May 2014: Living in a time of despair, hope, grief, joy, challenge, exhilaration, discovery, unraveling, intensity, creativity, stress, depression, anxiety, uncertainty, dread, fear, courage, transition, transformation – did I miss anything?

Posted April 30th, 2014 in Blog, Featured, News Comments Off

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

I’m sure you could add to the list. Is it any wonder we sometimes feel dizzy and overwhelmed? What a time to be alive!

I want to meld together a new monthly update on our work with a blog essay about what it means to live in such a time as this, when nothing that we thought was certain is certain any longer. What can you count on that a few decades ago you thought you could count on all your life? Financial security? Careers? Traditional marriage and family? Religious orthodoxy? Institutions? The weather? The woods where you played as a kid? The political system? A stable society? A future?

Maybe a majority white race population?

Maybe confidence that the people walking down your block or cutting you off on the freeway are not armed?

AP Photo - militia 'protecting' Cliven Bundy

AP Photo – militia ‘protecting’ Cliven Bundy

There are a lot of ways that human beings are responding to the huge changes underway in our world. Some of them are Cliven Bundy and the armed militias defending the white race, some are thugs in Ukraine itching for war, some are dealing with depression and/or anxiety that is at times debilitating, some are turning to fundamentalisms and orthodoxies to avoid the dread-filled questions, some are in denial. Others are really engaging. But what we all know is that change, profound change, inescapable change, is unfolding no matter what we do to try to escape its consequences.

Yesterday, Pensacola, Florida, had nearly two feet of rain in 24 hours. The whole area was inundated with rushing water. Before yesterday, the tornado count from the slow-moving line of severe weather across the South and Midwest had reached 128, a few of them reported to be more than a half-mile wide.

How quickly everything you thought was stable in your life can be gone, ripped apart, blown away, rubble, heaps of broken everything. From wildfires to floods to the aridification of much of the West, a lot of people in this country are experiencing exactly what it means to live in a world of impermanence – despite our best efforts to surround our lives with permanence and certainty.

Photo: Charles Loring, Twitter, retweeted by WMC action news 5

Photo: Charles Loring, Twitter, retweeted by WMC action news 5

If we need certainty to remain calm, to feel okay about ourselves, to not freak out, we will not do well in coming days.

It is always so moving to witness the aftermath of these upheavals. The first response is so honest, so full of grief and compassion, you wonder why we can’t make a culture out of those responses, let go the things that divide us. The only certainty we can count on will come from how we are with one another, and we ought to be about shaping that certainty around values of love and compassion, justice and deep respect, pulling together to get through hard times. Humans have done that before. We do know how to do that.

We also know this – the stronger the community, the better it does post-disaster.

So, with that introduction, what have we been up to?

You know, when I committed to the Athabasca River Pilgrimage last fall, I had no idea I would still be responding to invitations to speak about the tar sands all the way into this spring. As I have continued my quick learning curve on the oil and gas industry, that trip to the mountains, the forest, and the tar sands industrial region just keeps pulling me into what sometimes feels like an endless path of discovery, dark and terrifying, about what that industry really is and the threat it poses for all of us. By way of the transport network of pipelines and trains, refineries and ports, fracking wells and methane, CO2 emissions and environmental destruction, it seems none of us live anymore outside these toxic tentacles that stretch all across North America.

Alberta tar sands

Alberta tar sands

But besides presenting on this “key-to-everything-else-wrong-with-our-industrial/consumer economy,” I have also had and will have more opportunities this year to probe more deeply into the spirituality part of this work, sometimes presenting, sometimes working alongside communities asking these same questions, feeling these same upheavals.

What we also need, besides sharing the questions, is to articulate together the need for radically new ways of living in this deteriorating world, ways that offer hope that, no matter what happens and how difficult things get, we can live through them with equanimity, solidarity, a sense of adventure and exhilaration at the challenge, and real joy in the effort.

