There is a certain collective madness in evidence when hundreds of people opt to sleep two nights on a bus in order to attend a climate rally. The sort of madness I, for one, think we need to see a lot more of. Not because I think rallies, in and of themselves, have any great potential to alter the workings of a broken and corrupted political apparatus, but because they indicate that there is an emergency that needs our attention. They are another manifestation of the great 'Yop!' I'm so fond of.
It turns out that the vagabond's spyglass discerns things differently. Homelessness, even if only temporary, changes one's perception of the homeland and conversation among former strangers takes on an eerie weightiness ricocheting like shouts from the town crier - a potent, if rather primitive, way to spread the news these days. I learned more on that bus from Cambridge to DC than the most voracious consumption of media could ever inform me of. I heard the testimonials of fellow "climate activists" (i.e. everyday people) as they expressed their fears and their hopes to each other. Fear tends to be quiet and self-conscious. Hope, on the other hand, dresses itself up, sometimes in the most elaborate schemes. In exchanging our experiences and our views we came to believe that the isolation we each feel in our daily lives was not an indication of madness. In short, though we were well aware of the irony of traveling on a fossil-fuel-driven bus, we were quite certain that the madness was not on the bus with us but "out there."
We all have different ways of experiencing and expressing our understanding of the world we live in, and for each passenger on the bus there were many at home who shared their understanding of a changing climate. Still, it is the spreading of this understanding that remains some of the most essential work at hand, because until there is mass understanding there can be no massive change.
After we all returned home from "the biggest climate rally in US history," I was fortunate to be included in an email loop where we were invited to share stories of our "ah ha!" moment - the moment when each of us had come to terms with the truth about climate change. Many moving and heart-wrenching stories were shared, but the voice below from Dakota Butterfield is one that matters to me like my own, because in some sense, I suppose, it is.
Late to the Party
I was late to the party. I saw Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" some time in 2006, and while it made an impression on me, and stirred me to think more seriously about my carbon footprint (we bought a hybrid car that year), it didn't translate into an understanding of the emergency we were facing. Maybe it was my involvement with the lives of my three then-teenagers, or my stress-related health issues, or the noise of being involved in so many other socially-pressing issues -- abortion rights; gay rights; fighting corporate personhood; a budding interest in green-building and sustainability -- in any case, an awareness of the cataclysm we were facing didn't break through for me until, in the fall of 2009, I decided to attend a day of climate-related programming at my daughter's high school in Brookline. Ross Gelbspan was the featured speaker, and what he had to say simply blew me out of my comfortable chair in that auditorium. I knew I was listening to a man of intelligence, experience and integrity who was desperate to get people to pay attention to what he had to say. And I knew what he was saying was true.
I was reeling when I left the school that day. Everything I believed about my future, about my beloved children's future, about the sweet natural world that had nourished me and enlivened me with its beauty and mystery for the full run of my life -- all of it was a pile of ashes in me. I had no idea where to turn, no one I felt I could talk to about what was rearranging itself inside me, without sounding like a madwoman. For days and weeks afterwards, I felt as if I were sleepwalking through a surrealistic movie, where everything was both completely normal and unutterably and irrevocably changed at the same time. In the midst of a commonplace conversation with a parent friend about how our kids were doing with their college applications, I would find myself stifling an interior voice screaming at me from a corner of my mind: "What good is COLLEGE going to do them? They should be learning how to grow food, build survival shelters, set broken bones, make a raft to survive a flood. There IS no liberal arts life on the other side of climate catastrophe..." Walking down the aisle in the grocery store, surrounded by dozens of shoppers going about the mundane chore of picking up their regular supplies, all I could think about was what would happen to us all when the deliveries stopped coming, when the shelves were bare. Every other moment was a version of this doubled reality.
At the same time, I started reading books Ross had referred to, like James Lovelock's "The Revenge of Gaia," as well as new books just hitting the shelves, like Bill McKibbon's "Eaarth." I was increasingly haunted by a parallel reality that seemed invisible to everyone around me.
