“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Climate change is happening right now, and it's already destroying people's livelihoods.
Climate change is often framed as a problem of the future—something that "will happen" if we fail to act.
But the truth is that climate change is happening right now, and it's already destroying livelihoods. Climate change is the droughts, the hurricanes, the wildfires, and the floods that are occurring with increasing frequency. It's the extreme heat, which is debilitating to some but which others can easily drown out with air conditioning.
Climate change generally harms poor communities and communities of color far more than it harms the primary drivers of rising global temperatures, namely corporations and those who benefit from corporate success. Ironically, poor communities that contribute very little to climate change tend to be the ones who have to deal with its worst effects.
Still, climate change will come for us all one way or another—that much is clear. Climate change is even beginning to damage luxury hotels, infringing on the isolated worlds of the super-rich. Here are eight places around the world that are already disappearing because of climate change. Chilling harbingers of what's to come if we don't act, these places are also testaments to overconsumption and the brutal effects of humanity's utter lack of care for the planet and for our fellow humans.
The Colonial Pipeline is up and running again, but the madness isn't over...
From May 7th through the evening of May 12th, America's largest supply network for gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel was shut down.
As of Thursday morning it is back online, though it will take a while for the typical rate of delivery to resume.
Under normal circumstances, the Colonial gas pipeline network is responsible for moving more than 100 million gallons of fuel every day, transporting it from refineries in Texas all the way up to New York, with offshoots all along the eastern seaboard. That's around 45% of the fuel supply for the east coast.
But last week that network was shut down thanks to a ransomware attack from a group known as DarkSide. And, as a result, gas prices have been spiking, with the national average topping $3 a gallon for the first time in years.
Colonial Pipeline restarts operations, gas prices spike | WNTwww.youtube.com
Predictably, a sense of panic has gripped the populace, particularly in some Southern states, where long lines have been forming for the pumps. More than a thousand gas stations were fully tapped, and many others started placing limits on how much their customers could buy.
If the hackers' purpose was to cause as much chaos as possible, this would all be a rousing success. But was that really their motivation, or are they after something else entirely?
Who Is DarkSide?
The more you look into them, the less they sound like a criminal gang. Rather, the data thieves at DarkSide give off the vibes of a tech startup, with promotional materials that talk about clients, affiliates, tech support, financial evaluations, and their sterling (criminal) reputation.
The organization is based somewhere in Eastern Europe, with roots in a Russian-language hacker forum, but early rumors that they have ties to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin seem to be baseless. They claim to be independent of political ties, and that certainly matches their tactics.
According to their public statements, they always assess their target companies carefully — making sure they'll be able to afford a steep ransom payment — before striking. They also claim to have a principled stance against targeting companies in the fields of medicine, funeral services, or education, as well as non-profits and government entities.
Whether this ethics code is truly based on a sense of morality, or if it's just a matter of avoiding the added scrutiny and bad press that would come with attacking a hospital is unclear, but it all comes across as very professional and corporate. They even "guarantee" the reliability of their service.
Since launching in August of 2020, they have advertised their services to other hackers and have grown quickly thanks to the systematized efficiency they provide. The only real difference between DarkSide and any rapidly emerging "disruptor" in the tech world is the specific service they provide.
Namely, once an "affiliate" (hacker) gains access to a company's data, DarkSide steals it, locks the company out with high-level encryption, and holds that information hostage until the company pays out. If their target is unwilling to pay a steep ransom, DarkSide starts leaking their data to a dedicated website, with notifications sent to the media, business partners, and customers.
It's a very businesslike approach that reflects a very businesslike set of priorities. As DarkSide themselves recently put it, "Our goal is to make money and not creating [sic] problems for society." They even promise to provide their target companies with information about how they were compromised, so they can patch holes in their security.
But if they're only after money, why did they target such an essential piece of America's energy infrastructure? If they don't want to create problems for society, uh...why did they?
The short answer is that it was a mistake. For all the care they claim to put into their work, they overlooked certain details this time around and have caused bigger problems and invited more negative attention than they ever intended.
As any good corporation would in these circumstances, they have promised to do better in the future. They insist that, going forward, they will "introduce moderation, and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences."
The longer answer is that America's energy infrastructure is particularly vulnerable. If DarkSide was only looking at Colonial Pipeline Company's financial bona fides, they may have missed how crucial that pipeline has become and how hacking one company's data — without even interfering with the pipeline directly — could cause so much chaos.
That wasn't always the case. Once upon a time the northeast did a lot of its own refining of oil shipped in from overseas, but the decades-long push to make America "energy-independent" has shifted consumption to local supplies of oil, and more than half of the northeast's refining capacity has been shut down.
Growing domestic production of oil and gas has led to reduced refining capacity in the Northeast, increasing relian… https://t.co/zUQktA7YQF— NYT Climate (@NYT Climate) 1620685369.0
As a result, we've been facing gas shortages just like those in the 1970s under Jimmy Carter...if you don't care to look past the surface. Even The New York Times has been throwing around "crisis in confidence" callbacks; but in truth, the similarities are practically non-existent.
Unlike the 1970s, when OPEC was deliberately strangling the oil supply, there really is no shortage of oil or even of gasoline. Oil is still being slurped up and refined into gasoline. Even the mechanics of the pipeline hadn't been affected directly by DarkSide's attack.
The only problem interfering with the pipeline — until it was resolved on Wednesday night — was that Colonial Pipeline Company's billing system had been knocked out. They couldn't get paid, so they stopped delivering to their customers.
It could still be delivered by truck, and the Biden administration even declared a state of emergency in order to relax regulations around that method of transport. And even if tanker trucks hadn't been an option — admittedly, there weren't enough drivers to meet demand — this was always understood to be a temporary situation.
Because of the professionalism of the criminals involved, there was never a question of getting the pipeline — or the company's accounting system — up and running. It was just a question of whether it would take a few days or something in excess of a week.
It turned out that it took about five days to get the system back online, and it's expected to take several more to get it back up to 100%. In other words, a full tank of gas would probably have lasted most people through this "gas crisis" without sending gas prices skyrocketing. So what happened?
The Viral Gas Hoarders
People freaked out. Like the toilet paper debacle of 2020, what should have been a minor issue of supply chains adjusting to a new normal became a serious problem thanks to the selfish overreactions of the worst among us.
As soon as the news hit that there could be some minor shortages and a temporary price increase, the panic started. Images and videos of people filling car trunks and truck beds with plastic gas cans were outdone by the people filling plastic buckets, storage bins, and massive tote tanks.
Never mind the fact that many plastics will warp or dissolve in the presence of gasoline. These people weren't going to let a temporary shortage pass them by without panic-buying.
While perhaps the most iconic example — a video of a woman filling plastic bags with gasoline — turned out to actually be from 2019, the panic was real. And it was viral in more ways than one.
Let's say one person decides to fill an extra 20 gallons of standard gasoline containers at the pump. They take about twice as long as they usually would, and a small line of cars starts to form. Someone driving by sees that line and decides that this gas crisis thing must be real, and figures — even though they have more than half a tank — they should fill up now, before things get worse.
