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Global Warming And Visions Of A Sustainable Planet - Page 2

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I invited a group of people to my house to discuss what we could do to stop TransCanada from shipping tar-sand sludge through our state via the Keystone XL pipeline. We called ourselves The Coalition. For more than a year now, we've met for potluck dinners and planning sessions. We've made sure the meetings have been parties. We've had wine, good food, and lots of laughter and hugs. We've tried to end our meetings on a positive note, so everyone would want to return. None of us has time for extra tedium or suffering, but we like working together for a common cause.

If you want to discover how the world works, try to change it--especially if the changes involve confronting the fossil-fuel industry. Our campaign has been a complicated story about money, power, international corporations, and politics. But it's also a simple story, about my friends and me, working to save our state from what we nicknamed the Xtra Leaky Pipeline.

Through the year, we held rallies, educational forums, and music benefits, and set up booths at farmers' markets and county fairs. In other words, we "massified"--a term we used to signify momentum and getting increasing numbers of people on board.

By the summer of 2011, our entire state had united around the idea of stopping the XL Pipeline's route through our Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer. Our campaign was the best thing to happen to our state since Big Red football. Progressives and Western ranchers worked together, and Sierra Club attorneys were given standing ovations in VFW halls in little towns with no registered Democrats. We staged tractor brigades and poetry readings against the pipeline. What all of us had in common was a desire to protect the place we loved.

As Randy Thompson, a conservative farmer who fought the pipeline, said, "This isn't a political issue. There's no red water or blue water; there's clean water or dirty water."

I wanted to keep Nebraska healthy for my grandchildren. When my grandson Aidan was 6, he had a growth spurt in his point of view. Our family had gone to a lake to watch the Perseid meteor showers. Afterward, driving back home, we crested a hill and Aidan saw the lights of his small town on the horizon. He said, "Look at my beautiful city." I responded, "It's a pretty town at night with all the twinkling lights." Aidan was quiet for a moment and then said, "Nonna, my town is big to me, but small to the rest of the world." I sighed. That's a lesson we all have to learn sooner or later.

In a speech at a rally, I recalled that night. I told the crowd, "Aidan may be small to TransCanada. He may be small to our governor and legislators, but he's big to me, and I'm going to take care of him."

In January 2012, President Obama denied a permit to TransCanada because of concerns about Nebraska. But the outcome is uncertain, and we may yet lose our fight. We're still working. John Hansen, head of the Nebraska Farmer's Union, said, "Working for a cause isn't like planting corn. You don't throw in some seeds and walk away. It's like milking cows, something you do over and over, and can never ignore."

Our coalition isn't about odds. When we started, we didn't think we had a chance. We did it because it was the right thing to do, and we couldn't let our state be destroyed without a protest. Our reward for this work has been a sense of empowerment and membership in what Martin Luther King, Jr., called a beloved community.

From this work, I've learned that saving the world and savoring it aren't polarities, but turn out to be deeply related. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, "The best way to save the environment is to save the environmentalist."

George Orwell argued that pessimism is reactionary because it makes the very idea of improving the world impossible. I found that whether or not we believe we can change the world, even in a small way, acting as if we can is the healthiest emotional stance to take in the face of injustice and destruction.


"He who fights the future has a dangerous enemy," said Søren Kierkegaard. Life is stressful. We think something is wrong with us, but the problems are endemic and systemic. As a people, we've lost our grounding in deep time and in our place. At root, our problems are relationship problems. We have a disordered relationship with the web of life.

Right now, the more we connect the dots between events, the more frightened we become. This reminds me of a night I slept in a tent with three of my grandchildren. Kate was 6, Aidan was 4, and Claire was 2. Claire and Aidan were blissfully happy. They snuggled and listened to the sounds of the cicadas and night birds. Meanwhile, Kate kept telling me she was scared and that she wanted to sleep in the house. Stupidly, I chided her for her fears. I asked, "Kate, you are the big sister and the oldest. Why can't you be as brave as your sister and brother?" She wailed, "Nonna, they're little. They don't know enough to be scared!"

These days, I often feel like Kate did that night. I know too much about deforestation, nuclear power plants, our tainted food supply, and our collapsing fisheries. Sometimes I wish I didn't know all these things. But if we adults don't face and come to grips with our current reality, who will?

Neither individuals nor cultures can keep up with the pace of change. Recently I was telling my grandchildren about all the things that didn't exist when I was a girl. I mentioned televisions (in my rural area), cell phones, the Internet, cruise control, texting, computerized toys, laptops, video recorders, headphones for music, and microwaves. The list was so long that my grandson Aidan asked me, "Nonna, did they have apples when you were a girl?"

