Conversations with my daughter Lorien this summer led me to my latest flight into the stratosphere in an Impakter.com column: bit.ly/3LtF2qL
I have always assumed that we human beings have evolved as far as we can go, that our neo-cortexes are as advanced as they are ever going to be, and that the processes by which our hearts and minds blend to make decisions are completely finished off.
There are some doomsayers out there like Adam Kirsch who are convinced that our very advancement, our “traditional role as earth’s protagonist, the most important being in creation” might be bringing us to well-deserved self- extinction, given that we have used so many of our talents for degrading the very environment that sustains us.
A dear friend of mine has moved to a community for retired clergy, theologians, and missionaries where they improve the shining hour by “hearing each other into speech,” publishing their interesting discussions in a series of paperbacks. In the most recent edition that I have read, William Moreman brings up the idea that we are still evolving in ways that make surviving the chaos of our times quite hopeful. He explores “the notion of evolution as a driving force pressing the human race to take a leap to a new stage, a new consciousness and a new ordering of our life on this planet…to be a fractal part of the larger chaotic, evolutionary thrust.”
According to the paleontologist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the entire cosmos is conscious, with human beings as integral elements in its continuing evolution. Tuning into that wider consciousness, we find that we are fractals in the heart of everything – all paradigms aligned. Teilhard’s ideas have led Al Gore to hope that human beings can evolve toward an Omega point where a harmony will be achieved with the inherent balance of the universe.
Surrounded as we are with doomsaying media (if it bleeds, it leads), I think we take the world, and our role within it, far more gloomily than we need to. I certainly felt more optimistic after reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, a data-driven analysis of how violence has actually diminished over human history, And, more recently, I have been cheered by the news that mitigation of carbon emissions has become so economically and technologically effective that we may be able to use these tragic brains of ours to halt our destruction of nature in time to save the human race.
And how about what goes on inside each of us – haven’t we felt some kind of lifetime evolution within ourselves? When I consider my own personal evolution, -not my predictable developmental from child to adult, but the changes in the way I have understood things so much better and act on them far more effectively since my sixties – there is a delightful and significant evolution in my life.
Discernment (seeing how things have gone over and over again when I behave in a certain way) has combined with determination to improve my act until I have got my heart and brain to act in entirely different ways than before. How about you?
Have you heard about courts endowing nature entities like rivers, wetlands, and even rice as “persons” with inherent rights? I am fascinated by this concept from an ecological point of view. Isn’t it anthropomorphism to accord humanity to beings who are utterly different from humans? Doesn’t this natural beings-as-persons approach value human beings over nature, which is how we got out of balance with nature in the first place?
Here is a column I wrote about this for www. impakter.com. https://bit.ly/3FbedUa
The tight little Snowdrop buds poking on stalwart green stems through the hard-packed snow tell me that spring is arriving, the whole earth regenerating itself after the long, long months of snow and sleet and freezing temperatures of an especially hard winter. It is a yearly miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, reminding us of nature’s fiercely self-redemptive powers despite degenerations wrought by our tragic propensity for making bad decisions.
With new warnings about how close we have come to the destruction of a climate that can sustain human life, there are those who feel that only large-scale inter-national, national and corporate actions can save us, while others insist that if we cooperate with nature in personal and local acts of restoration, we still have a chance.
Here is my latest Impakter.com article with my take on The Role of Human Beings in Regeneration:
The watercolor painting by Helen Klebesadel is called “Nature Arising.”
“We may not have wings or leaves” like our fellow created beings, writes Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braided Sweetgrass, ” but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land.”
This is a great motto for me when I wonder about my purpose in life since I morphed from a writer of Eco Fiction to a political/environmental columnist for a world-wide publication and a contributor to a newspaper out of Frankfort. Michigan.
So, here we go! For those of you interested in a collection of my columns on the Trump Horrors, the Rise of Republican Fascism, the Nitty-Gritty of Political Organizing, How to Handle Climate Grief, and some of the alternative ways to redeem our good green world that we yearn for in these troubled times, check out my updates to The Worlds We Long For . Then, to cheer yourself up, you can see what my zany family and I have been up to at our Betsie River cabin now that, after long pandemic absence, we are together again!
I have long been a foe of either/or thinking, a logic that takes binaries as inevitably oppositional, with no compromise possible. I much prefer both/and solutions whereby opposites merge to form brand new syntheses.
We have begun to hear talk about the inherent rights of other-than-human beings in nature, including the lands’ right to sue humans for our abuses and depletions. While this is sometimes taken as a new concept it is actually a very old one, basic not only in the animism of all of our ancient ancestors who saw nature as ensouled or animated in-and-of-itself, but in present-day Native Americans’ traditional principles setting forth the duty of human beings to the natural beings that sustain us.