Next thing you know, that line of cars is spilling into the street, the gas station is starting to run low, and people are calling and texting friends and loved ones, sharing images of the gridlock on social media, encouraging others to take this "gas shortage" seriously and fill up any vehicles and containers they have. And so the virus of gas panic spreads…
1800 lb rated trailer, 1000 lb rated strap, 3000 lbs of fuel with no hazmat placard LET'S GOOOOOOOOO https://t.co/Q8zRmu0uOV— Hunter Biden's laptop repair guy (@Hunter Biden's laptop repair guy) 1620780355.0
A Long-Term Solution?
But now that there's light at the end of the tunnel for this temporary panic, how do we ensure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again? After all, if DarkSide had approached this with more malicious intent, it could likely have been much worse.
So how do we secure our critical energy infrastructure to prevent this kind of issue in the future? If we take it for granted that we probably can't change human nature enough to stop people from panicking and hoarding at the first sign of an issue, there are still a number of options.
For a start, we could mandate comprehensive cybersecurity for companies that provide critical services, preventing this kind of ransomware attack from happening in the first place. Or we could even nationalize pipelines so a profit motive and disrupted billing don't get in the way of delivering what people need.
But there will always be vulnerabilities in a system that relies on centralized infrastructure like pipelines. The most important solution is to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels altogether. If electric vehicles charged by decentralized power sources — e.g. home solar panels — were the norm in the U.S., a gas shortage would be nearly meaningless, and there would be no central energy hub vulnerable to attack.
Clean Energy solutions are staring you in the face, waiting for you to wake up and use them. Maybe If we didn't re… https://t.co/QbPYe5mZyT— Jerome Foster II (@Jerome Foster II) 1620917967.0
Renewables should be at the center of any push for energy security. Even the issues with the Texas power grid during February's freezing weather — though falsely attributed to wind power by many on the Right — were mostly due to issues with fossil fuels and private greed. Widespread adoption of small-scale solar power could actually have buffered the grid against the worst outcomes.
This would also be a great way to avoid the environmental and societal damage of pipeline leaks and spills, like the 2020 instance of more than a million gallons of gasoline spilling out of the Colonial Pipeline in a North Carolina town. While that's perhaps the worst pipeline incident in America's history, there's no shortage of competition, with significant damage to natural habitats and crucial water supplies.
And, as long as we're on the topic of pollution, it's worth pointing out that, if we don't make a dramatic shift off of fossil fuels, climate change is going to get so much worse. They are the single greatest source pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding energy to complex weather systems, and making freak incidents like February's polar vortex far more common and devastating.
So if you hate gas crises almost as much as you hate the gradual collapse of civilization as a shifting climate brings on natural disasters, disrupting food production and displacing communities around the world, then the obvious way forward is to treat fossil fuels as the evil that they are and to shift away from them as quickly as we possibly can.
Or we can embrace our Mad Max future, let the hoarding virus take us, and start lining up to fill our buckets with guzzoline...
Can one small YouTube channel heal the world? Probably not, but at least Climate Town is trying.
Rollie Williams is a lot of things: "dracula apologist," "guy who couldn't find a men's jumpsuit that fit him," "surprisingly big on billiards YouTube," and "happy just to be nominated."
But what he is, most of all, is a graduate student at Columbia University, studying Climate Science. And he's recently started putting his studies to good use, sharing his knowledge of the causes, consequences, and solutions to environmental degradation in an entertaining and informative series of videos on his YouTube channel, Climate Town.
Though he hasn't been working on Climate Town for long — the first of video went up in August of 2020 — his infrequent, high-effort videos, filmed around New York City on a shoestring budget supported by Patreon donations, have already started attracting some big views. Since Williams averages about one video a month, you can watch the entire repertoire in a little over an hour, but you'll come away from that hour with some insights that are likely to stick with you.
2 Minutes Of Fact-Checkable Climate Change Facts For Skeptics | Climate Townwww.youtube.com
Because while jokes about Al Gore ("America's lamest cool guy") and shots of Williams in his underwear — fishing a laptop out of a pond — make Climate Town a lot more palatable and funny, the series is built on a foundation of solid research into the sordid history of environmental research and policy. And if you think you already know the dirty details of climate change, prepare discover entire new layers of filth.
Williams, with the help of "a ragtag team of climate communicators, creatives and comedians," goes deep into the receipts in these videos. He reveals how car companies, politicians, pundits, and oil companies have shaped America to serve their interests — with no regard for the irreversible damage they were doing to the Earth.
And that doesn't just include stuff like lobbying against climate legislation and spreading lies about how wind energy and the Green New Deal somehow caused the catastrophic power outages in Texas. Climate Town also picks apart some of the favorite band-aids a lot of us like to place our hopes in when staring into the gaping wound of humanity's impact on the planet.
Carbon Offsets! Can't we just buy our way out of climate change?www.youtube.com
It turns out that around 85% of carbon offsets don't do anything at all, the majority of your "carbon footprint" has nothing to do with what your individual activity, and most plastic recycling is (mostly) a lie. As nice as all of these concepts are, the reality is that they were all thought up as marketing gimmicks to shift the blame off of major corporations who might otherwise have been held responsible for the destruction of the earth.
It turns out that people don't love it when massively profitable companies ravage the planet, but what are they supposed to do? Be less profitable?
No, it's historically been much cheaper to convince people that individual action like recycling can solve the problem (even though that little recycling symbol doesn't belong on most plastics), or that the corporations involved are already doing enough to fix it (they're not).
So it's all hopeless, right? GM set out to create an America that was built around gas-powered cars, and they succeeded. And Exxon worked to infiltrate the first Bush administration, then undermined our shot at global climate cooperation.
The Time America Almost Stopped Climate Change | Climate Townwww.youtube.com
They won; humanity lost; planet over, right? Well, as unpleasant as it is to hear about how close we've come in the past to avoiding our current problems, it's probably not quite that bad yet, and Climate Town videos always end with a note of optimism — with suggestions for how viewers can push for the kind of radical climate policy we're going to need if we want to save the world.
It remains to be seen if humanity has what it takes to clean up after ourselves, but looking at how we got here and how we can move forward is a necessary part of the massive, all-important struggle ahead of us. In a sane world, this kind of accounting would occupy most of our news and political media, as we prepare to face the defining crisis of our era.
But while the world might not be sane just yet, Climate Town is, and it makes the whole mess a little bit easier to digest.
On March 22nd, Senator Bernie Sanders and Elon Musk entered a debate over the fate of the world.
It began when Sanders published a very in-character tweet. "We are in a moment in American history where two guys — Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos — own more wealth than the bottom 40% of people in this country," he wrote. "That level of greed and inequality is not only immoral. It is unsustainable."
Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO who briefly surpassed Jeff Bezos in early 2021 to become the wealthiest man in the world, had a ready-made response. In a Tweet, he wrote, "I am accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars."
