And How Shall We Meet Our Fate?

Folks are getting tired of hearing me prophesy climate doom at Friends Meeting. Even in my last message, back during Advent, when I was trying to be positive, I framed my statement about the Mystery that undergirds the world with so much dread reality that folks afterwards said, “Very dark, very dark.” The takeaway for my friend Jerry was, “Why even try if we are doomed?”

But I do try. I am an activist, and receive tremendous joy from well-planned, imaginative actions like the magnificent People’s Climate March in NYC this past September. But even more, I try to be large enough to take in the death of global civilization. To be that large, to stretch that much, requires us to be more than human. Maybe it would be better to be simply human, not the “God species.” Rather than trying like superapes to outsmart the earth’s cycles which we have overstretched, to pull back and “cultivate our gardens” – leaving plenty of contemplative space. Our comforts, provided by the 200 slaves apiece that we in the developed world have subdued by harvesting ancient sunlight, have led us to the delusional dream of infinite progress on a finite planet, cut off from the biospheric ties that bind and nourish us. We need to slow down and notice both the devastation we have wrought, and the threatened beauty of what remains. Like all higher mammals, we have the ability to empathize with other creatures, opening the heart in a natural gesture which E.O. Wilson calls biophilia. And beyond our mammalian cousins, this power is multiplied infinitely in humans as the moral imagination. If that fails,
when we can do no more, just be humble and let God hold it.

Meanwhile, we see the people of the island nations rising up with anger and determination to stem the tide. But the tide is coming in, and they are on the front line. Bigger and bigger storms will hit coastal people. Right now they are concentrated in the South Pacific. There are still 2 million refugees from Typhoon Haiyan. The Atlantic is quiet this year, but superstorms will return; it’s only a matter of time. So we go on with our lives with as much care about our choices as we can muster, push our leaders to the strongest possible treaties, show truth to power, and cultivate love, forbearance,and forgiveness as it plays itself out.

I try to have faith in a global climate accord in Paris this coming Advent. There will probably be one, a true miracle if it is effective enough to turn the tide. Furthermore, it won’t go into effect until 2020, which even the IEA says is too late. Too late is when we have committed atmospheric forcing to 1.5 degrees C. We may already be there. That is the looming fear.

If so, then it’s a matter of how much care and love and discipline we can show on our way out. Having missed the opportunity for structural changes in our lifestyles, governance, and economic system, this will be expressed mostly through individual acts of love and heroism, brought out everywhere as the climate tsunami breaks. But they won’t make a difference to the implacable laws of physics and chemistry. By enslaving the earth, we have cooked our goose.

Our fate gathers around us. Some cry out in warning, but the mass resolutely go about their business, ignoring the gathering shroud. We are sleepwalkers, blankly marching across a threshold of unimaginable suffering to what? Either oblivion, or another world, also unimaginable. I choose to believe the latter. But I trust experience more than belief, and belief in the capitalist utopian dream has led us to this dead-end. It helps to remember that the highest form of experience is to experience our form, not as homo sapiens, but our inner nature, our very Self. That is both the challenge and solace if we can’t halt the destructive momentum we have unleashed as an errant planetary power.


China Repeats Nazi Synfuel Trick

I recently read about China’s attempt to clean up the air in their big cities by creating synfuels from coal. These fuels are cleaner-burning, which would deal with the particulates, but the process of making them would use more CO2 than just burning the coal. This is not what the climate community meant when we called for China to stop burning coal to save humankind.

Secretary of State John Kerry has applauded the partnership of China and the US to decrease GH gases, now approaching two years old. There is always something hidden in political communications. These synfuel plants are the big one, the scrubbed mastodon in the room which gives the lie to the official line. They have built ten mega-facilities in the countryside, so they are heavily invested in a technology which climate experts say dooms the planet.

Meanwhile, the battle over the Keystone Pipeline continues. When I was released from the federal facility in DC in early September 2011, the ground trembled. It was that unusual east-coast earthquake centered in northern Virginia near a nuclear facility. Once they reopened the subway, deep under the earth, the cellphone lines were jammed; I couldn’t reach my contacts. Shades of an ecological emergency.

The Keystone XL is our version of China’s synfuels. My hero James Hansen named it the tipping point, essentially “game over” if we don’t stop it. But since September 2011 many other pipelines have been built, and Obama has presided over the opening of its southern leg, emphasizing his “all of the above” strategy. All of the above is the response of an emperor presiding over the last global civilization we will ever know, built upon irreplaceable carbon stores. It seems that Keystone XL has become a metaphor for climate warriors. But in fact we are surrounded by Fossil Fool interests, and they continue to have the upper hand. Our lifestyles hand it to them, no matter how many times we protest and commit civil disobedience. So who’s a Fossil Fool?

