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).]

Three Luminaries: Hopkins, Hemenway, Heinberg

While in northern California I had the chance to meet three powerful voices in the movement for positive change. Call them the Three H’s, or Tres Hermanos.

Hermano One, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute, schooled me about the inevitability of a global economic crash. This eventuality is currently held at bay in part by the dubious practice of quantitative easing. (No, I don’t really know how that works, but apparently governments and banks are creating money out of thin air to prop up our ailing economic system.)

When asked how he stayed grounded, immersed as he is in researching the unraveling of life as we know it, he spoke of living with gratitude. He spends time in precious company and places. He plays the violin a couple hours a day, and tends his garden and chickens.

Richard Heinberg in his garden, photographed by Nicolas Boullosa, via Flickr Commons

Richard Heinberg in his garden, photographed by Nicolas Boullosa, via Flickr Commons

Heinberg has been the bearer of bad news for years now, absorbing and presenting material that would leave me immobilized if I were in his shoes. He takes a balanced perspective, noting, “We need to talk about the potential benefits of reorganizing our material economy and doing more with less, and having more cooperation, and sharing and voluntarism—all of those things are good and make life better, more interesting, more fun.”

“And yet, at the end of the day it’s going to be a materially less opulent way of life, bottom line.”

In light of that trajectory, Hermano Two, Toby Hemenway, reined me in from fear mode by sharing the robustness of permaculture-based solutions. He echoed Heinberg on the most basic, square one action, no matter what happens next: Get to know your neighbors.

That means now, not in some perfect future living situation. He told me, “People say, “Someday I’m going to move to a community where I’m going to do that’ (live sustainably). And you’re already in a community right here, with your neighbors.”

Permaculture instructor Toby Hemenway, with Buddha, in his garden.

Permaculture instructor Toby Hemenway, with Buddha, in his garden.

Far better than a theoretical “someday” eco-topia is identifying and building that community right here, where we are. It can start as simply as: “Who will walk my dog when I’m gone? Who will help me water my garden when I’m sick?”

Taking the concept of community even further was Hermano Three, Rob Hopkins.  He spoke of hearing Heinberg speak about the end of growth a few years ago and feeling galvanized to take action. He wanted his fellow permaculturists to join him, but instead “found that lots of permaculture people are very happy living up little misty lanes making chairs out of sticks.”

He wanted more. He wanted to get moving, spread the word. Out of this urgency was born the Transition Town movement.

Rob Hopkins. Photo by Tulane Publications, via Flickr Commons.

Rob Hopkins. Photo by Tulane Publications, via Flickr Commons.

These are groups that aren’t waiting for permission, but instead starting where they are to build a new, localized economy (the REconomy). There’s tremendous energy in this movement. It may not always be called Transition. It may not get much press. But it’s rolling like a wave across the globe.

For more info, check out Hopkins’ book The Power of Just Doing Stuff,  Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, and Heinberg’s eye-opening End of Growth.