@cleantechnica I am accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars— Elon Musk (@Elon Musk) 1616304691.0
Sanders's reply remained laser-focused on his lifelong mission to fight income inequality on Earth. He wrote, "Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don't go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare. The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy."
Musk's starry-eyed statement has since faded into the ether of Twitter, but the context of this debate raises larger questions about futuristic technologies, the present-day interests and needs of humans on Earth, and the ongoing battle between them.
Billionaires dream of flying machines
As the Earth speeds towards irreversible climate disaster, many people's minds have naturally turned towards the stars. The distant, spinning nebulae and gleaming planets above us have long been idealized as potential escape routes for the unhappily earthbound.
But as the climate crisis grows more dire on Earth and space travel ramps up, thanks to ambitious patrons, some (like Elon Musk) have proposed that space may be our best shot at collective survival.
Famously, Musk founded SpaceX because he believed that NASA was not working hard enough to bring humans to Mars, and he feared that humanity is approaching its last chance to escape Earth before our planet becomes an uninhabitable hellscape.
His fellow Bernie Sanders nemesis Jeff Bezos has expressed similarly apocalyptic concerns. Bezos, who founded a rocket and aerospace travel company called Blue Origin in 2000, recently stepped down from his position as CEO of Amazon, claiming he planned on investing more time in his work with Blue Origin and his efforts to fight climate change.
Like Musk, Bezos aims to colonize space by investing ambitiously in new technologies that could help people reach the stars. And also like Musk, he fears for the future of civilization — and sees space as the place where these problems might be solved.
"Hundreds of years into the future, we will move all the polluting industries to space and other planets, where we have infinite resources for all practical purposes and Earth will only be (used for) light industries and residential," Bezos stated in a conversation with Amazon India chief Amit Agarwal in New Delhi.
This plan, which Bezos calls the New Inversion, is a long-term vision that would effectively move all pollution to the cosmos. "I would think, kind of [a] time frame of hundreds of years," Bezos added, reiterating that "we have to preserve this planet and we can do that using the resources of space."
The "space escape" as an escape route for the super-rich
Bezos, Musk, and their future-focused peers may claim that their plans to reach the stars are efforts to ensure a future for humanity, but their own reputations and vast fortunes have raised many questions about who this interplanetary future would actually serve.
At the moment, the future of space travel appears to be reserved for the super-rich — the sort of people who are already least affected by earthly calamities like climate change, despite unleashing the vast majority of the world's carbon emissions. For example, private spaceflight companies such as Axiom reportedly charge up to $55 million to send travelers into specially designed rooms located in the International Space Station.
It is likely that even if space travel begins to evolve in step with Moore's law (the theory that computers' processing power tends to double every two years), whatever world we build in the cosmos will remain reserved for the 1% for quite a long time. In this light, the futures preached by techno-prophets like Bezos and Musk start to look like thin cloaks for a kind of moon-eyed eugenics that would leave billions of people in the literal dust.
"The space barons are shrewdly — one might say cynically — tapping into our respect for astronauts and our idealism about what space represents," Ceridwen Dovey writes in The New Yorker. "They seem to be counting on us to be awestruck by whatever it is they do in space, and to overlook the fact that their motives are not exactly pure, nor are their methods of getting us there egalitarian."
Humans are drawn to mystery and beauty, and space is such a tantalizing frontier that it's difficult to completely write off billionaires' ambitious plans to penetrate it, even though we know their earthly work typically involves hoarding vast amounts of wealth while underpaying and mistreating masses of workers.
The ongoing battle between technological innovation and human-centered reform
Similar contradictions plague a multitude of existing plans to address climate change on Earth, and they are particularly endemic to plans broadcasted by corporate entities who have nothing to gain and everything to lose from substantial climate action.
For example, Jeff Bezos recently pledged $10 billion of his $188 billion net worth to the Bezos Earth Fund, yet his overall approach to climate and philanthropy has continuously come under fire.
First, there's the fact that despite all his talk of concern about climate change, Bezos's company continues to belch out carbon emissions, releasing around 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 – up 15% from the previous year despite various green pledges. The company has also been slammed with reports about its poor treatment of workers, and prior to the Capitol riots, Bezos also reportedly donated thousands of dollars to conservative politicians such as progressive disruptor-in-chief Mitch McConnell.
Then there's the fact that Bezos failed to donate more than roughly 0.1% of his net worth prior to his 2020 donations — and the latter comprised less than 8% of his vast net worth, a sum that, along with Musk's wealth, is equivalent to the collective wealth of the United States's poorest 40% of people.
The $10 billion Bezos did donate via the Earth Fund was also met with criticism, particularly from groups invested in climate justice. The vast majority of Bezos's donations went to established environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund, most of which already possess endowments in the millions. Critics said that many of these contributions will never reach communities already subject to the worst effects of climate-caused floods, wildfires, pollution, and destruction, and many of their ultimate goals involve conserving an existing status quo rather than addressing interconnected crises like racism and economic inequality.
In a statement released in December, a group of community-focused NGOs called the Climate Justice Alliance released a statement in protest of Bezos's donations. It found that "less than a quarter of the first-round grants will go to intermediary funds that support thousands of grassroots communities cultivating solutions on the frontlines of the climate emergency. The inequities couldn't be more striking."
This could also be said of the work of many of the "Big Green" environmental groups, particularly those historically focused on conservation rather than human-focused social change. Conservation movements have historically been bound up with white supremacy, and a look at the bigger picture reveals that white supremacy created and perpetuates the conditions for climate change, itself is an inherently racist crisis.
Other billionaires and corporations' efforts have been subject to similar critiques. For example, Elon Musk recently launched a competition offering $50 million to whomever could invent the best carbon capture techniques. Carbon capture technology has long been an alluring yet elusive potential solution to climate change, and it has also been the recipient of generous funding.
Despite all this investment, no miracle technology with the ability to stop climate change has ever emerged, and waiting for one feels more and more like waiting for a doomsday savior who will never arrive.
False promises further threaten any chance of climate action
An April 2020 study from Lancaster University argues against promises that glorify miraculous technologies, because "overreliance on promises of new technology to solve climate change is enabling delay."
Hinging the solution of climate change on miraculous technological breakthroughs like ice-restoration, nuclear fusion power, massive carbon-eating machines, and extraterrestrial offshoring can "feed systemic 'moral corruption', in which current elites are enabled to pursue self-serving pathways, while passing off risk onto vulnerable people in the future and in the global South," say researchers Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson, who encourage "cultural, social and political transformation" over placing hopes in instant solutions.
It seems that any genuine "cultural, social and political transformation" will not come directly from billionaires and massive corporations, who naturally often benefit most from current cultural, social, and political structures and hierarchies. Recent corporate efforts to combat climate change have been hollow and hypocritical; and many corporations are being accused of greenwashing as they release statements and pledges that appear to be commitments to fighting climate change but that are really efforts to deflect opposition.
