Tag Archives: climate disruption

Weathering the storm: living with the power of cataclysm

Death of a star forms a nebula. Image via NASABy the end of the first week of the impeachment hearings, I was as miserable as I’ve been in a long time. Not because any of it was news to me, but because institutions are failing in ways we never imagined. We’ve never seen them tested this much before. That same week the Trump EPA added to its boundless failures by relaxing water safety standards. Lying political ads flooded Facebook, which is fine with that. A news photo of five young women climate activists was edited to take the sole African out. 

I could go on. Even the weekly lists are endless. I don’t usually dwell on such things in these essays. I prefer to concentrate on the energies that support what we can do to move toward a just and sustainable world. But we are in the midst of the most challenging of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe: cataclysm. Writing about radiance and allurement was sheer pleasure. The powers of centration and transmutation are inspiring. Then, after dwelling last month on the optimistic energy of emergence, I figured I may as well face the dragon.

The pictures I’ve chosen for this essay are all imploding stars, courtesy of NASA. We are here because of the cataclysmic death of stars. They gave us the calcium structuring our bones, the iron flowing in our blood, the oxygen we breathe. We both are and live in a matrix of carbon, without which life wouldn’t exist as we know it. Those elements are being formed every minute throughout the universe, as stars finish their many-billion-year lives of cycling hydrogen into helium. Then, in sequences near the end, helium heats to carbon, carbon to oxygen, to silicon, to iron. 

Cataclysm: the Veil Nebula via NASA

Veil Nebula (Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Iron burns up in a flash. Two seconds later, a star implodes in on itself in such heat that only wispy neutrinos remain. Neutrinos are the lightest particle in the universe, Brian tells us. “But the star is now so dense that what was insignificant can now blow the whole thing apart. As it blows it apart, all of the different elements are created. We had nothing but neutrinos and suddenly you have hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon.” 

The earth eventually formed around a young star and launched its own 4.5 billion year history of cataclysms. Eons of meteor bombardment. Great plates floating on the surface, crashing mountains into existence as they meet. The molten core spewing from volcanos. Glaciers crushing everything in their path. There have been five major extinctions. At the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, 96% of the thriving marine life was suddenly gone. Possible cataclysms: glaciation, volcanic activity, shifting landmasses. The most prominent theory about the last extinction, when the dinosaurs disappeared, includes a meteor hitting the earth. All of our other hominid cousins have died out. Due to a massive volcanic eruption, homo sapiens were down to a few thousand individuals 70,000 years ago. 

Yet, out of these catastrophes arose the Himalayas, the Hudson River, redwood forests, roses, orcas in deep oceans, bluebirds, gazelles, us. “Creativity would not be possible without the power of cataclysm.” The blessings have been boundless. But the power of cataclysm has swept through humanity over and over: wars, drought, famines, epidemics, devastating floods and fires. We are now creating new ones as we bury the earth in garbage, change the climate, allow the sixth great extinction. 

Cataclysm: the death of a star forms a round supernova. Photo via NASA

Image: NASA/CXC/SAO

“We feel an ongoing mix of failure, regret, frustration,” Brian says, “because it’s so hard to imagine how to proceed.” What we treasured is disappearing. Our deepest ideals, what organized entire nations, seem to be just dissolving. This isn’t what we expected to see. We had dreams of how we were going to create this fantastic world.” We trusted our ingenuity, technology, the possibility of spiritual and cultural transformation. 

In 2018 the environmental world was roiled by an essay by Jem Bendell, a British sustainability expert. He describes coming to the conclusion that climate change is so imminently disastrous that we are on the edge of societal collapse, especially because of the degradation of agriculture and the rise of food scarcity. He foresees the possibility of human extinction in the near future.

Bendell would say my usual optimism that problems are ultimately solvable is denial. “Green positivity,” he called it in another essay. Of course, the fact that problems are solvable doesn’t mean we’ll have the collective will to solve them. So I agree that we should be contemplating what to do if we don’t muster the will. Or if, as he fears, no amount of will can stop the climate juggernaut at this point.

Cataclysm: supernova from the death of a star via NASA

Image: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/IAFE

But I also feel that we are not alone in this. That the profound creative forces of the universe operate continually in all its manifestations, including us. Learning from and using these primal energies is what this series of essays is about. By our embodying its primordial, ever-transforming powers, the universe is flowing through us at every moment. Now, Brian suggests, we need to trust cataclysm to “free us from all that is causing destruction.”

By allowing ourselves to be the conscious force of cataclysm, we can help “this power to tear down that which is no longer adaptive.”  The central beliefs of western culture, especially economics, are grounded in the idea that the destruction of the earth, of other people, of resources is not even considered a cost. Such wreckage may be seen, at most, as collateral damage, but nothing to avoid if inconvenient to do so. We can choose to channel our current crises toward the end of these disastrous ideas, the empires they have fostered, and the massive devastation they have done.