A couple of years ago, I blogged about the need for one of the leading industrial nations to take leadership in ramping down climate change, saying that China actually had the best shot at displaying this leadership because it was the closest nation to having a Philosopher-King with the power to act, unheeded by the moronic masses and the corporate oligarchy who deftly control both them and our elected leaders, like puppets. I sent it to Hansen, who responded, “You are right. That’s why I have given up on our government and am advising China instead.”

Well, Jim Hansen, it seems neither leader has heeded you, and the oligarchs are in power everywhere. Is there anything you can do, now that the Chinese have massively invested in these plants, which have even more power to doom the climate than the dreaded Tarsands? I pray for you and your mission in Beijing. I pray for us all, as the climate tsunami is right on the verge of breaking.

Where are the Butterflies?

I first fell in love with the Southern Appalachian Mountains when I went to camp in Linville, NC for two consecutive summers as a pre-teen, 1956-58. It was a boarding camp, lasting eight weeks. At the end of each session, I didn’t want to go home. One of the things I liked best about Camp Yonanoka was collecting butterflies. There were butterflies everywhere. I was lucky enough to catch a Diana (Speyeria diana), and though it had one little knob missing on a back wing, my counselor told me that the state museum of natural history in Raleigh might purchase it from me, for it was rare. “How much?” I asked Buddy. “Oh, maybe five dollars.” After killing it and drying it on pins, I stored it on the top of my locker, along with several other specimens. The week before camp ended, as I was beginning to sort things for packing, I looked at the butterflies. The Diana had been half-eaten by a rodent! I was crestfallen – and the rat (so I imagined) probably poisoned by the residual ethyl acetate from the killing jar.

I was fortunate to move to the Southern Mountains in 1974, raising my family in the valley of the South Toe River, fairly near Linville. The camp is torn down now, but it was passed to the Audobon Society, who have preserved the site. During the early years in South Toe, it seemed the butterflies were just as numerous as they had been back at camp in the fifties. Our small sons delighted in reaching for them, bright fluttering colors in the sun. I marveled at the numbers of tiger swallowtails and pipevines that would gather in August near the river. They were probably swarming for mating season. But there were many individuals as well, and I was pleased to be able to identify all of them because of the butterfly id’s Buddy had taught me.

Now there are fewer and fewer butterflies. I have seen only a couple of tigers this year. They used to be numerous. The same goes for the various fritillaries. Even the common skippers are fewer. We used to see many monarchs in late summer during their trip south to Mexico. Though we have a milkweed patch near the community garden that we carefully preserve when mowing, I haven’t seen one for years. The only abundant species this year is the pipevine swallowtail. A few weeks ago, we took the grandkids to the local pond and dozens of them were gathered. The puppy jumped at them, and the boys were delighted at the display. So was I. Moments like these are rare – and very special – these days.

In the seventies, I remember our window screens thickly covered with moths in the evenings. We frequently beheld huge lunas and zecropias, and other moths of every hue and size. No more. They are so few that it’s hard to get motivated enough to put away our woolens for the summer (July 27, and we still haven’t). I was camping in Maryland in a large meadow last summer and saw a torn, smallish luna in the morning among the tall grass. It made me long for the days when perfect specimens regularly alighted on our screens.

On the other hand, during the hike along the B and O canal last summer that led me to that campground, I frequently saw zebra swallowtails, a species I only saw once as a boy in Linville. Every time I saw another, it cheered me. I shared my delight with Leigh, youngest person on the Walk for our Grandchildren. Eleven years old, she was the same age I was the first year I went to camp.

This Christmas the family went to Nicaragua. During a rainforest hike, Geeta and I saw many butterflies, including the incomparable blue morphos and another species fire-engine red with blalk highlights. I was absolutely delighted. Nicaragua is still relatively undeveloped, and only moderately populated. But the Chinese are teaming up with government officials to build a canal to rival the one in Panama. That, and highway and bridgebuilding threaten many habitats – including the beautiful, lowly butterflies.

Last summer, cleaning out the shelves, I found the box in which my old collection was mounted. The Diana was gone. I have never again seen a male, which turns out to be the sex of my specimen, though he’s still out there. All the others mounted in the box are still familiar, but only the pipevine is still plentiful. Standing in the upper meadow at camp, net in hand, eagerly watching for something special, I lived in another, more bountiful world.