We're bombarded by too much information, too many choices, and too much complexity. Our problem-solving abilities and our communication and coping skills haven't evolved quickly enough to sustain us. We find ourselves rushed, stressed, fatigued, and upset.

On all levels--international, national, and personal--many situations now seem too complicated to be workable. A friend of mine put it this way: "There are no simple problems anymore."

In addition to the problems that we can describe and label, we have new problems that we can barely name. Writers are coining words to try to describe a new set of emotions. For example, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to describe "homesickness or melancholia when your environment is changing all around you in ways that you feel are profoundly negative."

We experience our own pain, but also the pain of the earth and of people and animals suffering all over the world. Environmentalist Joanna Macy calls this pain "planetary anguish." We want to help, but we all feel that we have enough on our plates without taking on the melting polar ice caps or the dying oceans.

One night before dinner, Jim asked me to sit and have glass of wine with him. That day, he'd overseen the installation of a heating and air-conditioning system after a tree had crushed our old one. That same week, our refrigerator had needed replacing. And suddenly our dishwasher wasn't working properly either. I'd been writing about global climate change and working with the Coalition to Stop the XL Pipeline. I said, "I'll sit down with you as long as we don't have to discuss the fate of the earth." Jim agreed readily and added, "I don't even want to discuss the fate of our appliances."

The climate crisis is so enormous in its implications that it's difficult for us to grasp its reality. Its scope exceeds our human and cultural resilience systems. Thinking about global climate collapse is like trying to count two billion pinto beans. Oftentimes, because we don't know how to respond, we don't respond. We develop "learned helplessness" and our sense that we're powerless becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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  • Comment Link Thursday, 25 October 2012 14:24 posted by Harriet Cooke, MD

    Thank you, thank you Thank you Mary, for your eloquence and courage to share this topic. The only thing I would add to your article is the reminder of the deep wisdom and Love behind all things, that some of us call God. Heaven only knows how much the changes we can make in our little slice of life will matter, but Heaven will know if we try.
    I loved so many of your quotes: TNT-" the best way to save the environment is to save the environmentalist. ", and the reminder to savor the world even as we work with others to save it. I think it is not the saving of a world that grows a soul, but the work together toward these goals, particularly in the face of diminishing odds. And to have a good time doing it!
    For Laura and your tender heart, enjoy motherhood! And if you need, try some targeted amino acid therapy to help get you over those deep despairing frames of mind. Having lived too much of my life with them and too exhausted to be very helpful in any way, I found that a little 5-HTP , SAMe, L-tyrosing, and hormone adjustments to be a great help in restoring my ability to work in this work with a lighter spirit.
    These are not replacements for the holy work of social action, but adjuvant therapies that make it both possible, and more delightful, even in the face of what is.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 24 October 2012 11:18 posted by Mary Ann C. Holtz

    Dear editor:
    Six years ago after extensive study of the environmental and economic crises facing our earth community, I experienced my version of the “waking up” Mary Pipher refers to in “Global Warming and Visions of a Sustainable Planet “. I have been a psychotherapist in practice for 27 years, as well as a social justice and peace educator. Facing the converging crises of our planet raised serious ethical issues for me, which have not been addressed in the mainstream of our profession's literature. Many of us who read Psychotherapy Networker would likely say that part of the focus of our work is helping change patterns toward healthy relationships for current and future generations. Yet all of us are and/or will be affected within this generation's lifetime by challenges which our professional training has not prepared us to deal with.
    In search of “best practices” and a “standard of care” for working with my clients in light of these crises, in May, 2009 I convened and continue to facilitate a monthly gathering of psychotherapists in Tampa Bay, Florida. We continue to share resources for study, and to offer each other deep support in the ongoing “waking up” process. We have shared clinical applications we are developing and we have offered continuing education workshops to other therapists.
    Any readers who would like more information about our study materials and/or starting a group like ours in your area are welcome to contact me via email at
    For those who are looking for one book offering a very clear overview, I strongly recommend the same book that Pipher was affected by: Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

    Mary Ann C. Holtz
    St. Petersburg, FL

  • Comment Link Sunday, 21 October 2012 18:08 posted by Brian Page

    Humans have an amazing capacity to rationalize away their behavior, hell even the completely insane can usually pull this off. It should be fairly obvious that opinions, ours or others, are not the best way of acquiring knowledge about the world, evidence is. In science opinions are known as hypotheses and only when a hypothesis passes a test against empirical evidence, called an experiment, is it considered to be valid. At it's heart science is the end result of a historical quest for knowledge. It has proven itself a better method than campfire anecdotes and the myths that evolved into our philosophies and religious beliefs. A set of valid hypotheses that is consistent with the preponderance of evidence is collected into what science calls a theory. Parts of a theory that appear irrefutable and stand the test of time are called laws. These are not theories and laws as we know them in a social context, they are based on a continual process of evidence-based refinement known as the scientific method.

