The Road is Made by Walking

The COP21 talks began in Paris today, following last week’s worldwide climate marches. Here is a reflection I offered at the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo on November 15,  as part of our climate justice service preceding these momentous talks. Prayers and social movements are both made with our feet, so I’m pleased to say that during this service 15 families signed the Paris Pledge, described below. Our pledges joined thousands of others, taken to Paris by Rev. Sally Bingham of Interfaith Power and Light, which has been leading on this issue for nearly 20 years.

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This year, a number of us have been on a journey toward greater awareness of the ecological impact of our choices, knowing that it is the cumulative impact of all these choices that creates the world our children will inherit.

It has been fun and energizing to walk this road together, hearing one Sunday that Pam is saving shower water for her garden plants and the next Sunday that Shawn and Karyn were so excited about their new electric car and the next that Barb is teaching people how to re-landscape for both drought tolerance and food production. We are building a new way here, holding hands and singing with stubborn gladness as we go.

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In two weeks, in Paris, 80 world leaders will gather to – we hope – sign binding carbon emissions targets that will set the world’s major economies on a new course, one that will begin to turn the barge of the global economy away from fossil fuels. It is exceptionally important that this agreement be signed. The nations failed to do so in 2009, but I feel the tide turning in the past year, and I am hopeful.

If our leaders fail us (as they have been known to do periodically in the past), we must continue to lead them – as in the suffrage movement, as in the civil rights movement, as in the gay rights movement – from right here, in these progressive, justice-making pews, until they wake up and join us!

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Of course, there is also much to grieve in the climate crisis, and later Emily will lead us through a ritual to acknowledge and feel these losses. Grief and joy both reside deep in the heart, and we know that our ability to feel sadness directly affects our access to joy. And with this joy comes the desire to act, the resolve to keep walking the path, come what may. Joy and resolve, these are our marching orders.

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In response to the urgency of this ecological moment, Interfaith Power and Light has created the Paris Pledge as a sign to world leaders that we take this seriously and they must do so, too. The Paris Pledge states this: “In an act of solidarity with global leaders and nations at the 2015 UN Climate Talks in Paris, I pledge to reduce my carbon pollution 50% by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by 2050.” Many faith leaders have taken this pledge as representatives of their faith communities, including many UU congregations.

This past spring, we voted unanimously that our congregation would “Commit2Respond” to the climate crisis, so Rev. Ben, too, has signed this pledge on our behalf, as an act of both faith and solidarity – faith in our congregation’s will and commitment to truly live out our mission in the world and solidarity with every living thing. Whatever we do next as a congregation, we can do it from within this commitment to ecological health, with the joy and resolve that we will not sit on the sidelines or wait for a better time, but rather be part of the solution.

The great news is that, from my research and conversations, I know that congregations who make improvements to “go green” end of saving heaps of money that they can use for programming instead of power bills. It also feels really good – really clean – to use less fossil fuel. My family bought an all-electric Nissan Leaf this year, and I can attest to how very much lighter I feel, knowing that I am driving a solar-powered car.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn your order of service, you will find a copy of the Paris Pledge. As we deepen into meditation, ask yourselves if you, too, can commit to the changes, both internal and external, needed to sign the pledge and reduce your personal emissions by half over the next 15 years. It is a challenging but very achievable goal, one that we can support each other in meeting as individuals and a community over the years to come. It is time to act.

If you do sign the pledge, please drop it in the offertory basket toward the end of the service. Making this pledge is another powerful step we can each take along the road.

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May it be so.

The Light on My Mountaintop, Part II

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The first Parliament, Chicago 1893

The Parliament of the World’s Religions brought together hundreds of leading thinkers, writers, and spiritual leaders from around the world. Drinking from the fire hose of wisdom and justice-making, I took copious notes of their best aphorisms. Though many are unattributed in my notebook (that damn fire hose!), here are the best quotes.

