Climate Action

Saying "S-Hell No!" as a Buddhist peacemaker

Our flotilla of several hundred kayaks was appropriately led into the Duwamish River waterway - Chief Seattle's home ground - by five native canoes representing Puget Sound First Nations people. On Saturday, May 16th, I joined a flotilla of several hundred "kayaktivists" to  say "S-Hell No!" to Seattle's back room decision to provide home port facilities to Shell Oil's fleet of Arctic oil rigs. Shell's first rig - the "Polar Pioneer" - arrived on Seattle waterfront on Thursday. It's progress down Admiralty Inlet past my home on Whidbey Island, under tow of several large tugs, had the feel of Mordor itself arriving in our midst.

It is difficult to describe the scale or the audacity of this venture by Shell to profit from the destruction of the Arctic ice cap - a catastrophe that is itself the direct result of our runaway addiction to fossil fuels. In his guest editorial in the Seattle Times last week, titled Shell and high water: the climate battle of SeattleKC Golden of Climate Solutions put it this way. "If you had to pick a logo for the campaign to wreak climate havoc, you could hardly do better than Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the “Polar Pioneer.” Climate denial has reached its fullest expression when the melting of the Arctic ice cap is greeted as a signal to drill for more oil where the ice used to be."

As a city, Seattle has staked its identity on leading the nation in its quest toward carbon neutrality, and Shell's deal with the Port of Seattle has generated a storm of moral outrage here. As Golden put it in his editorial, "Shell has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Their lease to establish a “home port” in Seattle was negotiated under a “verbal nondisclosure agreement,” which allowed Shell’s hired guns to campaign aggressively for approval, while opponents were kept in the dark. Citizens are incensed, and the mayor and City Council are trying to assert the overwhelming opposition of the community they represent. Even Port of Seattle commissioners who approved the lease profess to oppose Arctic drilling."

My experience on the water last Saturday brought home to me more viscerally the truth in these words. Gazing up at the towering monstrosity of the Polar Pioneer from my tiny perch on the water in a kayak, I was able to connect more directly to the towering hubris that is behind it. I felt much less alone in my sense of moral violation. I was both appalled by what I was seeing, and uplifted by being part of this spontaneous outpouring of resistance.

Yet as a practicing Buddhist, my motivation for being there was more complex than simply outrage. I cannot know whether my presence there, or this creative expression of moral concern by so many, will actually make a difference. I cannot know whether Shell's audacious plan to continue profiting from the climate chaos it has been instrumental in creating will pay off, even in Seattle. I don't know if our technological hubris will once again win the day.

Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has three tenets for his Order of Zen Peacemakers. They include, 1) Not knowing, 2) Bearing witness, and 3) Compassionate action. I was there primarily to bear witness. My Buddhist practice tells me that these are wise precepts, and I do my best to live in this spirit. I have a commitment to show up without attachment to outcome. I do my best to show up without fixed ideas about who is to "right" and who is to "blame". My experience tells me that we are in this fix for reasons that are far more complex than anyone can fully understand, and that no one is exclusively to blame. It tells me that compassion is more powerful than anger and outrage as a motivation for action - and ultimately more effective. This is often hard to explain to other activists.

I hope we win this historic battle with Shell and the Port of Seattle. I hope this marks an important moment of turning away from the economics of self-destruction that has us all in its grip. I am fully with KC Golden in his hope that Seattle chooses not to "service drilling operations that recklessly stoke the climate crisis and mock our community’s values." I passionately agree with Seattle's Mayor Ed Murray that, “It’s time to turn the page. Things like oil trains and coal trains and oil-drilling rigs are the past. It’s time to focus on the economy of the future.” In support of that vision, I will continue to show up. But I refuse to do so in a spirit that breeds animosity and discord in my own heart, and spreads that dischord to others.

It's not easy, in these times, to keep compassion at the center of our efforts to show up. The losses are so great. The heartbreak so palpable. The anger and outrage so alluring. The delusions of grandeur so infuriatingly dominant in our culture of endless growth and consumption. Holding to a compassionate center in relation to our climate debacle is one of the most challenging things I have ever tried to do. But bearing witness in a spirit of of compassionate action - actually keeping my heart open, when I am able to pull it off, has consistently left me feeling more powerful, rather than less so. It has shown itself to be the most effective strategy for opening new doors of possibility and of connection. And, frankly, it just feels better, and is more fun.

"Tapping Into Dark Optimism" - Whidbey Institute Climate Conference

In my blog post this week I want to share more of the inspiring words spoken at our Whidbey Institute Climate Conference entitled "Calling the Choir To Sing", that took place on April 19th.

Anna Fahey, Communications Strategist at Sightline Institute, gave a powerful talk on "Tapping Into Dark Optimism". Dark optimism, she says, "is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential." She consolidates many of the core ideas that I've tried to highlight in this blog, in a wonderfully condensed and heartfelt way, from the perspective of a dedicated policy professional. How, for example, do we get people exactly like 'me' to care about climate change, if I'm not really facing the hard truth myself? How do we harness the necessary intensity within our movement that has proven so elusive? And how do we confront the difficult emotions that our climate crisis evokes in all of us, with courage and resilience rather than fear and avoidance?

Here is the text of Anna's moving "flash talk" to fellow climate activists:

"[As a communications specialist with Sightline Institute] I usually hand people well-researched talking points and tell them to repeat them as many times as they can, and then go on my way. Here I want to talk about our personal, emotional relationship with climate change, beginning with the question of “how do we get people exactly like 'me' to care about climate change? I'm talking about people who already care a lot, but not quite enough to be really angry, or sad, or energized or motivated. I understand this problem, because when I look at my own three year-old daughter, I almost never allow myself to think about climate change in her future. I don't dare. It's too hard. Maybe you know the feeling.”