My sit-out-by-the-river-and-read-slowly book this summer was Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. I found myself right at home with her synthesis of science and animism as complementary tools for approaching the seemingly intractable problems we are experiencing as we try to achieve sustainability on our threatened, beloved planet. Home in autumn, here is my article just published in Impakter.com:
In a time when species are declining, oceans are rising, and our whole planet is threatened by global warming, authors who celebrate their joy in nature are sometimes accused of a sentimental nostalgia that fosters retreat from rather than actions against an ever grimmer environmental reality. What is the point of taking pleasure in rivers and forests when we have doomed them all in our greed and folly? Nature writers just fiddle above the flames while Mother Earth burns all around them.
Irish nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist brings his readers to the side of joy. Weaving the minute particulars of feather and lichen, otter and tadpole into a lyrically precise prose, his joy in nature is emotionally empowering in both a personal and a political sense.
McAnulty’s observations combine scientific detail with personal engagement. He is sitting near the sea on some “Silurian hornfels…the result of colliding continents and marine life recovering from extinction,” when some baby wrens hop up to him. As he hears them “drowning each other out with attention-grabbing chirps,” he muses that “this is the sound of our ancestors too, waves in one ear, wren siblings in the other. A two-track stereo. The sound of natural things that influence very other thing, whether we know it or not.”
Is this sense that human beings are woven into a web of natural being, (into “something far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it, or like Thoreau’s idea of nature as “not of myself, but in myself”) mere romantic nostalgia for a natural abundance that we have destroyed?
On the contrary, the concept that human beings and nature interact in mutually beneficial interdependence is at the heart of contemporary environmental philosophies like Ecosophy and Deep Ecology, which are based on the Gaia Hypothesis that everything on the planet strives for balance in a complex synchronistic network.
McAnulty reaches his conclusions not by philosophical speculation but by direct experience. On a trip to Scotland to collect Goshawk data, for example, he notes that “Dave asked me to hold one of the birds, and as I bring it close to my chest its body heat illuminates me. I start to fill with something visceral. This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them. Perhaps it’s a feeling of love, or a longing. I don’t know for certain. it is a rare feeling, a sensation that most of my life (full of school and homework) doesn’t have the space for. The goshawk wriggles. I settle it down and look into its eyes again – as it grows older the baby-blue eyes will change, become a bright and deep amber….”
Astonishingly, Dara McAnulty is only 16 years old: he wrote The Diary of a Young Naturalist about the how nature saved him when he was 14 and suffering from depression over being viciously bulled for his autism. Observing the smallest details of the world around him provided a mind-grounding solace, an anchor to still the thrashing waves of “brain chaos,” “pain thrusting” stabs of “quick transitions,” all the “inner torments” and “liquid panic” of his condition.
“I consolidate myself by thinking, and thinking whilst intensely watching the flight patterns of dragonflies or starlings is explosive or mind-blowing. Who knows where watching sparrows will lead?”
Where it has led this courageous young naturalist, in spite of his paralytic nervousness around people, is to the discovery that when he stands in front of a bullhorn at a School Climate Strike or a microphone on radio or television, he can speak as eloquently as he writes on behalf of the earth and her creatures.
*The Diary of a Young Naturalist will be published in the U.S. by Milkwood Books next spring, but it is readily available to U.S. readers from Blackwell’s (www.Blackwells.co.uk ). Cover art by Larry Falls.
Do you ever find yourself longing For the beginning of the world- That unimaginable openness When the earth awoke - all quick, and fresh, and teeming?
I finished this poem, oddly enough, the same day that I read an article by Margaret Renkl in the New York Times about how “The Pandemic Shows All is Not Lost.” “Covid 19,” she writes, “will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future. But it is allowing us to see with our own eyes how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, how eagerly and swiftly it will rebound if we give it a chance.”
This pandemic, this end of our world, Stifles us in our houses, while the houseless Cower in abject fear of invisible menace- Those silent microbes sundering us from each other. Never mind - did you see the little birds, Like tiny grace notes, cross the moon last evening? At dawn, they land to feed along our rivers. We find joy in their beauty, and faith in their returning.
When I was a little girl I attended a school where we stood on our feet every morning chanting “Praise him and magnify him forever” as our headmistress read from a wonderfully apochryphal psalm listing all of the glories of creation, one after the other. “O ye Fire and Heat, O ye Dews and Frosts, O ye Green Things upon the earth, O ye Whales, and all that move in the waters” – on and on she would go about the glories of creation as the voices of children called out our response in the morning of the day and of our lives.
