Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Tiny Advent Star

There's a star-sized hole in the snow balanced on my deck railing, but you can only see it from one angle. We look for the star during this season, especially this year, with CoP-15 concurrent with Solstice and Advent. Amidst the post-Copenhagen spin, there is a smallish star, when looked at from the angle of climate diplomacy, namely the little non-binding agreement that Obama brokered in an accidental context, a coda to the exhausting proceedings.

But we look for Big Things during Advent, a guiding star that is unmistakable And the summit did not bring this from the world leaders. However, the mass movement generated by a significant portion of the world population through the organizing efforts of, Avaaz, and other groups was the real star of the season, starting with the Oct 24 rallies, on through the vigils Dec 12 and the mass petition signed by 12 million, tens of thousands of whose names were read aloud in the conference hall, the Bella Center. The only reason that many of us are not in despair right now is that this movement is primed to grow, keeping the pressure up for a “real deal.” The climate justice movement provides a genuine counterweight to the Tea Party movement in the US and the neo-Nazis in Europe.

President Obama, after his feat of extraordinary diplomacy, barging in on a cabal of developing nations plotting against the US and turning it into a collaborative session, albeit too late to significantly alter this much-ballyhooed summit, declared that what we need most as a global community of nations is trust. Both in the halls of international summitry and within the D.C. Beltway, trust is the missing ingredient, even though we all have interests that are more common and vital than national, sectarian, or party. Without it, nothing important can be accomplished as a nation or as a world community.

That is why the international quality of the climate change movement gives some grounds for hope. In terms of the politics of a climate treaty, there is far more hope in Europe, the UK, Japan, even Russia, because virtually all parties recognize and accept the science of climate change, and therefore the urgency of abating it. In the US, party and ideological divisions are rendering intelligent conversation on the issue extremely difficult. A key indicator of the difficulty is that the co-sponsor of the first climate bill, John McCain, has not shown any willingness to support the bill presently clogged in the Senate. It is more important for his party to wreck Obama's presidency than to save civilization as we know it.

This must change. Our main hope, now that our leaders have failed us, is to build an unstoppable people's movement that must be heard. Last Thursday, a day before the climate summit ended, called for a worldwide fast in support of a “real deal.” We will need more, longer fasts, and acts of civil disobedience. Everything will need to be disciplined and well-organized. The targets of these acts of conscience in this country are US Senators, who hold the key to our country's seriously joining a just, meaningful, and binding climate treaty. The Congress as a whole must come up with a bill for the President to sign, but it is the Senate that must ratify a UN treaty, by a two-thirds vote. Electing Obama was not the political act of the era; winning that treaty vote for the planet will be.

So, on to Mexico City without faltering. And start preparing now for your own role in the treaty vote in the Senate. The fate of the Earth depends upon it.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009



Saturday, December 19

That was how I entitled a discussion group post the eve of the climate summit in Copenhagen. The next day, I broke six weeks' silence at Meeting with ministry on a haunting Gaelic carol, Christ often comes in the stranger's guise, reminding Friends that, in the climate emergency, it is the poor and island countries who are the stranger at the table. They were indeed present at the table in Copenhagen, but were lucky to get even crumbs from the repast. If Copenhagen has proved the impotence of our international political system, what are we to make of Solstice 2009, and the hope of Advent?

Yesterday, as the COP-15 talks concluded in a whirlwind of desperate diplomacy, I went for a walk with my wife Geeta in the fresh deep snow of our drive. Hemlocks, pines, and rhodos hung low, heavy with snow. Mirroring Copenhagen coming up with so little, the forest seemed to bow, draped in sympathy with the colossal failure of the international political system. It reinforced my deep sadness.

I mentioned this to Geeta, and she laughed, recognizing the pathetic fallacy. But I went deeper than sympathetic magic, recognizing that they are bowing to the Earth. The earth and all her myriad creation, yes, but also honoring her as natura naturans, the infinitely creative matrix of life. Gaia may well be in mourning as the deepest of Solstice nights approached, but she still retains the miraculous power to produce new life-forms.