We need to find ways that are as diverse as Nature, fiercely local, where community is more-than-human, embracing the deep relationships with the sentient and non-sentient beings that are part of our watersheds and bioregions. We need to create lifestyles, ways of life, that reflect our values as well as our hopes for the future, including profound respect and deep reverence for all these interlocking relationships that keep Nature alive and vibrant while it goes through what is bound to be a tumultuous transition from an old dying era to something new – something we cannot yet see.

This past weekend, I led a program for The Well Spirituality Center, a project of the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange Park IL. I called it, Getting Down to Earth, a program/process that invites us to enter once again into the experience of these relationships from which the culture has caused us all to become alienated to the point where many don’t feel them at all anymore. It always feels like privilege to be part of these programs. People come with such heart, with desire to engage, to be challenged, to be opened. We do it together, each gathering unique in character and resonance with the uniqueness of the participants.

It’s a lot like the way Nature works. And just like Nature in all that ferment and diversity, new life emerges; or, in those spaces (our hearts and spirits), we rediscover it.

Connected to everything

Connected to everything

The alienation from our experience of these relationships, the places or points of connection between our bodies and spirits and the living community all around us, is one of the sad products or our consumer/technological overly busy/frenetic culture. Who has time to stop at a park each day to listen to the bird song, watch the chicks being fed in their nests, seeing what little critters are scampering about, what flowers and other plants grow wild and native, the variety of trees – and the quality of life in these places? If you never see your loved ones, if you never spend time with friends and family, how can you know them or what they need or what you have to offer each other for richer life? And yet we are completely dependent for our own lives on these very life forms and the ways they interact with one another to create a bio-community within which we live. That’s what “ecology” means.

So we did some of that work on Saturday with readings and videos and lots of conversation and some meditation woven in. As usual, I left with as much received as given. I always learn from the community. I always walk away with more to ponder, new ways to see things.

The other part of this work of recent weeks involves network-building. These programs, for one thing, always mean making more connections, expanding our links and contacts. The Alberta trip has involved finding many other groups doing amazing work against all odds and with few resources. We’ve made connections via Facebook and other social media, by connecting in various ways over the internet (just yesterday, for example, by way of the seminar broadcast on the internet around the release of Worldwatch Institute’s new State of the World 2014 report, Governing for Sustainability, we made new connections). I am intrigued by the organic nature of these expanding networks, how they come about, and how they, too, often reflect the way Nature works. One of the reasons I don’t give up hope is because of these growing connections among the heartfelt, the committed, those engaged in what Joanna Macy calls, The Great Turning. We keep finding more and more of us “out there.”

What this project seeks to do is find a “space” in which many different expressions of the work of “new creation” can be seen in the way we see Nature – interlocking manifestations of the deeply human response to the ecological crisis created by the industrial way of life that is consuming the planet. We seek to put these expressions into their beautiful context within the whole of a biological process within Nature itself as it responds to that crisis. Nature is full of energy in every part of its existence. It is in every aspect and diverse ways “aware” of the impacts and shows that to us in the melting glaciers, wrecked watersheds, polluted air and water, volatile weather systems, the heating atmosphere, the great extinction event already underway – and in its search through these many upheavals for a new equilibrium.

Video: Tribute to HOME (Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard – Injection)

Whether or not we become part of the new equilibrium is the decision we still need to make as a species. So in ways as concrete as the Alberta tar sands and Bakken oil field, and as deeply intuitive and subjective as the spiritual search for meaning, what we hope to do more of out of this project is to bring those two aspects together – to address:  1) the concrete ways we are living and what is involved in dismantling those destructive industrial systems so that we can keep on living at all; and, 2) the spiritual search for meaning and purpose that can carry us out of that old and destructive paradigm to a new one that is resonant with the planet itself, with Gaia, the one Mother Organism of which we are a part.

These are two aspects of the one path to which we are urgently called now. The industrial/consumer culture has tried to keep us addicted to it by replacing meaning with its content of consumption of goods for our comfort and pleasure, or as status symbols, or by making us believe that our security lies there and anything else is really scary. And that’s why relinquishing this way of life, which can feel terrifying for many people, requires that strong core of spirit and community, that deeper sense of purpose and meaning as we come to realize that the most terrifying thing is to believe that this consumer world of ours is all there is to the meaning of life.

