Walking Into the Storm

On a cold, leaden day this week, I am walking with my two-year-old daughter down the sidewalk in Kirksville, Missouri, having returned recently from walking with her to northern Minnesota. She is dressed in Superman pajamas, and sometimes she is hopping beside me, her little shell of a hand inside mine as I stride along, and sometimes I am swinging her up into my arms, wrapping my long wool coat around her, holding her close. In one such moment, she leans out from her woolen cocoon at my suggestion that we do the thing she learned from her six-year-old friend: she reaches out into space, grasps the tip of a leaf in her small fingers, and gently shakes the long branch the leaf adorns. "Nice to meet you, tree," she intones, sing-song.

She started doing this just a couple weeks ago, when we camping in the forests between Minneapolis and Duluth, and there were thousands of trees available to her. Now, she wants to greet every tree she can see, as we walk the business strip, but the trees are few, and mostly on the other side of the highway, busy at rush hour. The day is failing, drivers are turning on their headlights, the temperature is falling, and my daughter's "Man of Steel" outfit is the thinnest fabric you can buy. Undeterred, she waves to the trees, almost silhouettes now, standing on the far side, in the yards of apartment complexes and houses. "Nice to meet you, tree. Nice to meet you, tree."

I realize that these trees are, like so much of nature, an ignored chorus in the forgotten and waste spaces of our lives. My daughter's hello may be the first they have heard in a long time, maybe ever. But they are not a mute chorus. With bizarre insistence, they cling to their greenery, despite the change in season, the shortened sunlight, the year's declining temperatures. Hung now in useless and dangerous green leaves, vulnerable to frost, the trees are like gate-crashers from another world, a summer that doesn't end, but blazes in the grip of a too-hot planet. They are the early arrivals, and they stand there, looking confused.

I am regretting my daughter's wide eyes and open heart. She is learning to love trees just when her people are twisting the knife into nature's gaping wound. But then, that is her nature: unjaded delight and wonder. Before I had a child of my own, I wrote this verse in a song:

Remember when I left open the door?
The child, she thought the whole Earth was her floor:
she crawled on her knees, in her dress, 
through the weeds and the clay --
she cried that day.

Now our home is almost gone,

she comes to ask: "Does Love still live on?"
I point to those strong trees, and my eyes, they cry --
I can't tell her why

It is so easy, it is so easy

to see us now in the beginning...
beginning to end.

In the end -- during these final three years when humanity could, with supreme effort (mostly moral and political effort) hold global warming to +2ยบ C -- in the end, it comes down to this. If you are wondering why the weather outside your door is changing for the worse, step outside your door. If we want to really understand what is driving the insane continuation of our suicidal behavior in the face of the very public take-down Mother Nature is revving up to deliver, we must step outside the door of familiar experience. 

Dana "Skating the Planet" in Minneapolis

My family has begun that journey. This summer, we walked out our front door with our children, camping supplies, and two hand-drawn carts, and headed north on the small highways of northeast Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. Our goal has been to walk 1,000 miles -- the distance temperate zones will be displaced poleward by 2047, at the current rate -- in the role of citizen-journalists. We have been sharing word of the massive climate destabilization unfolding in our time, and listening to the experiences and viewpoints of people along the way. This year, we walked 500 miles north, which took us to the city of Duluth, MN, on the shore of Lake Superior (the largest body of fresh water in the world, and directly under threat from climate change).   

In order to understand how this climate situation can be happening, and how people can be allowing it to happen, we have to understand how completely – utterly, totally – we have been dealt out of the game of wealth and financial power. Every one of us.  Every person reading this article has been handed their hat and kicked to the curb. Driven by the ceaseless engine of consumption, the volume of money, the profit, that comes from being “in energy” is, in particular, unfathomable. 

Money is currency, a liquid flowing through our transactions. So, imagine a table of water, with various drain holes in the bottom of it, forming whirlpools. The water represents money in circulation. At one end of the table is your hole, the size of a bathtub drain: this is your income, your ability to draw in money, your power to pull from the ocean of wealth. If the median household yearly income in the U.S. is represented by a small drain, there would have to be a waterfall the size of Niagara plunging off the other end of the table to accurately represent the yearly net income of just one company in the energy sector: Exxon Mobil. (The math on this analogy is shockingly accurate. The comparison of Niagara's flow rate and Exxon's profit  is a 98% match, mathematically speaking.)