“Psychoanalysts tell us that we can both know something and not know something at the same time. Even for someone like me who is steeped in climate policy and climate science day-in and day-out, I find it extremely difficult not to push that emotional part away. I feel that every day with climate change. Maybe you do too. I witness this in my own colleagues as we uncomfortably joke about climate impacts rather than having those deep, meaningful conversations around the office about what it actually means for ourselves and our kids.

“So the problem is to move from the intellectual acknowledgement of the crisis to a more emotional place, and I think that starts with us. I mean, if WE can't do it, how can we help other people do it, right? If we let down our guard, we may feel helpless, skeptical, jaded, sad or afraid. We certainly feel a little bit lost when we think about democracy being broken – a pretty big deal. To cope and stay sane, we have to sort of ignore. This tension between knowing and not knowing makes our job pretty hard, the job of pushing for policy solutions, and getting other people – a bigger percentage of the population – to stop ignoring as well. We have to do it ourselves before we can ask others to join us. . . Dave Roberts of Grist has said that talking about climate change at a cocktail party is like farting. (laughter) You're laughing because you've experienced this too. It's basically a taboo. It's not discussed in polite conversation. . .

"But rather than changing the subject, many scholars looking at the psychological dimensions of climate change are suggesting that we actually talk about it more, talk about the seriousness, and talk about the emotions. This is important not only for our own mental health, but because what drives social change isn't necessarily broad-based support – like everybody has to get on board, but the intensity of the minority. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations. In fact, research shows that the tipping point, where a minority belief becomes a majority opinion is only 10%. . . Opinion research shows that we already have 10% when it comes to climate change, but I think that that intensity is not there – certainly not the level of intensity that we see among the climate deniers, or the pushers of doubt. So what we need is a core group - maybe more than 10%, because of those pushers of doubt - who feel the climate threat in their bones. And luckily 10%-20% is pretty do-able. Those people are already sort of with us. But the feeling part is really hard. So I'm not alone in thinking that this starts with us, with people like me, allowing ourselves to feel this in our bones – which is scary, but it could actually give us strength. If we are a choir singing, that emotional underpinning gives the song its force, its power, and makes our voices stronger.

"A colleague of mine, Renee Lertzman from Portland, who is a researcher in climate and psychology . . . draws from a tradition called “engaged Buddhism”. She talks about bearing witness – not pushing away our despair and our concern, but relating with it as evidence of our vitality, our commitment and our humanity. She calls it “becoming friends with despair.” That friendship can actually empower and embolden us, rather than dragging us down.

"I'm going to close with Renee's recommendations for starting this process . . . , and allowing ourselves to have those feelings that are so hard.

  •  The first is to pay attention to your feeling and thoughts. Notice when you judge or stifle your own feelings.
  • Speak and write about those feelings. Break that cocktail party taboo.
  • Listen to friends and colleagues, and practice creating space for feelings, rather than downplaying or joking about those feelings.
  • Identify people you can talk to about your emotions without fear of judgment, or being considered too negative.
  • Create support forums in your social or workplace networks - (that's what we're doing today).
  • Recognize that these emotions do not negate the power and importance of the work that we do. It's natural and normal. And it's important to remember that it saps more of our energy to suppress this stuff than it does to let it out . . . there is liberation and freedom in letting out those feelings.

"And I'll add to Renee's list that we need to hold others, and maybe especially our leaders and our media, accountable – but also ourselves - accountable for the seriousness and the emotion that's involved in this. Don't let them dismiss or sideline it.

"And we need to celebrate our victories. Celebrate this community, and celebrate when we get to sink our teeth into something like coal exports or campus divestment. I think all this has helped us break out of a rut, but it is also a process that is going to help us learn how to bring others along with us. So our intensity, and our emotions, and learning how to process all of that, is going to help us bring that 10% or that 20% of the population along with us.

“Dark Optimism” is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential, and I think we can harness that."


Why do Anna's words matter? Because we are in this for the long haul, and it will take all the emotional intelligence and personal courage we can muster to stay with the truth of this crisis as it continues to unfold.

This week a number of global CO2 monitors recorded 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time. This is a huge symbolic threshold, a "dark truth". The last time we had this concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was several million years ago. 350 ppm is now considered by many scientists to be the upper limit to sustain civilized human life on earth. In other words, "If not now, when? If not us, then who?"


"Why is Gaia angry with me?"

Eric Nagourney, in the New York Times on Feb. 15, wrote:

You may not carry a laptop case made out of recycled fixed-gear bicycle tires. And it has probably been a while since you used yak dung to heat your home. But, hey, you’re an environmentalist. At least, that’s what you and your fellow boomers tell those pollsters whenever they ask.

So why is your carbon footprint bigger than the footprint of the T. rex that turned into the oil you’re using in your Prius?

When researchers tried to calculate carbon dioxide emissions by age group in the United States, guess who scored worst? You in the old Grateful Dead shirt — we’re talking to you.


It's true. My generation, the one behind the first big wave of environmentalism, the generation that staged the first Earth Day Celebration, pushed through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the American Wilderness System - we're also the ones who made giant carbon footprints fashionable. And this study by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft shows that personal carbon emissions tend to reach a peak around age 65. We boomers are environmentalists as long as no one questions our freedom to engage in as many high-carbon activities as we damn well please.

The good news, for climate, is that personal emissions trend downward after that, as we get tired of all that travel, or start spending all our discretionary income on medical procedures rather than rather than airplanes and gas.

Where I live, in a haven for wealthier boomers, sixty is the new forty, and eighty is the new sixty, and I don't see much sign of the newly retired easing back on the throttle around here.