The beasts of the field are suddenly among us: Coyote lope along our empty sidewalks, Foxes drop by for curious backyard visits, Impertinent skunks on our lawns ignore us entirely. Kangaroos lollop down streets in the center of Aukland, Mountain lions walk fearless along the forest verges, Black Bears loll in abandoned Yosemite campgrounds, While toads and frogs migrate across empty highways. The birds and the beasts and all things that move in the water Rejoice in creation thown open by our absence.
This morning my friend Ashok sent me photos of the sky over the Himalayas, clear and blue for the first time in decades, and told me that the Covid 19 lockdown has brought thousands of flamingos back to Delhi. Of course we environmental activists don’t want to indulge in a “There, I told you so” attitude, but it is striking how very quickly nature cleanses itself when we bring ourselves to a halt for another reason entirely. The virus is an aspect of Mother Nature too, and if the only way to refresh the air we need to breathe is to live on a smaller scale, we have shown to ourselves that we can do it
“And so our first task when we emerge from this isolation,” concludes Renkl, “will be to remember to sear into our memories that pure pageantry of wildness, of life in its most insistent persisting. And then to try in every possible way to save it.”
They say that there are schools of dolphin at play In the canals of Venice, now that no gondolas Chockablock with tourists, roil the dazzling waters. They trill merrily to each other in high-pitched music. All the rest is true, but there are no dolphins in Venice: It's just a story, a legend we have invented Out of our terror, and out of our deep yearning For a verdant world where we are in tune with the music Of the beings of the earth, having found our place among them.
There is so much downheartedness in reading the news about climate disasters, ecosystem collapse, and species destruction that we sometimes fall into so much Climate Grief that we lose all will to act.
I am sure that we have all been there, so I wrote this article for Impakter.com, a European online magazine where I am a columnist, to try to encourage us to look deep for ways to buoy ourselves up.
It took a long time to write it, because just thinking about it made me want to run away and hide under the bed.
I consider myself the last person to eco-boss my friends around. I don’t like it when greener-than thou people chide me for eating meat, purchasing vegetables in non-recyclable plastic, or using paper towels. Also, my personal reason for not flying does not have an ecological motive: I have always loathed it and switched to trains before global warming made it a moral issue.
For people like my daughters, who are at the height of their careers, business travel is a necessity; giving up airplanes is probably too much to ask at that stage of life. We retirees, however, have both time and (as I hope to convince you) options.
In Europe, the huge carbon footprints that airplanes produce have created a whole new vocabulary of shame. “In the Netherlands they say vliegschaamte,” explains John Vogel in his article on “Why I Only Take One Holiday Flight a Year” . “ The Swedes say flygskam; and the Germans Flugscham. The words all mean ‘fly shame,’ or the guilt that travelers experience when they fly off somewhere knowing they are contributing to climate change.”
“We were going away three or four times a year just because we always did,” says Sarah Jones, a marketing executive from Reading in the UK. “It was stupid. The climate thing was the last straw. We just thought, ‘this is crazy’, so now we go abroad a maximum of once a year and really look forward to it.”
Europeans are thus putting a lot of thought into catching an airplane at all.
In America, frequent leisure flying is beginning to produce similar feelings. “Is Travel Ethical in a Time of Climate Change,” worries Andy Newman; “If seeing the world helps ruin it,” does indulging in air travel make you “a bad person? … going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change. One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere. And yet we fly more and more.”
Here are some Letters to the Editor of the New York Times in response to Newman’s article:
Eliana M. Blum of New Orleans sees giving up air travel as a straight forward moral issue: “Unfortunately, right now there is no room for blurry areas when it comes to climate change. Those who are not actively helping the cause are in the wrong. Travel may be a difficult sacrifice, but it is a habit that must be broken. One family’s vacation is costing another coastal family their home. There is no world where that can be justified.”
Mark Bessoudo in London sees the point just as clearly, but is not ready to give up his flights: “In his ‘Confessions,’ St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. ‘Grant me chastity and continence,’ he pleads with God, ‘but not yet.’ To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, ‘I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet’.”
Lynn Englum, in Samoa to study climate-effected countries, admits to moral waffling: “Newman’s article touched a nerve as I grapple with my own carbon footprint, traveling around the globe to visit the places that are vanishing and/or heavily affected by climate change. I’m currently in the Pacific visiting island countries, and my only real option is via planes because boat travel would take months to hit the places on my list. Mr. Newman mentions that some might be thinking, ‘go see them before they disappear!,’ but that can be viewed as ‘evil’; In some ways that’s exactly what I’m doing for the primary purpose of bringing awareness about these vanishing places, but also to take this journey for everyone who can’t and, as Mr. Newman points out, shouldn’t.”