A January 2021 report from the Sierra Club entitled "The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges" graded utility companies on their plans to cut emissions and transition to clean energy solutions and issued many failing grades to companies that have released "carbon neutral" pledges and similar statements. "
The infuriating truth is that many utilities are not only protecting their coal plants from retirement, but are also actively planning to build out climate destabilizing gas plants," said Mary Anne Hitt, who is the Director of Campaigns at the Sierra Club. "The consequences of allowing utilities to continue to delay the transition to clean energy will be particularly disastrous for low-income communities and communities of color."
Learning from the people and the planet
So where will change come from, if not rockets to stars or carbon pledges or the latest addictive inventions of Silicon Valley coders? Perhaps the answer is not above us but rather below our feet. Perhaps we have everything we need already here on Earth.
"We already have a safe and natural technology for carbon capture and storage (CCS)," writes Francis Seymour in a report for the Center for Global Development. It's called 'tropical forests.'"
We already have everything we need to transition to clean energy, and we already have enough food to feed the world's population. What is needed is a redistribution of wealth and resources — something billionaires, conservative politicians, and oil companies have fought against since climate change was exposed as a dangerous reality in the '80s.
Slowly but surely, the idea of wealth redistribution as an investment in fighting climate change is seeping into reality in the form of modern politics. Joe Biden's infrastructure plan will be paid for, in part, by taxing the super-rich. Still, there's a long way to go.
As things grow more dire, environmentalists increasingly view a cross-racial, cross-class movement as the only feasible solution to climate change. This framework, long supported by environmental justice movements and knitted into intersectional plans like the Green New Deal, sees the solutions to climate change as bound up with ending capitalism, racial injustice, and other interconnected global plagues.
The new vanguard of the climate movement also acknowledges how important Indigenous knowledge of land stewardship and conservation, frontline communities' understanding of environmental racism and the stakes of the climate crisis, and ongoing working class and BIPOC struggles for justice are to any just transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy.
Clearly, billionaires' expensive efforts to colonize space would be low on the priority list of any intersectional response to climate change.
Is there any place for space in the climate fight?
All this being said, it's unlikely that humans will ever totally abandon our desire to explore distant galaxies. Our desire to know the cosmos is as innate as our childhood desires to explore the deep green mysteries of the nearby woods. Fortunately, we don't have to write space exploration out completely in the fight for Earth.
Actually, Jeff Bezos wasn't wrong when he said space could be key to helping us fight climate change. NASA, the UN, and other organizations have consistently reported that some solutions to the climate crisis might be found through space-based technology capable of deepening our understanding of the climate crisis and providing key evidence of its effects.
For example, satellites can detect changing temperature levels, rising sea levels, and other factors that could be vital in the current global effort to halt warming at 1.5°C. On a more theoretical level, thinking about how alien civilizations may have responded to climate change could help us address our own situation.
It seems that for now, space travel's greatest contribution is its ability to help humans look back at Earth — either to measure its changes or to feel awed by what Carl Sagan called our "pale blue dot," as many astronauts have been when they viewed Earth from space and experienced the famous "Overview Effect." (Upon seeing the Earth from space, astronauts report a newfound sense of compassion for and responsibility to the planet and for the interconnected webs of life that live upon it).
Plus, the sheer ambition of the space race provides an excellent blueprint for the kind of effort it will take to actually address the climate crisis. All in all, there is room for space travel within a just transition to an ethical future.
But for now, it seems that the "light of consciousness," as Elon Musk put it, would be best directed towards Earth's living, breathing beings rather than towards a few billionaires and their efforts to further puncture the edges of our already damaged, airless, eternally silent atmosphere.
Lately, a lot of conversation has been bubbling up about the Senate filibuster.
It's been called a "Jim Crow relic" by former president Obama, and Mitch McConnell threatened to launch a "nuclear winter" if the Senate attempts to end it. Increasingly, Democrats want to end it completely. So what is it, and why does it matter so much?
What Is the Filibuster?
The filibuster is a political strategy used by the Senate to delay, and often kill, votes on bills. Traditionally, a filibuster would mean that the resisting senator would stand on the floor and speak, sometimes for days, against a certain legislative effort.
When a senator utilizes the filibuster, they can delay a vote as long as they wish to — unless three fifths of senators, currently 60 out of 100, vote to move forward.
Nowadays, senators aren't even required to speak in order to deploy this tactic—they can essentially sign a note and curtail almost any legislation using the filibuster. (There's also currently an exception to this rule called budget reconciliation that fast-tracks bills related to the federal budget and only related to the federal budget).
The Constitution does not include a filibuster. Instead, our founding document states that bills should only require simple majorities to pass, not supermajorities. Exceptions to this are impeachment charges, the expulsion of members of Congress, overriding presidential vetoes, and creating constitutional amendments.
The Founding Fathers were very clear: They did not want a minority party to be able to dictate what should be majority rule —and in fact were fearful of this outcome.
In its first iteration, the U.S. Senate reconciled debates by voting on whether to end debates, thus moving a bill to an actual vote.
This changed when in 1806, Vice President Aaron Burr argued that this process of voting on whether to vote (called the previous-question motion) was redundant, as it was rarely ever used, and so it was ended. Inadvertently, Burr created a loophole that made it theoretically possible for senators to infinitely delay votes — and hence, we have the glacially slow, perpetually blocked governmental body that we know today.
First of all, we have to understand what the filibuster is. It's ANY MEASURE that stops a vote. That's it. That's… https://t.co/x2BwFCig0u— Michael Harriot (@Michael Harriot) 1616550099.0
What Has the Filibuster Been Used for, and How Has It Evolved?
One thing that stands out about the filibuster: It has consistently been used to curtail the rights of Black Americans.
Once rarely used in policy decisions, the filibuster only came into frequent use during the Civil War era, when Southern states would often deploy it in defense of slavery and while blocking anti-slavery legislation.
John C. Calhoun, sometimes referred to as the "grandfather of the confederacy," was an important figure in developing the modern, common filibuster. "He did it for the express purpose of increasing the power of the slaveholding class," says Adam Jentleson, whose book Kill Switch details the rise of the modern Senate. "What he saw at this time — this was around the 1830s and 1840s — was that slaveholders and slave states were becoming steadily outpowered in Congress. And so, he knew that if majority rule was allowed to continue, slavery was going to end."
The filibuster was a solution to this issue and one of the reasons why the government remained incapable of simply ending slavery through democracy.
The filibuster was used throughout the 1800s and 1900s, with politicians challenging its legitimacy to various degrees without success. Woodrow Wilson edited it during WWI, after the Senate used it to stop him from arming ships against German U-Boats. With the help of public outcry, Wilson established Rule 22, which allows a two-thirds majority vote to invoke "cloture" — a rule that, essentially, limits filibustering to 30 hours.
From then on, the filibuster basically remained the same, though in 1975 the number of votes needed for a supermajority was changed to 60. Because earning a 60-vote majority is still quite difficult, the filibuster has remained an effective way for minority rule to block legislation.
