Tag Archives: rights of nature

Becoming: the power of emergence

Mount Taranaki has been granted personhood rightsIn a world increasingly governed by western notions of progress, people can find rights of nature an alien concept. Since the founding of ancient Rome, we have safeguarded property rights — the ownership of land, people, capital, resources — even when such rights work against the common good. Or even, as in the case of slavery, against the most basic principles of morality. Property rights belonged to the people who had the money to buy them or the military power to claim them. Colonizers assumed the right to arrive anywhere and claim the land, uproot both people and nature, and take whatever they wanted. And as we celebrate them to this day, we are still agreeing with them.

A couple of years ago I waiting for an elevator with several men who were attending a conference on forest management. They didn’t look like park rangers, so I asked if they owned forests. “Yes,” one said. “Lots of forests.” They were private owners, not corporations. It’s likely the return on their investment came from logging. I have no doubt the health of their forests was extremely important to them. Yet I suspect that had I asked “How do you protect the rights of your forests to live out their ecological role?” they would have waited for the next elevator.

But I was surprised to discover recently that people in the environmental movement had no idea what rights of nature mean. There’s a lot to think about these days, and it’s a small, new movement in a field crowded with urgency. Many people credit Supreme Court William O. Douglas’ 1972 dissent in Sierra Club vs. Morton with inspiring the movement. But there were people ready to run with his idea that “The critical question of ‘standing’ would be simplified…if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers.” He pointed out that other non-human entities — corporations, trusts, ships, for example — have standing in court through guardians.

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia has been granted rights.

The Paramo ecosystem in Columbia. Photo by Yuri Romero Picon. Public domain.

Citing Douglas, law professor Christopher Stone, in his 1972 Should Trees Have Standing, was the first to explore the ramifications of these ideas. Thomas Berry introduced the phrase ‘earth jurisprudence’ and it was of paramount importance in his work. Starting in 1972, the UN issued a series of charters related to the human/earth relationship. Among them were the World Charter for Nature in 1982, the 2000 Earth Charter, and the 2010 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. In 2008 Ecuadorans included rights of nature in their new constitution. Thirty thousand people from all over the world were in attendance in Bolivia when the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth was passed.

More books and many papers have been written, very active advocacy groups have formed. In the last few years, governments have begun to grant such rights all over the world. The earth-centered beliefs and historically sustainable practices of indigenous peoples are finally returning to the fore as more and more people realize how badly the ravening dream of the west has damaged the world we depend on. The photos accompanying this essay are places that now hold rights.

So what happened to make rights of nature move from a single dissent in a Supreme Court case to a worldwide phenomenon, even if still a relatively quiet one? This is the force of emergence, one of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I’ve been exploring. These are the energies working in and through us that can teach us how to move forward. They are the births in the history of the cosmos, starting with its own. Each one is both active and generative. The universe bursts into being and then creates the conditions for atoms to emerge. Atoms create the building blocks for eventual stars. The stars create the elements and gather into galaxies. It’s radical,” Brian says. “There’s no galaxy, and then there’s a galaxy, and within the galaxies themselves you have the birth of planets, at least one of which becomes alive.” 

Bangladesh has granted all of it rivers standing in court

Bangladesh has granted all of its rivers standing in court. Map via Wikimedia Commons

Carbon is an excellent example, since — especially to us carbon-based life forms —there is no more important molecule. In the beginning there was no carbon, so no chance of life as we know it. The emergence of the universe itself gave us hydrogen and helium, which gave us stars. Then, in the 100 million degrees of the early imploding stars, there was enough heat to fuse helium nuclei into carbon. As the stars collapsed, “suddenly carbon is flooding into the universe by the trillions a second.” For billions of years, carbon powered emergence after emergence, finally allowing us and all the species we share the earth with to come to life. “The universe is always seeking a new domain of emergence.”

Processes as well as forms emerge. The earliest, single-cell life forms became multi-cell eukaryotes. They needed hydrogen. As they took it from water, oxygen was increasingly released into the atmosphere until it became too toxic for life. The process of photosynthesis emerged, allowing cells to use oxygen for fuel. From that emerged the great flowering of life on earth. It’s a long, slow, deeply generative process. “The power of creative emergence involves groping, profound confusion. Millions of years of living with ambiguity. One idea isn’t good enough. You need millions of ideas. See which one finally takes off. That’s the nature of creative emergence.”

As my title suggests, emergence is the process of becoming and we are becoming the power of emergence. Because we have turned into the equivalent of a geological force — capable of altering the atmosphere, changing the chemistry of the oceans, forcing extinctions — we need to think about our role in and as this great power. If we create planetary conditions we can’t survive, we will turn out to be one of the universe’s unworkable ideas. In which case, the creative and generative powers of emergence will eventually sweep past us as the earth proceeds to rescue herself. If she survived 100 million years of meteor bombardment as a young planet, she will survive us.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand has been granted personhood rights

The Whanganui River in New Zealand. Photo by Joerg Mueller via Wikimedia Commons.