You can imagine the minuscule degree of power that one family unit would have to pull in water from the water table, against the yawning cataract at the other end. Even the average small business could only bring 94 bathtub drains to bear. By contrast, Exxon Mobil alone would account for nearly 850,000 bathtub drains.

The point is this: We all know there is great (and widening) wealth disparity in the U.S. and in the world. Most people don't really know how to imagine the degree to which income distribution is skewed. A recent study demonstrated asked individuals to apportion U.S. revenue amongst a hypothetical 100 people in two ways. A) They were asked to divvy the money amongst the 100 people in what they thought was a realistic representation of today's income disparity. B) They were asked to distribute the money according to what would seem a fairer income spread across society, the kind of society these individuals would like to live in. The researchers found that the test subjects were off the mark in trying to represent the current wealth disparity by as wide a margin as existed between the subject's “reality” distribution and ideal distribution. In other words, income imbalance, as it stands, is twice as large as people think it has strayed from a fair distribution.

More to the point, when we talk about the one-percenters, or the one-percent-of-the-one-percenters, we are homing in on the domain of the energy industry. Exxon Mobil is the world's most lucrative company. Its buying power is a Niagara Falls among household plumbing. There are few social, political, economic, regulatory, and judicial doors that kind of force can't open (or close off, as need presents itself). Remember, Exxon Mobil is just one company. Taken as a whole, the fossil fuel giants have the power to change Earth's history.

Such power breeds cutthroat opportunism. The lasting coup of this set is to have normalized their business, without a sense of shame, without a public outcry, without a halt in the day-and-night increase of their revenue. There is momentum on such a huge scale for this industrial, commercial way of doing things, and the fossil fuel businesses profit so handsomely by it, that the industry will persist beyond the last outpost of sanity, forging ahead even as the world which it powers crumbles into ruin. How do you turn Niagara Falls off?

Most of us are living as if we're still somehow dealt into the game of prosperity. Education, a few good connections here, some effort and self-promotion and cleverness there, and we manage to muddle through, and even enjoy ourselves. It is hard to remember that for most of the 30,000 years that modern humans have walked the Earth like my family did this summer, we were not trapped by a process of diminishing returns to the people, and the Earth was more fascinating to us than profit. We have taken an abundant planet and made it a demented casino where we're all losing. 

As a practical, effective step against the climate folly, Pacing the Planet has been almost completely ineffective. We knew it would be like that, going in. Holding up our flimsy, almost-anonymous action against the daily assault on the planet, it is easy to see that our effort is futile. But maybe it presses the question. 

How do we, as the people alive on Earth at this moment of crisis, deal with our immersion in the root cause of this crisis? That question is morally imperative for those living in this current civilization to answer personally. When you do, refer to all 30,000 years of our "modern" history, not just the few hundred years during which the economy we're all too familiar with has shackled us to its version of "the way things must be." 

When Niagara (and more) is pouring, minute by minute, hour by hour, into the obliteration of the planet we know, the verdict is clear: if we want something different, we must fight for our world. Really fight. Part of this "fight" is abstract combat, confronting the fantasy that our planet is immune to our abuse of it. We need widespread conversation and education about the rapidly advancing state of deterioration to the basic forces of abundance and stability that have provided us life since before machines and religion and money and private property were a dim thought in the minds of our ancestors.

Part of this fight rests on the dignity of humankind, standing in non-violent but strong resistance, immovable in our numbers and our physical commitment to put our bodies in the way of destruction. Hundreds are already doing this for the climate. 

Yet, the clock marking the end of a forgiving climate is running, and the invisible point-of-no-return may even now be under our feet, beyond which the natural world enters a new age of crazy. Recent history shows that, when oppression needs to be broken within a decade, the tool to accomplish that outcome is guerrilla insurrection. Now comes the time to fight illegally, fight aggressively, fight with powerful tactics, fight like an animal cornered, with the terrible wrath of the will to live. 

