Assessing where we are…

Posted October 24th, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Assessing where we are…

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

So, we’ve entered into this new era (which many call the Anthropocene, an evolutionary epoch being shaped by homo sapiens sapiens and our impact on the planet), one that has been predicted at least since the 1970s, a time of ecological overshoot (using up more of the earth’s “resources” than it can replenish and putting more waste into it than it can absorb at an increasingly accelerated rate of both), intense population growth, climate change, species extinction, rapid industrialization of the globe, and all the rest. Lots of harsh implications for the planet.little tiny earth

Where are we in that process now? And will attempting to look at the whole of the picture simply crush our spirits, paralyze us, put us all on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs?

Then the other crucial assessment – where are humans in the process of responding to what is unfolding, to what anyone who is paying attention knows has become a wholly impossible way of life – not just in the future, but already in our past?

You know, how are we doing?

First, assessing the state of ecological crisis

TRAVELOkay, the bad news first – because all those scary processes we’ve been talking about for decades are occurring exactly as predicted. The Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere are undergoing vast changes, many of them now irreversible. Yesterday, a friend posted a story on Facebook that literally scared the sleep out of me. I will tell you honestly that I do struggle at times about sharing this kind of stuff, and yet I feel that if we don’t know how bad things are, we will think we have more time than we really have for that thing the fiscal sponsor of my project calls, New Creation. We really need to pick up the pace of that!

Here’s what disturbed my sleep last night: The Ocean Is Broken. If you have a moment, read this before continuing here. And if you have more than a moment, just sit with it and let this info sink in. Sit with the silence that is described here – the silence of no-life. And then imagine the sound that was there – of a boat bumping up against the human waste dumped in the ocean. The fish gone, therefore the birds gone, the waste piling up.

There’s a vision here of our Earth that is out of some futuristic sci-fi post-apocalyptic film. But this is reality; this is now.

And then there’s Australia. Now Australia has always endured a harsh climate, but even the natives know they have never seen fires quite like those of recent years. The country is one of those that will be most destructively impacted by global warming. Cities like Melbourne have seen summer temperatures reach 120-130 degrees in the past decade. The fires this month are further evidence of what’s in store. Australia is also one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. This article is about the fires, about climate change, and about the politics of denial, where a carbon tax was enough to put a denier back at the helm of the national government, despite this: “…the state of New South Wales in southeastern Australia experienced its hottest September on record, on the heels of the country’s warmest 12-month period on record as well.”

Climate Change Affects Australia’s Epic Fires

Meanwhile, in Minnesota the moose are disappearing – and many experts are saying it’s because of climate change. I found these temperature changes in northern Minnesota to be stunning:

Average winter temperatures in northwestern Minnesota have climbed about 12 degrees F during the past 40 years, and average summer temperatures have increased 4 degrees F. Researchers believe the warmer temperatures have stressed the moose, making them more vulnerable to parasites spread by a deer herd that has been booming, primarily because of a decade of mild winters. Those parasites–liver flukes and brain worms to which deer are less vulnerable–weaken moose and apparently contribute to chronic malnutrition. As a major cause of moose mortality, the parasites may explain the lower reproduction rates. “A variety of factors may be contributing to the decline, but ultimately I think the real driving force is the climate,” says Dennis Murray, a professor at Trent University in Ontario and main author of the moose study. “The climate change is tipping the balance.”

The phenomenon is happening across North America: Moose Die-Off Alarms Scientists. Some of what is happening to this magical species is downright creepy, this time not so much a sci-fi story as sheer horror stuff.

Winters have grown substantially shorter across much of the moose’s range. In New Hampshire, a longer fall with less snow has greatly increased the number of winter ticks, a devastating parasite. “You can get 100,000 ticks on a moose,” said Kristine Rines, a biologist with the state’s Fish and Game Department.

Poor animals – death by massive hordes of ticks. Too horrible to think about.

How quickly is the Earth warming? Here’s another scary indication: Arctic’s Hudson Bay Warming Rapidly, at Tipping Point. It begins:

The Arctic has experienced some of Earth’s first and greatest effects of climate change, but the icy lowlands around Hudson Bay have remained remarkably resistant to warming—until recently. A new study reports that, since the mid-1990s, aquatic ecosystems in one of the Arctic’s last refugia have undergone dramatic climate-driven changes and appear to have reached an ecological tipping point.

Here’s another story I’ll bet none of you missed this past week – Beijing’s “Super-Smog” event, also dubbed, “airpocalypse” (really, we’re running out of language to describe these events). Watch the videos on the CNN page. Hard to believe anything can continue to live in these conditions.

BTW – take note here of the fact that exports of coal from the United States have more than doubled since Obama was first inaugurated, canceling out his own policies of regulating carbon emissions from US coal-fired power plants. How bad is this industry as a contributor to the carbon drivers of climate change?