So we will be doing some more exploring in these weeks of May. I hope to get out to the frac sand mining communities in western Wisconsin with my voice recorder and camcorder to bear witness to what is happening there and share the stories of those affected and those who are working against great odds to protect their communities from this new invasive industry. I also hope to get down to the East Chicago area where BP is expanding its refinery and becoming a major eco-threat to Lake Michigan and to neighborhoods nearby as it expands production to include processing of Alberta tar sands oil. We intend to do more to shed light on the whole picture of the oil and gas industry here in this country so that more and more communities become aware and active in the work to bring an end to our fossil fueled economy.

And we will continue the workshops, retreats, group facilitation, and collaboration in the exploration of the spiritual meaning of the crisis, because it is there that we really discover the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of this industrial/techno/consumer world and the restlessness and deep disquiet within ourselves that longs for something “more.”

In this work of ecological healing, of letting go, of facing the challenge, we will begin to really find that “more,” that greater purpose for our lives that is the longing of the human heart.

Video – We Are All One


Please support this project with a donation. And thank you.

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April 2014 – what we’ve been doing, what we’re doing, Earth Day, and more

Posted March 31st, 2014 in Blog, Featured, News Comments Off

[Still trying to find a way to make a living doing this work full time. Feels more urgent than ever. So please read on to see what's on our agenda.]

by Margaret Swedish

March was crazy busy, all in a good way. I was part of the Peace & International Issues Committee of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee that plans the Tuesdays in March lecture series each year. That would make four lectures (sometimes five) focused on a theme we develop each fall. Facing a political year, we chose to look at four crucial issues facing the State of Wisconsin: the influence of corporate political money in our state government; the use of Wisconsin, via pipelines and oil tanker trains, as a cog in the transport network for crude oil (I offered that presentation); the proposed iron ore mine in Northern Wisconsin and the treaty rights of the Ojibwe tribes; and then the passage of some of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the nation.

These sessions are always packed and result in significant conversation and dialogue. My talk on the dangers of crude oil transhipment and the scale of the plans for our state had people gasping. Alarm was certainly helped along by BP’s recent spill of more than 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan from their giant refinery in Whiting IN.

The Peace Poets and yours truly

The Peace Poets and yours truly. Photo: Beth Fiteni

The other real highlight of the month was traveling to Amityville on Long Island to help lead a day-long program entitled, “Petroleum, Poetry, and Peace.” I wondered at times what bonded those three “P”s but figured it out by the end of the day. Petroleum is now one of the biggest threats to peace globally, and poetry will be essential to the getting through the hard times awaiting us as we endure severe climate change impacts and the collapse of the global economy as we run headlong into the Earth’s limits.

Anyway, it was a rich and wonderful day at the Dominican Village, sponsored by Homecoming Farm, a project of the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville. I was especially pleased to share the program with The Peace Poets, three of whom came up from the Bronx to perform (or “spit”) their poetry with us. These are the kinds of connections that are essential if we are really going to do this “Great Turning” so many talk about these days.


I returned from NY and plunged right into Milwaukee’s annual Sustainability Summit. I offered a breakout session on the Alberta experience, the Athabasca River watershed, the tar sands industrial site, the impacts on Cree communities downriver, and on the pipelines and train transport of crude through the Upper Midwest. Don Ferber of the Sierra Club offered more info on Enbridge pipelines and ways we can take action to fight plans for a vast expansion of that network.

Those are just some of the highlights. Coming up in April is a day-long program at my local sangha on Deep Ecology and Mindfulness (April 5), followed on April 10 by a presentation on tar sands and crude oil transport at the Siena Center in Racine (“Alberta Tar Sands: A Visit to the Heart of the Industry”), followed on April 13 by a program on the ecological impacts of fossil fuel industries at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, and a day-long program at The Well Spirituality Center in La Grange IL on April 26. That program is entitled, “Getting Down to Earth.”

