, he left the courtroom and made a statement to the press that essentially indicated his support for the action. Waving a magazine article by climate activist Bill McKibben--a witness for the defense!-- as he did so, and announced his intention to join the People's Climate March in NYC in two weeks.

The press was amazing. It was a high moment for the movement, especially here in Massachusetts, where nearly all climate activists knew the defendants and had supported the action in some way. Here's a good article from the NYT: Charges Dropped Against Climate Activists.

But this is a personal story. I was a little more on the inside of this action because I've been in a relationship with defendant Ken Ward for seven years now. Ken is the co-founder of JP Green House. We have been lovers, domestic partners, friends, colleagues and compatriots in the climate movement since before it began. But in those seven years our relationship has shifted several times.

Domestic bliss and co-parenting a blended family did not materialize. Even as we had an incomparable connection around matters existential, political, and cultural, and music, we also had a lot of conflict in everyday life. We all know it--the little things aren't so little. Differences in parenting, housekeeping, the pace of life, money and security--these are the things that bring down most marriages. Ken currently lives in Oregon, on the other side of the country from me in Boston, and we see each other 3-4 times/year.

For lack of a better term, we call this an open relationship, but in my mind it's an advanced friendship between two people who need each other for things that others cannot provide. If you know me, you are aware that I suspect monogamy is the least ideal form of relationship for most people. And speaking only for myself--but with an implicit question to all women--I feel that men and women are not yet reconciled after the millennia of patriarchy. We may just be too angry at the bastards to live with them, in many cases.

But when you cannot shake someone, when they stick in your heart no matter how much you drink or date or distract, then that person is a soul mate. Like your children, your parents and your siblings, you are destined to do your work with them.

When I came in, with the potatoes, and picked up my voice mails from Ken, and read the news, a childish part of me stomped my foot and said "dammit, now he's a rock star and here I am with the potatoes!" Then another part of me remembered my Buddhist training in "sympathetic joy"--the practice of being happy for others in their good fortune, just as we would be with them in their suffering.

Ken is an iconoclast in the environmental community, often isolated from the institutions he helped create (among them the PIRGs and Greenpeace), because he has insisted on calling attention to their failure to address climate change with unity and the true intent to stop it. He's a truth-teller by nature, almost obsessively, and it has not made his life as an activist easy. It has not made our relationship easy. I am more cool-headed, more grounded, and I am very domestic. It is through this house, my parenting and my community presence that I represent my truth.

So I get the potatoes, and Ken gets the press. He deserves the spotlight. I am grateful for his work, our work,  and for our lives together.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Okay Doomers, Let's March

Dear Doomers,

I get to use that pejorative term in addressing you, because I'm one of you. The radical fringe of the climate movement, we're the ones uncomfortably pointing out in meetings, online, and in person that the science is telling us it's too late to have a movement. The physics and chemistry of the atmosphere got away from us; the tipping points have all been reached and breached; the window of opportunity has closed.

It's too late to stop, or even arrest climate change. Adaptation is a fool's errand. So, I'll see you at the People's Climate March, right?

I'll just summarize the evidence here, for anyone else who might be reading this, unconvinced. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now predicts 4--6C of warming within a century. But even this august body of scientists is leaving out huge and key pieces of evidence known as positive feedback loops (they were considered to unpredictable to factor into the original reports). The warming we cause sets in motion natural processes which cause more warming--melting glaciers and methane release are two of the most dangerous ones, each of which could bring about several more degrees of warming. It is likely that these feedback loops are already unstoppable at this point. The World Bank and the International Energy Agency, along with many individual scientists, have stated that it will likely be impossible for human civilization to survive warming of more than 4C.

So, Doomers, will I see you at the People's Climate March in NYC on September 21? The one that's going to be "the largest climate march in history". Indeed it will, given that human history is just about over, right?

I agree. It's too late to do anything that will work, and the only appropriate response is terror and despair. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Your terror and despair are justified, and you are not clinically depressed or delusional--you're sane, and most people are in denial.

But depending on your age, you still have some time to fill. Maybe a lifetime of time. What's the right thing to do with that time? I myself have tried a number of things, including spending a lot of time spreading the bad news, arguing with activists who say "we're a very resilient species" and "humans have faced adversity before." I have raged at the hopium that mimics the bipolar mind--grasping at little threads of hope, only to have them collapse.

Having done all that (I've been a climate activist for 8 years now), I find that I still enjoy life. The beauty of mountains and ocean is still present; the thrill of spotting wildlife is the same as ever; my garden amazes me every year with its willingness to return from the dead. Nature hasn't given up, so why have I given up?

