Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pope Francis, Yom Kippur & Fall

(Fall in a post-forest fire section of Glacier National Park, 2009)

I love fall. Not because it’s decorative gourd season or because the world is suddenly awash in pumpkin spice and apple pie, or even because of how the crisp edge of the air cuts against the fiery brilliance of the sunlight and changing leaves.
I love fall because it is a time of beautiful turmoil and change, a time to begin again. This is freshly sharpened pencils, new teachers, and blank notebooks. The knowledge of a coming winter lends a sense that we must act quickly before the snows fly, before this time ends. Fall is a Dylan Thomas-esque reminder to not go meekly towards the end, but to go out boldly into the last day lit hours of the year.
Today is Yom Kippur, which as it has been variously explained to my liberal Christian-raised, secular Humanist self, sounds like one of the most ethically powerful holidays on our planet. How I understand it—and I welcome correction and clarification—a community of people come together, enumerate the sins and slights—large and small—that they have been party to and responsible for over the last year. And then, together and as individuals, there is a prayer and promise to atone for those hurts and to do better in the coming years through personal actions.
To hold yourself accountable for your own part in the pain of the world and those around you, and to come through the feelings of guilt and sorrow with mindful resolve for improvement—I can’t think of a better way to be human.
Today, also, Pope Francis is visiting Washington, D.C. I am no more Catholic than I am Jewish, so my admiration of the Pope is—like my admiration of Yom Kippur—based solely on a sort of ala carte selection of the best of the headlines and cultural bathwater.
My understanding of the Pope’s approach to climate change, economic inequality, and what it means to be good stewards of each other and this planet, essentially comes down to: “love more, need less.”
Last Friday, I stopped by an apple orchard in New Hampshire. I was dropping off apple crates my school had borrowed after a field trip. Last year, on the same field trip, there weren’t enough apples for the kids to pick any. This year, the apple trees were so heavy with fruit that the branches looked like garlands of Christmas tree balls. “You must be having a better year,” I said to the woman who runs the orchard.
“You’d think,” she replied. “Last year, we had people and no apples, and this year, we’ve got tons of apples, but no people to pick them. It’s too hot—no one wants to go apple picking when it’s 90 degrees. They’re all still at the beach!”
I believe that the roots of why climates are changing, why weather patterns and growing seasons are becoming more erratic, why economies are collapsing all come from the same tree of ignorance. There is the pure, almost innocent, ignorance of not knowing, and then there is the ignorance of knowing and willfully ignoring.
As a society, as individuals, we can no longer plead that we know not what we do. We are, all, responsible and culpable for the increases of fossil fuel emissions that are destroying our beautiful planet and the lives of our fellow humans. I don’t care what the rationalization you make with yourself is—you don’t get carbon credits for being an environmentalist—the fact remains that we are all in this together, the jet-setting Hummer drivers and cyclists alike. This never-before-seen rate of climate change is anthropocentric. We are people. Ergo, we did this, and are continuing to do this to ourselves and to everyone and everywhere else on Earth.
This is insane. 
But, we cannot plead insanity against storms and tides and heat waves and fires. It is as unethical a defense as it is ineffective. As I see it, our ignor-ance of ourselves as the destroyers of the planet is one of the major sins—if not the major sin—of humans at this point in time.
So how to atone, how to use the sobering strength of our understanding and the crisp sunlight of autumn to do better?
First, I believe, we must erase guilt. It will get no one anywhere good. Replace that stomach churning feeling of shameful inadequacy with its more efficient cousin, responsibility. Recognize that your decisions in the grocery store, in how and how far you commute each day, in how you fill your spare hours, really do matter. Vote. Get to know your community. Do the quintessential seasonal activities of your region—if no one goes apple picking or to corn mazes or hayrides or haunted barns or Old Home Days or State Fairs, these things and the people who live off them will disappear.
My mother works doing land use and historic preservation. My father was an urban planner and community invigorator in a rural state. I am my parents’ daughter. As such, I believe that the answers and solutions to today’s crises lie in layering old ways with new energy. If we are trying to learn to shrink our personal and global carbon footprints, I believe it makes sense to look backwards to how people lived with smaller carbon footprints. I’m not advocating for an Amish revolution, but if we can combine the economy of the past with the innovative potential of the present, we will get somewhere better than either.
This is not an easy way of atonement. However, I like the practicality of personal awareness and conscious choice in actions far better as a means of reckoning and atonement and forgiveness than the words of a prayer. It is an ethos of needing less, because of loving so much more than just ourselves.
I do not know that this will work. I believe that it can, and such belief seems stronger in the fall, when a day has hints of all seasons and more than reality seems possible.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Relative Distance

(Me and Noah, November of 2005. Photo by Jeff Taylor)

For a grad school environmental writing class, I wrote an essay about my experience as a volunteer in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi. I was there from about Halloween to Thanksgiving in 2005—I wasn’t going door to door, counting and removing bodies, and seeing the worst, but I certainly wasn’t seeing the best either.