Then, last night, as I played a variety of seasonal music, marking the whole scope of the seaon, I felt a deep sweetness, surrounded by darkness marked by white tree-sentinels. This was indeed a pivotal Solstice for humanity, and we may now be heading towards climate disaster. If so, I remind readers that emotionally, it is the same as facing personal death within a web of family. Experiencing the “last time” with our loved ones is both immensely sad, and for some, fearful, but at the same time it can be sweet, harvesting the richness and depth we have created through faithful relationships.

So I cherish each little bird I hear singing, rather than remembering when there were more. I admire the grace and beauty of the deer who eat my garden. I delight in the constant number of chattering, busy squirrels, still fed by our stand of hickories in a Southern Appalachian forest that remains, for a while longer, oak-hickory.

If you know your family well, but not the earth-place that gives you a home, then by all means, get to know that place while it still has some integrity. Even if we are headed into a downward spiral, there is so much to cherish.

And as the brave folks at remind us all today, through we lost a big battle yesterday, the war for climate justice goes on, and the cadre of climate warriors could welcome a boost. But first, gather 'round with those you love, get outside despite the weather and greet your earth-place and its denizens. Enjoy a sabbath. Then, with the New Year, be ready to bring it on again, and that's going to mean holding Congress to the task of passing climate and energy legislation worthy of the science and faithful to the cause of climate justice.

This is obviously no mean task, but when you come to the end of the road, will you look back and see that you were too preoccupied with your own comfort to join the biggest moral campaign in history? Weakened by a rebellious Congress, our political savior had no prophetic rallying cry, only scrappy diplomacy to round up some key developing nations, promising to do more next time. The real heroes at Copenhagen were the little countires who wouldn't fold on the rack of pressure, and the people in the streets, including all the NGO's progressively ousted from the negotiating hall, massing outside as the summit headed into virtual deadlock. Our leaders have failed us; now leadership needs to come from the people.

It's our turn to lead, friends, each in ways that we never dreamed we could. The courage and creativity are all there, if only we have the faith to dig for it.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009



December 11 we vigiled around the Burnsville Square with our sign, “350= Climate Justice!” Three of us from Celo Friends Meeting were joined by a retired couple from Atlanta, sojourning at the Episcopal church in town. We were barely noticed, except when we stood under the “Go Cougars” sign. The same night, the Mountain Heritage high school football team was playing in Chapel Hill for the state 2A championship. It was very cold, and all got frosty fingers and toes. We walked around the square several times, turning our sign towards passing motorists. A woman walked across the crosswalk and gave us a quick, warm smile. There were no jeers, but also no inquiries or thumbs up. The only one among us born in the county was the gentleman from St Thomas, and he was impressed simply by the fact that such a vigil was possible in the town where he grew up. We vigiled until dark, the sky turning from deep blue to charcoal.

This was Friday night. On Sunday, Jim, one of the vigilers, brought a bell which we passed around at the close of Meeting, each person ringing it twenty times, until the number 350 was reached. (350 ppm CO2 is the upper limit climate scientists agree the earth can absorb and maintain anything like the world we grew up in. The present concentration of CO2 is 390.) Answering the call of and the World Council of Churches, bells tolled 350 times around the world, calling the negotiaters and climate ministers to climate justice via the treaty being negotiated in Copenhagen. A Baptist minister, shepherd of the church on the square, had first answered that they'd ring the bells 350 times Sunday afternoon, but he failed to respond to my calls for confirmation during the preceding week. Most people in Yancey county don't accept climate change, and so this proclamation was probably too risky for him.