Blowing up mountains for export? Photo: Vivian Stockman (OVEC)

Blowing up mountains for export? Photo: Vivian Stockman (OVEC)

A push to expand coal mining operations in the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, and to build three ports in Oregon and Washington to ship the fuel to Asia, could create more national and global environmental impact than a Canadian company’s proposal to ferry Albertan tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast via the Keystone XL pipeline. Yet these remote projects are not getting the attention they deserve, critics suggest, and they fear Obama may be overlooking, apathetic to, or even supportive of them.

Yes, that bad.

Finally, just to put a finishing overarching touch on this picture of where we are in our era of ecological crisis, news from this study, news that I admit I resist receiving fully, don’t want to believe to be true, hope it is not, can’t believe the world didn’t come to a stop immediately when this report came out to figure out what to do and how to proceed: Global warming to scorch past milestone in 2047, study predicts.

…the world as a whole had its hottest year on record in 2005. The new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, says that by the year 2047, every year that follows will probably be hotter than that record-setting scorcher.

Yup, hands over the ears and now sing loudly with me: “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la….”

Think Colorado floods, or this from Wisconsin about what happened to our water in last year’s drought: Drought dramatically increased groundwater pumping in 2012. It didn’t just increase. It increased far beyond sustainability limits. Industrial agriculture, especially livestock producers, are the big users now, and their practices take a severe toll on land and water. But drought  and record heat waves will become more frequent in the climate change scenario for my state. A once water-rich state is headed for water scarcity crises.

Assessing ecological conditions on our planet – well, it’s not so good, is it? We are well into the new ecological era now, unfolding as predicted. Many of these shifts are irreversible, but still could be slowed if we acted now at the scale required. Some of the shifts are still reversible (like recovering natural habitats, or allowing groundwater and aquifers to replenish by limiting industry and developers and leaving wetlands alone). But overall, we are in big trouble, challenged to figure out how to live on a planet that will be changed in ways that humans have never had to live with since evolution brought us into existence.

Assessing where we are – is there any good news?

Well, um, yes, there is. For years I have been asking this question about our human biology. We are animals, after all, made of cells and molecules, just like the rest of the natural world. Will our biology kick in? Will this species so out of touch with its own biology begin to sense the danger and respond to it? We know we see reaction. We see it in the more visceral denialism. We see it in heightened anxiety, depression, the drive for distraction from what’s happening all around us, in the retreat into other-worldly fundamentalisms. Because the political culture is dysfunctional, because the media, religious and cultural leaders, educators, the business community, and more do not talk about this, most of us don’t know what to do with the dreadful information. That’s not because there is nothing to do! And we need to really understand that.

Enbridge action Michigan july 22 2013Now I have written before that one of the most important things happening is the burgeoning of grassroots groups rising up to defend their places. I wrote about this in my last post. Since returning from Alberta, I have been doing a lot of looking around to see who is out there. Turns out these groups are everywhere. And wherever they are, they are challenging the very drivers leading to the ecological abyss – corporations tearing up and polluting the land, fossil fuel and pipeline companies bent on getting all the carbon out of the ground before the world puts a stop to it (believe me, that day is coming), political leaders bought and paid for by these industries, a political class and culture that tries to stifle their voices. They are farmers and hunters, residents of small rural communities and big cities where corporate leaders like the Koch brothers dump the waste from their profit-making industries. They are speaking up, getting empowered, using the internet to spread their message, all these tentacles of human responses to the destruction that is spreading all across the planet.

The more I look for them, the more I find. And when I look again, there are still more. Let me give you an example.

Here in Wisconsin, we are facing an attempt on the part of the Republican legislature to take away local authority to regulate and control the frac sand mining industry. Our governor, Scott Walker, has become an industry booster, declaring, “Thanks to God and the glaciers!” even as huge swaths of our western counties are being strip-mined – sand hills left by the glaciers now being flattened and toxified – because we are cursed with the gift of the perfect silica sand for the fracking industry. Wisconsin sand is now being shipped all over the country and thrust underground to release the gas that more and more fuels the nation.

See in this clip what the frac sand industry means for one family…

Well, people live in these counties, and their farmlands and rural communities are being destroyed. People who chose to live out there for the peace of small town rural life suddenly – and I mean suddenly – find themselves living in highly toxic industrial zones.

