Let's face it things aren't going well "out there." California is in flames, the Southeast is in horrible drought and the title of the Common Dreams e-mail that I got on Thursday October 27 th was "Earth is Reaching Point of No Return."
"Holy shit!" I thought, not for the first time that day, "the end is near! What should I do?"
My stomach sank and my heart raced. Then I looked around me to find I was still sitting in front of a computer, my stray kitten purring on my lap. I noticed that the ocean was not yet lapping at my door, and that the leaves outside my window were beautiful.
This is not the first time I have grappled with the end of the world. Usually the images that flash through my mind, involve drowning, fire, or thirst; it always ends the same way: I calm down and go back to the work I was doing before the news flash told me the world was ending.
In short this is how I spend most of my crazy "environmental" life. Everyday I work, in my own small ways, to create a more sustainable world; but I oscillate constantly between the practicality of these small daily actions, and the need for large-scale change with the greatest urgency.
On the one hand I wake up everyday with pressing urgency. "Go, go, go, there is not much time." And there isn't. There is not much time in a day, or in a life, or in ten years, which is the amount of time we have to "stop increasing carbon and start decreasing it," according to Bill McKibben in an October 19 th speech at the Great Turning Conference.
McKibben stressed that we are at a unique moment in history, racing against a global deadline. That's heavy stuff. And it's a heavy feeling that presses on my chest when I live all day racing against an invisible clock, hanging above us, ticking away seconds like a time bomb from a bad action film. It's also information we've been hearing for years, so I can't help but wonder, what the hell are you panicking for, you knew this was coming?
I met a man the other day on the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He approached me with a CD about Global Warming. He wanted me to make copies and distribute it amongst my friends. I told him about my own work, with a grassroots organization in the same city. Then he smiled and said,
"That sounds nice, but I don't have time right now, I am working at 200 percent on the global climate crisis." We must be kindred spirits, both full of our own importance. I think we both need to take a step back from the edge.
On the other hand, we cannot act hastily. Large scale hasty responses to climate change thus far, include nuclear energy and ethanol. Both of these "solutions" add to the unsustainable use of dwindling water supplies (we have anywhere between 10-50 years depending on who you ask, although if you live in Atlanta right now you might be saying something different), both are already happening.
In another speech at the Great Turning Conference, Winona La Duke, celebrated Anishinaabekwe, environmental activist and wise woman asked:
"If nuclear power is the answer, then what the hell was the question? Was it the further contamination of groundwater? Was it how can we be bigger jerks and consume more resources? 70% of available uranium is in indigenous communities."
She has a stunning way with words.
As for ethanol, I'm just going to give you a few statistics drawn from Gerry Rising's July 15th, 2007 article in the Buffalo News.
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According to Rising's calculations, which are based on the work of Ted Patzek and Gerald Cecil, for one gallon of ethanol the equivalent of more than a gallon of oil must be expended.
If every acre of this nation's corn were assigned to ethanol production, it would only provide 7 percent of what the nation's cars use today.
One element of ethanol production that Rising doesn't mention is the fact that corn, as currently grown in most of the United States, is one of the most land intensive plants in the world. Planting it continuously causes soil erosion, unsustainable water use, and loss of diversity.
Lastly, counting the growing of the corn, the processing of the corn, and production of the fuel, it will take millions of gallons of water on a daily basis to create ethanol.
I draw again from Winona LaDuke: If ethanol is the answer, then what the hell was the question?
So this is the point in the article when I am supposed to give you alternative solutions. Excitingly I have many. They are not original, most have nothing to do with large-scale national solutions to environmental problems, and they require an active imagination:
- Turn your lawn into a garden.
- Quit your job if you hate it and start doing what you've always wanted (after all if McKibben is right you've only got about a decade).
- Look at what you do on a daily basis and ask yourself is this harmful to me, to others, to the planet? Act accordingly.
- Learn how to can and preserve to eat locally year round.
- Turn off your T.V., Computer, cell phone.
- Read a book, play a game, dance around a bonfire.
- Install a grey water system to create a closed loop for your water use.
- Be dirty more often.
- Use rain barrels.
- Find a place you love outside; visit it often.
- Learn the names of trees, shrubs, birds, say hello.
- Stop blaming: We are they, they are us.
- Start a conversation with someone who intimidates you.
- Cross neighborhood boundaries, be uncomfortable.
- Never ever drink out of a plastic straw again.
- Carry a mug, a re-usable bag, a water bottle, plate, and fork with you at all times.
- Unplug, unplug, unplug.
- Make a leaf collage
- Compost (1/3 of the household waste in landfills could have been composted)
- Trust that what is happening will unfold well if we keep working on it.
- Do not try to do this all at once. I did and it wasn't pretty.
Finally, I end with two of wisest pieces of advice I have ever received about how to change the world.
The first is from a man named John Francis, also known as the Planetwalker. He spent 22 years walking all over the country, 17 of them in silence. His advice, also at the Great Turning Conference, was this:
"Ask yourself: what is your dream, say it out loud, and then begin taking steps towards it. Don't rush it."
The second is from Winona LaDuke:
"Get some place. Stay there. Live in a way that is peaceful to that place. Dig in."
This is what, each time that I panic, draws me back from the edge. It is trust in the universe, the will to follow my dreams, and the knowledge that I am not alone, far from it. There are millions of people out there making the world better everyday; my guess is that you are one of them. So Don't Rush it but Dig In.
Paige Doughty is an environmental educator and freelance writer. Learn more at www.paigedoughty.typepad.com