Note:  Since writing this July 30, I have identified a beautiful black-and -blue butterfly that looked familiar as a female Diana!  I have seen probably 8-10 of them.  From the link in last paragraph, the male hides in the woods, which must be why I’ve never seen one in these parts.

All things shall perish from under the sky

One of the great gifts of my life is music, especially choral singing. My mother’s irrepressible little brother Pierce compares the experience of good choral singing to sex. The deep emotion of hearing great music is unparalleled. So many compositions feel like an adagio farewell to all that we hold dear: Haydn’s “Creation,” Elgar’s Nimrod Variations, Beethoven’s Ninth, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Brahms’ Requiem. Or the folksongs which seem to come right out of the earth. A long swansong during the Long Emergency.

The Voyager Space capsule takes Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky (as well as jazz, pop, world folk) into the far corners of the universe, but that music was created for ears attuned to a certain frequency, let alone sensibility. It is a touching gesture, but will probably remain only that. Oh, they could make music, those humans!

All things shall perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live, music alone shall live, music alone shall live – never to die. (traditional German round)


New Sap

We are home again, having greeted our new granddaughter Elora Wren in California last week. I tasted only sweetness, no regret or apprehension as I welcomed her to the family fold. She is new sap.

The following was written a full three months before the cold finally ended. El Nino now threatens, and it may be a very long time before we endure such a winter again.

After an extremely cold winter, it is really warm today. After a week without being able to drive up my road after a sizable snowfall, the last of it melted yesterday. Standing amongst the hardwoods, I can feel their sap rising, replenishing the hickory buds which swelled in December during the last warm spell. And I feel my sap rising. The old-timers call it garden fever.

I am aware of the vast extent of this forest, a target “renewable resource” for the desperate European power industry, which is where most of the beautiful, straight tulip poplar logs I see neatly lashed to logging trucks are headed – chipped, shipped and burned! Yet despite continued logging pressure, the Appalachian Forest remains one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks. And though we are losing the battle of storing sufficient carbon to halt the onslaught of catastrophic global warming, the growth potential of that sap, my sap, God’s sap unites me deeply, completely, with the Creator’s power to create another earth, another universe after the inevitable decline and death of this one. It’s not about us, not even about this gloriously rich earthly web, but rather the power to create web upon web in world upon world. Forever.

Just a Little Rain

An early instance of climate disequilibrium…
Jan 22 2007 The smell of the ocean, thick and fishy this morning. Here in the mountains, four hundred miles away. Strange times. Fish from more southern seas are venturing into Arctic waters looking for the cooler waters that remind them of home. Our home is the entire earth, and by claiming it we have wrecked a stable equilibrium.

April 15, Celo Friends Meeting.
I minister with Joan Baez’ song, “Just a Little Rain” and speak of our moving from worries about rains seeded with Strontium 90 by atmospheric testing to a shift in the entire Earth climate: what have they done to the rain? And then I wonder aloud at the contradiction between what we have wrought and the statement in Genesis that we are made in G-d’s image.

At the end of meeting a young woman reads from Henri Nouwen: once we move into prayer mode, any thought becomes a prayer. Reflecting on my dark thought about our rapacious race, I realize that the infinite depths of compassion, the ability to suffer with the Earth, our fellow human beings, and all the critters and plants, is also in the image of God. We have become as gods, and must therefore be God-like in our compassion for what we have brought to pass, from the Garden to the neolithic sweat of our brows to the doomed global industrial machine. And then, as the Earth takes back her due, back to the garden again, farming the paved cracks in the ghosts of cities. The inner city will be one big vacant lot waiting to be redeemed. And the broken and wounded will be everywhere, desperate for healing. Redemption is mine, sayeth the Earth. May the wave of destruction seed a whole tribe of Mother Theresas, flinging them into those same failed cities.

Feb 25 How can we hold ourselves to our best selves, and continue to build nuclear bombs? How can we hold to our best selves and continue to grow a civilization on the scale we now mount it? How will we hold ourselves to our best while death and destruction rain all around us? When refugees swarm at our borders, our doors? When there’s not enough food for our fellow humans, let alone the creatures whose habitat we’ve robbed. I was hungry and you fed me. That will apply until the end, breaking the last crust of bread with the stranger. But what if it’s a group of fifty desperate starving people? What happens when you must measure out compassion so that one in every eight survives? How will we choose?

I remember my fury when I read a memo from Larry Summers, ex-president of Harvard, economic advisor to Presidents Clinton and Obama, stating cooly that Haiti should be left to collapse because it wasn’t worth the investment in a world with insufficient resources. But what would you or I do? Lester Brown has answers, and so do I; subsistence farming is key. Aran Island and its potato farmers will be gone, but we will farm the cement crannies of crumbling cities as they once did their deep rock crevices, buckets lowered into the darkening loam.