Cataclysm promises a turbulent path ahead whether we choose to work with it or resist it. The challenging paradox of our beautiful planet is that, while it is clearly dedicated to bringing forth life, it is also deadly. On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake sent lethal tsunamis crashing against the eastern rim of the Indian Ocean, killing 120,000 people. Earthquakes and volcanoes have proven cataclysmic over and over throughout earth’s history. Yet, while the shifting of the plates that float on the earth’s crust spawn these calamities, they also are the reason our planet can support life. 

Cataclysm: the death of a star forms a supernova. Photo via NASA

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO & ESA; Infared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams (NCSU)

Of the seventy or so planets and moons in our solar system, only our earth’s crust is moving, and thus alive with possibility for formation and renewal of mountains, oceans, coasts, rivers, forests, the atmosphere, life itself. One of the reasons our planet can be devoted to life is that it also encompasses destruction. “Everywhere you look, there is simultaneously breaking down and building up, every day, every moment, every breath. For every birth, there is a death.”

“How,” Brian asks, “do we orient ourselves in the midst of all this?” How do we live with cataclysm? Jem Bendell, one of the direst thinkers I’ve come across, didn’t hunker down in a cave. He began a practical and reflective movement called Deep Adaptation. Bendell is not a climate scientist, and some scientists dispute his more extreme prognostications. Nevertheless, there is no comforting timeline in climate disruption. There is every reason to be actively engaged in imagining and creating a different way forward. What do we treasure? What can we let go of? How can we deepen our commitments to our children? How can we foster solidarity? How can we expand our spiritual connections? What are our values? “A future full of love and learning,” Bendell writes, “rather than flying cars and fancy robots, could be a way to imagine a more beautiful world.” 

Our current cataclysm has us rethinking our extractive, exploitative economic system. We’re looking to reorient an education system designed to create workers for an industrial structure that we must also reimagine. We’re pondering rebalancing our individualism with an openness to community. We’re mourning our lost connection to trees, water, stone, animal. Like a star that has come to an end, “we’re at a moment of enormous compression,” Brian says, “when all these structures are being torn down.” As they go, they “leave us to the central nature of who we are.” And to an outpouring “of the creative energy necessary to build the new earth community.” These are great challenges and great gifts. The cataclysms that we have created have turned and are now creating us.

The Crab Nebula via NASA

Crab Nebula. (Image: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, Arizona State University)

(Top photo: the Orion Nebula. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

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Wild times, spooky beauty: happy halloween

Perfect for Halloween: black, curling fading flower by Betsey CrawfordAt the end of the day, it’s because there are people who are deeply committed and are fearless. And are not going to be stopped. That’s how history happens.
~ Ted Howard ~

It was seeing the black curving lines of the fading flower above that made me think occasional Halloween posts might be fun. And they are. I explored white flowers for Ghosts in the Landscape, and orange ones for Slightly Ominous, Very Orange. This year I’ve chosen flowers that have a spooky aura about them. It might be from their spikiness, their weird emergence from the earth, or their lovely, dying curves. But these are wild and difficult times, with plenty of real-life ghouls trying to take charge of our destiny. Wishing someone a happy anything can feel like a hopeless cause.

I can get as obsessed with politics as anyone. But in these essays, I prefer to focus on what the earth we emerged from has to tell us about our lives. Especially about how we might live for the sustainable prosperity of all. After the 2016 election, I wrote Sowing Seeds into the Whirlwind. There I turned to what I took comfort from — the millions of people worldwide who are working to make the world a better, fairer, saner, greener place. The blessed unrest that Paul Hawken describes in his book of that name. They are still there, and there are even more of them now, more energized than ever. 

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) bud. Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, El Dorado Springs, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) bud. Wah-Kon-Tah Prairie, El Dorado Springs, Missouri

As a Sierra Club newsletter so well put it: “When it comes to dealing with [the environment] there are few obstacles to progress as great as the hot mess of greed, denial, and incompetence that is the current U.S. federal government.” Yet that was in an article about reasons for hope. Partly because the Sierra Club, along with Earthjustice and the National Resources Defense Council, has spent the last three years taking the Trump administration to court on a continuous basis. And have won almost all of the challenges that have been decided so far. 

Small and nimble, the newer Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has expanded its work in helping communities resist corporate takeovers of land and resources. This year their lawyers helped Toledo residents get personhood rights for Lake Erie. It’s “the first rights-based law in the United States that specifically acknowledges the rights of a distinct ecosystem, securing the Lake’s rights to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” Of course, the Ohio legislature immediately voted to outlaw such laws. But, as the organizers said, they are not going anywhere.

