Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth. It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth. It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain. And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”
April 22 is Earth Day and next year marks its 50th anniversary. It seems a good time to pause and think about what we have accomplished and where we go from here. How has Earth Day changed since it’s conception and have we reached any of its original goals?
Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting. When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport, much less dynamic. In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.
Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC. Taiwan’s leaders must walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US, and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence. Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous Austronesian people of Taiwan having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards. The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.
Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around. One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres, large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters, second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.
On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams. I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus – a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke . I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam. None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip. Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country. This has been done through sustained policy efforts and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains. Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it – but there is much to learn from their successes.
Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.
I should have known it was coming, but like always in the heady rush of things you forget.
Two Fridays ago that beautiful morning, sunshine glinting off Cardiff Bay, a crowd of schoolchildren buoyant with homemade banners and placards outside the Senedd, smiling and laughing, singing and chanting. They were calling on the politicians inside – not one of whom showed their face – to listen up. They were calling on all adults everywhere to act their age and confront climate change. It was impossible not to be moved. Not to feel almost giddy with the sense of possibility. If you were there in Brighton, Sheffield, Berlin, Sydney or any of hundreds of other towns and cities where the same was happening that morning and in the days since, you’ll know what I mean.
You’ll also know what I mean if you’ve seen YouTubes of Greta Thunberg talking. A small, slight figure, softly spoken, reticent, not a hint of arrogance, holding an audience of big shots spellbound with her simple, honest, indignant message. For a moment the bluff and bluster that mark success in our crazy upside-down society melts away. The small, softly spoken person inside all of us holds sway. There’s hope. A new vanguard emerges, uncomplicated and instinctively true, seeking like a dog’s nose for some hint of a way forward. ‘We are nature defending itself’ said one of the schoolchildren’s slogans. I believe it.
But then you know how it is with feelings. You open your heart a crack, cognitive defences are down, and something else slips in to hijack your spirit.
Just over a week later we experienced the hottest February day ever in the British Isles, towards the end of what was the hottest February ever. 20°C across much of the land, quite a spike in a month where the average temperature in past years has been 7-9°C. The weather news was all about people sunbathing in city-centre parks and queuing for ice lollies at the beach. I briefly voiced my unease, in quiet conversation with a colleague in our over-warm office and was batted back with “the climate has always changed” and “we exaggerate our own influence”. There was no talk of climate in any of the sunny conversations around me that morning, only great weather.
At lunchtime I wandered out to the patch of bare ground across the supply road from the building where I work, and followed a muddy path into the strip of scrubby woods which lines the expressway. No question, the weather was gorgeous up there on the edge of the Brecon Beacons under an alpine sky. There was a bumble bee, fat and furry, zig-zagging among the slim tree trunks just above the leaf-fall. What’s going on, I thought. I’ve never seen a bumble bee at the turn of winter. What’s it looking for? Nectar, surely. Flowers. But there aren’t any flowers. None whatsoever. The trees are bare and nothing has poked through the mulch. Has it been warmed from its winter resting hole by the premature heat? I once read that bumble bees can manage only about 20 minutes of flight without a slurp of sugary energy. How much longer did this one have left? I placed a bite of apple on the ground close to the bee when it settled at the foot of a tree, but that spooked it and it promptly zig-zagged out of sight. The traffic roared. I pushed on, but the thought of the bee wouldn’t leave me. Imagine emerging on cue, primed by the eternal waltz of life for a summer of buzzing, to find yourself in a wasteland of dead leaves with 20 minutes to go. The image fused in my mind with a recurring scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker: a man stepping slowly, expressionless, through a forest of blasted birch. Post-apocalypse? You never find out. But something bad.
And that’s how it happens. When you realise you’re feeling shit again.
The nadir, certainly, was this. One evening in the kitchen, after washing up and all that, the kids readying themselves for bed, I’m scrolling through Twitter and stop to watch a 10-minute video of Greta addressing an auditorium of European Union political elite. My daughter steals in behind me to watch over my shoulder and I’m pleased that she’s interested. Greta stresses the “less than 12 years to act” message, says there will be uncontrollable chain reactions if we don’t, and at that the daughter retreats upset, later to be found in a far corner of the flat, eyes red-rimmed and wide as she says to me: “…but it can be fixed, right? It can be stopped, yes?”
I can write this now because it’s passed, that stumble. I guess it comes in waves. I guess it’s like two sides of a coin. Some days what the kids are doing is hugely heartening. Other days it may just break your heart.