I made vain attempts to broach the subject with close friends as well as with my partner, but the denial and dismissal I met was way stronger than my ability to hold my own in such conversations. My partner in particular asked that I stop being so depressing all the time, imagining the worse, so "doomsday-ish." I can't remember ever feeling more alone, nor more completely out of touch with a way to ground my daily actions and choices in a meaningful reality.
This continued for a while, until one day, I just didn't get out of bed. My partner was away on a business trip, and all three of my children were not then living at home for various normal reasons (two were away at college by this time.) And I just didn't get out of bed. Maybe I shuffled my way to the kitchen to eat something once or twice, but mostly, for the better part of two or three days, I just lay there...blank.
Until finally I found myself reaching for my laptop, because there was something ready to be said. This is what arrived in me that day:
Each of us reads the tea leaves we find in the bottom of our cup in our own way. Mine tell me that over the next 50 years, a contraction of devastating scope and scale will take place around the globe, changing the fundamentals of life as we know them. I have come to believe this future is unavoidable, the inevitable consequence of having built a vast, unsustainable global architecture with the super-concentrated, irreplaceable stored energy of fossil fuels, while triggering devastating climate change in the process. There is simply no way to recapitulate the stored energy needed to maintain and power the global system we have built.
The collapse of the system that supports developed societies as we know them, combined with the inevitable though unpredictable progression of catastrophic climate change, will involve deprivation, suffering and harm to the natural world on a scale that hasn’t been seen in 10,000 years.
This is the reality I wake to every day. So the work I do has to be, in some way, about elevating us and preparing us to face this challenge. It has to be about rebuilding interconnectedness, strengthening our experience of personal agency and community reliance. It has to be about developing the practices of heart and mind that will sustain us as we face overwhelming despair and grief.
Death is part of the cycle of Life. When we face it on an individual level, it tests us, drawing us to a deeper level within ourselves, asking us to experience pain, loss, grief, even despair. It asks us to reflect on what we most deeply believe to be true about human experience and the purpose of Life. Parts of this journey we must make on our own, but some parts are richer when we find a way to walk with others. If we are open to its lessons, we emerge with a brighter light, a larger heart, a fuller and truer sense of Life in the world.
We are, collectively, as a family of 6 billion people, approaching a global Death that is unprecedented. We will be, collectively, tested. It will ask us to reflect on what we most deeply believe. It will reward us if we find a way to walk with others. And it will grow our hearts, if we have the courage to learn its lessons.
So I want us to wake up to what we are facing, to hold one another’s hands, to dream dreams together about how we might travel into this future with open hearts, prepared minds, strong spirits. As humans, we are capable of horrific acts of desperation and self-serving. But we are also capable of the opposite -- living wide open to Life, finding beauty everywhere, seeking connection and joint endeavor with the other beings around us. My humble work is to tilt us away from our smaller selves, to the largest Self possible. And I want to do it with my eyes and heart and mind wide open.
No more denial.
I have tried to live to this truth every day since. Though I often feel broken-hearted, I don't feel alone anymore, and I don't feel crazy. And my partner has joined me on this path.
In solidarity, Dakota Butterfield
Dakota Butterfield is a member and organizer of JPNET (Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition), a Transition initiative based in a richly-diverse neighborhood of Boston.
She holds a certificate in Sustainable Design and Green Building from the Boston Architectural College and worked at The Green Roundtable in Boston planning educational programming for architects, engineers and contractors looking to “green” their practice.
Her work as a consultant and trainer with non-profits and cooperatives spanned twenty years as she guided groups towards more effective democratic management and improved strategic outcomes. As an extension of her work with non-profits and cooperatives, she taught for over fifteen years in Tufts University’s graduate-level UEP program (Urban Environmental Policy), and for over a decade in the masters program in Community Economic Development at New Hampshire College.
In addition, she has extensive experience with direct action and protest campaigns, having played a central role in Boston’s Central American solidarity movement, where an affinity-group-based effort organized mass protests and non-violent arrests to challenge US involvement in Nicaragua. As part of those efforts, she organized city-wide non-violent trainings and facilitated large consensus-based decision-making meetings among affinity spokespeople.
Singing, nature-based spiritual practices and working to develop a zero-net energy homestead in Vermont keep her going in these dangerous and miraculous times.