But that can’t be what the cosmos is seeking. If the wild abundance of life on earth tells us anything, it’s that we live on a planet dedicated to bringing forth life. Ideas can seem unworkable and yet lead to new and flourishing forms. Eukaryotes and photosynthesis didn’t just show up one day. They were the end product of eons of experiments. The same happened with Homo sapiens. We are the survivors of many hominid experiments that didn’t last into our era. Let’s begin, Brian suggests, with the assumption that creativity engulfs the whole universe and each of us. It’s not a question of becoming creative, it’s a question of enabling the creativity that’s already suffusing us to proceed more effectively.”

“And here is the amazing thing. The creativity actually knows what it’s about.” The experiments may be many, but they are not random. Going from the initial expansion of atoms to their coalescence into stars, to the gathering of galaxies and the birth of planets shows an emergent force with a drive toward creative order. That’s not to say the process is orderly. Far from it. “Emergence requires the softening or destruction of the order of the previous era.” Part of our distress in the present moment is the difficulty of living with the chaos that we have precipitated. Now, “our task as a planet and species is to reinvent the major forms of the human presence. It’s an activity that’s involving the entire earth, not something humans are in charge of. We are part of a process that goes back to the beginning of time.” 

This is one of my favorite ideas: that we are energy from the beginning of time. We’re not only a result of these deep creative processes, we embody them and bring them forward. “It’s a single energy that begins 13.7 billion years ago and sweeps through to our moment. It’s complex, but it’s one process. So when we talk about moments of creative emergence in the past, we’re talking about the energy that we are in the present.” Far from feeling adrift on a lonely planet, this makes me feel “rooted in the very fireball, grounded in the ancient yet present energy that brought me into being.

Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewara, New Zealand has been granted rights of personhood.

Lake Waikaremoana in Te Urewara, New Zealand. Photo by Kyzrsztof Golik via Wikimedia Commons.

This doesn’t save me from the tension and grief our current state inspires, but it gives me an underlying faith in our own creative process. We are part of the cosmic forces calling for ever more life. As we explore our way out of the quagmire, we find new roles and tasks in the emergence of a healthy human/earth relationship.The great discovery of the 20th century is that the universe assembles itself.” Atom by atom, element by element, cell by cell: the cosmos has been a flow of ceaseless creation. There’s been plenty of havoc. Cataclysm is also one of the great powers. But from the destruction of one form emerges the creation of another. 

In moving from the mayhem we have caused to a new presence on earth, we enter into this ingenious and prolific force. A sustainable economy, different forms of education, more just and equal governance — all of these tasks cry out for our energy, faith, and creativity. From the beginning, the cosmos has continually transcended itself. Our very yearning for and dedication to a better world is part of that push. Learn to cherish this yearning, Brian suggests. Think of it as your personal invitation from the universe to be involved with creative emergence.”

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia has been assigned rights

Cauca River Canyon in Colombia. Photo by Andres Cuervo via Wikimedia Commons.

Top photo is Mount Taranaki in New Zealand. Photo by Yoann Laheurte via Unsplash.

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Songlines 2019: a year of change and commitment

Giant red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

I’ve never thought of rain as life-changing, but this year it was. 2019 started with the wettest winter the San Francisco Bay area has known since recording began.  First, that meant I had plenty of indoor time to explore projects that excite me. I fell under the wonderfully radical and optimistic spell of E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth project in The geography of hope: saving half the earth. This year included news of the loss of three billion songbirds in North America alone. The idea of preserving half the earth to ensure biodiversity couldn’t be more compelling. There are still vast tracts of wilderness worldwide, so it’s doable, given the will. 

Few of us will be part of negotiating with eight sovereign states for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest or the Congo Basin. For the rest of us, I wrote What we can do: gardening to save half the earth. In the way we design our communities and in every plant we put in the ground, we have the chance to knit together ecosystems that have been displaced.

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mariposa lily (Calochortus leichtlinii) Sierra Nevada

Saving half the earth depends on what we do with the other half. Which brought me to Biomimicry: designing with nature’s 3.8 billion years of research. My interest was sparked a few years ago when a kingfisher’s eyelid inspired a design to control erosion. There are as many as 100 million species on our planet. They are geniuses at creating what they need out of materials at hand, at ambient temperature, without permanent waste. What if we modeled our cities on the regenerative wisdom of forests? Or powered our lives with the chemical genius of chloroplasts? Biomimicry opens up endless possibilities.

