Kurt's Blog: Conversations Around the Fire
In this blog, join Kurt in a weekly “conversation around the campfire,” sharing stories of courage and inspiration for the bold work of restoration that we are now called to embrace.
It’s hard for me to believe that this summer will be my 20th season of guiding Inside Passages kayaking retreats in Southeast Alaska. So much has happened since that first trip in 1994, and so much has grown out of that early impulse.
When I started Inside Passages, I had a clear purpose in mind. I wanted to augment my commercial fishing income with time in the wild that was more contemplative, less driven, and more in line with my love of silence. My ulterior motive was to bring leaders into that majestic wildness, where they might find convincing new reasons to care for the fate of our endangered earth. My medium was wilderness. My method was the practice of listening and paying attention. I still have that purpose. I still love these deep annual immersions in the silence of a wild landscape. And by most accounts from my clients, these trips have spurred a deeper passion in them too for the fate of the earth that sustains us all. The Tongass wilderness has been a terrific partner in that effort.
I began this project as a veteran of the fight for new wilderness in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and I have enlisted new allies in that effort through my trips. This was, and remains, important to me.
But a lot has changed since 1994. The scale of our environmental threats, and the stakes involved, have grown radically larger than what I understood them to be back then. It’s not that I think habitat protection isn’t still important. Every place is precious, and I will always fight for the protection of the places I love.
But with the rapid escalation of global trends like climate disruption in the intervening years, it is clear that no place is safe from the impacts of human activity, no matter how remote they may seem from our direct presence. This is a sea change in how we have come to understand the nature of nature itself, and of our place within it. With temperatures now rising 50 times faster than at any time in the last 15 million years, the damage done by development to places like the Tongass is peanuts compared to the systemic changes that are assaulting every ecosystem on the planet at once. I no longer see Alaska as a “place apart” where we might escape the engines of disruptive ecological change.
So I increasingly enter the human wilderness of the city on this same quest for restoration. If the sources of imbalance ecologically reside with us, then the sources of restoration reside within the human heart and mind, and not merely in the protection of external nature, or the development of cleaner technologies. This deeper exploration of wholeness is what my Circumference of Home project was all about in 2008, when I stayed close to home and lived car-free in an effort to renew my local practice of place.
That’s also why I don’t think of my climate activism as separate from my work as a mindfulness teacher. The forces that stand between ourselves and ecological resilience are less technical than they are psychological and spiritual. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to confront the depth of our own fear and aversion to the challenges we now face. A lot of mindfulness will be necessary to accommodate the accelerating scale of change that is confronting us all. There is a great deal of inner work which must accompany our activist agendas.
This process of discernment starts, as it always has and must, with our individual choices about how we are going to live, what we value most, and what comes between us and the living of those values. How we move around on the planet, and how much we need to consume, are choices that have never carried higher stakes.
As I enter the third decade of my work with Inside Passages, these questions are active and alive in me. The uncertainty, and unknowability, of what is to come actually gives me hope, because I am learning to trust the deeper intelligence of a living world that refuses to give up, and that is erupting with new expressions of aliveness, even amid the painful litany of losses. That emergent world is fully capable of finding its way. And it will. The question is whether we humans will prove, in the end, to be on the side of that emergent aliveness, or swept aside by it.
I missed last week’s blog post because I was playing hooky, kayaking in the San Juan Islands with Sally. My last several posts have been the kind that leave me needing to play hooky, which is part of the activist’s conundrum. The climate wars are heating up and getting ugly. A new generation of activists is getting more creative and aggressive in their tactics in taking on the fossil fuel giants. I’ve been tracking this rising intensity in the climate movement. I feel encouraged by what has been emerging within the movement, but it can also feel overwhelming. We are in a “long emergency” here, and even the most ardent climate warriors are going to have to figure out how to pace themselves. I don’t know why it is so hard to do the things that sustain emotional balance, but it just seems to be how we are wired.
Anyway, with all this intensity in the air, my get-away to the San Juans was the first time in months that I’ve put my kayak in the water, and as usual, I wondered why I’ve waited so long. It was glorious being on the water, feeling the familiar tug of the paddle against tide and waves, the immensity of space around, below and above me, and the rejuvenating soundscape and aroma of the Salish Sea. What a tonic for the soul. With spring coming on, I’ve also been riding my bike almost daily again as well. For me, getting in my kayak or on my bike are the most reliable mood-enhancing drugs I know of. The benefits are hard to quantify, but undeniable.
There is something about being outside, unplugged, and physically vigorous, that is almost magical in its restorative powers. Gretchen Reynolds in the NY Times recently wrote that “emerging science suggests there are benefits to exercising outdoors that can’t be replicated on a treadmill, a recumbent bicycle or a track.” Surprise, surprise! Whether walking, running or cycling, you burn more calories outside than indoors during comparable workouts, because of the added effort needed to adjust to changes in terrain, wind resistance, hills, etc.