Even after the Civil War, the filibuster was used to codify racial violence; for example, in 1922, the filibuster was used to defeat the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Famously, the filibuster was also used to block civil rights legislation up until 1964. In protest of the Civil Rights Act, lawmakers filibustered for 57 days, until public pressure rose high enough for a supermajority to invoke cloture. Eventually, the supermajority necessary for cloture was changed to 60; but yet again, the filibuster remained firmly in place.
Since then, the filibuster has been used for various purposes on all sides of the political spectrum. It was the reason why George W. Bush couldn't overhaul immigration legislation and why Barack Obama couldn't pass climate legislation (or all that much of anything). It is the reason why bills still go to the Senate to die.
What Would Happen if the Filibuster Ended?
Without the filibuster, the Senate would be much more volatile than it is today. It's possible that massive amounts of legislation could pass — and then be reversed, should the Senate majority's political leanings change.
But Democrats have good reason to end the filibuster now (which is probably why Mitch McConnell is so scared). At the moment, Democrats want to enact a piece of voting rights legislation called the For the People Act. Among other things, the act would increase access to absentee voting, extend early voting, allow for same-day registration, and generally would make it easier for people to vote.
"In the wake of an unprecedented assault on our democracy, a never before seen effort to ignore, undermine, and undo the will of the people, and a newly aggressive attack on voting rights taking place right now all across the country, this landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen American democracy," the White House said in a statement.
Naturally, most Republicans hate the For the People Act as much as they hate the idea of getting rid of the filibuster. Their looming fear: The Democrat's proposed voting rights reforms could make it much easier for Democrats to hold onto power. As of now, the bill passed in the House but of course has no chance of passing in the Senate, thanks to the filibuster.
Without the filibuster, Democrats would also have a shot at passing significant voting rights reforms, climate legislation, stricter gun control laws, and immigration reforms. They would be able to achieve their goals of fighting student debt, taxing the super-wealthy, making healthcare more affordable, and more.
The vast majority of the American people want Washington to act to bring down gun violence. Voters elected a Democr… https://t.co/jraOwNAyGL— Elizabeth Warren (@Elizabeth Warren) 1616613409.0
Of course, the Democrats have an extremely slim majority in the Senate, and many Democratic senators are more centrist than progressive (see: Joe Manchin), meaning that achieving these goals would still require a serious fight even if the filibuster ended.
How Could the Senate End the Filibuster?
There are two ways the Senate could end the filibuster. 60 out of 100 senators could vote to end it, which will never happen in our current version of reality.
Or, senators could use a complex series of political moves sometimes referred to as the "nuclear option," which basically involves three steps: First, a senator objects to a cloture ruling. Then the presiding officer rules this objection out of order, and a simple majority of senators could then vote to overturn that ruling, thus "blowing up" traditional Senate policies.
This "nuclear option" has already been utilized across party lines. Democrats used it to confirm some of Barack Obama's nominees, and Republicans—led by Mitch McConnell—used it to confirm Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominees. (Yes, McConnell, now the world's biggest filibuster proponent, paused it so he could ram Supreme Court nominees through the system).
Actually ending the filibuster is a long shot, but Democrats know this may be their only chance to pass any significant social and political reforms. For his part, Joe Biden has not advocated for the end of the filibuster, but rather he supports the reinstitution of the "talking filibuster" — the "good old days" version of the filibuster where senators have to actually stand up and talk in order to obstruct the passage of a bill.
"It's getting to the point where, you know, democracy is having a hard time functioning," Biden told ABC.
Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema also said they would not vote to end the filibuster, though Manchin did say he supports making it "more difficult to use," which many centrist-leaning Democrats see as a promising option.
Still, despite the odds, those who support ending the filibuster see it as a life-or-death issue, as it's quite possibly the only way to make true progress on inequality, gun control, healthcare, and other issues.
Currently, it seems that the Senate is hurtling towards a high-stakes battle for the future of the filibuster, with both sides ramping up their efforts to intimidate each other. McConnell's threats to initiate a "scorched-earth Senate" if the filibuster is abolished has only encouraged those who want to end the filibuster, as it's clear he's genuinely afraid and believes there is a chance it could end.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been repeating the phrase, "Everything is on the table" in response to questions about the fate of the tactic. Indeed, everything is on the table, including the state of our present and future. The question is whether or not we can learn from the past.
What does hope look like if our society is incapable of facing reality?
A 2020 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change shows that polar ice sheets are melting in line with "worst-case scenario" climate models.
In Antarctica and Greenland, melting ice sheets have been dumping hundreds of billions of tons of fresh water into the ocean each year, at a rate up to three times as fast as in recent decades.
This process not only raises water levels—causing dramatic increases in catastrophic storm surges—it alters the salinity, current dynamics, and acidity of the oceans in ways that have dire ecological and meteorological impacts. It is guaranteed to produce both predictable crises and unforeseen catastrophes. And nobody cares.
Why would they? We're in the midst of a global pandemic that is triggering an unprecedented economic crisis. It has caused food insecurity to affect millions more families than were already struggling, and may soon result in tens of millions of Americans losing their homes.
On top of that, California has faced another devastating wildfire season (including another "gender-reveal" gone wrong) amid a record-breaking heatwave and the now-familiar drought conditions, all while a tumultuous hurricane season in the Atlantic is producing powerful storms at a faster rate than in any year since we started keeping track.
The world—and the US in particular—has more pressing concerns than melting ice in 2020, don't we? Well, considering the fact that the "worst-case scenario" for climate change could bring about the collapse of civilization within 30 years, no we really don't.
We can't make the changes to avoid that scenario overnight. It will take years of change that will need to be done sooner, rather than later. Oh, and now scientists are advising the need for a new model of a worse worst-case scenario...
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked unforeseen havoc on our society, but it's really just a snapshot of the kind of devastation that climate change will inevitably bring about without the kind of transformational action that is beginning to seem impossible.
Congress can't agree to help people keep their homes during an unprecedented unemployment crisis. What chance do we have that they will stand up to lobbyists and big-business donors to restructure our economy into a sustainable model? Does it even matter how big the threat is? Does it matter that everything we're facing is only going to get worse?
Because not only will hurricanes, droughts, floods, heat waves, food shortages, wildfires, gradually get worse and worse as a result of climate change—until the crises of 2020 become a fond memory—but infectious diseases are likely to reach epidemic and pandemic levels more frequently.
With traditional food sources destroyed by weather events and the changing oceans—along with animals migrating due to deforestation—people will be exposed to more exotic animals, and non-human viruses will have more opportunity to make the leap.
With more and more heat waves reaching and exceeding body temperature for days at a time, microbes that can't currently survive inside our bodies will begin adapting into dangerous pathogens.
And with tens of millions of people being displaced by catastrophic weather events and conflicts arising from scarce resources—most of them forced into crowded conditions—infectious diseases new and old will spread more rapidly.
We will perpetually be dealing with some new epidemic. Some urgent disaster is always going to occupy our attention and energy while we continue to ignore the underlying, apocalyptic cause. And all of these problems will only make it easier for the rising strain of global fascism to demonize outsiders, and further isolate nations from the kind of international cooperation we so desperately need.