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pride of the mountain (Penstemon newberryi) Sierra Nevada

Early in the year, I pondered another of Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe, and what it can teach us about living into the world we yearn for. Little did I know when I was celebrating The patient genius of transmutation, the universe’s power of flux and evolution, that I was right on target. While transmutation’s ever-adapting diversity was assuring me that we live on a planet dedicated to life’s success, the rain was making her life-altering moves.

Her methods were simple. She caused leaks in the ten-year-old trailer I’d lived in for so many great adventures. I had one fixed, then another. Redid the roof caulking. Then, in early March, I was sitting on the floor, trying to find the origins of a small damp patch on the rug. I suddenly realized I’d come to the end. I loved my compact little space, treasured beyond measure all the wonderful places I’d lived, however temporarily. But it was time.

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward by Betsey Crawford

A leopard lily (Lilium pardalinum) captures a monkshood (Aconitum columbium) on their way upward

I thought it would take months to find the right apartment. It took three weeks. Then the tornado began. In the midst of it, I wrote An Easter of memory and anticipation. I was glad to be moving and sad to be at an end. I so loved going anywhere I chose to explore the planet I love. Carrying my home with me meant moving to each place and inhabiting it, something I cherished. 

I could tell from the responses I got after that post that the poignancy of ending that adventure-filled chapter was very vivid. So I’m delighted to be able to say that I love my new apartment, nestled into a mountain, with trees everywhere I look. In the summer I sat on my flower-filled balcony with my resident hummingbird and wrote The power of allurement, the mystery of beauty. Allurement is another of Brian’s powers of the universe. Beauty is one of its most mysterious and gorgeous aspects. 

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Mountain spirea (Spirea densiflora) in the Sierra Nevada

July took me on the only trip of the year — to the Sierra Nevada, mountains forming the eastern boundary of California — to see wildflowers. Since it was my first time there, I thought John Muir wouldn’t mind my poaching the title of his wonderful book. So I put together My first summer in the Sierra, pairing my photos with quotes from his book, as well as creating a gallery. All the photos accompanying this are, to quote Muir, from those “vast, calm, measureless mountain days…days in whose light everything seems equally divine.” 

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Productive clover (Trifolium productum) Sierra Nevada

In September I began a program with the Environmental Forum of Marin. It’s their master class, and our group is number 46. The Forum and class were started all those years ago by people who were instrumental in saving Marin County from overdevelopment. Eighty percent of the county is preserved land of one kind or another, much of it active agricultural land. The entire county coastline was saved. So, the EFM was born of powerhouses. Their goal is to create more powerhouse advocates. 

On ten days spread out over four months, we learned about the geography, ecology, and history of the county. We spent a day hearing from local government officials, and a day on other organizations in the county. Two full days were devoted to the craft of creating advocacy speeches, followed by presenting our two-minute versions. It was great: full of fascinating information and people. As always, it’s inspiring to see how much people are doing, what draws them, how much we all have in common.

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Scarlet gilia (Ipomposis aggregata) Sierra Nevada

What’s drawing me more and more these days is advocacy for rights of nature. I first wrote about such rights in 2018. I returned to them earlier this month in When Rivers go to court, where I had the glorious fun of imagining a river actually showing up before a judge. For my final project for the master class, I’m going to design a session to teach the issues around the rights of nature to future classes. For my advocacy speech, I decided my fellow classmates were the Board of Supervisors of Marin County. Here are my two minutes:

The Environmental Forum and all of my classmates are perfect examples of the forces I wrote about in my Halloween post, Wild times, spooky beauty. In a time when the news is a heartbreak a headline, people all over the world are rising to meet the moment. They are choosing to love, to create, to change, to commit. We are allowing the earth that formed us to rise in us, to heal our planet and the interconnected web that she supports. In the face of the daily onslaught of challenges, I often repeat Joanna Macy’s wonderful words: I’m so grateful to be alive when the earth needs me.

I wish you all a joyful, blessed, committed new year.

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada Mountains by Betsey Crawford

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttalianum) Sierra Nevada

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When rivers go to court

The Thompson River in Kamloops, British Columbia. Photo by Betsey Crawford Imagine a river taking her case to court. Arriving in her smooth, flowing robes, reflecting the blue of the sky, a shimmering train brushing the floor as she walks. Everywhere light is glinting, from her silver hair to her silver shoes. Her skin is sometimes the color of the mirrored moon, sometimes the color of the mahogany tannins she carries from the forests she flows through. She speaks in a deep, contralto voice. Her tone holds great authority. She knows her depths, knows the source of her power and energy, knows she is fed from innumerable streams, from the sky itself. No one, listening to her, would doubt her word for an instant. It would be impossible to ignore what she says. And we all know exactly what she would say. 