About this generation of aging activists, Michael Grunwald of Time has written, "They recognize the emergency but feel uncomfortable about the sirens. They endorse the war, but like armchair McClellans, they are always finding excuses for why we shouldn’t fight."

That's why I'm siding with the emerging generation on the Keystone Pipeline, the coal trains, and the David-against-Goliath effort to divest from oil stocks. In this "battle of the century", as Grunwald is calling it, "you don’t always get to choose where to fight. You still have to show you’re willing to fight."



The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse

"The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse"

I live in the one narrow strip of land in the continental United States that was slightly cooler than normal in 2012. Puget Sound was the only place coded green on a national weather map for average yearly temperatures - a small spot of coolness in a sea of raging heat. Mind you, what kept us cool was the unrelenting rain. We got soaked. But it did keep us cool.

On this particular map - (I can't seem to dig it out of the cyber-pile, so I'm not able to reference it here), the great body of the continental U.S. east and south of the Cascades was a tangle of yellows, oranges and dark reds, indicating average temperatures ranging dangerously above normal. The map looked to me like the very picture of a fire burning. It seems we are starting to learn what it means to live inside of  a burning fever.

Partly because of this, the U.S. climate movement is surging, and last Sunday's climate rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. was a heady day for the movement. I want to give some reasons why we should not only tolerate this new fervor, but join it.

Mark Hertsgaard described the rally in D.C. this way;

"Braving frigid cold, at least 35,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington on Sunday for the largest climate change rally in U.S. history. With a second climate and clean energy rally planned for Earth Day on April 22, Sunday’s demonstration had the feel of a first act, an opening statement of what the burgeoning U.S. climate movement is demanding from a government that for decades has denied and delayed action on the most urgent problem of our age."

KC Golden of Climate Solutions issued a rousing moral commentary on the meaning of this rally in a terrific piece in Grist earlier this week. He calls it "The Keystone Principle", since the centerpiece of the movement right now is stopping the Keystone oil pipeline from the Tar Sands in Alberta to the Texas oil refineries. Why is this so important? KC puts it this way:

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future. It’s about physical and moral consequences, now. And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement. It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline — even one as huge and odious as Keystone — will not literally “solve” climate disruption. No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation. The question — for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks — is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

He goes on to say:

If you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits. It is your business strategy, precisely. For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water. We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle. It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

It is the scale of moral consequence that has been largely missing from this debate, and the scale of action that legitimate moral fervor can engender. Moral abdication has been perpetuated by placing climate disruption in the category of 'just another issue' among many, and by continuing to hand the media megaphones to climate deniers long after the scientific consensus has become crystal clear.

The line is stark now. Again to quote KC Golden:

No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now. Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like.

President Obama has a scorching decision to make on the Keystone project, if he is to build moral authority into his rousing words on climate action in his State of the Union Address. This "pipeline in the sand", as Bill McKibben calls it, is rapidly becoming a moral rallying cry with enormous potential to leverage change. Citizen activism will continue to blossom on this front regardless of Obama's decision on Keystone, but the symbolic power of saying "No" to big oil on this one would be huge.

Because things are moving so fast on the climate issue through the organizing power of social media, and because the mainstream press continues to portray the movement as marginal, it is easy to miss this fervor, and to dismiss it as just another fad. It isn't. We will all be climate activists soon. Our unraveling biosphere will leave us no choice. So why not get started now? Join a rally near you. Cash in that next luxury vacation and explore the treasures close to home. Keep those jets grounded. Divest your oil stocks. Occupy your bike! Pester your Congressman. Lay down on the tracks. We are all living in the tongue of the rapids.

Is Obama our "New Abolitionist"?

Last fall, during a grueling hike out of the Glacier Peak Wilderness with my son Alex, I found myself riffing on Abraham Lincoln to distract both of us from the numbing pain in our legs. We had been driven from the high flanks of Glacier Peak by an intense early blizzard in September, and were running on fumes near the end of our fifteen-mile hike back out to the trailhead. I had Alex as a captive audience when I got going about my admiration for Lincoln as the hinge person of his extraordinary times. And with a looming presidential election, I wanted Alex to know why I thought this election mattered so profoundly, and why I thought President Obama still had a chance to become a great president, possibly even on the order of Abraham Lincoln.

If slavery was Lincoln's crucible, climate change is rapidly emerging as the great moral crisis of our era. Lincoln chose to enter his second term by facing directly into the political storm of the 13th Amendment, seeking to bring a legislative end to slavery once and for all. He did so against powerful resistance from both his opponents in Congress and his own cabinet. He risked the hard-won legacy of his presidency on a cause that seemed to his advisors doomed to fail. Such a failure by Lincoln to meet this "inflection point in history" likely would have kept the slavery question festering far into Reconstruction, even after the Confederate surrender. And if that effort had failed, we might not still be making blockbuster movies on his presidency a century and a half later.

But Obama's historical crucible may prove even greater, the stakes even higher, and he may need to become our "New Abolitionist" in chief to move the dial forward on climate action.

Denis Hayes, who oversaw the first Earth Day event in 1970, argued this week in that, "While economic prosperity and domestic tranquility are vital to winning elections, no federal monuments will be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare. The stature awarded President Obama by future historians will be very largely determined by his response to one issue: climate disruption." If Obama is to rise with Lincoln from "Good" to "Great", he must meet his own historic inflection point with a similarly fierce resolution.

The State of the Union Address this week gave further evidence that Obama is beginning to rise to that challenge. He has clearly stepped out of the shadows on the climate crisis, signaling the beginning of a much more forthright effort by his administration to meet this historical challenge. Here are some prominent statements on climate from his second term's opening State of the Union Address last Tuesday:

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it is too late."

He goes on to say,

"if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy."