So, what are our options?
In Britain and Europe, which seem more eco-ethically conscious than we are, No-Fly Pioneers are active: “The no-fly movement is a small but growing community of people who are drastically reducing the number of flights they take, or giving up air travel altogether. Many campaigners say they feel flying is about to receive the same attention as shunning plastic or eating less meat because of its 2% contribution to global carbon emissions, predicted to grow to as much as 16% by 2050…. Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Green party, has called on people to take no more than one flight a year and suggested a tax should be imposed on further journeys. Berry hasn’t flown since 2005. Most flying is carried out by a small proportion of the population.”
The Sonoma Climate Challenge argues that “If you need to fly, carbon offsets are a way to balance out your impact. Carbon offsets are small contributions to projects that lower carbon emissions like installing solar panels or planting trees. It’s easy—you contribute to a project and receive credit for a certain amount of carbon emissions reduced. It doesn’t cost much and helps to offset your impact when air travel is an important part of your plans.”
The United Kingdom and Europe have far superior train systems to ours, but you can get around America by rail if you have the time. For me, trains as a substitute for flights took hold the week after 9/11, when my granddaughter was due to be born in Colorado and all planes in the United States were grounded. I took the Wolverine from Michigan to Chicago, where Amtrak had added 14 cars to the California Zephyr for the emergency.
I was able to reserve a sleeping compartment, which came with free dinner and breakfast in the elegant dining car, with delicious food and delightful conversation. I got on in Chicago at 3PM, and reached Denver at 8:30 the next morning.
Yes, the sleeper cost me as much as the plane, and the Amtrak sometimes runs late. On the return trip, for example, we missed my connection so I got put up (free) in a scuzzy hotel; having learned my lesson, on subsequent visits I treated myself to a nice hotel and overnight in Chicago on my return journeys. After this experience I often took to the Cardinal and the Capitol Limited trips to Washington and the Lake Shore Limited to New York City (see Catching the Midnight Sleeper.)
Given that train travel is leisurely and enjoyable, is its carbon footprint really less than an airplane’s? First, it is important to note that airplane emissions have a significant impact on global warming. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that planes not only spew fossil fuel emissions but also produce vaporsvapors in the form of contrails and cirrus clouds that trigger climate warming.
There is no question that passenger and freight transport incur a lower climate impact than airplane travel. The UN report concludes that “the transport specific climate impact is lowest for rail and bus travel and highest for air travel. Both (air and car) travel are about three times higher than the impact from bus and rail travel.” In fact, train emissions are so low that they even have a climate cooling effect.
Although the UN report says that improvements in air travel are on the way, including modifications of aircraft and engine technology, fuel, operational practices, and regulatory and economic measures, environmental scientists do not think that these changes can be in place before global warming passes the tipping point
It is easier and quicker to make rail travel more eco-friendly. Older deisel engines, for example, are already being replaced by more energy efficient and carbon-friendly models. My Detroit-Chicago train, the Wolverine, has switched to new engines which are also being installed for 75 other long-distance routes. Amtrak President Richard Anderson notes that “These new locomotives will offer increased reliability, more hauling power, improved safety features and lower emissions.” In addition, many routes are being electrified, making it clear that the United States is swiftly retrofitting our rail passenger fleet to lower carbon emissions.
Given that Europeans have already achieved the technology to make rail travel far less ecologically costly than flying, there is no reason why it cannot be done here, too.
“Wait a minute,” a twitterer remarked, “how are you going to take a train across the ocean?”
I am coming up on the August anniversary of the all-time most exciting adventure of my life, an ocean voyage on one of the Holland-America student ships ($400 round trip) that used to ply back and forth across the Atlantic all summer long. The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt
carried 1500 American Field Service students, all sixteen years old, and 250 older folks, college age and upwards. A Professor from Bard college asked me to give one of the many small classes offered free to everyone on board, ranging from the history and languages of the countries we would visit to philosophical topics like my little course on Existentialism.
We single adults, like the students, shared (sex segregated) quarters with bunk beds in each room, though there were staterooms for couples and older folk.
With technological fixes to make it eco-friendly, why shouldn’t inexpensive ocean travel be revived? You could add the four or five day crossing to your travel plans and have a great opportunity to practice your languages, engage in interesting discussions, take in the vast majesty of the ocean, and make new friends, some of whom will become travel companions abroad and othersm as in my case – I met my husband Henry on that grand old ship – dearly loved partners for your entire life.