At what point are we expecting to have fewer "pressing concerns" than we have right now? In what idyllic future will we have the peace and security to start focusing on addressing the hazy, foundational threat that is likely to destabilize everything we know?
As a pandemic rages, America's two-parties continue to be incapable of cooperating to help the American people—of making the other side look good. Our aging, wealthy ruling class doesn't take threats facing younger generations and the working class seriously. And this familiar rot of a two-party stalemate is even more evident in the challenge of forming a consensus behind pragmatic, necessary action like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's Green New Deal.
Instead of backing it, and favoring the long-term habitability of our only planet, people prefer to scoff at an imagined plan to steal their hamburgers. And corporate-owned media empires are happy to serve up the team-sports drama of it all while the end of everything we know rushes toward us. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is preparing for global societal destabilization.
The dynamics of American "democracy" under capitalism seem to be wholly incapable of saving us, and the structure of the military industrial complex will no doubt view the crises that arise from displaced people and global unrest as a series of nails to be handled by their ever-more-sophisticated hammers.
There is a famous quote of uncertain attribution that says that, within our system, "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism." It's becoming increasingly easy to see that end to the world looming, while the armor protecting the forces of for-profit ecological ruination show no signs of weakening.
In astrophysics there is a concept known as the Fermi Paradox that questions why—if the conditions for producing intelligent life are not exceedingly rare—we do not see any evidence of other civilizations spread across the vastness of space.
The Fermi Paradox II — Solutions and Ideas – Where Are All The Aliens?www.youtube.com
There are various responses that may explain that observation, but among the most popular is the idea that civilizations just don't last. The forces of progress that allow creatures to develop technology like radio transmitters and spacecraft may lead inevitably to world-ending weapons or climate collapse.
Whether that's true throughout the universe, it seems increasingly to be the case for the only confirmed civilization in the Milky Way. For all our amazing advances, we remain stupid apes,—incapable of planning beyond next month, and constantly discovering new and clever ways to kill ourselves.
It's customary—in an article this dark—to end on a hopeful note. That makes sense. It's generally considered rude to actively ruin a stranger's day. But isn't it also rude to lie? Because I'm not convinced that there is any real hope for our civilization—not in the long run.
Sure, we can find some ways to delay and mitigate the damage. Pointing to 2050 as the likely end is probably overly pessimistic. If we do a surprisingly good job of adapting, legislating, and cooperating—and also get very lucky—we may have a couple good generations left.
In that case, most of the people reading this are likely to be dead of all the familiar causes before the total collapse of world order. Only our children or grandchildren—and however many generations after—will be forced to face the immense suffering of a new dark age.
That is the sad shade of fate that we should all be fighting for with desperate passion—because it's a hair shy of pure black void. Better than that, at this point, seems to be in the realm of fantasy.
We've already done so much irreversible harm. And the path we're on is so resistant to change. It would be wonderful—joyous—to be proven wrong, but the society and the way of life we know can't last. And there's no indication we'll be able to replace it in time.
Maybe our only realistic hope is to drastically lower our expectations. Short of saving the world as we know it, maybe we can keep portions of the planet habitable—maybe an enclave in the region around Colorado and another in the Mongolian steppe will hang onto less-than-hellish conditions. Maybe we need to start planning for the post-apocalypse.
With preparation, little pockets around the world could maintain a lifestyle that's worth living for some sizable remainder of humankind—even if they have to do without most of the luxuries afforded by global stability—the electronics, transportation, medicines, supply chains, entertainment, and communication we take for granted.
A return to something closer to pre-industrial conditions is likely for survivors of the collapse, but maybe—for some fraction of the population—life won't become a living hell.
And maybe, somewhere out in the universe, there is an some alien species that has managed to survive the pitfalls of progress and achieve a sustainable, equitable, idyllic life. Maybe they're watching us, waiting to see how we handle ourselves—to see if we learn our lesson from this impending apocalypse—before they swoop in and share their utopia.
If we peer far enough into distant uncertainty, it's possible to conceive of something better after the end of Western Civilization—after likely billions of deaths and immeasurable suffering.
Does that count as hope? Is that enough to spit up the black pill of despair?
Earth Week NYC saw climate activists deftly pivoting from IRL to digital actions. Here's a look at how they did it.
Earth Week NYC wasn't supposed to look this way.
Just a month ago, climate activists were planning a massive in-person rally and a three-day sequence of curated protests in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Earth Week NYC was meant to recapture the spirit of the first Earth Day celebrations, which took place in 1970 and brought nearly 20 million Americans into the streets, while uplifting the movement's modern and more intersectional demands.
Instead, most of the climate movement's energetic young activists—like most of the rest of us should be—are at home in their houses. But that hasn't stopped them from organizing. Over the past few weeks, a three-day event that was supposed to pull thousands into the streets shifted almost entirely online.
"The Earth Week NYC coalition switched to a fully digital strategy almost overnight once large gatherings were banned in the city," said Ted Bogin, a member of the youth-led climate organization Sunrise NYC. "We built a website, earthweeknyc.com, that allows anyone to fight for climate justice at home with tools and scripts for calling and emailing our elected representatives, among other ways."
Events and actions moved to Instagram, Facebook Live, Slack, and Zoom. In-person office visits turned into email blasts and telephone calls. In preparation, climate activists hosted digital community care workshops, drafted emails, and crafted mutual aid resources and teach-ins.
The themes of each day remained in place as planned. Earth Week NYC consisted of three themed days, each dedicated to a different aspect of climate action. The first day's theme was "Strike," the second day's was "Divest," and the third was "Vote."
On the first day, Earth Day, young organizers took to social media to post images of themselves holding signs, calling for a Green New Deal, a People's Bailout, and other climate and social justice actions. Some activists even banded together for a socially distanced banner drop in New York City.
On the second day, activists lobbied with Stop the Money Pipeline, an organization dedicated to ending Wall Street's support of fossil fuels. Participants were encouraged to make calls to the CEOs of BlackRock, JP Morgan, Chase, and Liberty Mutual, using scripts to request fossil fuel divestment. (One terrifying statistic kept appearing: Wall Street has poured $1.9 trillion into the fossil fuel industry since 2015).
On the third day, which centered around voting, lobbying, and teach-ins, the NYC coalition sent out toolkits full of lesson plans for teachers, asked people to fill out their censuses, and called on everyone to reach out to their representatives and to encourage their friends to vote for climate champions. Championed in part by Fridays for Future, the organization first inspired by Greta Thunberg, Friday's actions (like the rest of the week's) focused on the intersections between social justice and climate change and the vital importance of local, indigenous-led, people-powered action.
All of it was supplemented by a flurry of online activities, including a three-day, all-day live broadcast hosted by the Future Coalition. Featuring politicians like Elizabeth Warren and John Kerry, musicians like Jason Mraz, and hundreds of other superstar activists and musicians, the livestream was a rousing marathon, a display of unity in the face of a brutal pandemic and the looming reality of the climate crisis.