Despair is a very inert place, very dull. I created an urban homestead, energy positive, with a huge garden, that functions as a demonstration home and a budget B&B. Should I give up on that? Is it meaningless to try create a better future now? If so, what should I do instead? And what do I tell my children? Life doesn't give up that easily.

No one should get out of bed for this. I think despair is a place you have to go and be familiar with, so that you can leave it willingly. But it might just be that the fight itself means something. That attending the People's Climate March, or working in any way against the inevitability of climate change, is a worthy fight that will energize you and fill you with love and pride so that you can enjoy the time that is left.

"Today is a good day to die, follow me," is an oft-cited phrase attributed to Low Dog, of the Lakota, as he addressed his men before a battle. I looked into it and it turns out that the actual phrase, "nake nula waun", is better translated to mean "I am ready for whatever comes." That level of presence, acceptance and willingness to engage would be a worthy way to live. I don't claim to have it, yet.

Here's another phrase I repeat to myself at times: "We don't know what we don't know." There may be options yet unseen that will make a future possible. I don't dwell on that, personally, because I don't want to spend a lot of time imagining scenarios. But I allow for it.

So, fellow climate realists--see you in New York?


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ice Cold Truth

A lot of people are reacting to the news of the inevitable Antarctic glacier melt, and the inevitable sea-level rise (10 feet in this century) with calls for action, the creation of seawalls, a carbon tax, solar and wind power--the usual litany of fixes for climate change.
    But the word inevitable means "certain to happen, unavoidable". It means, "not preventable." While this may seem unreal or far off, the residents of island nations like the Maldives are already contemplating the certainty of the destruction of their homeland, the need to relocate their entire culture and people (where?). In our own privileged world, we face loss of many coastal cities, and major destruction to others; millions, perhaps billions, of refugees trying to relocate inland. This, on top of all the other horrors of climate change that are upon us. Inevitable.
    I am not proposing that we lie down and die. But I want to see some acknowledgment of the horror of this moment, when we should be realizing how thoroughly we've broken the planet. There should be grieving, wailing, and self-scrutiny. After that comes the resolution to continue, somehow--hopefully, very differently.
    I respect the reaction that demands action, rapid attention to the gravity of the problem. But another way is to see that we skip too quickly over our despair, our complicity and our guilt, to demanding fixes from science and technology. This is a terminal diagnosis for our civilization as it now exists. If it's not going to be a terminal diagnosis for our species (and most others), we do have to pause long enough to find our grown up selves and figure out how to change radically in order to survive this.

Please debate me if you find this analysis flawed, but I see in the climate movement, and even in the scientific community, a failure to use basic logic to connect the dots. I believe it’s based on a fear of looking at the totality of the horror we face. Yet anyone who follows climate science even the way I do--as an educated non-scientist--ought to be able to make these connections.
    Here’s an example: We now know that a temperature rise of 2C is inevitable, probably inside this century. And we were just informed that critical glaciers in Antarctica are doomed to melt away entirely. We also know the loss of the Albedo Effect, which is when white ice reflects heat back into space, causes significantly more warming (James Lovelock says it will be as great an effect as the sum total of human emissions). When you put these things together, you should be able to use simple logic to conclude that “runaway climate change”--i.e. unstoppable warming--is the result. 
    Add what is known about methane release from melting permafrost (methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2), and you can loop back and see that 2C is a very, very conservative estimate of how much warming we face. Add the warnings from the International Energy Association, the World Bank and the IPCC that 4C of warming represents a world to which humans may well be unable to adapt.
    If you dare to look at all these pieces (and there are a great deal more!), you find yourself on the edge of a cliff fighting vertigo. Human extinction is by no means an apocalyptic fantasy. The urge to throw yourself over is real and present. You realize you will have to watch, and then suffer, all that is now inevitable.
    If the climate movement were to tell us the truth about climate, there would be no climate movement. This paradox tortures me, and has stopped me in my tracks, as an activist.
But I am not a “defeatist”. This term is being thrown at people who are speaking plain about what climate science is showing us. Many of them are scientists (James Lovelock, James Hansen), some are science writers (Ross Gelbspan), and some are activists (Carolyn Baker, Paul Kingsnorth). Major teachers on a variety of spiritual paths are coming to the same realization (Thich Nhat Hanh and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee). Unfamous existential thinkers everywhere are quietly reaching the same conclusion.

     A new kind of activism is quietly developing among these desperate souls. It’s the activism of those who have to work from a place of truth, and of those who recognize this very grave and primary truth: There are powers greater than us.