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 SÃ¸ren 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.