Saturday, December 17, 2011

Rising Tide

My latest VPR commentary. You can listen to it here.

Recently, I went to a concert given by some performers from remote Pacific island nations which are being rapidly inundated by rising sea levels - one of the many unfortunate consequences of climate change.

There were dancers, singers, and musicians all decked out in traditional woven costumes made by their families. The program said that the beauty and intricacy of the woven designs was indicative of how much the performers were loved by their families.

The performers themselves were like shimmering coppery earth spirits, dancing and singing a pounding, full-throated love lament for the tight communities and deep, ancient cultures being lost to the inexorably advancing tides.

One of the islands represented, Tuvalu, is less than a mile wide and its highest point is about 6' above sea level. Climate change has progressed so far that their beaches are eroding and their crops are being poisoned by saltwater. Someday, in the not-too-distant future, there won't be a Tuvalu anymore. And they all know it.

Chatting with some of the performers afterwards, one of them told me that a little atoll where his grandfather used to live is already gone. Another young man said, "We are warriors. No matter how high the ocean gets, we will stay. We will die for our country."

I hugged him and made a big point of saying that I knew all about Tuvalu, and so did a lot of my friends, and our small place in the world was thinking about their small place in the world and doing our best to try and address this... But he stopped me and said, "It's not just us. It's everybody."

Of course he was right. And I was a little embarrassed. Because, despite being a die-hard climate activist, I somehow managed to forget, just for a moment, that it's all of us.

Everyone on the planet is being faced with some form of rising tide, and everything we know is going to be affected.

However, grim as the scientific predictions are, things often come along which still give me hope that we'll get our climatic act together. As it happens, I also just went to the annual conference of the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network. It was attended by a huge cross section of people from all over the state: from conservation educators to town energy committee members. There were activists who'd gotten arrested protesting the Keystone pipeline and business leaders developing solar, wind, and geothermal projects. There were selectboardpeople, state representatives, agency secretaries, and even Bernie Sanders, who gave one of his rip-roaring, no-holds-barred speeches full of commitment, passion, and truth.

They were there to meet, to connect, to share ideas, and to continue the ongoing process of hashing through the nitty-gritty details of how we help our collective community enter a post-carbon age.

I came away reminded that in the face of all the rising tides, I am grateful and honored to live on my own little island of sanity and citizenship. I came away glad to live in Vermont.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dancing to the Beat of the Great Green Heart

I recently gave the keynote address at the annual conference of the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network. They brought me in specifically to be inspiring. No pressure!

This has been posted in 4 different clips - they're each about 10 minutes long.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Happiness Paradigm

My friend Ginny Sassaman is a big Gross National Happiness proponent, and has written a lovely blog this week about how a talk I did inspired her to create something green. A heart.
On my way home, I went straight from the airport to the Unitarian Church of Montpelier for a workshop on “Climate Change and What You Can Do About It.” One of the speakers was Kathy Blume, a particularly bubbly environmental activist who ended her presentation by displaying a green heart decal. The decal, she explained, symbolized a commitment to adopting an approach of love as we face a future with enormous environmental, economic and social challenges.

Gilding’s and Blume’s optimism definitely spoke to me — on some deep level, it seems. I woke up the next morning determined to make green heart pins from recycled paper and leftover glitter, beads and other fun items folks have been donating to me. Wearing these pins can be a very visible declaration of love — love for our beautiful planet, for the plants and animals and for all the wonderful humans who make us happy and also drive us crazy.
It's so nice when people actually let you know you've inspired them!

Read the rest of her post here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Resilience Revolution

I've been helping out my friend Dan Jones with a project documenting sustainability and resilience efforts in Vermont.

Here's a rough cut for the trailer. Enjoy!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Another Way to Donate

Or, you can donate directly through PayPal!


Support The Bus!

I'm part of a group of Vermonters heading to Washington, D. C. to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It's good and righteous work, but we need money for the bus!