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We have wisdom, and we forgot to give it to our children. (Native American grandmother)

Being a grandmother who holds no judgement, that is the greatest challenge. (ditto)

Never become deaf by your own tongue. (ditto)

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The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones, guns, and bombs, but girls reading books.

By learning how to love one thing deeply, we learn how to love all things. (Thich Naht Hanh, as quoted by someone)

Water is a boddhisattva. (ditto)

“Critical compassion” is needed to bridge the gap between science and religion and start a dialogue that asks questions. (Laurie Zoloth)

The mother has suffered enough. Become a servant of the mother.

When we talk about non-violent resistance, don’t just focus on the non-violence part, also focus on the resistance part. (Marianne Williamson)

The divine goddess is not just beautiful, she is fierce. (ditto)

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One Billion Rising: women standing up to violence

Faith is embodied in the subsistence labor of the daily lives of women. (ditto)

Today the affairs before us are soul-sized. (Christopher Fry)

Courage is fear that has said its prayers.

Our species needs to learn anew how to grieve together. Otherwise grief is a boulder on the heart. (Matthew Fox)

Be suspicious of what you want. (Rumi, as quoted by Tom Shadyac in his film, “I Am”)

You have the power to liberate your enemies of their broken souls. (Tom Shadyac)

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Sikh prayers before langan, the lunch they served to thousands of us each day

The sea is drops of water that has come together. (Desmond Tutu, as quoted by Tom Shadyac)

Stop running toward the truth, let go of all your opinions. (Chinese poet)

Women’s spiritual leadership will guide us through the storm that is coming.

There is a place where there is no edge, no container. That’s where I see women’s leadership arise, in open complete expansiveness.

Turn impossible goals into inevitable outcomes.

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Now the time comes to to fully wake up and make effort tirelessly. (Dalai Lama)

Nine times fail, nine times reeffort. (ditto)

Repentance doesn’t mean saying sorry. It means turning around. (Jim Wallis)

My life is my message. (Gandhi, as quoted by someone)

Don’t agonize, organize.

Try it two or three times. If it makes you a little bit nervous, it may be just the challenge you’re looking for.

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Joy and resolve. (Tim deChristopher)

One hour of justice is worth 70 hours of prayer. (Tom Goldsmith)

Social justice is the exercise of power. (ditto)

Separate yourself from that which separates you from others (Sufi poet, as quoted by someone)

We make the road by walking. (Brian Maclaren)

Your way of life is destroying my way of life. (Chief of the Dine nation)

The law of life is that we take a little and we give back. (ditto)

The earth is not a garden, she is mother. (ditto)

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Salt Lake City’s interfaith children’s choir. Adorable.

We don’t have to change who we are to hold hands.

It is stupid to divide the world into living and non-living things. There is no such thing as a non-living thing.

We have had 200 years of war, pestilence, and hatred. Let us try a little bit of friendship.

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If you’ve never seen Sufi dervishes in action, it’s beautiful, remarkable, poetic, and mystical.

Some of you believe in heaven. I don’t know if it exists; I don’t know if you know it exists. Brothers and sisters, what if this is heaven? What if you treat it as heaven, for the seventh generation? (Native American elder)

To work on climate change without working on paradigm change would be a grave mistake.

The best way I’ve learned to walk this path is to teach it.

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Waiting for the closing ceremony

The Light Shining on My Mountaintop, Part 1

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What on earth is the Parliament of the World’s Religions? And what could it possibly mean that this conference of 10,000 people from 50 faiths and 80 countries is taking place in Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormon Church? What would all these people even talk about for 5 days? Would they all be trying to convert each other in some Olympics of Belief? I had to find out, so I hopped a plane to SLC last Thursday.

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It was a shock to the system to be in a room with so much difference, highlighting for me both how suburban my life is right now and how mostly we tend to spend our time within our own tribes, not seeking out the other. This place, however, was a chop salad of humanity: turbaned Sikhs all in white, North American tribe members in beaded tunics, Hindus in saris, Tibetan monks in burgundy and saffron, African evangelicals in regional cotton prints, and lots of Americans in flowing, scarfy outfits that so often accompany progressive gatherings.

