Sunday, September 28, 2014


Cry of the Phoenix from Saint John the Divine

“But Pharaoh's heart was hardened...”

If the ice will melt in the heart of man, then perhaps we will see a sustainable world (sic). Thus spoke Uncle Anga, Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, founder of IceWisdom International and an Eskimo-Kalaallit elder from Greenland. He was here in 1978, ten years before James Hansen addressed Congress on the looming problem of global warming, and told an audience that the ice was melting, as his tribal elders had forewarned. He received a standing ovation.

Tonight, at a solemn, but hopeful interfaith service at the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine, this simple but powerful elder from the North spoke again about the ice melting. The ice sheet that covers Greenland was 5 kilometers thick in the 1960's. It is now 2 kilometers thick, its own meltwaters rapidly greasing a further skid into the North Atlantic. Twice during his address, Uncle Anga said it was “TOO LATE.”

To the logical mind, the Eskimo elder's remarks may seem contradictory. But the theme of this remarkable evening was the Phoenix. Two towering, magnificent birds flew above us, buffering the distance to the high vaulted cathedral ceiling. The Reverend James Forbes, who once preached at Riverside Church, embraced the theme, pulling together this brilliant pagan story with Noah's Ark, nimbly conflating the sacrificial Phoenix with the dove and the raven of Genesis. The Phoenix burns, the Phoenix rises from the ashes, infinitely, like Hindu creation cycles. God destroys creation, but leaves an Ark as seed for the next.

But Uncle Anga was more understated, simply putting forth the two kinds of ice, inner and outer. Understated that is, until he called to his ancestors, his howls and moans reverberating through the vast Cathedral, as he amplified his remarkable tonal range with two large circular skin-frames forming a kind of musical bellows to project his anguished cry back through the aeons to those First Elders of the far North. The twin Phoenixes silently soared on through the cathedral sky.

Behind him, Sojourners' Jim Wallis, who had just given a fine sermon on how Climate Change had reordered his list of social gospel issues, gobbling them all, winced as Uncle Anga sent out cry after cry, howl after howl into the Night, resounding from the cathedral vaults. It's not often Jim Wallis and Jesus's compelling social gospel is upstaged. But Uncle Anga just had, simply recounting the story of polar ice, it's mighty foundation and prophesied melt, taking global civilization with it. Yet he held out hope for the heart of man to melt – and thus for the Phoenix to rise.

Before him, calling us to “This Moment,” Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th generation keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle for all branches of the Sioux, in resplendent headdress, recalled the white calf bookends of his people's history. The white calf marked the coming into material form of their Mother Deity, and, fulfilling the prophecy of Dire Times, he spoke of several white calves born n recent years. One won't do it for hard-headed White Civilization; we need a succession of them to awaken us. So Uncle Anga, too, was back, pronouncing climate doom 35 years after a standing ovation, soon drowned out by implacable business-as-usual from the last empire.

As congregants entered the cathedral, we were each given a stone by a costumed troglodyte for ritual use in the service. Each speaker made a personal commitment, then walked to the altar, placing their stone as a sign. The most striking instance was when Terry Tempest Williams made a public promise to “lay my body down” along with a close band of friends at the site of the first tarsands project slated for the US in her native Utah.

Speaking for the civil rights community, Atlanta's towering Gerald Durley deposited his stone after promising that his constituency would be “the rock” of the climate movement (indeed, people of color were quite prominent at the march earlier in the day, unlike previous climate rallies I have attended). Al Gore promised to keep up the fight to his dying day.

When the time came, I deposited my stone in a primitive barrow, which was later wheeled to the main altar by a person dressed as a medieval peasant. I had not discerned my own commitment yet, but I wanted to take part in the rite, and did so as a place-saver until I found what that might be. In the interim, my wife and I have decided to max out our inverter and add two more solar panels on a pole, since those on our rooftop cover all the usable space. We also are shifting as much as possible from cow dairy to goat and sheep products, since these ungulates emit less methane (we haven't eaten beef for decades).

This service, orchestrated by Union Theological Seminary and numerous partners, was as thoroughly planned as the March, a magnificent array of voices from many traditions, with superb musical intervals by artists-in-residence Paul Winter and the brilliant and sensitive percussionist John Arrucci, as well as a mixed quartet of Cathedral Choir singers who exquisitely offered simple chants as well as a complex composition by a modern Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Al-Fattah's on the theme of Ai-Yu, expressing “awe, excitement, and wonder” at the penultimate moment of the latest Phoenix, the Phoenix of the Anthropocene.

Though the Phoenix theme is an old one, and Earth nowhere near finished with her evolutionary tapestry, Uncle Anga reminded us that it is too late. Too late unless our collective hearts melt, and we awaken into a chastened human community restored to an integrated place in a diminished, but surviving web of life. Weep, my reader, reaching deep within yourself to find that wailing voice which connects with your own First Ancestors. May those tears initiate the kneading of your hearts until they melt into the living waters of New Life. The old Phoenix must die.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Peoples' Climate March: Prelude to the Mother of all Movements?