Please chip in here!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Observations From a Day 50 Years From Now

I was asked by the organizers of the Lake Champlain Quadricentennial to write an essay on the theme: Observations From a Day 50 Years From Now. And so I did...

I might be surprised that I made it this far. After all, ninety-one is still considered something of an achievement, especially given what we’ve lived through in the past half-century.

Except for the fact that all the women in my family seem to break the tape at 100 without much effort, and then sail on past the finish line for another couple of years before dying, I think in large part, because they’re ready for a new suit of clothes and another great adventure.

Good thing I’ve been doing yoga all these years. I can still do a headstand, touch my toes to my nose. Things they applaud you for when you’re 5 they’ll oddly applaud you for again a lifetime later.

I think the part which surprises me the most is how glad I am to still be here. Not that I’ve ever wanted to die. I’ve always wanted to live forever (if forever could be a little less wrinkled and creaky).

Except there was a moment – one of those vivid, almost cinematically remembered moments – when I was 20. I was in Seattle, sitting at the table in my boyfriend’s kitchen. An ocean-blue wall on my left. Brad breakfasting across from me – his eyes a perfect cerulean match for that wall. Ooh. Brad. Seventy damn years and a couple dozen men later and still, with a single thought, I can feel him. Moments like that let you know for sure that time is just a made-up thing.

Anyway, I was reading Seattle’s alt-weekly paper… Oh, hell. Now I’ve really just dated myself. I’m talking about a free periodical, printed on a paper called newsprint, which came out once a week and covered the doings in the city from an edgy, artsy, lefty perspective. Like Seven Days – which I believe is the only hard-copy weekly left anywhere in the world. And they’re only around because so are Pamela and Paula. I don’t know how those gals are still alive, but they say when you’re on a weekly deadline, you just don’t have time to die.

So, the Seattle paper’s lead story was about this book that had just come out. It was by an unknown guy named – get this – Bill McKibben! Yup. Years and years before the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel, the knighthood, all the streets and schools named after him, the statues in all the parks. And this book was announcing to the world the reality of a thing called global warming. We’d never heard of it, and it was almost unimaginable. The ice caps melting? Islands and coastlines disappearing like Atlantis? Mass extinctions on an unthinkable scale? Drought? Resource wars? World-wide starvation?

I think that’s probably what’s hardest for you young folks to understand. How fast things changed once the feedback loops really got going. It really wasn’t always like this. Kids sometimes ask me, “Why didn’t you know?” Of course we knew. Intellectually. But we liked our lives as they were and the world seemed a pretty immutable place. It took a lot of what I call “convincing-by-disaster” for people to believe we really could wreck it that much.

But this Seattle paper was trying to talk about it, and they did a little sidebar piece about what Seattle would look like once the ice caps melted and the whole city was under twenty feet of water. They had a drawing of the Space Needle, this 600 foot tower, half-submerged.

And I looked at that picture, and I thought, “I have no desire to see that. None.” That was the first time I didn’t want to live forever.

But you don’t have to live forever to see a lot of things you never hoped to see.

So why am I glad I’m still around? Why am I glad I’ve got at least another 10 years – though I’m determined not to go until Pamela and Paula do. The show-offs.

Because as everything we’d been warned about started to happen, as the world cracked, so did our hearts. And when your heart cracks, you can either die of grief, duct tape it together and solider on, or you can let all those cracks and open spaces get filled up by love. It’s like cracks in cement. Water gets in there, and things start to grow. Life happens in those cracks. The same is true for us, and it’s an amazing thing to see.

Things could have gotten so much worse. But we finally woke up. We finally got startled and scared by the idea that we are just a bunch of critters living on one tiny, miraculous rock in space and we have absolutely nowhere else to go. We finally realized how much we love our little rock, and we finally decided that it was worth being unstintingly selfless and heroic and creative and courageous in order to save it. And ourselves.