Stop! she would call out, her voice shaking the room. Stop the poisons. Undo the dams. Protect the lands that feed me. Don’t use me for greed. I am not here to absorb your waste or your delusions. I am not here for you. I have been here for billions of years. I have cut deep canyons through sheer rock. I have carried rain from one end of the world to another. In me flow innumerable sacred fish. Birds nest on my banks. Plants grow in my shallows. None of this was put here for you. I am here because I am here, part of the living, breathing earth that formed me. I exist because the universe called me into being.

Behind her are the deep voices of her brothers, the mountains, testifying that they are not here to be blown up for profit. Then come the trees, aghast at our wholesale disposal of their forests and savannahs. Flowers come from meadows all over the world, declaring, in their silken tones, that they cannot grow through asphalt. The piping voices of birds tell the judge what it’s like to see three billion of their relatives die in the last fifty years. The deep, mournful voices of whales and elephants, the soft buzz of bees, the whisper of butterflies wholeheartedly agree. The snarling, angry roars of the great cats describe losing their homes as the wild, ancient forests are felled.

If only! We would never be the same again. If even just once the rivers and trees and jaguars could talk to us in a language we all understood, we would be unable to go forward one more day as we have been. But it’s not to be, at least at this stage of evolution. However, there are people who do understand their languages, and they can show up in court on nature’s behalf. The difficulty, in our current legal system, is that these guardians can only sue after demonstrable, often extensive damage has been done to a person or people. 

The Hudson River in New York, US. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The Hudson River

At that point the ongoing destruction may stop, but the existing harm is not necessarily mitigated. If fracking destroys a town’s water supply, stopping the fracking will not restore the water. If an oil pipeline leaks 400,000 gallons of oil, plugging the leak doesn’t pull the spilled oil out of the ground. I grew up on the Hudson River. In 1977, General Electric, after decades of dumping 1.3 million pounds of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls into the water, was forced to stop the discharge. It took another 30 years for a clean up to even begin. Now, 40 years later, it still goes on. Every person, animal, and plant, from north of Albany to New York Harbor, has PCBs in them.

What if the Hudson River had had rights on its own to go to court? To speak through a guardian, to refuse to have poisons dumped in its waters, refuse to have its ecosystem polluted? Those rights have been granted to the Ganges River and its main tributary, the Yamuna River. In March 2017, the high court in the Indian state of Uttarakhand ruled that from that day forward both rivers would be “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” In other words, they will be treated as persons in the eyes of the law. Harm to the rivers would be the same as harm to a human being. 

Rights of nature: The Ganges River delta. Photo from NASA's Earth Observatory

The Ganges River delta. Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory

The judges in that case cited the Whanganui River in New Zealand. It had just been declared not only a living entity but kin to the Whanganui iwi, the indigenous Maori people of the area. They had fought for 140 years to gain this status for a river they consider to be their ancestor. Legally, harm to the river is now the same as harm to the Maori themselves. This was the first river in the world to gain personhood in the eyes of the law. But New Zealand had already granted such rights to the Te Urewera forest in 2014. In 2017, along with the Whanganui River, the same rights were established for Mount Taranaki. 

2017 was a banner year for rights of nature. In addition to the Ganges and the Whanganui, Columbia announced biocultural rights for the Atrato River. The Constitutional Court agreed that the best way to protect the rights of indigenous communities is to preserve biodiversity and restore ecosystems. Australia passed the Yarra River Protection Act. Like similar legislation, protecting the Yarra River meant acknowledging indigenous rights and relationships to land that has always been part of their lives and history. Speaking to the parliament, Wurundjeri elder Alice Kolasa said: “The state now recognises something that we, as the First People have always known, that the Birrarung is one integrated living entity.” The act was written in both the English and Woi-wurrun languages. In August 2017, Australian experts on environmental law recommended shifting the focus of law to a rights of nature approach.

Rights of nature: The Yarra River. Photo by Melburnian via Creative Commons

The Yarra River. Photo by Melburnian via Creative Commons

In the US, rights of personhood were established for the Klamath River in Northern California and southern Oregon. The law was created by an indigenous nation, the Yurok, and reflects their view of the river as not a resource, but a living entity holding rights. This may be easier to do in tribal governing bodies and courts. Rights of nature easily fit, and indeed arise from, the indigenous view of nature as a web of intimate relationships into which we are all embedded. “We can trace our genealogy to the origins of the universe,” said Gerrard Albert, who was the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi.

