To be Fueled by Love

Browsing the shelves of Point Reyes Books last month, I picked up Mary Pipher’s latest book. Her Reviving Ophelia illuminated the struggles of adolescent girls. Now she has a book called The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in our Capsized Culture, detailing her progression from despair to activism.

A Nebraskan, Pipher was on the front lines of early campaigns to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline from going through the Sandhills. (Three years later, the pipeline is still in limbo, and has become a symbol of the fossil fuel industry’s disastrous impact on the planet.)

Dismal River, Nebraska Sandhills. Photo by USFWS Mountain Prairie, via Wikimedia Commons

Dismal River, Nebraska Sandhills. Photo by USFWS Mountain Prairie, via Wikimedia Commons

Even before opening it, I knew this book would return me to grounding.

I’d been talking with Richard Heinberg about his book The End of Growth, which describes a trajectory that I understand and yet can’t quite face head-on. Seeing it spelled out and hearing him expound on it left me feeling quite scared.

I know that many are pulling together for a better world. But our governmental policies favor the monied corporations running the show. I was starting to doubt that community action could effect change on that level.

Along comes Pipher, describing an activism that’s joyful and even fun. Example: grandmothers gave weekly “thank you in advance” pies to the Nebraska governor until he agreed to meet. This brand of protesting, fueled by love of the land and concern for tomorrow’s denizens, seems the perfect antidote to despair.

A chapter called All Hands on Deck begins with this quote from Frederick Buechner:

“God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

To be glad in the face of the world’s rending sometimes seems impossible. Yet I remember opening the church basement doors on the day of our SkillShare and seeing the space instantly fill with participants, their faces alight with curiosity. I think of the heart-cracking instant when a resonant phrase finds my fingers on the keyboard. I recall the joy of putting a garden trowel in the hands of a preschooler.

There’s an expansiveness when I reflect on these moments, a sense of the heart opening that lifts me from powerlessness.

Explaining vermiculture at the Irvington SkillShare. Photo by Jeff Echols.

Explaining vermiculture at the Irvington SkillShare. Photo by Jeff Echols.

Pipher acknowledges the “experts” who downplay the importance of individual actions. They say systemic economic and political changes are necessary to change this trajectory. True enough, but this reasoning is incomplete, says Pipher—for “who is it that is in charge of systemic change?”

She argues that individuals have always been the source of world-changing actions, and what else can one person do but start with herself? And join others in common cause, as did the abolitionists. It’s said that they had no hope of success, at the start.

My small self is quick to tell me what I’m not. I’m no naturalist, no doctor of philosophy, no career activist, no farmer, no wisewoman in a mountain hut. I am just myself. Sometimes I question: What do I have to offer?

I only own this experience, this deep heart of pain and care, grief and fear—and love. 

What do I have to offer? All of it. I offer it up.

[More from Mary Pipher: Read her interview on how to wake up and take action on climate change (and stay sane).]

Drawing the Line

Saturday I took part in a local expression of a nationwide day of action,’s Draw the Line. About 40 of us came out to demonstrate resistance to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

KI EcoCenter hosted the Indy event in partnership with Earth Charter Indiana. These two stellar groups both work at the intersection of environmental, social, and economic concerns.

Photo by KI EcoCenter

Photo by KI EcoCenter

Alvin, one of the organizers, started us off with a wholistic assessment of what we were about: creating a new world, beyond the issue of the pipeline or tar sands or even fossil fuels.

“Keystone XL is a symbol of the past…We’re saying no, we want something different for our world,” Alvin said.

In the ensuing discussion, there was talk of reining in corporate greed, making companies pay the true cost of production, reforming the way election campaigns are financed, and other policy changes.

But many people brought up the need for internal as well as external shifts. How are we making the old reality obsolete by creating a new reality, as Buckminster Fuller advised?