And in that moment, we came together as one people. You could feel it in the air. You could see it in the eyes of strangers when you walked down the street. As scared as we were, there was also a kind of marvelous, miraculous determination which settled in. We really and truly changed. We grew up. We adopted, as a global people, that beautiful old Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world. We made it our creed, our manifesto, our purpose.

It’s like some kind of Zen parable – having the thing you want least to see result in the thing you want most to see. I don’t understand why it has to happen this way but that’s Life for you. And we’ve still got such a long way to go. But I’ll keep watching and keep pitching in – bearing witness and bearing the load – until it’s time for my new suit of clothes and another great adventure.

I Believe

I wrote this for the Burlington Free Press right before I went to the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009, and again, forgot to post it. Catching up finally...

"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
- Arundhati Roy

As a climate activist, someone who spends the bulk of her time trying to awaken the community to the realities of climate change and peak oil and enliven people to do something about it, it’s very easy to focus on where we’ve gone wrong. It’s almost effortless to bemoan the amount of destruction we humans have heaped upon the planet. I have no problem alternating between fear, despair, and rage when I contemplate how many climate tipping points we’ve crossed and how close we are to losing the planet’s ability to support life and civilization as we know it. It’s so easy to feel both flabbergasted and powerless in the face of our apparent lack of passionate, gung-ho readiness to do something about it.

Despite the remarkable spectacle of people in 181 countries creating 5200 events for’s first international day of climate action on October 24, 2009 [note: and an even bigger turnout on October, 10, 2010], despite the pole-to-pole call for strong action and bold leadership on the climate crisis, I am deeply influenced by the doubt most experts express at the ability of the delegates at this December’s international climate conference in Copenhagen to walk away from the table with a solid, science-based, toothy climate treaty in hand.

I want more than anything to believe we are capable of addressing the climate crisis, and in fact I do believe more than anything that we’re capable of it. I’m just not so sure we’re willing to take it on. Why? Because the reality of addressing the problem involves profoundly scaling back from the lives we’re currently leading.

We are a civilization which has built its foundations upon fossil fuels. We use them to get us to the corner store and we use them to get us into orbit. We use oil to make everything - from asphalt to aspirin, deodorant to duct tape, vitamins to volleyballs. We use fossil fuels to build our homes as well as light and power and heat them. Oil is the mainstay of commercial agriculture’s pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and antibiotics – and oil drives all the machinery and equipment used to grow, harvest, process, and distribute our food.

The reality we’re facing is that not only does all this industrial and agricultural activity pour carbon dioxide and a host of other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and heat up the planet – which is bad enough – but we’re also facing the fact that we have maximized global oil production. This is known as Peak Oil. We’re not running out per se, but oil is getting harder to find and more expensive to produce. Which means that all the elements of our society which have been based on cheap oil and the massive amounts of energy contained therein are going to get much more expensive as well – prohibitive to the smooth running of the global economy as it’s currently structured. Or, as Dr. Fatih Birol, chief economist with the International Energy Administration, recently stated: “We must leave oil before it leaves us.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t blame us. We may have wreaked incredible havoc on the planet, but we didn't mean to. In fact, I’m in awe at the depth and breadth of humanity's creativity and ingenuity. We found a mess of black sludgy stuff in the ground, and look what we’ve done with it! In fact, I look at what humanity has created during the vast scope of our history, both pre-oil and during this little energy boom, and I’m blown away. We've made paintings on grains of rice and built rockets to the moon. We've made cathedrals and tinker toys and spandex and haute cuisine and rock and roll and the Hubble telescope and iPhones and sneakers and giant Buddhas and pyramids and mummies and illuminated manuscripts and samurai swords. We built the towers of the World Trade Center and then tightrope-walked between them. We research and dissect and explore and learn and dance.