Geeta and I joined the amazing People's Climate March in New York last Sunday. We marched with Quakers amongst the faith communities, a cohort with a pre-march estimate of 10,000, rivaling Labor as the biggest bloc. Over 300 Quakers showed up, positioned next to the Unitarians. This march, carefully planned and brilliantly executed, was billed as a watershed event for the climate movement. Whether or not this will prove to be the case, we will know soon enough. As many have said, including the International Energy Agency, we are now in “decade zero”; it's now or never. The immediate goal is to sign an international climate treaty under UN auspices at COP 18 in Paris next December to replace the fading Kyoto Treaty.

The careful planning was everywhere evident. The march was led by Front Line folk, those already affected by the Climate Beast: the poor boroughs of NYC, refugees from the Philippines and terrifying typhoon Haiyan, residents of island nations threatened by rising seas, some of whom have already packed their bags, heading for new homes. A “climate train” came all the way from the West Coast, as well as Florida citizens fearing the loss of their communities to rising seas. At the head of the parade were Ban Ki Moon in a march t-shirt and baseball cap, whose initiative to call a climate summit was the inspiration for the march, and France's environment minister Segolene Royal,, impeccably dressed in a tailored business suit, among other dignitaries.

And we were joined by people of color, a notable shift from my previous climate actions, including the big march in Washington in February 2013. At the powerful interfaith service later in the day at St. John the Divine, an old associate of Dr. King proclaimed that the civil rights movement would be the “rock” of this ecojustice movement, because the poor and colored would be the first affected by the massive changes underway. In addition to North American blacks, many indigenous folk from south of the border were on hand, several colorfully dressed and with beautifully crafted signs. The sign art everywhere was eloquent. One Central American native was pullling a little clay-and-wattle kiln, which he told us represented the earth, seeking a delegate's seat at the negotiating table. Inside was a woman in fetal position.

The large faith contingent was to gather on a side block, joining the march at the appropriate time. We waited well over three hours for this moment to arrive, with those who arrived early for Quaker-style silent worship to bless the effort waiting much longer. The entire march was aksed to observe a minute of silence in honor of those who have already lost their lives to climate change. I would say the partial silence lasted less than 15 seconds. Believe me, there is not much silence when 310,000 put on their boots and take to the streets! While we waited, we had prayers and a lot of rallying songs and hymns from the speaker trailer up front. True to form, the Hari Krishnas next to us drummed and danced with such cacophany that the loudspeakers couldn't dint them. I hope Krishna heard, because we couldn't. Next to them were middle class South Asians, also gathered beneath the neat little pennant reading “Hindu.” This was a Big Tent affair, so the mainstream faith communities were joined by groups like ethical humanists, atheists, and “New Thought.”

The march began in Central Park and wound its way through the streets, right through Times Square, to 34 Street and 11th Avenue. At one point progress of the march was halted, because the entire route, 80 city blocks, was filled. We were making a statement, amplified by some of our onlookers, including a large group of meditators in a park along the route and the Bard Grad School, who egged the crowd on to huge roars beneath their strategic quarters about eight stories up on 42nd Street near Times Square.

The gargantuan rally coincided with the announcement of fossil fuel divestment by the Rockefeller Foundation, who some speculated may have bankrolled the PR for the march. Other companies also announced divestment that day. A high official from the World Bank said before the week began that folks were “going to be surprised” at how many corporations and various regional political unions, as well as provinces and municipalities, were lining up behind a carbon tax.

However, on Tuesday, given their chance to answer Ban Ki Moon's call, national leaders ducked, waiting, as usual, to see what commitments other nations might make. Many on the Left, notably Chris Hedges, dismissed the march as a huge greenwashing stunt by corporations, orchestrated by the U.N., and the lack of commitment on Tuesday gave these arguments a depressingly prophetic air. 
But I am going to have to cast my lot with the “last gasp” liberals and Naomi Klein, a brilliant radical who refuses to cut Hope off at the knees. Though she largely agrees with Hedges' analysis of the problem, her sense of the solution diverges from his. Hedges sees the march as a “prelude” to direct action and “revolution” against the international capitalist empire, while Klein sees the beginning of a broad movement with such numbers and momentum that it cannot be denied by powers that be.

I am one small nexus of that movement, and I agree with economists who convincingly argue for an international carbon tax, bound by a treaty which nevertheless allows individual sovereign nations the option to use the dividends as they choose best. The eleventh hour is past. We have a small window in which to build the movement to awaken the political will to create a strong, binding international treaty. The proposed Paris Protocol would take force in 2020, right at the end of our current “decade zero.” This is indeed a midnight hour's decision, and it may be too late. But it is the only moment we have.

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