Significantly, many of these early rights of nature pioneers are considered sacred by the communities that have lived in and alongside them for millennia. Though I can find no mention of it, Lake Erie, vast and teeming with fish, was undoubtedly considered sacred by the various indigenous nations that lived on it shores and saw its existence as sustenance for body and spirit. The arrival of Europeans began centuries of industry and farming, the filling in of wetlands, the building of ports and docks. Now pollution, agricultural runoff, and a warming atmosphere have combined to produce algae blooms so vast they can be seen from space. And so toxic that the water becomes undrinkable, the fish no longer safe to eat. 

Rights of nature: Lake Erie's algae bloom. Photo from NASA's Earth Observatory

Lake Erie’s algae bloom. Photo from NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Citizens of Toledo put a Lake Erie rights of personhood on the ballot. It declared that it  “has become necessary that [we] reclaim, reaffirm, and assert our inherent and inalienable rights, and to extend legal rights to our natural environment in order to ensure that the natural world, along with our values, our interests, and our rights, are no longer subordinated to the accumulation of surplus wealth and unaccountable political power.” It passed by 61%. The Ohio state legislature, in a move reminiscent of the bans on boycotts during the Civil Rights movement, then voted to ban all such laws. Their law was written by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. 

Following the ban, another community promptly began to gather signatures to put protection of their aquifer on the ballot. That’s the spirit that needs to greet all setbacks. There have been a few of those, but the very first community-passed rights of nature ordinance in the world is still going. In the early 2000s, a small borough in Pennsylvania wanted to prevent the state from giving permits to dump toxic sludge in their town. They reached out to a relatively new organization for help: the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. I’m planning to devote a future post to CELDF and I would not be writing this essay if it weren’t for their work. They have been involved in most of the rights of nature movements around the world, including the Ganges and Lake Erie.

Rights of nature: Atrato River, Columbia. Photo by Ambarpatt

The Atrato River, Columbia. Photo by Ambarpatt

Giving these waters standing in court is only the beginning of solving their problems. Every day, 400 million gallons of raw sewage and 132 million gallons of industrial toxins are discharged into the Ganges. The ruling that gives the Ganges and Yamuna rights came from a state, not the national government. Between poverty and civil war, the illegal mining devastating Columbia’s Atrato River is difficult to stop. There is a plank guaranteeing a clean environment in the Pennsylvania constitution. But the state’s Department of Environmental Protection sues local communities to force them to allow fracking. In 2008, Ecuador included rights of nature in its new constitution. The government still parcels out the rainforest to oil and mining companies. Many of the advances in rights have not yet been tested in court. Even when they are, enforcement can fall on ill-equipped local communities. Complexities are everywhere. 

Nevertheless, it’s an amazing start. The Ganges itself can now sue to stop pollution. It’s happening all over the world: Bolivia, Ecuador, India, Nepal, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Uganda, Sweden, Cameroon, Mexico, the United States. The Florida Democratic Party has included rights of nature in its platform. Pope Francis preaches environmental rights.  This year the National Lawyers Guild in the US amended its constitution. They included the revolutionary statement: “Human rights and the rights of ecosystems shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests.” Despite setbacks, there have been wins in court. Every step is worth celebrating. All different ways of thinking are resisted until they’re not. This year, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to grant all their rivers personhood rights.

Rights of nature: An island in the Whanganui River. Photo by Duane Wilkins via Creative Commons

An island in the Whanganui River. Photo by Duane Wilkins via Creative Commons

Gerrard Albert, the Maori leader quoted above, went on to say “rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.” That idea changes everything. Would we dump raw sewage or toxic chemicals into a human being? Would we harvest all the valuable organs from a living being? Would we bury it alive? Would we injure a living being and walk away from their gaping wounds?

These are things we do. Blast mountains. Bury wetlands. Throw all manner of toxins into waterways. Clearcut forests. We do them in the name of efficiency and profit. Because we believe these entities are inert, unimportant except as they provide resources for us. Now, slowly but increasingly, they can go to court on their own behalf. As one of the Australian legislators said of the Whanganui, “The river itself has the right not to be polluted, it has the right not to be degraded. It has the right not to be overdrawn before it can replenish itself.” These are such simple, basic ideas. But they hold the power to change how we look at and operate in the world. And, once we see ourselves as guardians instead of users, how we look at ourselves.

Rights of nature: Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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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!

I’d love to have you join me! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new monthly posts.

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The patient genius of transmutation

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is an emission nebula located 8 000 light-years away. This stunning new image was observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate its 26th year in space.

“All is flux,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said 2500 years ago. “Nothing stays still.” He offered us a perfect description of transmutation, one of the great powers that cosmologist Brian Swimme ascribes to the universe. This is the third of those powers that I have explored, and one of the most intriguing. Since the first flaring forth 13.7 billion years ago, not one iota of the universe has ever been still or remained the same. The first particles became atoms, the atoms coalesced into galaxies of stars. The stars burned elements into existence. When those early stars exploded the elements flew out and gathered into masses that became more stars, planets, mountains, rivers, trees, animals, birds, us.