So, what do I believe? I believe that if we can harness ourselves, we can clean up the mess we've made – even now, at the 11th hour. More than clean it up, I believe we can re-make the world with a constructive power that rivals and even surpasses our destructive power. I believe that even in a carbon-constrained world, we can have remarkable lives of novelty and meaning and humor and adventure and purpose and fun and love. I believe that in 20 or 50 or 100 years things probably won’t look anything like they do now, and that the shocks to our collective system and the changes to our way of life will be challenging to absorb at first. But I also believe that we are incredibly courageous, infinitely creative, and supremely adaptable, and I believe it is our moral responsibility to step up to this task placed upon us. It’s up to us. There is nobody else.

I also believe that no matter what happens, there’s meaning and value in taking action, in being part of this chapter of humanity’s story. Because in all likelihood, something or someone will survive. And whatever the conditions of their life are, whoever they are, I would want them to know that someone tried to hold things together on their behalf. I would want them to know that someone was thinking of them, living there, farther on down the road. I would want them to know that someone, whoever they were, didn’t give up.

Joy and Resolve

He looks a little like Bill McKibben, doesn't he?

I attended a rally the other day in support of a climate activist named Tim DeChristopher. A few years ago, at the end of the Bush administration, Tim attended an illegal auction of oil and gas leases on publicly held lands, drove up the bidding, and managed to derail the entire proceedings. He was recently convicted of two felony counts for his actions, and faces up to ten years in prison and a $750,000 fine.

Tim knew what he was doing. He knew what the consequences of his actions could be. But he felt that risking his freedom for the sake of preserving a healthy planet was a worthwhile tradeoff. He said after his trial, “we know that now I'll have to go prison, we know that now that is the reality. But that's just the job that I have to do. That's the role that I face. Many before me have gone to jail for justice and if we are going to achieve our vision many after me will have to join me as well.”

Tim’s capacity to embrace his fate is something I think about all the time. I’m so deeply aware of the perilous state of our planet. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is up around 391 parts per million. We’re seeing extreme weather events all the time now. The world’s oceans are deeply stressed, and marine scientists say we’re facing unprecedented mass extinctions. The list goes on and on…

And so if you are someone who is aware of all this, who cares deeply about the fate of the world, and who feels compelled to do something about it, then you have to ask yourself the same question Tim DeChristopher asked: How far am I willing to go? How much of my life am I willing to sacrifice in an effort to preserve all life?

I ask myself those questions all the time. They come up on a daily basis. Do I go to an organizational meeting or to a friend’s birthday party? Do I fly across the country to visit my aging mother or just tell her it’s Skype video chats from here on out? Or, even more significantly, am I willing to get arrested and go to prison because it’s what must be done for the world? Would I be willing to make a statement with my body and my freedom in order to get the point across?

The issue isn’t having a felony on my record and being considered unhireable by some potential employer. I’ve been an actor my entire adult life. I’m pretty much unhireable anyway. I don’t have kids, my husband could take care of the cats, and my paying work as a wedding officiant could easily be farmed out to someone else. There is nothing for which I’m so vital that I couldn’t go get locked up for a decade or so.

Of course, I don’t want to go to prison. But where do we draw the line? At what point do we say, “My love for the world is so great, and my commitment so profound, that I am willing to give up my freedom - and eat what I hear is really lousy food - because it is what must be done. And I will do it with, as Tim DeChristopher says, joy and resolve.”

I don’t know. I really don’t. But I wonder if I’m going to find out.

Days of Thunder

Another VPR commentary about the intense, slightly sci-fi nature of the thunderstorms we've been having lately:

Ok maybe it’s just me. After all I’m willing to admit having an overactive imagination. In fact I’ve made a career of having an overactive imagination. But I have to say that our thunderstorms of late seem different - almost scary, actually - and I am normally a big fan of charismatic weather.

But honestly, they don’t seem like real life thunderstorms. They’re more like something from a science fiction movie - like the ominous precursor to an alien invasion.

For one thing, the rain doesn’t look like it’s just falling from the sky because of gravity. This looks like rain which is plunging towards the ground because it’s being pushed.

This rain is the precipitative equivalent of stampeding soccer fans trampling over each other on the way out of the stadium. Or, as my husband Mark puts it, “It feels like God is hurling the rain out of the sky.”