The means to carry on such a campaign of delay and attrition is within reach of an organized opposition. It requires a willingness to go down the black roads that the CIA and other government agencies have traveled, in collusion with industry and corporate support, to put us in bed with the ruin of the world in the first place. Will we be unwilling to use "dirty tricks," against the fossil fuel industries run by "our own people," even if they are taking the climate beyond the point of no return? There are current examples of the few employing sabotage and obstruction to interfere with immoral industry: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crosses the line of nonviolence, aggressively confronting whalers with water cannon and the hulls of their own ships. Yet, they are frequently hauled into court, for their ships are registered and recognizable. Whether Sea Shepherd is having a significant impact limiting the scope of the illicit whaling industry remains to be seen. By contrast, guerrillas confronting the most well-funded and embedded industry in the world will need to strike and disappear, over and over, and operate on a large scale, creating a basic social instability that we have never experienced in the United States. Will we take that medicine to save the Earth?

Most of the passionate advocates for action are steeped in the philosophy of nonviolence, and they oppose violently resisting the onslaught of the fossil fuel industry, even at this advanced stage. Their opposition rests on ethical grounds, in the conviction that violence begets violence, and that we must create the world we want to see, not a world of war with ourselves. Yet, we are being attacked violently right now, and the consequences of not defending ourselves is a lot of death and ruin. We might be brave enough to walk individually into the line of fire undefended, get ourselves arrested or killed under a bulldozer (like Rachel Corrie), but do we have the right, having understood what is at stake, to take millions (or billions) of lives with us? 

The denouement of the 1980s film "The Mission" features protagonists Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro unresolved in their difference of opinion about how to defend a group of Amazon Indians who are, once again, slated to either be rounded up as slaves or exterminated in the forest. Irons plays a Jesuit priest who has led the Indians to Christ, and he prepares his congregation to walk unarmed out to the advancing Portuguese soldiers, bearing a cross. Meanwhile, De Niro's character, a former slave hunter himself, knows firsthand the depravity of the human spirit and the unlikelihood of receiving mercy or reconsideration from the approaching army. He arms the Indians as best as he is able, and teaches them how to ambush the military. 

In the end, the De Niro's character is felled by the Portuguese soldiers, and, as the thatched huts of the natives are set on fire, the priest and his contingent process slowly from the burning church. They, too, are cut down by gunfire. Everything is lost, and only some children escape alone into the jungle.

Warning: This video portrays violence.

In a terrible conjunction with real life, the same people portrayed in the film, the Guarani, are once again engaged in struggle on multiple fronts with companies logging endangered Amazonian trees, oil companies wanting to drill in the forest (building roads for heavy machinery into the jungle) and ranchers who are clearing forest in huge swathes for cattle raising and soy-bean plantations. The acres of soy beans, by the way, are an effort by farmers to capitalize on the boom of interest in biofuels. The Amazon is under such stress that it is considered to be a certain casualty of climate change, if we allow average global temperature to rise 3° C. That is, the entire forest will disappear. As for the Guarani, a tribe of 150 shocked the world last year when they pledged to commit suicide rather than be forced from a location in Brazil that has served as their burial ground for centuries. Are we really going to tell people like the Guarani, who have been subjected to centuries ongoing of ruination of everything sacred to them that the only confrontation on their behalf that their comrades in the west will offer up is nonviolent protest? What about the native people of the Athabascan wilderness, who are watching this transformation of their home:

Tar Sands mining is doing this to the Albertan wilderness.
There are other reasons to augment the approach to fighting climate disaster. Nonviolence doesn't just land you in the Birmingham Jail, anymore. If you are a reasonably polite and ineffective protester, the police may practice "catch and release" with you, booking you with a misdemeanor charge, and letting you go. Or, as the National Park Service did with protesting luminaries such as Bill McKibben and James Hansen, the authorities may agree beforehand to a "catch and release" plan, only to change it up and hold you for several days. If you are taking action that actually causes shareholders to lose some profit (like obstructing the building of a pipeline), you will be sued for a greater amount of money than you or your collective could ever hope to pay: sometimes, millions of dollars for a single day of civil disobedience. And if your collective is skillful at organizing and executing direct action, your group will almost certainly be the target of surveillance by the Homeland Security Agency, and charges against you may be augmented by "terrorism enhancements," which enable the government to detain you in isolation, perhaps without the protection of  habeas corpus