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) Colorado Springs, Colorado

Post-industrial northern Ohio is also the home of the only Ph.D. program in biomimicry, design based on nature’s 3.5 billion years of research and development. People involved are hoping to turn their corner of the rust belt into the Silicon Valley of biomimicry. Cleveland, Ohio is pioneering a local and cooperative economy in a collaboration that is now called the Cleveland Model. The quote that leads this essay is from Ted Howard, the model’s founder/collaborator. He was asked why certain communities were leading the way in creating their own versions: vision, courage, commitment.

On one day in early October, California’s Governor Newsom signed six bills designed to move California beyond fossil fuels. Twenty-five states have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, formed to keep the United States moving toward the Paris Climate Agreement goals even though the Trump administration has abandoned them. Here is a list of recent actions by, among others, New York, Michigan, Virginia, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.   

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Pricky poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

In July, Ethiopians took off from work and school and planted 350 million seedlings in one day, part of Ethiopia’s plan to plant four billion tree seedlings this year. Recognizing that reforestation is crucial in climate mitigation, the U.N. launched The Trillion Tree campaign in 2006. Over 15 billion trees have been planted, with China, India, and Ethiopia leading the way. The U.S. is number ten. Want to plant trees simply by surfing the web? There’s an app for that: Ecosia devotes 80% of its profits to planting trees.

Greta Thunberg sat alone in front of the Swedish Parliament one year ago, inspiring a steadily growing movement. In September she marched along with 4 million people across the globe who took up her call to change how we operate in the world. She’s in the good company of a fast-growing number of young climate activists, many from indigenous nations. Like Greta, they are courageously persisting despite endless, cruel, and threatening online and public harassment.

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) Anza Borrego Desert, California

In Project Drawdown’s 100 solutions to reversing global warming, educating and empowering girls and women are numbers 6, 7, and 62. Women, who grow 80% of the food eaten in poorer parts of the world, are on the front lines of climate disruption. They suffer disproportionately from issues like loss of water and soil, gender violence, toxic environments, and land rights. In a field that too often gravitates to vaunted technical solutions, women bring practical, day-to-day needs, skills, and experience.

Collaborative efforts like the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network are mobilizing women and resources worldwide. WECAN’s riveting agenda is a perfect explication of how addressing climate change involves engaging the full array of challenges humanity faces. These include land use, distribution, and rights; corporate control of government; the need for sustainable, living economies; biodiversity loss; food security.

Hairy clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Hairy clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) Grand Mesa National Forest, Colorado

Older, more traditional groups are focusing their activism on empowering young women. The venerable aid organization CARE’s top priority is educating girls. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has put the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals at the center of its mission, along with fostering girls’ leadership abilities. They even have an app for finding events to join, including group actions and demonstrations.

I could go on and on. There are so many people doing good things, and every one of them is a reason to feel hope. Desmond Tutu famously said that he is “not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I am a prisoner of hope.” The Old Testament prophet Zecharia, whom he was quoting, promised double blessings to the prisoners of hope. 

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

As I write this the entire county of Marin has no power. The incredibly inept Pacific Gas and Electric Company has taken this precaution because they were paying their shareholders and their executives’ bonuses instead of investing in infrastructure. Wildfires are raging north, east, and south of me, a result of super dry, windy weather patterns caused by global warming. The news is a heartbreak a headline. And yet here I sit, a prisoner of hope. I don’t know if we will have the imagination and will to overcome the challenges we’ve created in my lifetime. But I know that whenever we do overcome them, it will be because we have expanded our vision of what the human presence on this planet means. And our vision of who the stakeholders really are. 

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Once women and people of color are at the table, they will not go back. Once indigenous nations are at the table, they will not go back. When farmers have rights to their land and their seeds, they will not lightly cede them to agribusiness. As soon as the first state, the first country leaves fossil fuels and all their damage behind, the dominoes will fall. One river with rights means there will be other rivers with rights, as indeed there are. Educated girls will become empowered women. If you listen carefully in California during this “public safety power shut off,” I bet you’ll hear the word microgrid everywhere you go. Smaller, local, renewable, sustainable energy production. The old paradigms can’t meet the moment their structures have created.

Will it happen in time? We don’t know. We don’t even know what time is. Our scale is so different, our story so small. The planet herself is taking over. Not to protect herself from us, but because she is us. This is where I draw both hope and optimism — in the millions of people who are hearing her call. Who are allowing her energy to become theirs. “Our origins,” Rachel Carson wrote, “are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” Deep down we know. We have been blind and we have been oh, so slow. But we can feel the earth that formed us now rising in us. 

So, I do wish you a happy Halloween, with love, hope, and spooky beauty.

I've been waiting for years to use this spooky Virginia creeper leaf emerging into the light. Photo by Betsey Crawford

I’ve been waiting for years to use this spooky Virginia creeper leaf reaching into the light!

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