Also the lightning seems both flashier and somehow more pointed, more personal. Rather than lightning that’s just happening in my general geographic area, it’s lightning which appears to be specifically aimed right at me. Not that it’s setting out to hit me, but I’m getting the sense that lighting wants my attention, is looking me right in the eye, and flashing expressly for my personal benefit.

Then there’s the thunder, which is definitely...I think the technical term would be “boomier” and more sustained than any thunder I’ve ever heard before. It roils and stomps and plunders its way along. It’s a very ominous, bullying kind of thunder, willfully throwing its weight around to make sure we know who’s in charge.

And not only that, but if there were a message contained in this storm, if the storm were actually talking, then the thunder would be its voice. And I’ve been starting to wonder exactly what it might be saying.

So as the latest bank of apocalyptic doom clouds rolled in, I recorded a chunk of the thunder, and ran it through Google’s new Audio Translate feature. What came out was:

“Oy! What a fever I’ve got! When I find the mamzer who put all this shmutz in my atmosphere, I’m gonna give him such a zetz on the keppeleh!”

This, of course, can mean only one thing: Mother Earth is my Grandmother. Known as Mama Beattie to both friends and family, she ruled the roost - dominated it, really - from the comfort of her tricked out pink barcalounger, and God forbid you should make her mad enough to get up and come after you.

Mama Beattie did not mince words. Neither did the voice of this storm, which I guess we can call Big Mama Beattie. Big Mama Beattie went on to say things like: “I have had it with this mishegas! Stop it with the buying useless crap and throwing it away!” and “Who left the tap on in the Gulf?” and “Fracking schmacking!” and “Hey you kids, quit blowing up my mountains for coal! Don’t make me come over there!”

On and on it went - a beefy litany of complaints about our reckless eco-behavior and utter failure to keep our planetary room clean.

And it’s got me worried because...well...while I didn’t translate the whole storm, I have the distinct feeling that Big Mama Beattie may be getting up out of her chair.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Idle Free

Another VPR Commentary I forgot to post - about New Year's Resolutions.

OK, so, quite frankly, I have very mixed feelings about New Year's Resolutions.

While it's a nice idea, theoretically, to wipe the slate clean and start the year with a fresh set of goals for personal betterment, I honestly can't say I've ever followed through on any of mine for longer than a couple of days. Maybe a week. Have you? I mean, be honest. How long do they really last?

Still, one can't help but hope to have some kind of impact on something. And one thing I do know is that it's always nice to have a buddy - you know, like a workout partner - to help you keep on the right path. Or, even better, as we all know from junior high, if everyone else is doing something, then you'll probably want to do it, too. Right?

So I got to thinking: what's something that we could all collectively resolve to do together that would actually make a difference, not only in our lives, but in Vermont as a whole?

And, oddly enough, the first thing that came to mind was the whole issue of idling - running the car when it's not going anywhere. I know it seems like a minor thing, but, until you stop driving altogether, it's not. Turns out idling is a huge waste of both gas and money, and a big source of pollution. Idling spews enormous amounts of chemicals into the air and is linked to increases in asthma, allergies, heart and lung disease and cancer - not to mention climate change. Given that there are more than 550,000 cars and trucks registered in Vermont, reducing idling by just 5 minutes a day could cut CO2 emissions by 50,000 tons a year.

So, what if each one of us resolves to quit idling our car and commits to talking to five other people about it? I mean, really, it's not a big state. I bet among the lot of us we can probably reach everybody. Plus, when we run into our friends we'll have something to talk about that makes us sound chic and trendy. We can casually mention, "You know, I've gone Idle Free." And our friends will reply, "Oh, yes! We've been Idle Free for weeks now!" And everyone feels like they're totally hip AND taking some good "low-hanging fruit" kind of action - AND it's much easier than giving up, say, sugar or smoking.