On our own planet, great plates move, meet, push up mountains, pleat valleys into existence. Ever-moving rivers wear canyons into stone. Winds blow, clouds form and dissipate, rain falls. Plants grow. Animals roam and help create the changing landscapes. Stillness is always an illusion since even the longest lasting phenomenon is on a planet whirling around its axis, racing along an orbit around the sun at 68,000 miles per hour. The solar system is flinging itself toward the Hercules constellation at 720 miles a minute. Our whole galaxy is swirling toward Andromeda at two million miles a day. The universe is still expanding from the force of its birth. 

A tall purple fleabane (Ergieron peregrinus) with two butteries in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

All of the visible details on this purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrines) are flowers. The center disk flowers are yellow, the ray flowers are lavender. The vast Asteraceae family has been able to dominate the planet by evolving an abundance of readily available nectar and pollen, enough to feed two butterflies at once. These beauties will fly off and pollinate other fleabanes.

Despite all this drama, transmutation takes its time. From the first unicellular life on our planet to a being with a brain to contemplate it all took 3.5 billion years. There’s perhaps no better example of the power of transmutation than the slow, steady evolution of the many life forms on earth. Darwin called his first draft “The Transmutation of Species.” Going from simple to nucleated cells took the first two billion of those years. Cells joined together to create increasingly complex and diverging forms, constantly adapting to changing circumstances. Beaks adjusting to crack newly evolved seeds. Spines adapting to walking through grasslands after eons in trees. Flowers and pollinators working out their cooperative ventures.

Because of other powers, like cataclysm and transformation, the ride has not been smooth. There have been five major extinctions. But despite those, transmutation has kept steadily on, endlessly and artfully adapting each new and surviving species to the evolving world around them. Some adaptations take 100 generations, others happen swiftly. Most important, they are happening all the time. The Finch Unit on the Galapagos Islands, under the aegis of Rosemary and Peter Grant, discovered in the 1980s that after just a few years of intense drought followed by flooding, certain of the surviving finches began to exhibit adaptive changes. Plants can develop resistance to biocides within a couple of growing seasons. Some bacteria evolve to survive antibiotics almost immediately.

This brings us to Brian’s take on transmutation: that it is a process not only of change but also of responding to constraints. ‘When we look at the way in which life moves from one form to another,’ he says, ‘one of the things we notice is that it uses a form of judgment, of constraint, even rejection. These are powerful processes that enable transmutation to take place.’ He uses the continental plates as an example. When they meet one another their engagement constrains each of them. ‘The resistance, the opposition, is what brings forth the mountain ranges.’

Ocotillo (Fouquieria spendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and hummingbird in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

Flowers are constrained by the imprudence of pollinating themselves, which weakens their offspring. So they have, like the ocotillo above, developed characteristics —  red, tubular flowers — to work with specific pollinators. Hummingbirds, whose long beaks are perfect for reaching deep into such petals, have also evolved to see red preferentially. Desert plants have been constrained by dryness to evolve leaves into thorns, which hold a layer of protective air against the skin of the stem. Constraint, then, becomes a launching platform for creative, evolutionary solutions. A way that Nature exercises judgment, ‘that leads to excellence of form, or we might say beauty.’

It also leads to intimacy: the hummingbird and the ocotillo are intimates. The Galapagos finches with beaks to match their preferred seeds have an intimate relationship with the plants that produce those seeds. The cactus finches eat cactus flowers, pollen, and seeds. They drink cactus nectar. They mate, nest and sleep in cactus. In return, they pollinate it. They are deeply and inextricably linked. One day changes may create constraints that break those bonds, and further evolution will happen.

Adaptation: whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station by Betsey Crawford

Intimately related: whole-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and one of the hundred species of grasshoppers at the Konza Prairie Biological Station

This is the profoundly creative process that forms ecosystems, entire biomes with endless interdependent living threads. We emerged from this process, we live in it, and we are threatening it. We have set up many constraints: laws, customs, traditions, religions. But these all address human interpersonal behavior, taking ‘for granted that the fundamental focus is the human.’ We have acknowledged few constraints on our relationship to the planet we depend on, and all of nature is suffering from our lack of judgment about and intimacy with our home. 

Only in the last fifty years have we begun to protect air, water, animals. Even so, these laws are under constant attack. This in itself is transmutation. Changes start and stop. Nature experiments, changes her mind, starts again. Constraints arise and must be worked with. Resistance is part of our process of cultural evolution. For all the incessant flux we live among, we are reluctant to change. The great stress of this moment in our history is that we feel we have too little time to make major changes in the way we think and act before irreparable damage is done.