“But there seem to be other, more ineffable advantages to getting outside to work out. In a number of recent studies, volunteers have been asked to go for two walks for the same time or distance — one inside, usually on a treadmill or around a track, the other outdoors. In virtually all of the studies, the volunteers reported enjoying the outside activity more and, on subsequent psychological tests, scored significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue after they walked outside.”
Strange that we need all these studies to tell us that. Mind you, I go to the gym for weight workouts once a week myself. But I remain bewildered by the impulse to take our whole active life indoors. We are creatures, after all, of the elemental world – the “great outdoors.” Just like everything else in nature, we humans are fabricated of rock and wind and flowing water, literal expressions of the forces and elements that make up our physical bodies. We are psychological and spiritual extensions of the earthly matter that has molded itself over thousands of millennia into these transient forms that house the miracle of human consciousness.
Which is another way of saying, I’m going to go outside every chance I get. I won’t be effective in the climate work I care so deeply about if my inner climate of heart and mind get thrown out of balance in the process.
Eric Nagourney, in the New York Times on Feb. 15, wrote:
You may not carry a laptop case made out of recycled fixed-gear bicycle tires. And it has probably been a while since you used yak dung to heat your home. But, hey, you’re an environmentalist. At least, that’s what you and your fellow boomers tell those pollsters whenever they ask.
So why is your carbon footprint bigger than the footprint of the T. rex that turned into the oil you’re using in your Prius?
When researchers tried to calculate carbon dioxide emissions by age group in the United States, guess who scored worst? You in the old Grateful Dead shirt — we’re talking to you.
It’s true. My generation, the one behind the first big wave of environmentalism, the generation that staged the first Earth Day Celebration, pushed through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the American Wilderness System – we’re also the ones who made giant carbon footprints fashionable. And this study by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft shows that personal carbon emissions tend to reach a peak around age 65. We boomers are environmentalists as long as no one questions our freedom to engage in as many high-carbon activities as we damn well please.
The good news, for climate, is that personal emissions trend downward after that, as we get tired of all that travel, or start spending all our discretionary income on medical procedures rather than rather than airplanes and gas.
Where I live, in a haven for wealthier boomers, sixty is the new forty, and eighty is the new sixty, and I don’t see much sign of the newly retired easing back on the throttle around here.
About this generation of aging activists, Michael Grunwald of Time has written, “They recognize the emergency but feel uncomfortable about the sirens. They endorse the war, but like armchair McClellans, they are always finding excuses for why we shouldn’t fight.”
That’s why I’m siding with the emerging generation on the Keystone Pipeline, the coal trains, and the David-against-Goliath effort to divest from oil stocks. In this “battle of the century”, as Grunwald is calling it, “you don’t always get to choose where to fight. You still have to show you’re willing to fight.”
“The Keystone Principle: Stop making it worse”
I live in the one narrow strip of land in the continental United States that was slightly cooler than normal in 2012. Puget Sound was the only place coded green on a national weather map for average yearly temperatures – a small spot of coolness in a sea of raging heat. Mind you, what kept us cool was the unrelenting rain. We got soaked. But it did keep us cool.
On this particular map – (I can’t seem to dig it out of the cyber-pile, so I’m not able to reference it here), the great body of the continental U.S. east and south of the Cascades was a tangle of yellows, oranges and dark reds, indicating average temperatures ranging dangerously above normal. The map looked to me like the very picture of a fire burning. It seems we are starting to learn what it means to live inside of a burning fever.
Partly because of this, the U.S. climate movement is surging, and last Sunday’s climate rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. was a heady day for the movement. I want to give some reasons why we should not only tolerate this new fervor, but join it.
Mark Hertsgaard described the rally in D.C. this way;
“Braving frigid cold, at least 35,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington on Sunday for the largest climate change rally in U.S. history. With a second climate and clean energy rally planned for Earth Day on April 22, Sunday’s demonstration had the feel of a first act, an opening statement of what the burgeoning U.S. climate movement is demanding from a government that for decades has denied and delayed action on the most urgent problem of our age.”
KC Golden of Climate Solutions issued a rousing moral commentary on the meaning of this rally in a terrific piece in Grist earlier this week. He calls it “The Keystone Principle”, since the centerpiece of the movement right now is stopping the Keystone oil pipeline from the Tar Sands in Alberta to the Texas oil refineries. Why is this so important? KC puts it this way:
After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future. It’s about physical and moral consequences, now. And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement. It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: Stop making it worse.
Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.
It’s true that stopping a single pipeline — even one as huge and odious as Keystone — will not literally “solve” climate disruption. No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation. The question — for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks — is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.
He goes on to say:
If you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits. It is your business strategy, precisely. For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water. We must not buy that ticket.
This is the Keystone Principle. It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.
It is the scale of moral consequence that has been largely missing from this debate, and the scale of action that legitimate moral fervor can engender. Moral abdication has been perpetuated by placing climate disruption in the category of ‘just another issue’ among many, and by continuing to hand the media megaphones to climate deniers long after the scientific consensus has become crystal clear.