Now, we also need a slogan. How about: "Idle hands may be the devil's playground, but idling cars are the devil's tailpipe." Or, for all of you children of the 70s out there, "Idle Free - You and Me." I'll keep working on it.

Now, to those who respond, "Well, I don't have a garage, so I only idle in the wintertime to melt the ice off my windshield," I say, "Invest $20 in one of those windshield covers, and then you won't have to waste any more gas!"

And to those who counter, "But I need to warm up the car," I say back unto you, "Oh, come on! You live in Vermont! Put on a hat and some mittens and warm up your car by driving it!" Even Click and Clack will tell you that modern cars don't need ten minutes to get ready to roll.

First Steps

Back in February, I helped organize a day of climate action at the Vermont Statehouse. I also wrote a VPR commentary about it, which I forgot to post. So here it is! You can listen to it here, or read below...

First Steps

In spite of having lived in Vermont for almost 20 years (with a little time off for good behavior), I’d never visited the Statehouse in Montpelier until just recently. The occasion was a gathering of activists rallying for bold, aggressive climate legislation.

While I didn’t know what to expect from a day in the hallowed halls of power, what I certainly didn’t anticipate was that it would be so much fun.

For one thing, it was easy. In New York City, you have to flash ID, sign in, and go through a metal detector just to get into most large office buildings. But here, in what they call “The People’s House,” you simply walk in the side door - just like you would at home. Of course, at home, you walk through the side door into your mud room, not into what looks like an episode of The West Wing, but still, you just walk in. Nobody questions your right to be there, because they all believe that it IS your right to be there.

Another surprise was discovering how many people I knew. From a Senator I first met in yoga class to a Representative I always run into in my local coffee shop to a lobbyist who’s also a subscriber at Vermont Stage Company, it really did feel just like a concentrated version of my community - which I think, again, is the whole point.

Like Town Meeting Day, it’s part of what distinguishes Vermont as a very human place. Even the most power-brokery power brokers are still your friends and neighbors, and if you bother to show up, you, too, can be part of the process of running the state.

Or, I might add, entertaining the state.

I have a one-woman show I do called The Boycott about the First Lady of the US launching a sex strike to combat global warming. The theme song for the show is a saucy little power ballad which demands, with rather Anglo-Saxonesque urgency, that we all cease and desist our planet-dismantling behavior. At lunch in the statehouse cafeteria (which is just like your high school cafeteria - you’re always looking for where the cool people sit), a couple legislators I didn’t even know came up to ask if I’d be singing this R-rated ditty in the House Chamber that afternoon.

I hadn’t been planning on it, as it wasn’t on my calendar to get arrested that day. But we climate activists did accidentally get into a little trouble anyway. Representative Sarah Edwards from Brattleboro had a climate resolution being read on the floor of the House, and a whole bunch of us sat in to support her and see if it would get passed.

Indeed it was passed, and the climate crew in the back of the room burst into cheers and applause. Turns out, this is NOT an acceptable part of House protocol, and Speaker Shap Smith had to whackety-whack his gavel and tell us to settle down and behave ourselves. Sorry, Speaker Smith. We really didn’t know.

Now, admittedly, this was a light day in the world of citizen participation. We were introducing ourselves to our legislators - and to each other. We weren’t wrangling for specific legislation, battling industry lobbyists, or going toe to toe with climate deniers.

Still, as a first step in building relationships, in learning whom to talk to and how to talk to them, in learning that each of us have a place in the governance of the state, it was a great first step.

We all know addressing climate change and building a sustainable, resilient, carbon-free Vermont won’t be easy. But in an era of widespread political apathy, cynicism, and divisiveness, the fact that we all left Montpelier feeling energized, hopeful, and looking forward to going back is, to my mind, a huge victory in itself.

The Picture Of Enough

Vermont Public Radio has an annual fundraising event called the Commentator's Brunch. About 30 commentators do 3-minute essays on a particular theme. This year's theme was Picture This. My submission was called The Picture of Enough.

My favorite comment afterwards was someone who said, "Who are you? You actually made me think."