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, a painted schinia (Schinia volupia). Blanket flowers host the larvae of the schinia, and they hang out on the flowers once they emerge. Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

But that stress itself will spur the change in consciousness that we need, just as the urgency of an oxygen-toxic atmosphere spurred the evolution of mitochondria that could use the oxygen to fuel life. That burst of available energy led to the great Cambrian explosion of living forms 541 million years ago. This vast, ever-adapting diversity assures us that we live on a planet dedicated to life. Transmutation aims for success, for better adaptations, for prospering ecosystems. That’s its whole point. This doesn’t mean it’s an orderly process, or that all life survives. Far from it. The ones that can’t adapt to new conditions don’t make it. That’s our fear. 

As a culture, we are facing constraints we haven’t faced before. They’ve always been there. But for the last 10,000 years we’ve had an accelerating, expansionist vision of human society: more land, more power, more things. Consumerism is the present toxic crisis. We’re operating out of a tragically limited view of ourselves as human beings. ’Why is the planet withering?’ Brian asks. ‘Primarily because humans have accepted a context that is much too small.’

My all-time favorite adaptation: matching your moth to your outfit. Blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) and friend, Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

The transmutation of color to match the environment is the difference between life and death for many tasty creatures. A Great Plains toad (Anaxyrus cognates) hides in plain sight in the Konza Prairie Preserve in Manhattan, Kansas

All of these powers work through us. We are saturated with them. Every molecule, every cell, every organ of our body has come to this point through the patient genius of transmutation. We are our present as well as our lineage, every change that has taken place to allow us to arrive at this moment. And we face further changes, as well as the need to make them swiftly. ‘We’re asked to move to a larger context, a planetary level.’ No one on earth wants a withering planet, but such a shift will require what look like sacrifices in our limited context. ‘What aspects of ourselves are we asked to relinquish’ to reach this more expansive vision? One that sees our legacy flowing into all generations to come. 

From here we enter into the heart of the power of transmutation itself. We become this force, as we choose how to change what we value, how we act on our values, how we bring these great powers to bear on our moment. When we step into the larger consciousness of the universe, we are co-creating the evolution of those who will come long after us. ‘We are attempting to become beings that enable the whole to flourish, guided by the moments of beauty in the past, and the visions of beauty in the future.’ This is the Great Work, in Thomas Berry’s words, as we become not only forces for the universe, but enter into our reality as the universe itself.

A flower made for a bee, who enters the beautifully designed portal, where the filaments of the beard rub pollen off the underside of the bee, which the pale blue 'shelf' scrapes it off the back. The bee drinks nectar, and as it backs out the white pollen on the stamen drops onto its back, but the scraper doesn't work in that direction. A bearded iris in Manito Gardens, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

A flower made for a bee, who enters the beautifully designed portal. The filaments of the beard rub pollen off her underside, while the pale blue ‘shelf’ scrapes it off her back. The bee drinks nectar, and as she backs out the white pollen on the stamen drops onto her. Handily, the scraper doesn’t work in that direction, so off she flies, loaded with pollen. A bearded iris in Manito Gardens, Spokane, Washington

[I love the top image because it looks like earth coalescing. It’s the Bubble Nebula, an emission nebula located 8,000 light-years away, captured by the Hubble telescope. Thanks to ESA/Hubble, via Creative Commons.]

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Rights of nature

Mountain top in the clouds in Golden, British Columbia by Betsey CrawfordWhen you look at the mountain above, your reaction is likely to be colored by what is most important to you. Skiers may think of the thrill of the trip down, climbers of the trek up. A mining executive of the coal or metals to be found there. A road engineer of the challenge of finding a way through. A photographer of the play of light and dark, soft and hard, mist and mystery. A conservationist or ecologist ponders the preservation of majesty, ecosystems, and access for everyone. Someone steeped in indigenous thinking sees brothers, grandmothers, cousins in the interplay of beings.

The last two ways of seeing are coalescing into a relatively new movement called the Rights of Nature. In 2008, as a result of dedicated activism, Ecuador became the first country in the world to enshrine such rights into its constitution, stating that “Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.” Well-being, defined with both the Spanish buen vivir and the Quechua sumak kawsay, calls for the human community to “enjoy their rights, and exercise responsibilities within the framework of interculturality, respect for their diversity and harmonious cohabitation with nature.”