In between all that are important meetings, ongoing research, writing for this blog and other essays, a book I’ve begun out of my Athabasca River Pilgrimage journal, and more.

And that’s just April!

It’s been a very full time – even though the bank account is rather bare. We need funds right now not only to continue doing what we’re doing, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that much more could be done with more resources. So please help if you can.


If you’re around the area, please also sign up for any or all of these coming events. They are each unique in their focus which gives us an opportunity to explore more widely the crises we are facing (ecological, social, spiritual, psychological) and how we begin to create the necessary new ways of life that can lead us down the path of healing and a new relationship with the rest of the planet of which we are only one, humble, integral part.

I hope to get down to Chicago in April for a meeting of groups who care about the dangers of crude oil to Lake Michigan. It’s being convened by Tar Sands Free Midwest (you can find them on Facebook). With so many groups emerging in the past couple of years around these threats, this is a process full of potential. What it needs is more resources directed towards it. Most of us throw hours of volunteer time into this work, which is full of heart but which also limits what we can do.

This project, indeed the Center for New Creation, our fiscal sponsor, which has a great name and mission for this work, is positioned to play a much greater role in Upper Midwest collaboration. But we really need help from donors and funders to make that happen.

So if you are able to help with a donation right now, there could not be a better time!

April. Spring. Renewal of life. Now we are in need of a far more profound RENEWAL. Like those spring bulbs or the sap in the trees, the work to partner with the Earth in renewing and regenerating life is burgeoning up from below. People ask me what hope is. Well, there you have it.

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March 2014: So, what’s up?

Posted February 24th, 2014 in Blog, Featured, News Comments Off

Well, the sky is up, sort of. From another vantage point, of course, it’s also down. More accurately, it’s all around.

What else is up? The global temperature, the number of extreme weather events, political violence, oil and gas extraction and burning. Oh, and also the number of consecutive days that we have been snow-covered here in Milwaukee – 67 now with many more to come, given the forecast.

Also, grassroots movements in defense of the planet and its many gifts and wonders. Also organic farmers and backyard gardeners.

The work we do from this project – that is also up, though not our bank account. That is down and in need of some serious replenishment.logo tiny without words

Yes, this is a fundraising appeal because we sure can use the support right now. I’m sure you all know the difficulty funding work like this, but we want to be available beyond spare hours here and there. We want to be able to follow through on the many things being asked of us in times of tight budgets and real needs around the issues we care about so much.

So, what’s also up are expectations and hopes about the contributions we can make towards supporting movements that are our most vital expression of a new human community emerging from the ecological crises of our times.

Expectations and hopes for what? What’s on our agenda as we move through these late winter weeks, knowing that spring will come? Because it never fails, even when it seems it will take its good-natured time getting here.

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Photo: Margaret Swedish

As I have mentioned here before, the Alberta trip last year changed everything. While I had hoped that it would create opportunities for presentations and workshops, well, yes, it did – and still is. Just a few examples: in March, I will present a lecture entitled “Crude Comes to Wisconsin,” a presentation on our pipeline and rail links to Alberta’s tar sands industry and the oil play around Bakken, ND. This lecture is part of a series organized every March by the Peace & International Issues Committee of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. Check out this year’s schedule of lectures – vital stuff in yet another political year in Wisconsin. I am part of this planning group and very excited about this year’s program

Later in the month, I travel to Long Island for a day-long program that will focus on the tar sands, our relationship with energy, and what it would really mean for us to move to a post-carbon world. What would that look like and how can we begin creating that world now? The program is being offered by Homecoming Farm and will be held at the Dominican Village in Amityville.

When I return, I will quickly immerse myself in Milwaukee’s annual Sustainability Summit where I will offer a workshop on the tar sands industry and have a booth to continue the dialogue. That’s on the 26th-27th. Click here for more info.