While specific proposals were lacking, and that is troublesome, several significant precedents were set here. First, the unofficial gag rule on even mentioning climate change at the highest levels of public policy is officially over. Second, the illusion of a legitimate "debate" about whether the climate crisis is real or "a hoax" has been broken. We are unlikely to return again to an era of officially-sanctioned climate denial. Third, the immediacy of the climate threat has been acknowledged. It is no longer being framed as an abstract or possible threat to our future, but as a real and present danger that is already upon us, with clearly observable catastrophic effects. And finally, Obama has signaled that federal action to more aggressively address the climate crisis will no longer be held hostage to a recalcitrant Republican wing of Congressional extremists. The President has committed himself to take executive actions to the limit of his power if Congress refuses to do so.

These statements of principle and commitment are also in line with Obama's choice of John Kerry as Sec. of State, and of Sally Jewell as Sec. of Interior - both fierce advocates for climate action in the policy domain.

This feels to me, at least, like a remarkable moment of turning within American climate policy. Alex and I were together on the night of Obama's re-election, and we recently watched the movie Lincoln together as well. The President's striking emergence onto the climate stage since his re-election strengthens his potential for greatness.

A lot of climate history has been written already since our conversation on the Glacier Peak trail. Hurricane Sandy and last week's epic blizzard in New England are only the latest installments in our climate's accelerating unraveling. Obama's new display of confidence and commitment to lead on climate is heartening. But whether he rises to genuine greatness as a leader on this issue - whether he has truly recognized climate as his over-arching historical inflection point, is a story that will be written in the coming months and years.

It is essential that we do our part as citizens to hold the President's feet to the fire, and our own as well, in meeting this defining crisis of our era.


"Only love can save us from climate change"

Thirty years ago a group of Trappist monks at a monastery in Oregon introduced me to sitting meditation, and invited me into my first Zen meditation retreat. At first I found this practice awkward and rather jarring. Sitting still could be very uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. Why would anyone want to put themselves out in this way? But something in the cleansing physicality and heart-based orientation of the practice took hold of me. The burdens of a life based on abstract "belief" found relief in the act of just sitting and watching. The experience of direct insight seemed to reside in this simple act. Slowly, often by fits and starts, my commitment to meditation practice spread into the core of my life. It took years of trial and error for the roots of practice to gain personal traction. But these day my regular sitting practice, and habit of doing silent meditation retreats several times a year, has a profound impact on how I experience my life in the world. The flow line between my active and contemplative lives grows more intertwined with each passing year.

So this recent interview with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh resonated deeply with me. Last week I shared a story about the power of love in the domain we're all most familiar with - personal relationships. This week I want to share Thich Naht Hanh's reflections about the power of love in a domain where it is seldom considered - climate change and climate activism.

In a recent piece by Joe Confino in the Guardian, entitled Only love can save us from climate change, Nhat Hanh that makes this connection explicit. Among living Buddhist teachers, perhaps only the Dalai Lama is better known than the 86-year-old "Thay", as he is known to his followers. Thay's commitment to living within the simplicity of his Plum Village monastic community in France has not stopped him from writing over 100 books, and building thriving monastic communities in Thailand, Hong Kong, the U.S. and Germany. He has hundreds of thousands of followers world wide.

Thay believes the reason people remain in denial of global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, is that most of us are mired in our own personal suffering, and are too afraid to open to the plight of Mother Earth. In his conversation with Confino, Thay suggested that "our search for fame, wealth, power and sexual gratification provides the perfect refuge for people to hide from the truth about the many challenges facing the world. Worse still, our addiction to material goods and a hectic lifestyle provides only a temporary plaster for gaping emotional and spiritual wounds, which only drives greater loneliness and unhappiness."

To a heart that is open, this spectacle of self-imposed suffering ought to engender compassion rather than judgement. Leading with compassion is not only the best way to change hearts, it is the only way. Many people "want to get busy in order to forget. We should not talk in terms of what they should do, what they should not do, for the sake of the future. We should talk to them in such a way that touches their hearts, that helps them to engage on the path that will bring them true happiness; the path of love and understanding, the courage to let go. When they have tasted a little bit of peace and love, they may wake up."

For us climate change "is very alarming and urgent, but for Mother Earth, if she suffers she knows she has the power to heal herself even if it takes 100 million years. We think our time on earth is only 100 years, which is why we are impatient. . . "Mother Earth is very talented. She has produced Buddhas, bodhisattvas, great beings."
Grassroots movements for change are necessary, but such movements are effective only if activists first deal with their own anger and fears, rather than simply projecting them outward onto others. He cites the example of Gandhi, who "was capable of urging his people to boycott a number of things. He knew how to take care of himself during non-violent operations. He knew how to preserve energy because the struggle is long, so spiritual practice is very much needed in an attempt to help change society."
"Compassion is a powerful energy," says Thay. "With compassion you can die for other people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say [what is true] because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it."
"Now is the time to begin to learn how to love in a non-discriminatory way because we are intelligent enough, but we are not loving enough as a species. . . The Buddha of our time may not be an individual but it might be a sangha [practicing community]. If every day you practice walking and sitting meditation and generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and peace, you are a cell in the body of the new Buddha. This is not a dream but is possible today and tomorrow. The Buddha is not something far away but in the here and in the now."

I know that I am still a beginner in manifesting this kind of love. Perhaps I always will be. The complexity of our human life has a way of subverting even our best intentions, and perfection is never possible. But I can also feel how the tendrils of compassion are growing stronger in me, often beneath the radar of conscious awareness. Each time I take my seat on the meditation cushion, each time I turn back toward my work in the world with a listening heart, I water these seeds of compassion. So I am coming to trust that Thich Naht Hanh is right. Even if it takes 100 million years, I will do it. And that part of me that is still alive 100 million years from now will continue to do it. It is when I feel the strength of this kind of resolve that my fear falls away.


