Reaching critical mass

Posted February 20th, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Reaching critical mass

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Do you feel it? Do you feel the heightened sense of tension in the air, a stress becoming so taut that it cannot hold much longer?

There are moments like this throughout history when the forces of change and the forces of resistance to change build to an intolerable tension. Think moments like the US revolution against monarchy imposed from across the ocean, or the Civil War as the new industrial economy of the North and the slave economy of the South finally collided, or the rise of fascism in Europe that led to World War II. Or the ’60s uprisings in the streets that led to the end of the Vietnam War and the military draft, and to the end of segregation and the signing of civil rights legislation.

Something has to give. We have a planet undergoing tremendous turmoil. From the Ukraine and Thailand we see the unbearable tension between class interests, between democracy activists and governments bent on oppressive control and defense of entrenched power. In other places we see the tension between those who see the ecological collapses begun because of the industrial economy and want to stop it by charting a new economic course, and those who benefit from the economic status quo hanging on fiercely to their dead and dying earth-depleting paradigm.

We see the collisions of religious fundamentalisms and rigid ideologies as responses to a frighteningly uncertain chaotic world, and the deepening of ethnic and national  clashes as changing climate and resource depletion begin to create shortages in water and arable land in vulnerable parts of our world.

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Between those arming themselves and those who understand that violence only breeds more violence, between a culture that now has room for expressions of the most vile racism and those trying to embrace diversity as one of the essential steps in our human evolution, we see the most basic tensions of life are rising to the surface.

How about tensions as basic as these: who will get water and who won’t (think California drought as just one example), and who will have access to food and who will go hungry. As the global economy continues to commodify everything we need for life at the same time as our human practices are leading to water scarcity and depletion of available arable land, these have become essential challenges of our times. Who will be involved in making these decisions?

Part of the cynical nature of the global economy is that scarcity increases value, which means greater interest by corporations and their stockholders for ever-greater profit potential in those things we need for life as they become scarce.

I’m not sure I’m liking their future. And I find this economic logic to be profoundly immoral.

But those of us involved in the kind of work that draws readers to this site know that there are other things going on. I just heard that one Ukrainian athlete competing in Sochi is about to return home to join the protestors in the streets of Kiev. Something about that I find deeply moving – when conscience and a sense of dedication to home and one’s people trumps the media-hype and acclaim of the Winter Olympics. For some people, there really are things more important than their self-oriented goals and achievements.

And what can we say about people who camp on platforms high up in the redwood forests – for MONTHS! – to defend the trees from the chain saws.

And how can we not be inspired by the pledge of First Nation communities to not allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be constructed – whatever it takes in measures of peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

Athabasca River and boreal forest of Alberta, under threat from the tar sands industry.

Athabasca River and boreal forest of Alberta, under threat from the tar sands industry.

Or how about groups like Bold Nebraska who have continued their inspired work to keep that pipeline out of their state to the point of gaining national attention, today being interviewed by Ed Schultz on his radio program. And now this victory in court by which the Nebraska governor’s decision to use eminent domain to give pipeline access to TransCanada was declared unconstitutional, putting the whole project in doubt.

Or Tar Sands Free Midwest and MI-CATS (Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands) who continue their efforts to challenge petcoke dumping and the Enbridge pipeline already sending tar sands oil through our communities, while showing an important example of collaboration with groups around their region in a common struggle for ecological integrity?

The Earth itself is showing us signs of reaching critical mass. In the Upper Midwest we have endured a winter in which a sagging jet stream has caused the circumpolar vortex to slide down from the North Pole to our neck of the woods, while Alaska and the Arctic saw record warmth and the west coast from Alberta to Mexico faced record heat and exceptional drought, and more than 470 wildfires already burned this year (last year there were none at this point), and England went under water and parts of Australia continue to bake and burn (add your own freakish weather occurrences).

As these unprecedented weather events pile on,  more and more people are coming to realize that the planet is indeed changing, that the change is irreversible, and it’s getting a little scary out there.

Humans are becoming a bit ill at ease.

Meanwhile, I find greater openness, interest, and concern about the message I brought back from Alberta and what that story means for us across this country as tar sands oil moves to our refineries and ports by way of pipelines (with or without KXL) and tanker car trains. The oil we’re fracking in the Bakken field turns out to be extremely volatile. Between these two sources of oil, we have seen scores of pipeline breaches and train derailments and explosions just in the past couple of years that are indication of the voraciousness of an industry that has no regard for the natural systems of this planet that have made it possible for us to evolve and live here.

Oil tanker trains in North Dakota. Photo: Joan Shrout

Oil tanker trains in North Dakota. Photo: Joan Shrout

Fracking for natural gas has grown so swiftly and so recklessly that we can hardly keep up with the industry. This bridge fuel, as Obama and others like to call it, is spewing methane into the atmosphere, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is contaminating groundwater, using huge amounts of water in areas of drought, is making people sick from air pollution, causing earthquakes in places that don’t have earthquakes and damage to habitats wherever the wells appear. There are now more than 400,000 fracking wells in this country. [For one remarkable example, view this new report from the Eagle Ford shale play in Texas]

Then I could mention again my poor state of Wisconsin cursed with exactly the right kind of sand needed in the fracking process. We thought the  beautiful sand hills of our western counties a gift from ancient glaciers. Now they have become profit-makers for the land-wrecking fracking industry with freight trains rolling back and forth between our sands and the Bakken oil field every day.

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

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

Meanwhile, a lot of people have had just about enough. While I’m glad some of the big environmental groups continue doing good work, most of the hopeful stuff for me is what is coming from the threatened communities themselves, citizens who are experiencing the harm to their families and the places they love, and who are coming together over coffee and in church halls and community centers to find whatever leverage they can to fight the despoiling of the land, air, and water where they live.

Today we saw yet another good news story reflecting what I mean. In Wisconsin’s Trempealeau County, one of those most impacted by frac sand mining, they just threw out an incumbent county supervisor at the polls because of his support for the industry.

More and more I believe that this ecological response from the human species as it encounters threats to its life and wellness is the most fundamental movement of our times – because it encompasses everything else. There ain’t gonna be peace and social justice in a world being rapidly depleted of what is needed for good and wholesome lives. At the same time, as more local people delve into the threats coming from the oil, gas, coal, industrial agriculture, and other polluting industries, they begin to see very quickly the connections to a global economy running amok within an ecological reality that is quickly unraveling.

Photo by the Mom

Photo by the Mom

What kind of future do they want for their families, their kids? This question comes up now as part of daily conversation, a sign that people know their world is in trouble. And in gathering communities together to deeply ponder that question, to look together at what is going on in their worlds, to understand what is at stake – well, there is where we can find what we need to begin moving this species in a new direction.


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