The Exquisite Joy and Terrible Challenge

Of having a baby in these times…

The exquisite pleasure of being with an infant: the softness, the suppleness the purity of the smile, the promise of life unfolding, with developmental sequences happening rapidly.. The cooing, the hand-to- mouth practice, the gurgling, the bodily processes without any hang-ups or excuse-me’s (Observing Aidan, my first grandchild, at five months).

November 19, 2013 My son Jesse’s wife Megan is pregnant – their child due in June. I couldn’t respond at first, but when I did, I broke into tears. I was not able to emotionally grasp the moment, blocked by fifteen years of following climate research and refusing to deny what is inexorably unfolding. I cried deeply for the heaviness of what should be the greatest joy, knowing that we are probably doomed as a species, this little baby arriving in the very teeth of it. It shadows everything, but particularly the newest generation, our freshest fruits.

April 6, 2014, when my biological fate, as well as Jesse’s and his child’s, was ritually joined 72 years ago when Robert McGahey Jr. married Virginia Howard. But as I said once before, every mother, and many fathers, in the animal kingdom deeply bonds with her infant. Who are we to take this possibility from them, from ourselves? I know some young couples who stoically plan no children, saying they would only exacerbate the problem, and subject their own most precious creation to suffering. But we are an irrepressible, adventurous species, and Jesse and Megan represent the best of that spirit, come what may. And I will welcome this newest member of our family, and expect the next tears will be those of joy. As the great teachers say, happiness is our natural state. Come what may.

Leavers and Takers

The perfectly normal desire of each human being to be their best, and to pass on heirs: family traditions, genetic info, wealth. But now in order for this to happen, we each need to stop carbon emissions in their tracks, move to a local economy, and in terms of population, essentially bear only the kids who can live on that local economy, which is far less than “replacement.” As for the status of the local economy, try this exercise: trace the source and pathway to your door of everything you use. Try it for a week. Perhaps this could be a Lenten exercise for observant Christians. And when does this Lenten season end? Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Do we pass on, or just pass through? Be passersby, Jesus admonished his disciples in the Gospel of Thomas. Consider the lilies of the field… Is this not also true on a larger scale, at the level of Gaia? Dan Quinn speaks of Leavers and Takers in Ishmael. The Takers won – farmers over hunters, homo sapiens over homo neanderthalis, Wall Street over the shantytown. It has been a long time coming, but it looks like we won’t leave much at all. We would pass on: goods, house, money, as well as genetic info. But what if we are just like the bacteria in our gut, simply doing our thing as part of the larger flow? And if we obstruct that flow, the system will cleanse itself of us to keep the whole healthy. Passersby, not just as itinerants, but as a species, ultimately a universe. While we are busy piling up what we might pass on, Thomas reminds us of his brother’s words: heaven is spread out upon the earth, if we would only see it (Thomas 113:1-4).

Giants in the Earth

April 6, 2006 (my parents’ anniversary 1942)
I can’t take in this global ecocrisis. To take it in I must become earth. When the bulldozers came to cut a road into his local rainforest, the Australian John Seed, an awakened IBM functionary, joined his neighbors in a human blockade. Coming out of their solidarity circle, turning to face the machines, he recounts that in that moment he felt transformed into the rainforest protecting itself. He went on to found the Rainforest Information Centre. We must all become earth, each in their rooted corner of it, grounded in our watershed and local ecosystem. To do this, we must surrender a lot of habitual behavior. Since we are hesitating at this moment of decisive action, the fearsome wave of biospheric and population collapse may do it for us.

Hell, it’s been eight years since I wrote this. During that moment, suspended between the initial impulse and this post, 20% of all the carbon humans have added to the atmosphere has been emitted. See what I mean about trying to take it in? Back in the 80’s, Robert Bly said that we were once again in a world dominated by giants, where one treads carefully, like in fairy tales. My activist friends say the giants are the corporations and the governments. But maybe the Giants R Us.

We Are the Flood

Brian Swimme really nailed it when he called human beings a “planetary power.” It is now within our power to preserve the earth (for hundreds of millions of years and more) or to hasten its becoming another Venus. This is the fundamental spiritual and political issue of our time, and for Abrahamists, the responsibility rests upon the covenant Yahweh made with Noah after the Flood. It feels more like we are watching Noah’s Ark in reverse, counting the species as they disappear forever. Until we are no longer there to count.