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The opening ceremony, where the local Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone elders and tribe members led a procession and invocation, was quite moving. Their prominence in many of the Parliament’s events signals a renewed appreciation for Native Americans wisdom traditions and perhaps a move toward atonement, whatever that might look like in the future.

Then seven suits sat down on stage, and the Governor of Utah spoke of how the early Mormon pioneers came to this valley with handcarts and “made it what it is today.”

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It hasn’t been the only major disconnect that has happened here, but for the most part, this has been an extremely constructive gathering, focusing on shared values, collaborative projects, and success stories.

I got over my Diversity Freak Out pretty quickly and became enchanted by the energy, the vibe — the spirit — in the place.  The general feeling seems to be that there’s enough bad news out there already, and that the way out of this mess is through hopeful, open-hearted action. Most folks here are theists of some stripe, but the God language is really broad and inclusive and has only rubbed me the wrong way once or twice. There are even workshops for us non-theists that are trying to find new language that moved beyond “interfaith dialogue”. Amen.

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Langar, the free vegetarian meal that the Sikh community provides every day as part of their religious practice, is totally awesome, and a great time to meet new people. Yesterday I talked with Eliechu, an Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem who is doing interfaith work to bring together an “Abrahamic Reunion.” He says it’s hard, “the koan of the modern world,” but that does not stop him.

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These women are learning the One Billion Rising flash mob dance, a response to violence against women. With one billion women subject to physical abuse or rape in their lifetime, this campaign — and women’s rights in general — was a focal point of the first day of the conference. Due to the advocacy of women Parliament organizers and advisers, more than half of the presenters here are women, and the passion around women’s issues outstripped every other category: climate change, anti-war, racism. If there has been a winner in this Olympics of Belief, it is the women who are standing up for political, civil, and religious equality.

The very idea of interfaith dialogue is an interesting one, given many (though not all) religions’ missionary missions, at least historically. The conversion string has vibrated from time to time as an undercurrent: people are so excited about their club, that they want you to join it. (More thoughts on that later.) But the greater goal and tone of the event is one of dialogue, deep listening, open-minded acceptance of difference, and at the heart of it all, the universal religious command to love.

I liked this summary of the basic premise of interfaith dialogue: “The light shining on my mountaintop does not diminish the light shining on your mountaintop.” That makes many conversations possible that might not otherwise be.

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These women regularly processed around the conference halls, offering blessings all the way from Australia. Shine on, ladies, shine on.

Lost Cities of the California Coast

After a hiatus to pursue my Low Carbon Diet project, I’m BACK, working on a new project, Lost Cities of the California Coast.

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It explores how people in California cities will respond to rising sea levels over the coming decades through participatory art and creative writing. Here’s a summary:

With sea level rising for the foreseeable future, the coastal communities of California will face unprecedented change in the coming decades. How will each city respond? With higher levees and armored sea walls to hold back the tide? With “managed retreat” to higher ground? With redesigned infrastructure and new technologies that allow their coastal zones to be flexible use areas that accommodate the rising tide line?

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Lost Cities of the California Coast imagines California from a future vantage point, at the time when our grandchildren’s grandchildren look back at our generation’s response to sea level rise. By describing in detail several imagined case studies of cities’ responses, this project will explore a variety of adaptive approaches, evaluating those that were more – or less – successful over the long-term.

For instance:

  • In response to the El Nino storms of 2020, residents of the City of Malibu raised private funds to build a sea wall to defend their beachfront septic systems, exerting considerable political influence to protect their multi-million dollar homes. Yet when even larger storms came in 2032, the wall was destroyed along with many of the sea-front houses. Though a few owners chose to rebuild at great cost and risk, most moved to higher ground, and the abandoned land was purchased at minimal cost by the city and turned into bioswale and public space.
  • After years of frequent flooding sent toxic waters into the streets of West Oakland, the voters worked in 2045 and again in 2060 to pass bond measures to redevelop the Bayside, including the port and airport. Billions were spent to convert industrial sites into wetlands, redesign sewer systems and the port to accommodate fifteen feet of sea level rise, and rebuild the sub-standard housing of West Oakland into high-density neighborhoods modeled on the Netherlands. The foresight of this project created an economic base from which Oakland was able to grow and thrive for the next century.