"If kids knew Santa's home is melting . . ."

Christmas has come and gone, and another New Year is upon us. Happy 2013! - or, as the saying has gone this time around, "Happy New Era!" And may it be so. I don't have any statistical proof to go on, but Whidbey Island may have more Holiday gatherings per capita than any other place in North America. There might be some pockets of extreme revelry off-continent, like in Brazil, that rival us. But we've got All-Pro standing in El Norte. I'm sure of it. I probably wouldn't even know this, except that my wife Sally is on the All-Pro Party team. This poses a challenge to me as a contemplative, pushing me beyond my ordinary limits, and - I'll be perfectly honest - I made it to the finish line this year on fumes.

But there were great moments, and here is one of them. Our friends Chris Swenson and Abigail Halpern came up from Seattle to join us for the final push to New Years. Chris received this email while he was with us from his colleague Jessica Plumb of Port Townsend, WA. I'm passing it on to you with Jessica's permission.

Jessica is an award winning filmmaker and visual artist who works the rich terrain of Washington's Olympic Penninsual. According to Jessica, "The intersection of place and human experience is a theme that runs through my work and my life. . . Many of my films explore the idea of inner cartography, the ridges and valleys carved inside us by experience, and by the places we've called home." This is the same terrain I've been exploring for years in my writing, teaching and guiding.

Jessica's daughter Zia is 6 years old, and a regular companion on her journeys to remote parts of the Olympic Penninsula. "Zia's favorite place to be is in Olympic National Park." says Jessica. "She loves the outdoors, and is quite preoccupied with environmental questions. I'm making a film about the Elwha River, so we talk about these issues often."

This Christmas, Zia made some connections in her mind between the disappearing Arctic ice cap and Santa's long term prospects. Jessica stated that, "this was the first time Zia put Santa's predicament and global warming together - and I think she's onto something." Here is the summary of  their conversation on the subject:

Zia: "Santa lives at the North Pole, right? And the North Pole is just ice, not land, and it's melting?"

Jessica: "I'm afraid so."  (Zia's eyes grow huge in horror.)

Zia: "This has got to stop! What can we do about it?"

Jessica: "It's complicated. Lots of us need to change how we live. One thing we can do is drive less; it's why we walk to school."

Zia: "Kids don't drive, Mom. If kids knew Santa's home was melting, they'd walk everywhere!" She gets very serious. "I don't believe Santa comes down the chimney, Mom, and I think he has millions of helpers. But I am sure that melting the North Pole is a very bad idea."

Ah, to have the clarity of a six year old on things that really matter. It should be as obvious to us as it is to Zia that depriving Santa of a place to live and work (not to mention his millions of helpers) is "a very bad idea." Maybe its time to give polar bears a rest, and focus more on Santa Claus in global warming messaging. If more kids connected the dots the way Zia has, their parents would catch holy hell until they decide to actually do something about it. Something a six year old can understand, like walking more places and driving a lot less. A bunch of really pissed off six year olds might be able to move the dial more than a mountain of scientific evidence. It's worth a try.

Go Zia!


Ice: The Smoking Gun of Climate Change

Like everyone, I feel heartsick at the Connecticut shootings this week that left twenty-six people dead, including twenty young children. Whose heart would not be broken by such a human tragedy? May it lead to some long-overdue gun control legislation. And may the culture of rage that would stir such an atrocity be faced and healed. There are times when grief is the only sane response, when the absence of grief makes us less than human. We can all recognize the truth of this with the Connecticut shootings. Yet at the same time I am stirred by the irony of grief's absence in the face of another unfolding tragedy. An assault weapon can kill people, but it cannot kill the very climate upon which all our lives depend.

For that we have other weapons, also of human invention, that are far more destructive than any mere gun. Each day we get out of bed, re-load these other weapons, and over the course of the day, fire several more rounds of carbon at an already-disintegrating climate - usually without a shred of grief, or any real awareness of our complicity in the tragedy. We cannot see the bullets we are firing. We cannot feel the damage they make on impact. And so we fail to notice, fail to grieve, fail to change, fail to demand the climate "gun control" legislation that might stop the senseless killing of our biosphere.

Where is the broken heart that would constitute a sane response to this tragedy? How do we span the chasm between our ability to feel deeply on a human level, while remaining unmoved when the scale (and the stakes) become larger-than-human?

When we were in New York a couple weeks ago, my wife Sally and I saw James Balog's extraordinary documentary Chasing Ice. Balog takes on precisely this absence of grief, this absence of human feeling, in the face of our escalating climate crisis. How to make it real? How to pierce the human heart with its truth? "We don't have a problem of economics, technology and public policy. We have a problem of perception . . . Ice is the canary in the global coal mine. It is the place where we can see and hear and feel and touch climate change in action," Balog says. He brings the viewer with him on a mission to capture on film both the beauty and the tragedy of our disintegrating icecaps. At great personal risk, he and his team install twenty-five time-lapse cameras at remote glaciers around the globe where their retreat can be experienced vicerally, where the pace of change is made heart-stoppingly real, and can be felt in the bones. It is a moving, magnificent, and courageous film.

Chasing Ice is showing in select theaters around the country, and deserves a mass audience. It manages to uplift with beauty and human courage, even as it brings home the tragic dimensions of our unfolding climate catastrophe. By taking the crisis on as a personal adventure, and by showing what one person's audacious vision can accomplish, it roots out the prevailing sense of paralysis that has kept far too many of us on the sidelines of this defining challenge of our time.