Despite activists' best efforts, the week still suffered from a sense of inevitable disjointedness. But the climate crisis, with all its intersecting forces and causes and consequences, has never been an easy or cohesive thing to fight.
Back in the 1970s, activists were fighting against visible consequences of environmental degradation—rivers in flame, birds falling from the sky—but now we fight against a more invisible but much more insidious monster: rising global temperatures and the inequity that created and continues to perpetuate them.
Today, April 24, the last day of #EarthWeekNYC, we come together to envision the future we want. Join us!… https://t.co/XNsJxJujkJ— Extinction Rebellion NYC 🌎 (@Extinction Rebellion NYC 🌎) 1587716018.0
.@AOC on #EarthDayLive right now! The Green New Deal is in plain English to know exactly what to stand for: 1. D… https://t.co/mawF5KhUrZ— Greenpeace USA (@Greenpeace USA) 1587764568.0
Still, today's climate activists are used to shifting strategies on a dime and fighting rampant misinformation as well as apathy and inequality.
"Our demands include a people's bailout, prioritizing and funding those who have been hit first and worst by COVID-19 and the current recession, including, but not limited to, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities," reads an op-ed by the Youth Climate Strike Coalition, published last month in Teen Vogue. Additional demands include a Green New Deal that transitions the economy to 100% clean energy by 2030 and the return of stolen Indigenous lands.
Careful not to praise clearing skies or temporarily lowered pollution, the modern climate movement is dedicated to addressing environmental racism and large-scale problems head-on. Gone are the days of recycling and individual guilt. Instead, the modern movement is about collective action in the face of global tragedy.
The climate movement is all about the intersections that tie all things together—the land, the people, the economy, and even the digital world. In a way, perhaps the modern climate movement is uniquely well-suited to online action. "As one of the social media coordinators for the Sunrise NYC hub, I've seen our channels swell in importance and reach as people isolated in their homes connect with us digitally," said Jon Kirsch, an organizer with Sunrise NYC. "It's been tremendously exciting seeing Earth Week NYC take shape the past few months." Perhaps the digital world, which thrives on connection, is an ideal vehicle for the modern climate movement.
Regardless, the movement will not be giving up anytime soon. Populist activists have always been up against shadowy, malicious powers, winning seemingly impossible battles and fighting for justice in the short and long term. Now, more than ever, most agree that change is imperative.
"New Yorkers have made their demands for Climate Justice heard, and the fight will continue on (digitally for now) after Earth Week," said Bluedorn. "Fighting for Climate Justice is more important in this moment than ever, as we fight to reimagine what a more just and equitable world can look like."
For more information and to get involved with the movement, visit https://www.earthweeknyc.com.
What can nature teach us about responding to two massive crises?
The mycelium is a type of fungi that thrives on decomposition.
Spores germinate and multiply, forming mushrooms that absorb nutrients and swallowing dead plants, devouring toxins and fostering the growth of new life. It's essentially the earth's life support system, the embodiment of regeneration.
What we need now is life support, and a mycelium of relief—a multifaceted plan that understands and utilizes our interconnectedness, which could save us or that could drive us to extinction. But one thing's for certain: Our divisions are killing us. We need to let the systems that no longer serve us decompose so that new realities can come to light.
Today, though, many of us are facing a peculiar polarity. We're isolated because of a pandemic that threatens all of humanity. Yet we have failed to rally together to fight it, and if anything, political divisions have deepened in recent weeks.
We've also failed to rally around another existential threat, a parallel—and far more severe—crisis that's been bubbling under the surface of our reality for decades. The climate crisis will wreak far more havoc than the virus has, costing many more lives and changing our world on a much vaster scale. It's already contributing to rising sea levels that are flooding cities. You can see it manifesting in the wildfires that smeared California and Australia these past few years, in the tsunami that eviscerated Japan in 2011, in the bad air quality that's decimating the lungs of people living in crowded cities, and in the waves of refugees fleeing conflicts sparked by droughts and other disasters. If a climate-related disaster were to hit an area affected by COVID-19 or another pandemic, the results would be apocalyptic beyond measure.
Neither COVID or climate have easy, immediate solutions, which is part of what makes them such vast, slippery issues. Both could, of course, be solved by scientific miracles—a vaccine or a superbly effective fossil-fuel devourer—but since we can't count on those inventions, then we have to rely instead on solutions that are much more difficult to define.
We have to rely on each other, and on policies that support our most vulnerable populations as well as our most powerful. Be it a virus or a wildfire, climate change and coronavirus do far more harm to frontline communities than they affect people who can work from home or who can live off their savings. While half of the population rests on their couches, another half scrounges to eat or pulls themselves off to another brutal shift at a grocery store or in a hospital. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the brutal divisions of American society, which allow some people to safely isolate while others face extreme poverty and instability.
These divisions are largely consequences of neoliberal capitalism, a driving force behind climate change. "Let's not lose sight of the root cause of this crisis: rampant capitalism. Capitalism has steamrolled this planet and its organisms, gouging out mountains, overexploiting fish stocks, and burning fossil fuels to power the maniacal pursuit of growth and enrich a fraction of humanity," writes Matt Simon. "Since 1988, 100 corporations have been responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions."
No wonder the Earth is collapsing under our weight. But the solutions to coronavirus and climate change may just be intertwined, part of the same web of regeneration and redistribution that could lift us up and off of the edge of this cliff.
One such solution is outlined in the People's Bailout, a relief and recovery package designed by over 800 activist groups. The People's Bailout demands that Congress commit to five steps during their efforts to provide COVID-19 relief:
1. Health is the top priority, for all people, with no exceptions
2. Economic relief must be provided directly to the people
3. Rescue workers and communities, not corporate executives
4. Make a downpayment on a regenerative economy while preventing future crises
5. Protect our democratic process while protecting each other
In a world where the actual stimulus package that Congress passed provided $3 trillion of relief to major corporations (a check three times the size of Joe Biden's climate plan), all this seems far away.
But this is America, and this is humanity, and this is life, which should be an impossibility in itself. Despite our many mistakes, we have always built impossible things. We have created glorious temples and magnificent skyscrapers; we criss-crossed the world with roads; we sent men to the moon. We may not always act ethically or responsibly, but we have the power to build and we have the power to grow.
Now we are being forced to change. We have the choice to build a world that can sustain itself—for the good of not only the planet, but for the good of our own world, our own economies, our own selves.
We need plans that erode poverty and pollution and disease and convert them into new, creative solutions. Plans that start from below, from inside, from underground, from the communities that need them most, and that grow up and out towards the light. An alchemy of release and rebirth, starting from the soil and the sadness of isolation, upwards and outwards and eventually back outside, towards a future truly worth fighting for.
We need to have faith, even though it all seems impossible—because what's the alternative?
We can create a future of open fields and breathable air, of wind turbines and monthly checks that land like clockwork in our bank accounts, of fewer private jets and more bullet trains. That future seems further and further away with each devastating headline and each rising degree.
