Tag Archives: climate change

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.

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.

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.