Then, April. On the 5th, I will join with the Tender Shoot of Joy sangha to co-lead a day of mindfulness and deep ecology. Very excited about this for the depth it allows us to plummet in deep investigation of the reality of our ecological crisis. On the 10th I will be doing an evening program in Racine, and on the 13th a presentation at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center for their environmental education program. Then on the 26th, I will do a day program at The Well Spirituality Center in La Grange Park IL entitled, “Getting Down to Earth.” Click on all these links for more info.

Frac sand mine:  m.kenosion Howard EOG mine 2012-06-15

Frac sand mine: m.kenosion Howard EOG mine 2012-06-15

In between these events, I will continue feeding this blog, going to meetings, making more connections with the dozens of groups surfacing around our part of the world. One of my intentions as this winter finally relents is to get to our western counties to visit the communities impacted by frac sand mining, to share more of their stories and see what we can contribute to making more connections between that reality and that of the pipelines, oil trains, and more that are all part of the larger picture of the super-exploitation of oil and gas reserves. We need urgently to be moving in the opposite direction. One of the ways we do that is by sharing our visions of how we move away from a fossil-fueled economy to a sustainable, earth-cherishing one.

So, you know, this requires a funding base. Over the past several years, we have been supported mostly by donors and small grants from various faith-based groups. We are now at a crossroads where we could begin to really dig in and make a bigger contribution to this work in the Midwest – if we can find the resources to do it.

Just to push the dreaming a bit further, we have at times pondered the notion of a regional gathering that would bring together some of the best local grassroots groups to share experiences, skills, and strategies, build community, and develop more regional collaboration as we work towards common goals in creating a post-carbon world. That is a dream we have shared with a few colleagues in other places and it always ignites enthusiasm. Can we help make that possible?

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Photo: Margaret Swedish

We are moving into a truly critical moment. Awareness around our planetary challenges are growing with every new weather anomaly, every weird storm, each new story about the western drought (each of them worse than the one before) and its impact on food prices, every story that reveals the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry over the politics of our state and federal governments. From chemical spills in WV to coal ash spills in NC, more and more people are getting a sense of the recklessness of industries that value profit over the well-being of human communities and the planet.

So, yes, this would be a terrific time to consider a tax deductible contribution to the Center for New Creation (CNC), the fiscal sponsor for this project. We want to be able to continue our contribution to this work. But we also believe we can do much more. We are only limited by the limits of our available resources. And those are limits we’d like to overcome – with your help.

From here, you can go to our DONATE page. And thank you.

Margaret Swedish


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January 2014 – news and things to do

Posted January 23rd, 2014 in Blog, News Comments Off

Last week I had the opportunity to present on my September trip to Alberta, on the tar sands industry, and the infrastructure that is being built to transport dilbit (the gooey stuff from the tar sands, called bitumen, combined with chemical diluents to allow it to flow) and the dangerous, flammable sweeter crude that is being fracked in the Bakken oil play of North Dakota.

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Photo: Margaret Swedish

The first was a program at the Milwaukee’s First Unitarian Society, a very active congregation committed to various responses to climate change signals, including an energy audit of its property and divestment from fossil fuel companies. The discussion that followed the presentation was lively, passionate, a great willingness to think about how to address the growing threats from the industry to our state and the environment of the Upper Midwest.

Then on Friday, I presented a program for the Wisconsin chapter of the relatively new Association of Energy Engineers, a student group at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. While we were a bit disappointed at the student turnout, the audience was riveted and stuck around to the bitter end with more questions (really good ones) and discussion. My brother is a professor there (Michael Swedish, who has written for this website), and he and other faculty were impressed enough to tell me to hang on to the talk because they hope to get me back in a larger venue.

What really mattered to me was that the student who hosted me, Branko, said what they wanted from my program was a presentation on how the industry is affecting people, communities, and the environment. Trust me, this is somewhat novel in many engineering schools and I find this a very hopeful sign.