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

In our corporation-dominant, consumption-obsessed economy, this is virtually a laughable concept, even for some who care deeply about the earth. The idea that the mountain is a being, that the rocks that form it, the plants that flank it, the rivers that fall in cascades off its edges are entities who deserve the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we wish for ourselves is inconceivable for many and a steep climb for most. Even with those provisions in their constitution, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador are still fighting an uphill battle against the mining industries, supported by the government, that want to move into their territories.

We have largely thought of rights as belonging to humans, either as individuals or groups, like states and corporations. The earth is seen not as something we are part of, but something we own, a vessel for human activities, a source of products and income. If the mountain is destroyed by, say, blowing its top off to get at its coal, that has so far been regarded as the cost of doing business, not just for the coal company, but for all the people relying on coal to fuel their own industries and salaries. In its present form, most of the world economy depends on the exploitation of a planet that only produces so much clean water, fresh air, rich soil, and biological gain in any given cycle. In our persistent overconsumption of these blessings and the destruction of the ecological systems that produce them, we are robbing the rest of the beings we share the planet with, as well as our own future as a species. 

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

A wetland in the Tongass National Forest near Hyder, Alaska

Our current economic model prompts us to think of the earth in terms of its perceived value. A field growing ‘nothing’ but grasses and flowers is a ‘wasteland.’ Restrictions a town places on what can be done with certain parcels of land ‘reduce the value of the property.’ Wetlands, one of the most important of our ecological biomes, are pointless from a development point of view, ripe for filling in for buildable land. Wetlands provide, among many other things, the first line of defense against flooding. But though the line from a filled-in wetland to the costs of rebuilding after a flood is a straight one, it is obscured by other perceptions. Few people trying to rebuild their lives after a devastating flood have the energy to spare for the wetlands that should have been preserved to prevent the loss in the first place. The original developers would likely have been incensed had they been expected to respect the rights of the wetland to “live out its vital cycles” free of landfill.

There are enormous questions and hurdles to contemplate. Does the mountain have the right to exist without being blasted with dynamite for coal or roads? Does the air have the right to be free of the mercury and sulfur in coal smoke, or the carbon dioxide-laden exhaust from burning oil, or the threat of radioactive leaks from nuclear power plants? Do the red rocks of Utah have the right to exist without being mined for uranium? Does the ground under our feet have the right to a life without unnamed chemicals forced into it to frack gas? Does a forest have a right to existence without the threat of being cut to the last tree for lumber? Do rivers have the right to be free-flowing, free of toxic chemicals, a home to fish and plants that in themselves carry the right to exist in peace and plenty? Do animals, including humans, have an inherent right to clean water and air?

Red rock formation in the Valley of the Gods in southern Utah by Betsey Crawford

Valley of the Gods, Utah

In a world where we struggle to grant people who don’t look or think like us the same rights that we want, what hope is there that we will grant a field of wildflowers a right to live its vital cycles without becoming a parking lot? Yet the rights of nature are intimately tied to the rights of human beings. A series of dams in Brazil is displacing tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon basin. The climate changes from our carbon dioxide-saturated atmosphere are forcing Pacific island communities to leave their flooding homelands while a worldwide backlash against refugees rages. Forced development of lands sacred to indigenous peoples rob those communities not just of their place, but their history and culture, the way they define themselves. Dumping of toxic waste in poor communities because richer ones refuse it causes sickness to skyrocket in those areas. The list is endless.

There are environmental laws worldwide, and in some cases and places they are very strict in protecting endangered ecosystems, plants and animals, and in preventing further damage. But, as we are seeing every day, these laws can be dismissed by the next administration, something that happens from the local to federal levels. It’s not just now, either. Cycles of strengthening and weakening the Environmental Protection Agency — along with other protective authorities and laws — have been a feature of political life since it was created in 1972. 

A borrego in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California by Betsey Crawford

A borrego in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California

If instead, we recognize that nature has rights on her own, their defense changes dramatically. A river, a forest, a panther, an owl, the atmosphere would then have ‘standing’ in court, the ability for a guardian or group to sue on behalf of the entity itself. Without inherent rights, the only people who have standing to sue on behalf of nature are those who are potentially or actively damaged by a policy or an infraction of a law. In practice, this often means that the case is stronger the more damage that has already been done.

Needless to say, this is an enormous challenge, one that I’m looking forward to exploring. It’s a different way of thinking for the many of us caught up in our current economic and human-centric mode of being. Changing perceptions about life on our planet, and our place in it may well be the most formidable of the obstacles we face. If we can move toward seeing ourselves as an intimate part of the web of life, one member among millions of beings and entities, forming a whole that we are completely dependent on, our relationship to the earth and everything that forms it changes. We can then focus our extraordinary ingenuity on what Thomas Berry called The Great Work: creating a world where the human presence fosters and enhances the earth that forms and sustains us.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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Celebrating Laudato si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

Laudato si, repictured