    The prime directive of the scientific method is to reveal the weaknesses of seemingly valid hypotheses, theories and laws. Experiment, the process of acquiring evidence, is the tool for invalidating what has previously been considered proven. Strict control of all relevant variables and the ability to be replicated are basic constraints imposed by the scientific method. To be accepted, experimental results must withstand careful scrutiny by experts in the field after which they are published for all to review and critique. This is how science works, how it avoids falling prey to the tyranny of opinion. Because nature doesn't really care about opinions, it is what it is, and to be understood must be dealt with in an objective and reasoned way. Few claim to deny science, but it's the failure to understand the scientific method that leads to the type of willful ignorance and rationalizations that produce the inappropriate denial of scientific results.

    Those espousing opinions that run contrary to established science usually can't sustain their cognitive dissonance forever in the face continually antithetical scientific evidence. When confronted with facts opposed to a preconceived opinion, a choice between modifying those opinions to accommodate new evidence or simply ignoring any such inconvenient data must be made. Science is perpetually malleable in this way, facts drive opinions, humans are not. What humans are good at is rationalizing away such behavior when it finally becomes evident that they were wrong. There is usually not much harm in this, it is an evolutionary survival strategy after all. However, sometimes willful ignorance has tragic consequences that can't be hidden. It is far more difficult to convince others of the validity of ones rationalizations than it is to convince oneself. So when your children and grandchildren ask you in 10 or 20 years what you did to help prevent the environmental catastrophe that they will be forced to live in, you might want to consider whether they understand the concept of willful ignorance before you frame your response. When will you have your epiphany?

  • Comment Link Thursday, 11 October 2012 14:17 posted by Richard Pauli

    Thank you for this wise article.

    The grinding gears of panic and anxiety was exhausting. Then my despair turned to anger. Now, my anger to disappointment - I think I can work with that. Now is the time for questions and re-engagement with the ruthless scientific laws that govern our world.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 29 September 2012 12:10 posted by Laura Olley

    Mary Pipher's article came to me as I was (and still am) in the midst of panic about the issue of global warming. I could barely read it I am so upset, but I am desperate for community on this topic and to not feel so alone. I am a new mother and I am so angry that the joy I feel about motherhood is mitigated by this sense of terror in regard to the grim future we all face. I believe that I have "pre-traumatic-stress disorder" and find myself considering a return to SSRI's and benzodiazapenes to get through it. But what I really need is community and the strength to take action. I am giving every last penny to groups like Oil Change International and the Environmental Defense Fund. We need a major movement and a call to action on a grand scale. I am distraught. Thanks to May Pipher for helping me not feel so alone.

  • Comment Link Monday, 24 September 2012 12:43 posted by Jennifer Thompson

    Thank you - This is right up my alley. This summer I observed vast landscape changes on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana - having been on a section of that trail in the Bob Marshall Wilderness 15 years ago. Returning to these same places this summer and observing vast change in Alpine environments, the color of the Alpine Lakes, the vegetation, animal habitat, ETC! I had a visceral experience of Global Warming. IT IS HERE. Plus just last night photographing 4 fracking platforms along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana. Global Warming and a continuance of the abuse and destruction of the environment by companies. What to do? Lay on the Earth, forgive each other and ask forgiveness to the Earth, write a poem, get together with others for support. These are the things I am doing to survive. Every act of active compassion is necessary now. Thank you so much for this writing which validates my visceral experience of Global Warming and confirms my need for personal response.

  • Comment Link Monday, 17 September 2012 17:56 posted by Lee Salmon

    Mary's article is one of the best I've ready that addresses how we avoid issues that seem overwhelming yet must be confronted for the surety of our own future and that of others we love. We must step out of our discomfort to address the overarching issue of global climate change which threatens life on this planet as we know it. Nothing else is really that important.

    How do we elevate this to an issue that needs to be front and center in this looming Presidential election and debates? Is there really anything more important?