Embracing our inner tipping points on climate

Last night I gave a talk in New York to a mostly Jewish audience who crammed into my friend Rachel Cowan's living room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Rachel is a prominent rabbi in New York who has partnered with me to organize numerous Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Alaska, designed for rabbis and other Jewish leaders. Quite a few alumni from these trips showed up last night, along with some faculty from Hebrew Union College, to have an unusual conversation. We came together to explore the interface between contemplative practice and climate change.

Which I began, interestingly enough,with a period of meditation - a chance to drop in, calm the mind, and metabolize the day's residue of hurry before launching into the more familiar ground of conversation. Even a few minutes of shared mindfulness practice can change the whole tenor of conversation in very enlivening ways.

After our meditation, I talked about the role of spiritual practice in anchoring our ability to respond to the emotionally crippling aspects of climate change. Barely a month has passed since Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City, and the emotional scars are still fresh here. There were numerous rabbis in the room, and many with active meditation practices, so it seemed prudent to engage in a fresh inquiry about the purpose of spiritual practice in light of Sandy? Is our practice primarily a self-improvement project, a mere tool to reduce our stress and return some sense of balance, while making no demands on us, as so often seems to be the cultural assumptions surrounding meditation practice? Or is there a deeper purpose that has to do with clear seeing, with the hard work of burning off the fog of our ego-driven perceptions? This latter purpose is not so easy, because the truth of our lives is rarely easy or straightforward. We need a strong community of practice to give us the courage and moral grounding required to practice for the benefit not just of ourselves, but of a world in need of deep healing.

As we move closer into the painful realities of climate disruption, how do we dislodge ourselves from the sidelines and into a more audacious personal confrontation with our destructive ways of life? And how do we do so without defaulting to guilt and emotional paralysis? Without a strong and courageous practice, how can we face the fear, grief and aversion that often arise in the face of unwelcome realities like climate change? Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has said, "The only thing we have to do to be sure that we will leave a ruined world for our children and grandchildren is to do exactly what we are doing now." Will we continue on this path of doing exactly what we are doing now? Or will we choose to make this a true "hinge moment" for our ourselves, and through the vehicle of our collective choices, for the larger culture?

With so much evidence that we have passed the tipping points of geo-physical climate disruption, I challenged the group to explore their own "inner tipping points". Will Hurricane Sandy prove to be an inner tipping point that moves us from mere concern to concerted action? If not, what would it take? What more needs to happen before we decide to take it personally? And what does taking it personally look like for each of us?

We continue to live as though we are the passive victims of a changing climate, rather than the clear perpetrators of these changes, who alone have the power to alter the trajectory of the crisis. The climate isn't changing. We are changing the climate. The denial and despair that we consistently use to avoid taking personal responsibility are the true drivers of climate destabilization. Kathleen Dean Moore, in her recent interview in Sun Magazine, lays this out in stark relief. She says, "People tend to think that we have only two options: hope or despair. But neither one is acceptable. Blind hope leads to moral complacency: things will get better, so why should I put myself out? Despair leads to moral abdication: things will get worse no matter what I do, so why should I put myself out? But between hope and despair is the broad territory of moral integrity - a match between what you believe and what you do. You act lovingly toward your children because you love them. You live simply because you believe in taking only your fair share. You do what's right because it's right, not because you will gain from it. There is freedom in that. There is joy in that. And ultimately, there s social change in that. . . The ways of life that are most destructive to the world often turn out to be the ones that are also most destructive to the human spirit."

From this standpoint, it is our inner tipping points that matters most in the quest for authentic climate solutions. The geo-physical tipping points are now established beyond reasonable dispute, and we are racing past them. Until we've reached the inner tipping points that launch us into a new exploration of moral integrity, an exploration that results in broad-based changes in how we actually live, the climate will continue to implode, no matter what we say we believe. A walk through the financial district of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn's Rockaway District one month after Hurricane Sandy, makes it clear that the time for reaching these inner tipping points is preciously limited now.

Asking the new Big Questions

This is a time for asking Big Questions. Not just the old, time-honored big questions, like “How do we live honorably and well in the face of our own inevitable death?” That was easy compared to the questions we are faced with now. The new Big Questions seem to be, “How do we live honorably and well in the face of our (apparently) looming species extinction? How do we make sense of our (apparent) incapacity to alter our behavior in light of this fact? Are we going to mimic the fate of every successful species before us, expanding to the limits of our petri dish until we collapse under the weight of our own success?” These questions are so big, and so scary, that we have met them with a steely culture of denial. Rather than face the reality of climate change, we have simply invented an alternative universe in which reality doesn't apply to us. 

There are signs that this culture of denial may be cracking, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, like a dam giving way to a reality bath that even our most alarmist climatologists did not see coming quite so soon. Bloomberg Reports cover story just before the election announced that crack in the dam. It's Global Warming, Stupid.

Writing in the Nov./Dec. 2012 issue of Orion Magazine, Charles C. Mann approaches this question head on. Looking at the history of ulta-successful species who have experienced this fatal collision with limits, Mann points out that “Not one has voluntarily turned back." "Not only is the task daunting", says Mann, "it’s strange. In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth.”

Our collective denial has granted climate change an enormous head start. In the shadow of this denial, the likelihood that we will take our place in line behind other failed species grows with every passing season.

But there is a fascinating paradox built into our human dance with reality, and herein lies a slice of human nature that offers some reason for hope. Even the most painful truths become instantly less daunting when we turn toward them, rather than squandering our energy in fruitless resistance and flight. This is true even when that reality is a life-threatening illness, or the loss of something we dearly love. The critical moment comes when we embrace the painful truth, and begin applying our creative intelligence to working with what we now accept as true. The poet Rumi counseled 700 years ago, to “meet [our difficult truths] at the door laughing, and invite them in”. To do so with a curios mind and open heart does more to change the outcome in positive ways than a thousand doors barricaded against that same truth.

