Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Arlo's Daughter

Vermont Public Radio solicited commentaries about family Thanksgiving traditions as part of the National Day of Listening. Mine has to do with the ritual playing of Alice's Restaurant. You can listen to the commentary here.

For the readers among you, the text is posted below.

Have a family and fun-filled weekend!

Arlo's Daughter

I don't really have a long family history to recount. As far as I know, my Jewish ancestors got kicked around Europe for a few hundred years, landed at Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century, and promptly dismissed their grim past as not worthy of remembering.

My parents were no exception. While good at telling jokes, they weren't much for personal narrative. However, they did have a couple classic passions of their generation - folk music and liberal politics. They also loved Thanksgiving - a uniquely secular celebration which appealed to my father's die-hard atheism and his great love of a good dinner party.

One small bit of family lore I do know is that my maternal grandfather, Jack Soifer, was an OBGYN in Brooklyn. Grampa Jack specialized in delivering babies for lefty Jewish intellectuals, and his most famous catch was Arlo Guthrie.

My Mom and Grandmother have always considered Arlo an honorary member of the family.

So, of course, a big part of Thanksgiving in my house was the ritual of playing
Alice's Restaurant. I heard it so many times that I know the whole thing by heart. Not just the words, but every cadence, every inflection, every little quirk of Arlo's delivery:

"Yes, sir, Officer Obie, I cannot tell a lie, I put that envelope under that garbage."

The odd thing, though, is that my lefty-politico parents never actually explained what Arlo was talking about in the second half of the song - the whole business about him trying to avoid the draft and not get sent to Vietnam.

So while that part didn't make a whole lot of sense to my young, impressionable self, I did get the distinct idea that it's good to be a smart-mouthed trouble-maker if there's something out there you object to.

More than that, I completely absorbed the concept of using the arts as a legitimate form of protest. Arlo says it himself: "If you wanna end war and stuff, you gotta sing loud." And I believed him.

I also believed him when he said, "Can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walkin' in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant, and walkin' out. Friends they may think it's a movement. And that's what it is."

I believe that with all my heart. This is how we change the world. It doesn't take much. Fifty dedicated people, a bar of a good song, four part harmony, and feeling.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The We of Us

Vermont Public Radio asked me to write a commentary about the challenges of the electoral season, and if I had any ideas or insights which might make the whole process a little easier for their listeners. Me? Have ideas?

And so I do.

You can listen here, or read the text below:

The We of Us

I tend to turn my head away during election season. It’s just so...tacky. I mean, who decided that the best way to select our leaders was through platitudes, lying, finger-pointing, issuing oversimplified, overinflated promises, and littering our roadsides with ten thousand mini-billboards - none of which (I might add) have any sense of aesthetics or graphic design?

I do feel guilty about ignoring it. I’ve always believed that if I’m going to live in this world, then I need to step up and participate. And politics are an inescapable part of that. But still, something’s just always felt wrong.

Then, the other day, I was poking around on line and found, back to back, photos of tea party rallies around the country, and an article about sustainability initiatives in Portland, Oregon. Turns out many of the projects were started by neighborhood community groups, who then reached out to partner with local government to help develop things further.

I had a thought that part of the anger of the Tea Party movement is in people not feeling like they have the capacity or resources to solve their own problems. And the mistaken assumption that those problems can only get solved by elected leadership.

Conversely, the folks in Portland have taken the responsibility of addressing their needs and realizing their visions upon themselves. They've done it by working together as a community, and then inviting elected leaders into the process.

I think a lot of political campaigns are based on promises of what I, the candidate, am going to do for you, the voter.

But, once elected, we've had this tendency to hope our leaders will "save" us. And when things remain challenging, when the big problems are still big and life doesn't seem better immediately, it's as if the hero has fallen. But more than that, it's like the powerful parent figure has failed us, the powerless child.

The irony of our current electoral climate is that when Obama ran for President, his message was Yes we can. We. Everyone. But maybe there was a secret hope that this guy would swoop in and save us. The truth is, though, our problems took a long time to create, and will take a long time to solve. No one person is going to "save" us. And that savior idea ultimately makes us feel powerless - then scared - then angry. And often angry at the wrong people.

Perhaps the trick is in shifting our expectations away from what we want our leaders to do for us, and towards who we think can work best with us.

Maybe a good leader is someone who creates an environment which supports people in realizing their own capacities to the fullest extent.

We need to answer for ourselves the question of what kind of a world we want to live in, and then assume the responsibility for working to realize that vision. Elected leadership is just a piece of the puzzle.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Vermont Guide to Global Living

I was asked to give the keynote address at a recent meeting of the Vermont Climate Collaborative. They're a partnership between the University of Vermont and the Agency of Natural Resources designed to help Vermont make the transition to a post-carbon world.

The charge from the organizers: Do Something Inspiring. Oh, well, all right...

For you literary types, you can read it here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Willing and Able

I just had this essay published on the Coalitions of the Willing's blog. Feels good to finally get my opinion aired in public. Now on to Cop16!

If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.

- Paul Hawken

I have been meaning to come out of the closet for a while now, and confess that I took a very different view of what happened during the UN climate talks in Copenhagen than what has become the oft-repeated mainstream story of unmitigated failure.

I spent the bulk of my time in Copenhagen not watching the UN negotiations at the Bella Center (though giant kudos to all the activists – in particular the folks from Climate Justice Fast – who permanently lodged themselves there), but at Klimaforum.

For those of you who missed it, Klimaforum was a gathering of over 7000 people from global civil society – activists, artists, educators, farmers, freelance journalists – all coming together to talk about climate change, peak oil, and environmental justice.