February is a bit quieter (writing and fundraising time), but come March I will be doing a lecture for a series sponsored by the Peace & International Issues Committee of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, a day long retreat in Long Island called Petroleum, Poetry and Peace…The Exploration for Ecological Hope, Economic Justice and a Sense of Place, and presenting a workshop and staffing a booth with tar sands/Bakken info at Milwaukee’s annual Sustainability Summit. April has more in store, including a program on April 26 at The Well in La Grange IL as part of their Earth Day celebrations. I’m calling this program, Getting Down to Earth…because we need to.

logo at 217 x 157 jpegThere is no question that the Athabasca River Pilgrimage opened many doors and really focused the nature of our work right now. More and more I believe that our future on this planet will be shaped by our human relationship with energy. And that is both a warning and an urgent call for a far deeper, far more serious commitment on the part of all of us toward shifting the dynamics of the global economy away from “growth,” away from consumption of goods, away from a couple of centuries worth of an economic model that has brought us to the brink of disaster – actually, beyond the brink since many disasters are already unfolding.

What to do now:

Well, if you read the posts here, you know that we have some serious threats crossing our region right now, from pipelines to oil tanker trains, and the plans are for those threats to only increase. It would be an excellent idea to start bothering your legislators at both the state and federal levels asking questions about Enbridge pipeline expansion, about oil tanker trains and the lack of regulations and oversight even after the explosions of three trains carrying Bakken oil.

Photo: Joan Shrout

Photo: Joan Shrout

And if you are in Wisconsin, it is crucial to challenge the expansion of the frac sand mining industry that is spreading ruin and contamination through some of our western counties. Enormous damage is being done to strip-mine and process silica sand to Bakken and elsewhere for a fracking industry that is spreading ruin and contamination in what is largely a rural farming area.

For Wisconsin friends interested in doing advocacy around these issues, check out:

Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters
Midwest Environmental Advocates
Penokee Hills Education Project
Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club

For the latest on the extreme dangers of shipping Bakken crude oil by tanker car trains, check out this article from the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, we have a state government that is actively discouraging the development of solar and wind energy, which once looked so promising here. We are a state moving backwards at great speed while other Midwest states are moving in different directions. Iowa continues to move ahead with a large wind energy industry now, and Minnesota has strong grassroots opposition to expanding frac sand mining, and a governor on their side, despite an industry-friendly legislature. Sadly, it’s pretty obvious how politics and political money is determining energy policies in Wisconsin right now.

Education is also key. I have yet to address an audience about the tar sands, Bakken, pipelines, and oil tanker trains that is not riveted, unnerved, frightened, and angered by what is being constructed across our state without the public being asked if they want any of this. Danger comes not just without our permission, not just without consulting with citizens, but without telling the public much of anything about it at all.

So I continue learning everything I can about all of this, taking advantage of the unique opportunity I had to spend two weeks in Alberta to acquire some powerful first-hand testimony and narratives. I am happy to be kept busy doing more of these programs, so do get in touch if you are interested in a presentation or workshop in your community.

A friend I met in Alberta. Photo: Margaret Swedish

A friend I met in Alberta. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Some of my work continues to be focused beyond education and information sharing, but also in working with communities to get to the heart of the matter – a way of being in the world, of viewing the world, the values that shape this culture – those meaning frameworks that are among the reasons it is so hard to make the necessary shift, including our dominant philosophical and religious belief systems that shape the way we live. Some of these things we take so for granted that we don’t even SEE them anymore.

We are living in an extraordinarily challenging time. Rather than get depressed about it, there is another way of looking at it. Times like these can also bring out the best in us. Every one of us has gifts to offer to the work of shifting course to a healthy, sustainable, abundant future. What a great reason to get out of bed in the morning, no?

For more info on the Athabasca River Pilgrimage including pics and video, click on these links:

From beauty and horror and back again: the Athabasca River Pilgrimage
Home from Alberta – changed
Changed, yes, by raw reality, so here’s some raw footage of Alberta’s exceedingly raw reality
And, finally, the pilgrimage blog: Athabasca River Pilgrimage

If you would like to support our work (and we would be so grateful if you do), you can make a tax deductible donation online by credit card or by sending a check made out to our fiscal  sponsor, the Center for New Creation.

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