Using participatory map-making, storytelling, walking, and text, Lost Cities of the California Coast will engage the public in art-making events that will enable participants to envision themselves in a future where sea levels are higher and difficult decisions need to be made. What sort of new infrastructure will be needed to accommodate a rising tide? What opportunities exist for progressive planning, even as some neighborhoods will eventually be lost? Urban planners, architects, engineers, and public officials are already studying the risks and opportunities presented by sea level rise; Lost Cities will broaden the public dialogue around this important issue so that people can, over the coming years, make informed choices about how we will collectively adapt to the rising waters.

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The first case study in development is San Mateo/Foster City, two interlocked cities where more than 100,000 people live in the current 100-year flood zone — a line which closely tracks the 3-foot sea level rise that is expected by the end of this century. What will San Mateo County look like then? Bringing communities into conversation about this challenging issue, as we also discuss creative responses to it, is the first step to developing a resilient city that will thrive for decades to come.

The Dead Sea is Dying

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The Dead Sea is the lowest tideline on earth, filling the deepest trench of the Great Rift Valley, which begins in Mozambique and runs north to Syria. The border between Israel and Jordan divides it in two, a border that is, unusually in the Middle East, both geological and political: not a line in the sand but a crevice in the earth. Here two tectonic plates are moving apart, ever so slowly, Jordan to the East and Israel/Palestine to the West. To infer meaning from this movement would be easy, but nothing in this region is easy.

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The Dead Sea used to be part of the Mediterranean Sea, a mere depression in its eastern shoreline. Then around 5 million years ago, the crunching plates pushed up the Judean hills, cutting off the water supply to the inland sea left behind. One of the most impressive of these hills is Mt. Sodom, a massif of pure halite, or rock salt. This photo, of a small (80′ x 25′) chunk that broke off and rolled down hill, shows the smooth yet razor sharp material that makes up the Biblical mountain. In the background is Lot’s Wife, a pillar of salt that has eroded away from the rest of the mass. She will eventually come crashing down as well.

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The Dead Sea is dense. With less water coming in than evaporates each year in the desert sun, the salts and minerals have become more concentrated over time, so that the water is now 30% mineral (as compared to the oceans, which are 3% saline). The water is almost 1/3 rock. This is why you float in it. It feels slippery more than wet, because of all the bitumen, manganese, potash, and salt that are suspended in this maximum concentration. Several types of single-celled creatures (halophiles) thrive in this environment, but nothing larger. Unless you count Russian tourists.

The Dead Sea has had various names over time: Salt Sea, Bitumen Sea, Stinking Sea, Devil’s Sea. The water’s very weight makes the surface unnaturally calm and reflective. It glows with shades of lavender, periwinkle, and rose that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph (at least, not mine.) But don’t get it in your eyes, because it bites hard.

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The Dead Sea is dying. The water level is decreasing by more than a meter each year, which leads to a rapidly retreating shoreline, as seen in the photo above. When I was here 25 years ago, the water level was near the road in many places; now you have to take a minibus from the seaside resorts built a generation ago to the water’s edge, sometimes a kilometer away. This is because the only source of new water for the Dead Sea is the Jordan River, which is the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley, and the international border between Jordan and Israel/Palestine. Virtually all of the water is drained out of the Jordan River for Israeli agriculture, though apparently sewage effluent is released into the river so that a small, muddy stream can be maintained for passing pilgrims.

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The Dead Sea is already dead. In the 1930s, the Dead Sea Works was formed to mine potash and other salts from the lake’s southern reaches, which were shallow and could be sealed off to create evaporation ponds. These ponds now extend for many miles and are home to one of Israel’s main industrial sites.