Photo by KI EcoCenter

Photo by KI EcoCenter

Some of the insights:

We need to build a united movement that encompasses social justice, because climate change disproportionately affects the poorest of the poor. —Rosemary

We have to shift away from the value we put on money. Companies value money and profits more than our own lives. We have to focus on the intangible side of life, such as happiness that comes from having a healthy place to live. —Keenan

Photo by KI EcoCenter

Photo by KI EcoCenter

The problem stems from the idea of separation—that we’re separate from each other, separate from the earth, separate from the animals. But we are one. —Marion

We need to change the definition of the good life. —Tom

We need to take responsibility for what we carry within so we don’t pollute the world with negativity. Anything inside us that fears and hates is that which is in common with what is feared. It’s important to notice—because when you notice things, they lose power. —Phoebe

Photo by KI EcoCenter

Photo by KI EcoCenter

At the end of the discussion, we lined up outside the center with signs we had made, and a KI EcoCenter intern drew a black line across to represent our line in the (tar) sands.

Though I much prefer creating the new world to protesting what needs to fall away, I do believe it’s important to stand up and be counted. I’m glad Indy was represented in the movement, however small our number. And we didn’t stand alone. These photos of the line’s reach (into hundreds of cities, drawn by thousands of activists) at’s flickr stream are inspiring.

Can We Change Course in Time?

Last week, one day after I heard the author of The Pipeline and the Paradigm speak about the insanity of our fossil fuel-based “business-as-usual” storyline, we reached a chilling milestone.

The CO2 counter on the side of Mauna Loa, which measures parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere, tipped past 400. As Bill McKibben wrote, “It’s a grim landmark—it’s been several million years since CO2 reached these levels in the atmosphere.”

Scientists have identified 350ppm as the safest upper limit for a life-sustaining biosphere.

Sam Avery had just told us that we are on the cusp of a new paradigm—moving from the old story, which values living systems only in terms of dollars, to the new, which affirms that living systems are inherently valuable.

Olympia, Washington. Keystone XL Pipeline protest. By Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons

Olympia, Washington. Keystone XL Pipeline protest. By Brylie Oxley via Wikimedia Commons

The Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry noxious tar sands from Alberta to Texas, is a “pivot point between these two worlds,” he told us. Opening the pipeline would allow the release of enormous levels of carbon—enough to create irreversible climate change.

Depressingly, that 400ppm number is not even indicative of current carbon emissions. There is a 10- to 40-year time lag before we feel the effects of today’s emissions. And greenhouse gases stay for hundreds of thousands of years in the atmosphere.

It’s not only the carbon that is concerning. The 36-inch-diameter pipeline, only one-half inch thick, will be continually abraded by the rough tar sands. When there is a spill—and it’s not if, but when—this stuff behaves differently than crude. It is heavy; it sinks to the bottom of lakes and rivers.

I don’t know about you, but the prospect makes me nauseous. Deepwater Horizon was bad enough. How much more can we foul our nest? (The good folks of Mayflower, AR are dealing with a tar sands spill right now.)

A map showing aquifer thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer with the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route laid over. Via Wikimedia Commons

A map showing aquifer thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer with the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route laid over. Via Wikimedia Commons

Avery advocates dramatic action to nudge the new paradigm into being. He’s spreading the message that we can collectively make a different choice.

“We have to believe it to make it happen,” he said, though he admitted that right now, he “might bet against human survival” given the current trajectory.

“We can’t rely on market forces to do it for us,” Avery said. “We’re going to have to decide exactly when and where and how we are going to get off fossil fuels.”

This requires nothing short of evolution—an epic shift in consciousness. It would mean making the decision, globally, to leave carbon underground despite ever-increasing energy demands. To do otherwise is to jeopardize our home and our survival, not to mention the survival of innumerable precious species and ecosystems. Can we change course in time?

Some 50,000 people have pledged to participate in civil disobedience if Keystone is approved. Avery himself, who traveled the pipeline route during his book research, is prepared to “stand between the earth and destruction.”

Who will stand with him?