The line is stark now. Again to quote KC Golden:
No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now. Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like.
President Obama has a scorching decision to make on the Keystone project, if he is to build moral authority into his rousing words on climate action in his State of the Union Address. This “pipeline in the sand”, as Bill McKibben calls it, is rapidly becoming a moral rallying cry with enormous potential to leverage change. Citizen activism will continue to blossom on this front regardless of Obama’s decision on Keystone, but the symbolic power of saying “No” to big oil on this one would be huge.
Because things are moving so fast on the climate issue through the organizing power of social media, and because the mainstream press continues to portray the movement as marginal, it is easy to miss this fervor, and to dismiss it as just another fad. It isn’t. We will all be climate activists soon. Our unraveling biosphere will leave us no choice. So why not get started now? Join a rally near you. Cash in that next luxury vacation and explore the treasures close to home. Keep those jets grounded. Divest your oil stocks. Occupy your bike! Pester your Congressman. Lay down on the tracks. We are all living in the tongue of the rapids.
Last fall, during a grueling hike out of the Glacier Peak Wilderness with my son Alex, I found myself riffing on Abraham Lincoln to distract both of us from the numbing pain in our legs. We had been driven from the high flanks of Glacier Peak by an intense early blizzard in September, and were running on fumes near the end of our fifteen-mile hike back out to the trailhead.
I had Alex as a captive audience when I got going about my admiration for Lincoln as the hinge person of his extraordinary times. And with a looming presidential election, I wanted Alex to know why I thought this election mattered so profoundly, and why I thought President Obama still had a chance to become a great president, possibly even on the order of Abraham Lincoln.
If slavery was Lincoln’s crucible, climate change is rapidly emerging as the great moral crisis of our era. Lincoln chose to enter his second term by facing directly into the political storm of the 13th Amendment, seeking to bring a legislative end to slavery once and for all. He did so against powerful resistance from both his opponents in Congress and his own cabinet. He risked the hard-won legacy of his presidency on a cause that seemed to his advisors doomed to fail. Such a failure by Lincoln to meet this “inflection point in history” likely would have kept the slavery question festering far into Reconstruction, even after the Confederate surrender. And if that effort had failed, we might not still be making blockbuster movies on his presidency a century and a half later.
But Obama’s historical crucible may prove even greater, the stakes even higher, and he may need to become our “New Abolitionist” in chief to move the dial forward on climate action.
Denis Hayes, who oversaw the first Earth Day event in 1970, argued this week in Crosscut.com that, “While economic prosperity and domestic tranquility are vital to winning elections, no federal monuments will be built to honor the fiscal stimulus package or Obamacare. The stature awarded President Obama by future historians will be very largely determined by his response to one issue: climate disruption.” If Obama is to rise with Lincoln from “Good” to “Great”, he must meet his own historic inflection point with a similarly fierce resolution.
The State of the Union Address this week gave further evidence that Obama is beginning to rise to that challenge. He has clearly stepped out of the shadows on the climate crisis, signaling the beginning of a much more forthright effort by his administration to meet this historical challenge. Here are some prominent statements on climate from his second term’s opening State of the Union Address last Tuesday:
“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it is too late.”
He goes on to say,
“if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
While specific proposals were lacking, and that is troublesome, several significant precedents were set here. First, the unofficial gag rule on even mentioning climate change at the highest levels of public policy is officially over. Second, the illusion of a legitimate “debate” about whether the climate crisis is real or “a hoax” has been broken. We are unlikely to return again to an era of officially-sanctioned climate denial. Third, the immediacy of the climate threat has been acknowledged. It is no longer being framed as an abstract or possible threat to our future, but as a real and present danger that is already upon us, with clearly observable catastrophic effects. And finally, Obama has signaled that federal action to more aggressively address the climate crisis will no longer be held hostage to a recalcitrant Republican wing of Congressional extremists. The President has committed himself to take executive actions to the limit of his power if Congress refuses to do so.
These statements of principle and commitment are also in line with Obama’s choice of John Kerry as Sec. of State, and of Sally Jewell as Sec. of Interior – both fierce advocates for climate action in the policy domain.
This feels to me, at least, like a remarkable moment of turning within American climate policy. Alex and I were together on the night of Obama’s re-election, and we recently watched the movie Lincoln together as well. The President’s striking emergence onto the climate stage since his re-election strengthens his potential for greatness.
A lot of climate history has been written already since our conversation on the Glacier Peak trail. Hurricane Sandy and last week’s epic blizzard in New England are only the latest installments in our climate’s accelerating unraveling. Obama’s new display of confidence and commitment to lead on climate is heartening. But whether he rises to genuine greatness as a leader on this issue – whether he has truly recognized climate as his over-arching historical inflection point, is a story that will be written in the coming months and years.
It is essential that we do our part as citizens to hold the President’s feet to the fire, and our own as well, in meeting this defining crisis of our era.