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Mountains of minerals are evaporated out of the water and shoveled into piles reminiscent of Mt. Sodom. As the Dead Sea Works floods the ponds each year (thereby lowering the northern half), the water level of this part of the lake rises, causing nearby hotel resorts to build berms that act as beaches, in hopes of keeping the waters at bay and out of their lobbies. DSC01610

Though the geology of the Great Rift Valley is still under debate, this area is, according to some scientists, an “incipient, oblique oceanic spreading centre.” In geology, incipient means “to come into being or become apparent.”

Spelled with an ‘s’ it has another meaning: lacking wisdom.

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Lowtidefullmoon walking

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Following are excerpts from my recent guided walk, Tideline as Timeline.

Timeline: January 4, 2015, 2:30 – 5:30 pm

Place: Princeton-by-the-Sea, California

The tideline is one of the richest biological regions on earth. It is also a fluctuating, fractal line that rises and falls each day and over thousands of years. Today, as the sea is receding, we will walk along the tideline to the westernmost point, a series of rocks called the Boneyard. Along the way we will stop at 7 stations to consider the intersection of tideline and timeline and forms of sense, presence, and absence in this particular landscape.

Today’s low tide, which is at 4:19, is one of the lowest of 2015, and the lowest this year that coincides with a full moon. These spring tides – so called because they spring up – nearly all take place in the winter months, due to the alignment of sun and moon and earth, a celestial pattern called a syzygy. In turn the lowest ebb generates the highest flow, and in 6 ½ hours the tideline will be about 6 ½ feet higher than it is right now.

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A chart of sea levels over the past million years looks like a graph of breathing, a predictable rise and fall during which the water withdraws 400 feet below its present level as the climate cools and ice builds at the poles, and then rises to our current level as the ice melts. This has taken place every 100,000 years, like an EKG of the planet. However, the rise happens quickly, over just 20,000 years, while the cooling period is much slower, because ice melts more easily than it forms.

On the timeline of ice ages, we are living in the pause that occurs between the last rapid melting and the next slow cooling phase. We call this the Holocene Epoch, and it has coincided with the emergence of all human societies, though whether this is coincidental is a matter of debate.

In the past two millenia, this time of climatic stasis and security we have lived in, sea level has risen 7 feet according to soil records. In the past century, the Golden Gate Bridge tidal bridge have recorded a rise 8 inches, while scientists predict a rise of up to 55” by 2100 which would the new tideline near the line we just inscribed.

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For the Ohlone people, death of one tribe member was a traumatic event for the entire community. When a person died, the family destroyed everything that belonged to them in life, breaking their bows and arrows, tearing their baskets and bear skins, throwing it all onto a funeral pyre along with the body of the deceased. The mark of success in Ohlone culture was generosity, rather than wealth, so members of the tribelet would throw their best tools and hides onto the pyre as gifts to the deceased. To ever speak the name of a dead person was to invite dangerous ghosts into the community, so as a result, family lineages were soon forgotten, and history as we understand it did not exist. The distance between Sacred Time, which was the time of the creation, and the present moment had no substance or dimension.

When the Ohlone were forcibly removed to Mission San Francisco, their culture and language were obliterated in a similar way. The last native speaker of Ramaytush, the language of the San Francisco peninsula, died in the 1950s. In the 1970s Cal Berkeley anthropologist Richard Levy trawled through mission records and early anthropological sources, to reconstruct this language. He gathered 104 words.

On an 1861 coastal map, the salt marsh behind us encompassed 10 acres of open water, and was, according to the 18th century French sea captain Jean de la Perouse, a place of ‘inexpressible fertility”. Stephen Powers, a 19th century ethnologist described the people here as “almost amphibious”, wading among deep reeds and grasses to trap birds, and digging shellfish by the ton along the shore. Hunger was absent in this place, even in the myths, which accounted for the stability of their culture over thousands of years.