All right, enough review. Here's the most important argument for embracing the violence involved in destroying fossil fuel infrastructure: if violence is defined as harm to life, then there is a whole domain for action against the machinery of carbon pollution, where the loss of life can be prevented, and the hardship imposed by the action (for instance, the loss of jobs) can be addressed administratively. If violence is defined as any abrupt physical change or destruction, then... the whole Universe is filled with violence. It seems to me that the distinction people with a working moral compass want to make is between action that is benevolent and action that is malicious. This distinction is key, because it is entirely possible to dismantle the engine of our carbon climate doom without malice, but it will almost certainly require acts of violence. It is possible to forcefully defend the vulnerable without malice toward the aggressors, and to direct force so that the well-being of the aggressors is held as a matter of equal concern. The martial art of aikido is based on this philosophy, for example. 

There is, of course, another way to do violence, and that is violence to ourselves. We can shut down carbon pollution in a minute, if we truncate the lifestyle that demands it. Imagine 314 million people renouncing the life of excessive convenience and disposable permanence which has wrecked our world. Imagine 314 million people refusing to consume massive amounts of factory-farmed meat, agreeing to use their private property cooperatively for the purpose of living within our planetary means (not to mention, the hidden spiritual joy of complete generosity -- but that is for a different essay). 

This is way beyond the avenues for disavowal of the gluttony of the West offered by green consumerism. Because of the huge drag of Niagara and a few others on the pool of our economy, we cannot count on a practical solution to the climate crisis that works within the same pool, the same economy. Simply by participating in any way in the economy as it is, we each are compounding and magnifying the crisis beyond our individual means to offset the damage. We are talking about a few years (maybe ten or fifteen years) of refusing to meet our needs in the routine ways, refusing to do jobs that don't matter, facing the uncertainty of our survival now, voluntarily, rather than putting it off for a couple decades (of increasing hardship)... until the circumstances of death and tragedy make our lives as we've known them impossible anyway. In these immediate years, when the great profiteers of global capitalism are brought low by the evaporation of demand for our unsustainable current reality -- in these years, we will be hard at work rolling out renewable energy sources, efficient power delivery systems, and smart, cooperative ways of using that power. We will create a huge global financial and resource surplus that will take the world's economies out of debt, elevate everyone out of a desperate struggle for survival, and establish the kind of equity that could set us up for the future of peaceful prosperity envisioned by sci-fi author Gene Roddenberry.

Arguably, it would be more noble to commit this abrupt, violent cessation of our demand than wage a guerrilla war of sabotage upon the fossil fuel supply lines. However, without massive social reorganization by force, of the type carried out in the USSR in the 1920s, we just haven't moved fast enough as a collective flock to curtail ourselves. 

So, we are left with civil disobedience and forcible resistance against the machinery of disaster. I look at my daughter, and I wonder if she would object to these thoughts, if she would mind very much my trying to save her life with force. Maybe, it is more a matter of defending her life with my passionate vitality, now, rather than her father existing as a ghost in the twilight of a failed age.  I don't want her unjaded heart to have been in vain.

Yet, there is the danger now that our entire human participation in the planet will have been in vain, or worse: a detriment, a great fuck-up upon the Earth that will last longer than humanity itself was here. Carl Sagan, looking at a photograph of Earth taken from 6 billion miles out in space, had this to say about the "pale blue dot" barely visible in the dark night of the Universe: 

Dark grey and black static with coloured vertical rainbow beams over part of the image. A small pale blue point of light is barely visible.

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

The sad truth is that the current masters of this dot will rape our heavenly body because they have forgotten how to have the shiver of  joy and wonder when they say, "Nice to meet you." They are asking for forgiveness rather than permission, and, if we're not careful, no one will be able to answer. Oh yes, and here's the other truth: we are still the masters of this dot at this moment. So, with all respect and love possible, we must fight.   

1 comment:

  1. A major opportunity to make a difference in the best tradition of non-violent action is to take part in the Great March for Climate Action, 1000 people walking from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. to demand change. More information at www.climatemarch.org


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