In his Orion piece, Mann finds hope in the sudden shifts of longstanding cultural attitudes toward slavery and women's rights during the previous two centuries, attitudes that had gone unquestioned for millennia in virtually every culture across the globe. When the moment was ripe, these attitudinal shifts came with stunning speed, and (despite small pockets of resistance) have spread worldwide. William James' notion of “behavioral plasticity” describes our uniquely human capacity to re-invent ourselves, indiviudally and culturally, in light of ever-changing circumstances. If we prove, according to Mann, unable to marshal this capacity toward self-correction with our own species cliff looming, “we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.”

I think we can still show ourselves to be more interesting that that. 

Do the Math

I admit it. I've been basking. For a week now I've allowed myself the indulgence of a self-righteous satisfaction, not only that Obama and Senate Democrats won so resoundingly in last weeks election, but that this result has so ambushed and bewildered the alternative universe of the Republican Party. It feels like a long-overdue nod in reality's direction. What a relief! Hurricane Sandy's role in tipping the scales toward reality is more bitter-sweet. The timing was impeccable. It was almost as if Mother Nature had been waiting for just this moment to storm the ramparts of our fortress of climate denial. Even most liberals I know are scratching their heads wondering what just happened, and what it means. The oceans are actually rising? New York no longer viable? - a city whose infrastructure was built for a planet we no longer live on? The future is here, and Sandy is its most decisive messenger yet testifying to this astonishing new reality. Sandy's arrival provided the elusive "Oh, shit!" moment for an awful lot of people, and President Obama will have to do an awful lot more in the coming four years than just mention our "warming planet" as a concern in his victory speech.

I will support any and all efforts by our President and members of either party who are willing to lean into this daunting reality. But I don't plan to wait for Congress to get the picture when majority Rebublicans still hold to the "climate hoax" of their alternative universe. Enough of that!

The night after the election I attended 350.0rg's Do the Math event in Seattle with my wife Sally and daughter Kristin. Fifteen hundred other people jammed Benaroya Hall with me to confront the yawning gap between our current energy policy and where we need to be if we are to have any chance of averting full-scale climate meltdown. The numbers in Global Warming's Terrible New Math are stark, as laid out by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, and at Benaroya Hall last Wednesday. 3215 new high temperature records recorded across the U.S. last June. The "largest temperature departure from average of any season on record" last spring in the U.S. And here's where it gets really scary. Scientists estimate that we can pour 565 gigatons more CO2 into the atmosphere, and still have hope of keeping the planet's climate survivable for the human species. The number of gigatons of CO2 in current proven coal, oil and gas reserves of our fossil fuel companies? 2,795 gigatons.

So I don't plan to bask in the election results much longer. There is work to do. As David Orr has said, "Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up."


'Hurricane Sandy should be called Hurricane Exxon'

The sadness I feel one week before the election is profound. I am exhausted by the 18 month electoral circus, the rampant incivility, the endless waterfall of negative ads, the mocking tone of the candidates. I am exhausted by the unchallenged lies that have brought the political right within a stones throw of owning the White House. I'm exhausted by the nearly unbearable irony of Hurricane Sandy's devastation a week before an election cycle in which the words "climate change" have barely been uttered by either party's candidates. Don't get me wrong. I think it matters deeply whether Obama or Romney end up as our President. I believe President Obama sincerely wants the climate issue addressed. And Hurricane Sandy is the biggest reason yet to send Romney and the Tea Party Republicans packing for their mocking denial of climate realities. But even if elected, President Obama will not get his chance to address the single greatest threat facing humankind. The Republican Congress, still owned by Tea Party radicals, will see to that. An Obama presidency in which climate is off the table for discussion, let alone decisive action, is a neutered presidency, hostage to a failed political system, a shattered democracy. Obama will always have my admiration for his tenacity and humanity in the midst of such toxic political realities. I ardently hope he remains our president. But hope for a top-down solution to our climate crisis is no longer tenable. We will have to find another way.

According to Bill McKibben, Hurricane Sandy "had lower barometric pressure, a higher storm surge, and greater size than the region had ever seen before. It's as out of kilter as the melting Arctic or the acidifying ocean. And if there were any poetic justice, it would be named Hurricane Chevron or Hurricane Exxon, not Hurricane Sandy. . . The fossil fuel industry has spent over $150 million to influence this year’s election. Last week, Chevron made the single biggest corporate political donation since the Citizens United decision. This industry warps our democracy just as it pollutes our atmosphere."

Regardless of who wins the election, there is no time to sit on our hands. When comes to Seattle to kick off its Do the Math tour on Nov. 8th, the day after the election, I will be there, and I will be ready to roll up my sleeves. I don't think I'm going to be alone.

As McKibben says, "Sandy is what happens when the temperature goes up a degree. The scientists who predicted this kind of megastorm have issued another stark warning: if we stay on our current path, our children will live on a super-heated planet that's four or five degrees warmer than it is right now. We can't let that happen."

What do you plan to do?