One of my classmates mentioned that I didn’t seem to have “relative distance” from the events I was writing about.

I am under no illusion that the troubles exposed and or caused by Katrina have gone away into some distant past, nor—despite a monumental recovery effort on the Gulf Coast—do I find much evidence that the root causes of the hurricane and aftermath have been addressed. I’ve found it hard to attain and maintain relative distance about Hurricane Katrina when my days begin with the hopeful and anxious snout of my Biloxi-born dog poking into my face.

For the last ten years, since my time in Biloxi, the puppy I adopted from there has been my constant companion. I was twenty-three with commitment-phobic gypsy tendencies, an allergy to plans, and a slim flash of understanding that a dog would likely complicate my life. All of these logical thoughts were overridden by the cuteness of the puppy amidst the wreckage of the Gulf Coast, the heft of his little body held relatively safe in my arms, and by my dad—wanting to do more himself about Katrina—cheerily bellowing into the phone that I ought to “just bring the damn dog home!”

So I did. And, with very few exceptions, wherever I’ve gone, so has Noah. He’s been across the country six times, lived in four states, ten towns, and with over twenty-five housemates. I can’t count the miles he’s hiked with me, the number of poop bags I’ve used, the hours I’d spend just scratching his ears.

And, despite a few idiosyncrasies, he’s a mostly happy pet. His story has had a pretty good ending—born out of a storm and living a life surrounded by people who love him, with a world to romp in, soft places to sleep, and food at regular intervals.

This dog doesn’t loom over my life and thinking like a Cassandric reminder of Hurricane Katrina, of deeply rooted national race and classism, of bureaucratic ineptitude on a deadly scale, of broken infrastructure, of climate change.

Except, sometimes, he does.

Why do I have this dog? Because the world fell apart.

And the world falls apart, constantly.

When I can stomach it these days, I follow the news. Droughts destroying food production. Fires burning up forests and towns, homes. Wars of faith and greed, killing innocents and sowing grief and horror. Carbon emissions rising and rising, the weather becoming unpredictable, the climates unrecognizable. Politics that are more anger than brains, with the heart almost totally lost.

Is it any wonder that people are desperate, are streaming out of their homelands, emigrating in search of peace, safety, and the resources to rebuild their lives?

Looking smaller, I can and do see the seeds of good change: almost everyone I know owns a bike and uses it regularly, small farms and local markets are growing in huge numbers, solar panels are increasingly normal, the economic collapse forced people to live and think a little smaller and smarter, America is beginning necessary and uncomfortable conversations about our racist culture and these movements are led by black people rather than liberal white politicians, more people than ever agree climate change is human-caused, and so on.

But when I look to the root causes of everything, of what causes the climate to turn California’s farms to dust, to burn up the West, to melt Iceland and freeze Atlanta, to flood Tuvalu, New York City, England, what causes so many parties to rub sharp elbows with each other in the Middle East, it all comes back to the simple fact that we use too much fossil fuel.

All of the post-crisis solutions—from rebuilding New Orleans to small scale local farming and creative zoning to make communities more walkable to the grounding constancy my weird little dog has provided me personally to opening borders to crisis-made emigrants—all of these are good and necessary and somewhat beautiful in the way that repair is a sign of love. We like to say that the best of humanity comes out in the darkest of times. I agree, I’ve seen it, and even been a better self when the chips are down—but I believe that the pat phrase takes responsibility for causing the darkest of times away from humanity ourselves.

Because who else causes war, burns the carbon that mutates storm cycles, puts other people in unventilated trucks, takes bribes and ignores crumbling infrastructure?

No God or ecological system I could believe in would do so, which leaves us mortals who run everything else on the planet as responsible for most of the evil stuff.

With every press of a power button, mile driven or flown, unthinking purchase, we participate in creating the darkest of times for someone else. It is not a clear line between powering up the computer—even to write about climate change and global justice—and floods, fires, famine, and refugees, but the links are there, and obvious once you start to look and think beyond the headlines, once you erase the relative distance between yourself and the world.

We are all culpable, and at this point, it’s not about becoming more or less guilty than your neighbor, or about self-importantly justifying your own actions[1]. We are in this together, from the most liberal off-the-grid hippy to the Koch brothers. We are a culture of unthinking and selfish rapacity, and in our ignorance is our hideous complicit culpability.

Reversing that, I would like to see a culture of thoughtful minimalism, that from our intelligence, that from our interconnectedness, from our ability to be the best in the worst of times, comes an awareness and responsibility to live the solutions daily.

We will not, cannot, stop the storms and upheavals that previous actions are already causing, but we can, we must, stop our habits and cycles before the world falls apart completely. Let our hearts grow larger and our own needs grow smaller. Let us be our best, always.

[1] I carpooled home from a climate change rally a few years ago with a young activist who argued that she needed her phone, laptop, and constant electricity and internet because of the difference she was trying to make in the world, but that other people should use less than her. If someone needs the same to keep in touch with loved ones, is that a less worthy use? It is a foolish and furious road to go down—trying to equate and supersede your choices above others.