It felt as if the whole world was there. I met Kenyan tree-planters and Ecuadoran Indians and Navajo social workers and Lapland Elk herders and Tibetan liberation activists. I met a Swiss shaman with a 20-foot alphorn, a Brazilian tour guide in body paint and a leopard print bikini, a handful of Danish Hare Krishnas, and not one, but two Santa Clauses.

Klimaforum had over 300 scheduled events including talks on topics ranging from preventing rainforest destruction to dismantling industrial agriculture. There were workshops on permaculture, canceling Third World debt, and Transition Towns. There were youth activist trainings, spiritual rituals honoring the climate crisis, networking rooms. There was art, music, and theater. Many of the folks who couldn’t get into the overcrowded Bella Center ended up at Klimaforum and I eavesdropped on several discussions about how “this is what COP15 should have been.”

Concurrent to COP15 and Klimaforum were two other convergences: a conference of world mayors sharing cutting edge urban planning techniques and technologies for reducing CO2 and increasing sustainability, and a gathering in Christiania of indigenous leaders (cheekily called the Climate Bottoms) working on their own tactics and solutions.

On my daily travels through Copenhagen, I was blown away by all the public art, youth activism, bloggers by the truckload at the extremely well organized TckTckTck media center, hundreds of thousands of people marching through the streets, and the endless how-do-we-fix-it conversations in all the restaurants and cafes.

In spite of the fact that for weeks beforehand the official word was that there wasn’t going to be an agreement coming out of COP15, we all still wanted a miracle. Of course we did. Climatically speaking, the hour is very, very late indeed. And thanks to people like Ian Fry, Chief Negotiator from Tuvalu, and President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, there were at least a few dramatic mini-miracles out there.

But honestly, the real miracle for me was watching global civil society say: “While the people at the Bella Center are leaders, they are not the only leaders. Our capacity to address the climate crisis does not rest solely in their hands. We have passion and vision and immense creativity. We have profound love for the planet, and for each other. We have a vision of universal justice and the ability to collaborate across cultural lines, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

I came away feeling – and still feel – the strength and power of the movement in which we’re all engaged. To echo Transition Town Maestro Rob Hopkins, I feel an intense sense of both humility and gratitude for being present at this remarkable, charismatic (and yes, sometimes terrifying) moment in human history. And I bow my head to the remarkable global community working like hell to weave us all a future we can anticipate with joy.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

March In

I just did a keynote address at a benefit for the Vermont Women's Fund. The occasion of a 30th birthday, an 80th birthday, and the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage. Enjoy!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Transition Town Commentary on VPR

I've started doing commentaries on Vermont Public Radio, and my first one airs tomorrow at 5:55pm. Seems like an auspicious time, though I'm not exactly sure why.

It's on Transition Towns as a positive, proactive model for addressing climate change and peak oil.

Hopefully, it'll be the first of many. In case you're a reader, as opposed to a listener, here's the text. Enjoy.

Star Sighting

I had a heady star-sighting last month. Actually it was more like an audience. After all, he knew we were coming to meet him – me and a couple of friends.

But, like bringing a white scarf when you go to meet the Dalai Lama, we did show up with a ritual offering of homage and respect. In our case it was carrot cake and elderberry fizz.

This recipient of our culinary kata was a tall, skinny, big-eared fellow…whom you’ve probably never heard of. Which means it wasn’t Barack Obama.

No, his name is Rob Hopkins and he lives in the southwest corner of England in an adorable little town called Totnes.

Totnes is the hub of something called the Transition Town movement, and Rob Hopkins is the soul behind the vision.

A few years ago, Rob took a hard look at the reality of climate change, and then coupled it with the fact that, plus or minus a couple years, we are at the moment of peak oil.

Peak oil – which the US Department of Defense says we’ll hit in 2012 – is the point when we’ve maximized worldwide oil production. All the cheap, easy-to-find stuff has been found, so demand starts to outstrip production, and the cost of oil starts to rise permanently.

Given that we use oil for everything - energy, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, medicine – a reduction in supply, as global demand increases, will have a profound effect not just on our economy, but on almost every facet of the way we live our lives.

So, in the spirit of Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, who said “We should leave oil before oil leaves us,” Rob Hopkins and a group of compatriots decided to help Totnes begin the process of what they call “powering down.” Powering down means relocalizing food and energy production, working to transform fossil-fueled behaviors, and increasing the community’s capacity to deal with any systemic shocks caused by climate change or disruptions in fuel availability.

And thus, the Transition Town movement was born.

It’s a fantastic methodology they’ve developed, and has a lot to do with tapping into the inherent wisdom of a community, and the belief that ordinary people have tremendous creative problem-solving capacity – as long as they know what the problem is.

Rob and his team also have a profound belief in developing a positive vision towards which people can work, rather than just giving them a big, scary nightmare from which to run. In fact, of the seven Principles of Transition, the first one is Positive Visioning, which focuses on the possibilities and opportunities inherent in what is a admittedly a deeply challenging global situation.

In only a few years, Transition initiatives have spread all over the world. Here in Vermont, we’ve already got about 18 different groups across the state. They’re a dynamic network of concerned-yet-hopeful people striving for a resilient, engaging, and sustainable future. And they not only welcome everyone’s participation, they consider it vital. Essential. Because, simply put, we are all in this together.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Show!

This piece is about my trip to Copenhagen for the UN climate talks. I performed it once at the Burlington Airport, and this is a command repeat performance.

Hope you can come!