For whom do these bells toll? First, they toll for the nations most at risk, the island nations, nations like Bangladesh with low coastlines, the African nations being pushed more and more irrevocably into drought. These are the countries providing leadership at the conference, courageously standing up to the industrial powers who have used strong-arm tactics against them in each of the negotiating sessions prior to COP-15. Meanwhile, the US and China carry on a diplomatic duel, pointing fingers at each other over responsibility for the mess. The EU has continued to provide leadership of its own, both promising the most cuts in CO2 emissions and the most money to help poorer nations pay the costs of shifting to lower carbon energy economies. Russia and Japan have also promised fairly deep cuts by 2020. But these levels remain insufficient, and as the climate summit heads into its final days, the rich and poor nations, and the US and China, remain deadlocked. Heads of state have started arriving and giving speeches ahead of the final scramble for a treaty framework. Gordon Brown, the British PM, arrived early, trying to help the poor nations and NGO's, (the latter being progressively excluded from the final sessions) broker a deal with the rich countires who have caused most of the pollution.

For whom do these bells toll? The poorer nations are clearly most at risk from climate change. But the bells toll not only for them, but for all nations, for rising seas and changing weather patterns will affect all, if not now, soon. Climate change has begun, and is picking up speed. Only a few years ago, scientists worried that the Arctic would be ice-free by 2070. Now a credible study by the US Navy points to five-seven years. And they have tolled already in New Orleans, where the poor either died, hang on with scant help or have become some of the earliest climate refugees.

Negotiating a treaty that will lay out a pathway towards climate justice will be difficult, close to impossible. The divides at COP-15 are many and deep, especially those between the developed and developing worlds, and the US and China. The key problem is the clash between politics and the laws of nature. Climate science reveals a narrowing window for action and a steepening curve for the costs of stabilizing and eventually cutting back carbon emissions. These costs, politically and economically, are enormous, verging on the astronomical as the window for action closes. Since we are dealing with tipping points for a whole interlocking series of positive feedback loops, what the Brits call “add-on effects,” it's not something we can fix after we are dead certain these effects have been unleashed. Some have already, yet denial allows many to enjoy “normal”life for a short while. We are a remarkably resilient species, and the mind is especiallly pliable, entertaining multiple fantasies of escape and salvation, either by technology or divine intervention. But as we sleepwalk like lemmings towards the rising seas, the Four Horsemen have already entered the field, swords and scythes upraised.

Concurrent with COP-15, the Parliament of World Religions has convened in Melbourne. I attended the last one in Barcelona in 2004, trying to get the religions of the world to accept anthropogenic climate instability as the chief moral issue of our times. Gary Gardner, the religion editor for Worldwatch, and I announced a meeting for those who agreed. One Spanish priest showed. Another meeting, held in Gaudi's storied la Pedrera, replete with wonderful speakers and multilingual translators, was attended by less than 50. A friend who was with me at Barcelona is attending, and says that religious leaders are very focused this time on the primacy of climate as a moral issue. A Christian pastor, he assured me this fall that “God will not let us fail..” Yesterday he wrote that things were looking pretty bleak for a new climate treaty, adding that he was holding out for a miracle.

All of us are praying for that miracle at Copenhagen, including some atheists trying new behavior. The miracle would be a fair, scientifically honest, binding treaty that builds on Kyoto and includes the US, China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia as signatories, as well as the 37 nations bound by emissions reductions in the Kyoto Accord. The bells are tolling, not just for rich and poor, but for the amphibians, the birds, and the mammals, including our species: all higher life on this remarkably blessed planet.

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do...

Friends, what have we done? Can it still be undone?

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Saturday, December 12, 2009



When we were in Costa Rica last year, we visited an inspiring community adjacent to the Parc National La Amistad, which straddles the Talamanca Range forming a backbone running from Costa Rica through northern Panama. The founders wanted to protect the park from encroachment by neighboring farmers who wanted more land for pasture by setting up a buffer and monitoring it. Indeed, the first evening we were at Durika, one of the residents showed us the fires burning across the valley, climbing up several facing ridges. The man shook his head, mourning the continuing loss of rainforest to cattle. There are only 6 rangers for the entire park, which is huge (give acreage). So, after years of planning and pooling funds, the Durika folks purchased 8500 hectares bordering the park. Their plan, now into its 18th year, was to build a self-sustaining community and host eco-tourists. Guided tours of the park would both provide education and give the community members the opportunity to patrol their end of the park via walkie-talkies, providing a supplementary presence for the rangers.