Responding to a threat that pushes none of our evolutionary alarm buttons

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, has been wrestling with the question of why we aren't rallying our collective power to mitigate climate change. In a recent Pop Tech lecture, Gilbert digs into the evolution of the human brain for some possible answers. "Global warming is, by its very nature, a threat, but it is a deadly threat only because it fails to trigger the brain's alarm," says Gilbert. Climate change fails to garner a response because it lacks four features that the human brain has evolved to regard as serious threats. One is human agency. There is no conspicuous evil doer specifically plotting against us here in the ways our brains are designed to fear and repulse. There is no Hitler or Osama bin Laden to face off against in the gathering storm clouds, wildfires and floods. Second, global warming doesn't stir moral outrage in the way that the torture of animals or the burning of a flag instinctively do. It doesn't trigger that in-your-face emotional aversion that is guaranteed to garner a response. Third, global warming's threat doesn't feel immediate in the way a gun pointed at our head does, or an army of "infidels at the gate" would. It is easy to keep it held at an abstract distance. Fourth, the impacts of climate change are happening too slowly for the human brain to recognize as an immediate threat. We are that frog in the slowly boiling pot of water that can't detect the increasing temperature until it is too late. Gilbert says,

"We are perfectly designed, beautifully engineered by evolution, to respond to threats that are painful, that is, to evil people who suddenly threaten our immediate well being. When we're confronted by threats like this, we respond with crushing force, firm resolve, exactly as our ancestors would have. But global warming is a threat that pushes none of our buttons, and that's why we won't relinquish our Hummers for the sake of the polar bears. . . It leaves us sleeping in a burning bed. It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rouse ourselves to battle an impersonal, slow and quiet enemy that is indeed more dangerous than any our ancestors ever imagined."

Gilbert doesn't offer any antidotes to this evolutionary quandary. Yet simply continuing to sleep in a burning bed because we don't know what else to do is not a very satisfying response, once we've acknowledged that the problem is real, and the consequences of inaction are unacceptable. In my experience the key to unlocking that inner resolve is the power of personal choice, deployed one action at a time, especially when these actions bring us into greater physical health (like walking or riding a bike to the store for bread instead of driving), or bring us into a greater sense of local community (like having tea with a close neighbor rather than spending another hour on Facebook).

It is helpful to remember that "the climate isn't changing." "We are changing the climate." Our actions - yours and mine - are the root of this crisis. Only our actions in response, one person and one choice at a time, hold any prospect of meeting the challenge. Our actions of choice may be political, they may be social, they may be technological, they may be physical. Paying attention to how and what we eat, and why, matters hugely here. Paying attention to how we travel, how far, and why, matters hugely. Each action matters, and each action that moves us toward greater alignment with our values also moves the species a small tick toward positive evolutionary adaptation. The best antidote to powerlessness and despair is to do SOMETHING every day that is within our power to do, beginning now. The opportunities abound. What is the first new action YOU will take that has as its motivation the wholeness and healing you desire for yourself and the world?

Climate as moral watershed

Something is terribly weird when the greatest threat ever to confront human civilization is no longer allowed to be named. In his recent blog, What Happens When the Choir Won't Sing, KC Golden of Climate Solutions takes on the cautious reticence that now dominates climate messaging. He asks “Have climate campaigners learned the art of political communication too well?  We poll and focus group.  We segment audiences and target swings. We “go to people where they’re at” …but climate change is not a “message.” It’s an objective reality and an urgent crisis. Deception about it will surely go down as history’s most egregious lie. . . It’s tough to imagine how we begin to turn the tide until we stand tall – with both feet, whole hearts, and strong, explicit words – on the side of the truth.” These are fighting words that I need to hear about now. When I began my car-free experiment in local living in 2008, my goal was simple. I wanted to lower my carbon footprint. I wanted to crack the code that was keeping me stuck in a high-carbon lifestyle. I was tired of waiting for others to make the move first. And I wanted to take on this challenge with a spirit of adventure and opportunity rather than caution and fear.

The solitary adventure of that year did indeed prove life-changing for me, and deeply grounding, as I've chronicled in my book The Circumference of Home. But the hope that I would be joined by a much broader cultural movement toward change has proven far more elusive.

Climate denial has grown dramatically in both scale and virulence since I took this cause to heart. The climate denial industry has successfully hounded “climate” out of most public and media discourse, and given it's denial an aura of bizarre credibility that does not remotely accord with facts on the ground. All but the most progressive political candidates in this election cycle have embraced this “ecosystem of denial”, avoiding the word “climate” like the plague. As Golden says, there is “an element of shame here. A disaster is unfolding on our watch. It’s embarrassing to feel so powerless, and talking about climate just shines a spotlight on our futility. . . But there is no strength in shame, and silence makes it worse. Unless and until we square up to climate per se, we’re going to keep losing the war even when we win battles.. . . we will never prevail at anything close to the necessary scale until climate action is understood as the moral watershed that it is.”

As a freelance climate activist who works mostly solo, I am still prone to this cautious approach when among friends, or ensconced in my local community, which is where I spend most of my time. My tendency to accept that silence just amplifies the feeling of futility and isolation that comes with it. A conspiracy of silence about climate holds sway even among the most diehard change agents in my community. I live in a liberal enclave where we talk openly about hunger, youth empowerment, economic justice, local food, and a host of other activist causes. We drive Prius's to the airport for our frequent flights to Africa to build orphanages, or to India to go on spiritual retreat, willfully deaf and blind to the way these carbon binges up-end our efforts at energy conservation in all other arenas of our lives. Meanwhile, to quote David Roberts, the topic of climate is about as welcome as “flatulence at a cocktail party”.

So KC's fierce affirmation of climate as moral watershed is fresh air for the soul of this activist, and has breathed new resolve into my veins. Yes, I'm constantly dousing for better ways to frame the climate challenge when I give talks to different audiences. Yes, language must honor context, and the harsh facts must be balanced by heartfelt calls to achievable human action. But with extreme climate events coming routinely now to every town near you, the time for dickering about the truth of our climate crisis is over. Let's call it what it is and get really curious about it. Moving from fear to curiosity, we find the courage to lead with the hard currency of our daily lives. Every choice becomes important. Every action carries the seeds of an adventure that now includes all of us. This is the gift that lurks in the headwaters of this great moral watershed of our time.