Unprecedented

I’m sick of saying it. Tired of hearing it.

Unprecedented.

A potent word, meaning never before. (Never.)

Yet it has failed. Rendered weak

And unable to pierce the walls of denial

As high as the towers of pyrocumulus smoke

Tearing across the Tasman.

Walls that turn day to night,

Obscuring the truth people refuse to see, cannot face, even now.

That life on Earth is collapsing,

Being devoured by the invisible monster of our own making.

We flush our human arrogance into the atmosphere that shields us,

Loves us,

Gives us breath.

And it rains down upon us

As Fire.

And we will perish,

Like the animals and plants before us.

Unprecedented.

Credit: Thu, Thousandfold Photography

Sacrifice: How An Individual Leads the Way on Climate

On Aug. 1, Michael Foster will be released from prison in Bismark, North Dakota and return home to his loved ones and community in Seattle.

A quietly spoken, 53-year-old climate activist, Foster doesn’t care if you remember his name. But getting a bigger message into the world about what he did — and why he did it — is an urgent and excruciating obsession.

On Oct. 11, 2016, Foster cut his way through a chain-link fence near Cavalier, North Dakota, turned a large, outdoor valve, and stopped the flow of crude oil through TransCanada Corporation’s controversial Keystone Pipeline. Simultaneously, using the same technique, fellow activists shut down four other oil pipeline entry points into the United States. Within a few minutes, and for a few hours, 15 percent of the nation’s daily oil supply was literally cut off.

The Keystone Pipeline was a carefully chosen symbol for Foster’s act of civil disobedience. As the shut-off valve is located in the same state as Standing Rock, it signified his solidarity with the protest led by Native Americans, which had garnered worldwide attention and support and was eventually brutally put down. Also, the 2,700-mile pipeline terminates in oil-soaked Texas, Foster’s childhood home; his act was a small personal payback for the vast volumes of fossil fuels the state has extracted over the decades and that now choke our atmosphere.

Then there is the matter of Keystone’s source connection to the Alberta Tar Sands, the largest and arguably most destructive enterprise in the history of the world. It is difficult to overstate the sheer scale and madness of the extraction that occurs on the tar sands, requiring wetlands to be drained, rivers to be diverted and immense, carbon-sequestering boreal forests to be removed — all to feed humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels, in an era when many energy alternatives are available to us.

Ultimately, it is the looming crisis posed by a dying planet, the impending end of nature and the natural systems all life depends upon, that is the driving force behind Foster’s actions. “I did it because we are in an emergency,” he told me in a recent phone call. “Time is running out for the planet our kids inherit from us. ​What matters is transitioning off oil, coal and gas — now! If other people don’t take action, my action makes no difference.”

During the inevitable criminal prosecution that followed, Foster’s lawyer argued a “necessity” defense. This essentially refers to a person who is compelled to commit a crime to prevent a greater harm from occurring due to imminent danger. In Foster’s own words to the court, as no government or corporation was doing something to prevent a global collapse due to climate change, he was obligated to act to protect the air, land and water that future generations would require to survive. It is worth noting that the valve turners gave enough notice of their intentions to the pipeline owners so that the companies could take necessary safety precautions.

The judge did not buy the defense’s reasoning. However, he eventually sentenced Foster to a prison term of three years, lenient in the face of a maximum penalty of 21 years. When he returns to Seattle in August after serving six months, Foster will remain on probation for two and a half more years.

His actions may seem scandalous to some. However, Foster represents a growing number of ordinary global citizens taking personal responsibility for climate change, at great personal risk, because they see it’s the only way to bring attention to the seriousness of our situation. Faced with the threat of human extinction, they say, what else is there to do but break the rules?

As Washington state’s own Governor Jay Inslee said in 2014, “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.” Foster doesn’t care if you know his name. But I am certain his will be among those recalled as heroic in 100 years and more, should humanity survive the havoc we have wreaked upon the Earth.

Meanwhile, the simple question Foster has for each of us: “What can you do today?” The individual steps we take to make a difference on climate change, however large or small, make his sacrifice worthwhile.

***

This essay first appeared in The Olympian newspaper on July 6, 2018.

Fading Stars: How We Threaten Our Survival

March 25, 2018

My father taught me my place in the universe. When I was very young, we would peer up as he pointed out the stars and constellations in the supremely dark night sky of 1970s Australia. I hung on to every word, my developing brain trying to understand the incomprehensible distances between everything out there.

Of course, I couldn’t grasp his entire education — I still can’t — but those close moments with my dad imprinted me with a strong emotion. A sense that I, we, our planetary home, were so very small, yet somehow mattered. It’s hard to describe. It felt overwhelming, and it felt comforting. It felt like truth.

In February, my partner and I spent a wintery week in Yellowstone National Park. We snow-shoed in the sub-zero elements surrounded by bison and elk, coyote and otter. We stopped to listen to the howls of a large pack of wolves that had moved into the Old Faithful area. And, walking to our cabin at night, we gazed up into the Milky Way, which was impossible to miss.

Then a blizzard came and obscured the sky. Fortuitously, a ranger was giving a presentation that night about light pollution and how it smothers our atmosphere and obliterates the ability of almost every person on Earth to view the stars. This is true for 80 percent of us living in North America, with its abundance of crowded, outrageously illuminated cities.

Having lived much of my adult life in relatively rural settings, I admit I was taken aback to learn that we were on the verge of completely cutting ourselves off from the night skies, the same ones our ancestors connected to and communed under. I missed my dad, dead since 2009, wanting him to comfort me with a piece of wise philosophy. And I knew I would have to dig in and contribute even more to the struggle to return our species to a right relationship with the natural world.

Threatening our very survival, climate change (or breakdown or disruption) is the most pressing challenge we collectively face. For the vast majority of human history, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have hovered around or below 300 parts per million. That’s been a sweet spot for us, keeping the global climate relatively stable and comfortable. During the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution and our newfound reliance on fossil fuels, however, these levels have steadily risen, spiking to more than 400 parts per million for the entire year of 2016 and predicted to increase further in the coming decades. Environmental scientists warn we have crossed over to a dangerously disruptive new reality through our own inaction on C02 emissions. Climate change is here and now, the reason behind now common extreme weather events — from increasingly powerful and more frequent hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and wildfires in California, to last month’s unusual start of spring, followed by wild winter storms, in the Pacific Northwest. All this with the terrifying promise of more to come.

The issues are intertwined. The street, home and billboard lights that pollute our nights are mostly powered by the burning of coal and gas, and so we are delivering a cruel double whammy to the Earth’s unique atmosphere, the thin blue line upon which all life depends.

It will be a loss of profound consequence should we indeed be the last generation to see the stars. If we lose our ability to connect to where we come from, to the stuff of which we and our planet are literally made, our species will surely be lost forever.

If this doesn’t alarm you, you’re not paying attention. There has never been a point in our collective history quite like this. That said, there has never been such opportunity or reason to act. As insurmountable as our problems appear, there are practical solutions and abundant ways to get involved.

Having a sense of your place in the Universe brings responsibility. It’s a mathematical near-certainty that life exists someplace else; paradoxically, as far as we know for sure, life only exists here. That seems like something worth fighting for.

***

This essay first appeared in The Olympian newspaper on March 21, 2018.