Durika's plan is working. A community of 20-25 makes a living there, growing fruit and vegetables, with a sizable goat operation which porduces yogurt and cheese. They trade fruit for beans grown by their indigenous neighbors, and receive rice from a farming partner who lives about 100 km away. The income from ecotourists goes primarily towards Durika's monthly land payments. Available food goes to the guests first; what remains is equitably distributed to the individuals and families who make up the community: so much for each adult, so much for each child. They have not missed a payment, and the members are strong and lean, but not malnourished. Financial resources are pooled, but each member has a modest yearly personal allowance.

The bunkhouses where we stayed are spartan, but there is plenty of running water and electricity, which both come from a generously flowing stream with an impressive fall, issuing from the mountain slopes above the community. (GUY who designed it). Hydropower is a major source of electricity in Costa Rica, which only requires fossil fuels for 10% of the total. The community was hosting a solar power workshop the day we left, and the American leadig it told us that the main plan was to provides power for the indigenous school on adjacent land that operates minimally for lack of electricity.

Schooling at Durika is Montessori-style through eighth grade. The high schoolers have tutoring to help them pass qualifying tests for college. We met several kids, ranging from infants to age 16. They were well-adjusted, bright, and knew how to take care of themselves while backpacking. They had a sense of independence and fun. The Montessori teacher was a man in his seventies who had just decided to retire and work full-time with the goats. A woman in her late twenties was taking over the position.

Though they hope that the children will return to the community after college, Durikans are senstive to the huge differences between their way of life and the urban life that their kids might one day join. So, every year, they take a field trip to the favelas and bordellos, interviewing prostitutes and druggies. (As a retired humanities teacher, I see a great opportunity for a journaling assignment!) One of the most impressive members we met was a self-described “party-girl” who had come to Durika to kick her alcohol habit, then undergone a year's trial membership, then welcomed into membership by consensus. She is a perfect example of the kind of initiation that I described the need for in my last post. It was clear that she lived an integrated life with meaning and purpose, whereas she was on the brink of disaster before she discovered Durika. It is she who will be the new lead Montessori teacher.

Durika is very tight-knit, as you can imagine. They hold a community meeting every night after dinner, which includes everyone still awake. These are open to everything possible affecting the life of the community, and can be alternately intense, business-like or humorous. This is a family, and even the divorced couple who live separately but continue to co-parent treat each other with respect and affection, like brother and sister.

Like any community, there are problems, both interpersonal and structural. Right now, there is not enough housing for everyone who needs it, and building goes slowly when you have to raise the money and the crew have other daily responsibilities. I detected some tension between those who had nothing except what the community gave them, and those who seemed to have other sources of income (there is no requirement to hand over your bank account). In terms of food sustainability, they still import wheat, and I wondered why they didnt grow corn. We discussed potatoes and setting up a mill for potato flour, but this does not seem imminent. The farmer who donates the rice is a key to their survival, as is their voluntary submission to food rationing. I learned elsewhere of a family who left after nine months, since they had all lost weight, the father and mother 30 and 20 pounds respectively.

But that's where we're headed as a civilization, and if you're gonna survive, it means lean and mean. Durika is really pointing the way. In a world of decline and collapse, none of us, including farming communities, is going to be “self-sufficient.” Community is something that will need to transcend immediate locality, though the ability to ship gargantuan volumes of material long distances will soon disappear, due to peak oil. If you have a story of community, or meaningful intitiation back into indigenous life-styles, please respond with comments and links. We are all in this together.

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