Today there was a hearing in Madison on the proposed legislation. At noon, the Midwest Environmental Advocates held a rally at the State Capitol before the hearing was to begin. This is one event pulled together on fairly short notice, and this is the list of the rally co-sponsors:

1. Madison Action for Mining Alternatives
2. Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice
3. Wisconsin Grassroots Network
4. Save the Hills Alliance, Inc.
5. Family Farm Defenders
6. Preserve Trempealeau County
7. Save Our Town Whitehall
8. Town of Lincoln Concerned Citizens
9. Wisconsin Resources Protection Council
10. SOUL of Wisconsin
11. Midwest Environmental Advocates
12. Crawford Stewardship Project
13. Sustain Rural Wisconsin Network
14. People Empowered Protect the Land (PEPL) of Rosendale
15. Kewaunee CARES
16. Reedsburg Area Concerned Citizens
17. Southwest Wisconsin Area Progressives
18. Frac Sand Sentinel
19. Concerned Chippewa Citizen
20. Kate Rice
21. Monroe County Sand Mines
22. Houston County Protectors (Houston, MN)
23. Maiden Rock Concerned Citizens
24. Sierra Club
25. Loyalty to Our Land
26. Buffalo County Defenders
27. Hale No to Frac Sand Mining in Western WI
28. Physicians and Health Care Providers of the Chippewa Valley
29. Juneau Action Group
30. Preserve Waupaca County
31. Allamakee County Protectors Education Campaign
32. Save-The-Bluffs-Goodhue County, Minnesota
33. Frac Sand Industry Awareness in Wisconsin-Facebook
34. Concerned Citizens of Dovre
35. James J. Drost, BS, MS-Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, University of WI-Madison
36. John Drost, Ph.D, Professor Emeritus-Mathematics-University of WI-Eau Claire
37. Mississippi River Water Walk
38. Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition-West Virginia
39. Echo Valley Hope
40. Friends of Wabasha-Wabasha, Minnesota
41. Citizens Against Silica Mining (CASM)-Winona, Minnesota
42. Citizens for Responsible Land Use
43. David F. Slottje, Executive Director, Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc.. Ithaca, NY
44. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
45. Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger (CSWAB)
46. Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River
47. Solidarity Singalong
48. Raging Grannies
49. Madison Infoshop
50. Jackson County Citizen Voices
51. Albion’s 5th Generation
53. Lookout for Buffalo County
54. Community Rights Alliance of Winneshiek County (Iowa)
55. Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups
56. Rye House, Minneapolis
57. Land Stewardship Project-Minnesota
58. Wisconsin Wave
59. Food & Water Watch
60. Midwest Coalition Against Lethal Mining

Wow! I spent a chunk of the morning viewing the websites or Facebook pages of the groups I did not know about – which is most of them! Made my day!

Then this: Rob Hopkins, who first inspired the Transition movement, was in Milwaukee last week, his final stop on an 11-day tour across the U.S. I was eager to see him in person, but also to see who would show up. The turnout was amazing – hundreds of people stuffed into the large room of a sustainable brewery here in town. Read Hopkins’ report on his visit here and get a jolt of enthusiasm. It’s contagious!

Fermenting Change in Brew City

Okay, this is getting lengthy, and yet I could go on and on. Sometimes you can feel this energy rising, this sense of critical mass, because the destruction has become so grave, the threats are so serious, and the world we are moving into so scary given that it will create conditions very new for the human species, that a whole lot of people are saying, enough is enough! We can’t go on like this any longer!

Home - it's still the only one we have. Source: NASA

Home – it’s still the only one we have. Source: NASA

We are going to have to learn anew how to live here on Planet Earth. It won’t be the same Earth, and this learning curve will be steep. But the encouraging thing about the burgeoning is that, as more people come to terms with what’s really going on, the more we come together and get to know one another. And the more we learn and the more information and life experience we share, the more tools we develop for this new human project. We will have to create new human communities that are prepared to move back into balance with nature – which will require enormous changes in how we live and move around and work and educate our kids and have fun and joy together. We will learn the most basic lessons about who we are in the balance of nature, our role within it, the gifts we have to receive from it and give back to it.

For example, we will find more joy in saving our water, farmland, forests, habitats, while sharing a simpler lifestyle in community than from going to the store to buy something we don’t need, or spending our time texting on tiny screens.

Without question, we will be doing this, creating this new life, on a changed planet. We will go through a lot of mourning over what is lost forever, what can’t be recovered, what will become stories and legends for future generations. But that does not mean there will not be new balance and new beings and new beauty – if we can just get ourselves to begin working with and within the wisdom of the planet for the New Creation that is pretty much in our hands right now.

We’re going to go through a very painful time. If anyone tells you differently, they are not telling you the truth. But, hard as it will be, it will also bring out the best in many human beings (as extreme situations always do), and that’s where I’m putting my hope right now – in that best. We humans are capable of great courage and selflessness. And that is a deep spiritual practice for which we can prepare ourselves now with the decisions we make today, and the next day, and the one after that.

And that’s kinda where we are right now…


If you like what you read here, please consider a donation to this project. Your support keeps us going!


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.