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Above us is a radar station that is used to track missiles fired from Vandenburg Air Force Base, 280 miles to our south, some nine missiles a year on average. These include the intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman III and the Atlas V rocket, which launches military satellites.

To our southwest are the outer and inner breakwaters that form Half Moon Bay Harbor. The outer walls were built by the Army Corps of Engineers following World War II to create a harbor for the local fishing fleet; the inner walls and piers were built in the 1970s and 80s, as the fleet expanded. The bluffs and beaches beyond the harbor have eroded by several feet every year since then, as the wave energy has been displaced to the south. Some 35 feet of coastal bluffs have eroded in recent decades.

Behind the harbor is El Granada, a town commissioned by the Ocean Shore Railroad to be a resort destination for people from San Francisco and designed by the renowned architect Daniel Burnham. Construction on the Ocean Shore Railroad began in 1905, though its bridges and trestles were severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake.

During the speculative decade that followed, Frank Brophy, who held title to this land, and was selling it off in lots, advertised it the local newspaper as “Princeton: Future Home to a Million People”. I undertook this project in part to find out why the streets here are named Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and West Point; the answer has thus far eluded me, but I suspect Frank M. Brophy may have had something to do with it. But the people did not come, and the railroad eventually folded in 1921. The collapse of the railroad, in combination with Prohibition made Princeton a locus of bootlegging, black markets, and bordellos. And at 10 in the morning on April Fool’s Day, 1946, a tidal wave brought the sea up to the windowsills of the houses in Princeton.

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We come from the sea. We are fish out of water. The sea was formed 3.8 billion years ago in a great rain that lasted millions of years; first there was only boiling rock and roiling clouds. And then waters flowed from high to low, bringing salts along, and the ocean was born. The tide has been doing just this, ebbing and flowing, every day since. This particular wave-cut platform, with all its creatures, may be submerged in a generation or two, but there will be others. In the future, these waves will be either bigger or smaller. The only constant is change.

We can see ourselves as different and separate from this ocean, these rocks, and stand at the edge of the sea with measures of fear and awe. Or we can learn from the barnacles and anemones about finding our right relationship, a fluid state of connection that sustains us as part of a larger system.

Low Carbon Diet I

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So what does a Low Carbon Diet look like? I’ve been thinking about this and researching the idea for a couple of months now, as I get ready to begin, and a few things have become clear to me:

1) Everything we touch and do in modern life is coated with a veneer of petroleum; even organic strawberries from the farmer’s market get there by truck, to say nothing of an Ikea bookshelf. That said, it is clear that some things “cost” much more than others and therefore one can get much more bang for the buck in specific areas.

2) Airline flights are the worst of the worst. Not only does one 2-hour flight equate to a month of driving in terms of emissions, because the emissions are happening at high altitude, it’s like super-injecting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. The carbon calculators say to multiply miles flown by 1.9 to compensate for this effect. Yikes. So air travel is the best place to start reducing one’s footprint.

3) Cars are the next worst. A gallon of gas emits 20 pounds of CO2, taking up the air space of 20 of those giant yoga exercise balls. Ditching my 20 mph SUV last year for a 40 mph Golf diesel was a move from gulping to drinking. But regardless, every tank is 300 pounds of carbon. Yikes again. Time to think harder about those trips to the store/mall/city, given that every trip I take from my town to anywhere else is a round trip of 40-80 miles….

4) The best place to start is with knowledge. The best carbon footprint calculator I found was http://www.coolcalifornia.org. The calculation is more detailed but only takes about 15 minutes, and the pledges you can make are very specific, which makes them useful. But you can’t save your results — which is totally lame. Another pretty good calculator has been developed for church congregations and members: http://www.coolcongregations.org/calculator. It has adequate detail and you can save your personal profile and update it later. The main drawback is that the pledge list is flawed — you can’t subtract things from the list and you can’t double up on pledges (for instance, pledging to reduce more than one long-haul flight per year)

We’re taking our family’s baseline footprint this week. Then we’ll see where we’re at and what comes next.