(This is the second of a two-part blog series on New York Times bestselling author-activist Bill McKibben’s recent visit to Nevada County, CA, sponsored by Ananda College of Living Wisdom and the Yuba Watershed Institute. In Part 2, I discuss McKibben’s suggestions on taking personal action that can slow the continued warming of the planet and its related storms, famines and disasters.)
On Sunday morning, I took an 11-mile Earth Day run down the North San Juan Ridge, the heart of California Gold Rush country and one of the world’s most unique regions. I ran atop serpentine rock that once lay miles beneath an ancient ocean floor, mantle rock from the earth’s deepest crust until it was vaulted above surface. I ran atop a fossil river bed the width of the Mississippi, surrounded by moonscape and Manzanita remnants of the most destructive part of the Gold Rush, hydraulic mining that ripped 500 feet of elevation off the Sierra Nevada foothills. As my run continued toward the Yuba River, I passed from the ponderosa pine forests of the low mountains to the oak and grasslands of the foothills, sighting deer and rabbit, enjoying the chatter of nearby Shady Creek, and reveling in a beautiful, mild sunny day in which Scottish broom, wildflowers and trees burst forth in fullest blossom.
As I clicked off the miles, a few thoughts occurred: What will happen to us, as a people, when it becomes too warm, polluted and dangerous to enjoy these Earth Day runs — or any outdoor activities? Why do we know less about our nearby natural surroundings than any generation in the history of mankind? How can we take the global steps to slow climate change when we won’t try to live without making a Sasquatch-sized carbon footprint?
When Bill McKibben came to Nevada City April 17 to discuss his latest New York Times bestseller, Eaarth, and the increasingly dire climate change conditions in which we find ourselves, he took dead aim on these and other questions. In fact, for all the anecdotes and scientific evidence he laid down —rising sea levels, acidifying oceans, increasingly destructive and frequent storms, diminishing ice caps, growing carbon dioxide levels, falling grain supplies and ever-multiplying harmful insect populations, etc. — McKibben’s greatest message came from the solutions he discussed, and how we tackle our future environment on this earth: globally.
I will break down a few key solutions McKibben discussed in his 60-minute talks at Ananda College and Miner’s Foundry, where the sell-out audience included California Gov. Jerry Brown, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder and a 95-year-old Freedom Rider from the Civil Rights era.
• Acting Locally – and Globally: The first step is to reduce our personal carbon footprint and embrace more sustainable living. This includes such actions as buying produce from farmer’s markets rather than stores (where produce travels an average of 1,000 miles beforehand), growing our own food, doing business locally, using solar power and learning to repair our machines. It means getting to know our neighbors again, and relying less on cities. “My absolute favorite statistic is that last year, for the first time in 150 years, the USDA reported that the number of farms increased in America over the previous year,” McKibben said.
It also means acting globally. How do we do that in the ominous face of the mega-billion dollar fossil fuel industry, which is doing everything it takes to leech the last drop of oil from the earth and the last dollar from our pockets? How do we make substantive change when our government protects and subsidizes those fossil fuel interests, even though 70 percent of Americans are opposed to it (whatever happened to we, the people)?
“We’re trying to take away the subsidies these fossil fuel companies get from the government,” McKibben says. “Because of our government, taxpayers are paying these guys to continue destroying our environment.”
• 350.org and the Internet: One way to act globally is to embrace movements like 350.org. This is McKibben’s action group and website, started by he and seven students from Middlebury College in Vermont. It is a great way for each of us to act globally — starting now. On May 5, 350.org will hold a worldwide “connect-the-dots” day, focusing on climate change issues in every conceivable locality. Since 350.org has active branches in “every country but North Korea,” according to McKibben, you and I can get involved, connect with others, and spread the news worldwide. 350.org has served as the centerpoint for what CNN called the largest political demonstration in history, and been the major force in stopping the Keystone Pipeline. It goes to what McKibben feels is a major tool for halting climate change and global warming — communicating on the Internet.
• Stepping Out and Being Active: A Sunday School teacher, McKibben is a faith-centered man whose calmness in the face of this global maelstrom is remarkable. And inspiring. He sees interfaith groups of all denominations, regardless of their religious differences, arriving at ways to live that realistically acknowledge the changes in the Earth. To wit, he talked about the time that a Jordanian group made a human “3”, a Palestinian group made a “5”, and an Israeli group made a “0” on different banks of the Red Sea. They put their very deep divisions aside to recognize the one thing they have in common — living on a planet in distress.
That’s not all. One of McKibben’s most poignant comments came to the students of Ananda College, which is a campus-community practicing sustainable living in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The appeal to stay on campus and live self-sufficiently and sustainably is very strong, but, as McKibben said, “You can do that, but the climate change problems will still come to you. You need to get out and participate in the larger solution.”
• Food Sources: One of the more galling pieces of legislation was quietly passed last year by the U.S. Senate, making it a crime for you and I to produce and distribute food in all of the healthy ways that our grandparents would have called daily life. The purpose: to squelch the organic food industry in favor of agribusiness and genetically modified foods, all subsidized, for “the public safety.” Already, some raw milk dairies, bee farms and small organic farms in Northern California, and in other locations, have been shut down.
Underneath this, it’s easy to see the sinister writing on the wall: The trucking and rail industries earn billions from transporting agribusiness crops from one end of the country to the other. Pharmaceutical and medical interests thrive on your short- and long-term unhealthiness — and mine. Every gallon of raw milk is a gallon a subsidized agribusiness dairy didn’t produce. Every piece of organic fruit is something for which Monsanto or Ortho did not provide seed, herbicide or insecticide — cutting into their profits. All of which does not make the director of the FDA, a former Monsanto executive, very happy.
When you hear McKibben address the issue, you can see the anger in his eyes. “I find it amazing that the Senate passed this so-called ‘food safety’ bill, and they are enforcing this law in the name of public safety, when, in the last 50 years, the chemical companies and powers that be have made the food supply into something that has turned us into fairly unhealthy people. They have not given a damn about our safety, and all of a sudden, they pass a bill that says you can’t grow and sell organic vegetables or sell your neighbor a gallon of raw milk?”
Now for the good news: Of all the government intrusions into our healthy choices, McKibben feels this might be the most solvable. “This is a very winnable situation,” he said. “Anyone who cares about eating healthy food needs to fight. Every farmer should have the right to sell produce or raw milk from his farm gate.”
The actions to take? Exactly what will make us healthier and reduce the carbon output into the atmosphere: Plant gardens. Share and swap food with neighbors. Grow organically. Buy from local farmers’ markets or locally grown produce. Use organic seeds.
There is much more to this ever-evolving situation. The bottom line with climate change and our forthcoming challenge, according to McKibben: it’s time to take another look at ethics as basic as the Bible in which they’re written — being stewards of the Earth, and loving our neighbors. “The Gospel injunction, ‘Love one’s neighbors,’ is very important to me,” he says. “It’s not what we’re doing now, which is drowning, starving and sickening our neighbors.”