(Image from a postcard by Peter Reason)
A recent article got me thinking about our contact with the natural world. After reading more about the Social Justice Movement and in particular Extinction Rebellion I agree with one of the commenters that “the left is on an ideological crusade to promote its doctrines and that the climate change issue is merely an opportunistic vehicle to do so”. It isn’t that I don’t agree there are social justice issues that need confronting, but I think there is a danger when political groups use the issue of climate change as a reason to promote social revolution. I agree, “we need to confront the material, scientific and institutional causes of climate change”, and I don’t see how we can do that if our rebellion isn’t about climate change. I believe the way to confront climate change is with more environmental awareness.
Last week was tough in a way that I hadn’t expected.
I had two events to go to: the first, a climate change conference put on by our state’s climate change commission, and the second, an agricultural bank board meeting. It was unexpectedly tough to think about the world in such disparate ways within a few days of each other. Tough to reconcile their differences, or not to reconcile but bear those differences when they were not reconcilable. That was the hardest part and it took a toll on me.
There were two different visions of the world that undergirded these two different meetings, two different ideological positions that were the common, unspoken background of most of the attendees at each meeting, and two different set of blindspots. Continue reading “Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea”
I was there. I saw it one day, the shimmer – “the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere.” I saw it in leaves after the rain – later, in a fishes’ scales and an animal’s fur, in the iridescent skin of my own infant daughter. I saw it and drank it in, in wonder and desire and gratitude. Mostly wonder.
Shimmer is what I care about. I didn’t have a word for it until I read Deborah Rose Bird’s essay: “Shimmer: When Everything You Love is Being Trashed” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
Trees and stars are masters of shimmer, that is why trees are beyond value.
You can’t know when it will come upon you, it’s like grace that way but more wild. Wild as any newborn, wild as any animal. You know it is shimmer because it’s all that you can see (or hear or smell or touch or otherwise sense.) It’s more than you can sense – a revelation or a vision – but it’s just there in the fleeting moment and the ordinary thing that you passed a hundred times but now it is revealed to you as if it were the burning bush or the shining void. Or the melody that the world is making that you hear and yet don’t hear. That is playing through you. Or the smell of a memory that echoes through the rooms of time.
Shimmer is the world being itself and for once you happen to be there with it. For once, you see it.
Yes, shimmer is love. The appearance of love to a mortal being through some kind of miracle.
And shimmer is what we stand to lose.
Thank you to the indigenous people of Australia for their gift of shimmer, and to Deborah Bird Rose for carrying it into English.
How (capitalist) money and nature intertwine and bring multiple life-worlds into being is one of the themes of Anna Tsingʻs book on the matsutake mushroom, highly valued in Japanese culture and cuisine as a signal of autumn and a nostalgic reminder of the rural bounty of pre-industrial Japan. Tsing, who teaches anthropology at UC Santa Cruz and at Aarhus University in Denmark, is part of a network of thinkers who are forging new ways to write about human interactions with nature. Like the South American anthropologists associated with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the Santa Cruz cohort centered around Donna Hathaway have built a framework that allows the conversation between humans and non-humans in making landscapes and worlds to be taken seriously in academia. This is one step to making such thinking possible in the wider culture, rather than marginalized as the ravings of women and mystics or backwardness of indigenous people and cultures. Tsingʻs book, which has won numerous awards, is a lively and personal account of the people who interact with the matsutake mushroom, whether immigrant Lao or Mien mushroom foragers in the regrowth forests of Oregon, Yunnanese middlemen who use traditional ethnic ties to construct a supply chain, or the Japanese customers who relish the mushroom resonance with rural ways of life. Tsingʻs project is a study of the Anthropocene and “The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet” (the title of her more recent edited volume) and the kind of “arts of noticing” and thinking that she champions as so urgently necessary to change the way we think about and relate to our world.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address climate change in terms of policy at the local level, at the smallest organized unit of government for my area, which is the County of Hawaii, encompassing the island of Hawaii. I am not an expert on climate change or climate change policy in any way, shape, or form, but this may well be the mother of all situations where we will need to learn by doing, rather than waiting on expertise that does not yet exist. Continue reading “Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?”
The drama that unfolded during the last few weeks over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court took many of us on a journey that no one could have predicted, and that became a drama about something much bigger than the Supreme Court. Bigger than party politics, or even right versus left. It became about being heard.
It became, for some of us, about memory, history, and the way we understood our own lives. Continue reading “Not Being Heard”