That the Earth exists at all—that we broke through the darkness, that some spore broke into the shape of life—is an impossibility in itself. Within each of us there is a longing to survive, to connect, and to heal.
In her book Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler writes, "God is change." This pandemic has shown us that everything can change on a dime. Now the question is: What kind of change do we want? What are we choosing to worship during this time? And what role can each of us play in creating it?
Visionaries Project: Rev. Chelsea MacMillan on Coronavirus, Sacred Activism, Climate, and the Apocalypse
Interspiritual minister Chelsea MacMillan talks faith and healing in a time of tremendous change.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Rev. Chelsea MacMillan is the founder of the Brooklyn Center for Sacred Activism, the co-host of the podcast The Rising: Spirituality for Revolution, and a dedicated activist, community organizer, and "warrior for peace and change." She recently taught a course called "Reclaiming the Apocalypse," and her wisdom is invaluable in these times of crisis, and always. We spoke about the overlaps between religion and spirituality, collective healing, mutual aid during coronavirus, climate change, and more.
LIBERTY PROJECT: Did you grow up spiritual, or involved in activism?
CHELSEA MACMILLAN: I grew up in a really evangelical, conservative Christian family, but I rejected it pretty early on. My parents divorced when I was like ten or eleven, and that was around the time where I realized that being a Christian doesn't mean you're a perfect person. I was just woken up to a lot of hypocrisy. I started rejecting the exclusionary attitude of the churches that we went to, and I called myself an agnostic for a while. I started to question my epistemology without realizing it, wondering why I thought the way I did.
Then I started traveling the world in a performing group, and I had a lot of really intense, magical experiences that I think were mystical experiences. I remember feeling really connected to all people and all creatures everywhere, and I felt this sense of oneness. I definitely felt spiritual, though I didn't want to put it into any form.
Then I worked on staff at a place called the Omega Institute, which is a big retreat center in the Hudson Valley. I tried out different forms of Buddhist meditation and Earth-based practices and things that were vaguely pagan or shamanic, as well as more New Agey things. But I was always really impatient with the way that spiritual communities were in terms of what was happening in the world. I couldn't really accept the idea that we were all one and that we could "be the change we wish to see" while sitting on our yoga mats. The world doesn't reflect that. Yes, it's a spiritual truth, and I've experienced that feeling of oneness and connection, but I think it doesn't do any good to just sit here and believe that. We have to realize and actualize this belief.
During one of my summers at Omega, I learned about this interfaith seminary called One Spirit. I went there and was ordained as an interspiritual minister, and it was there that I learned about sacred activism. I actually took a class with Andrew Harvey, who basically coined the term "sacred activism." He was one of the only people really talking about how activists and spiritual folks needed to come together, because there's a shadow side to both of those groups.
And I realized...this is why I came here. This is what I've been looking for my whole life. Sacred activism is the idea that activism in itself is a sacred path, because all the great spiritual teachings tell us to live our lives with compassion.
I had also been going to a lot of activist meetings and circles and thinking that the people there really needed spirituality. Everybody was so caught up in blaming and shaming. No matter what your ideology is, rigid and dogmatic ideologies are harmful. That's what I had grown up with—but now I was with the liberals, and it was the same sh*t. It wasn't loving and wasn't accepting.
Along your journey to finding the place where activism meets spirituality, are there any experiences that stand out to you as particularly formative or that you feel set you on this path?
I did have a moment recently that confirmed for me why I'm on this path. This past October, Extinction Rebellion had a global week of rebellion. We started with actions at Wall Street and threw fake blood on the bull, and we did this dramatic die-in in front of the stock exchange.
We were also doing RebelFest in Washington Square Park, which felt like an example of realizing that you don't have to perform a direct action to be disruptive. Building community is disruptive, and feeding each other for free is disruptive, and doing art together is disruptive.
That week, I also took part in the Times Square takeover with XR. We shut down an intersection with this big bright green boat, and there were 13 of us who were glued and chained to it. My comrades and I were put in the tombs, which is where they take everyone who's been arrested, and there was a woman detoxing from heroin on the floor and a pregnant woman who totally should not have been in jail. It was a really intense experience, and I remember thinking—could I go to jail for longer? Would I be willing to go to prison for this cause?
I was going through these ups and downs of feeling like I was losing my mind, and there was a moment where we all just were laughing at ridiculous things because...you lose all your power in there. You don't know [when] you're going to be let out; you're hungry and tired and dehydrated and dirty. And I was like… Could I do this more? Could I be here for months? Do I have it in me? I remember thinking, what am I called to do? How am I called to serve?
I thought of all the people who have inspired me like Dorothy Day and MLK and people who really followed that calling to make the world a better place. It's a spiritual calling.
I realized I do feel like I'm willing to sacrifice my life for building a more just and loving world. I was surprised to feel that in a moment of despair, but that's where I felt closest to God, spirit, or the great unknown. I felt like I was being called, and it felt very powerful.
What does your vision of a better world look like?
What excites me is thinking about the mystery, rather than coming up with the best plan for a bright new world. This requires us to be in the present and in the future and to bring the future into the present. When I think about a vision for the world, I ask questions like: How do I want it to feel? What does it look like, sound like, feel like?
I think what the future looks like is here now. I see it all the time. I see it with the current crisis, in the ways in which people have been jumping into action around creating and activating networks of mutual aid—and taking time to play with their kids, and rest and take walks in the park. I see it in places where we're really connecting with each other.
I think of a new world, or the future, as one in which we're taking care of each other, in which we're really connected. Can you imagine, if we really took care of each other? We wouldn't need housing justice. We'd already be doing it. We wouldn't let anybody not be cared for. We wouldn't have people going hungry, because we'd already be feeding each other.
It sounds a little overly simplistic to say all of that, but I think bringing things into the present and asking—what do we have that we want to grow?—actually helps us be more grateful for what we do have.
Humans have a limited capacity for understanding. We understand a lot and we're constantly innovating, and that's sort of what it means to be human—finding meaning—but we can't see the future, and we make mistakes. As soon as we have a plan for the future, it limits creativity and the emergence of something that can grow from the ways we're already connecting with each other and being with each other.
So many religions seem to boil down to this idea of compassion, and I'm definitely seeing that in responses like mutual aid. So in light of all your work, how have you been processing the current crisis? Are you seeing potential in it? I know you taught a workshop on the apocalypse—not that this is an apocalypse, but...
But we are! It's like a perfect example of the apocalypse. Apocalypse means "to lift the veil," and having this crisis is showing us how f*cked-up our medical system is and how f*cked up our whole economy is to rely on humans as capital. It's showing us how our leadership is broken, how so many people were living alone before this.
As a climate activist, we've wondered for a long time what can really change the momentum. It's so hard to make any change when there's such collective dedication towards keeping a system going, a system that is based on extraction and exploitation and corruption and domination and all of those things that are literally killing us and the planet. In XR we talk about stopping business as usual—well, here we are, and business is literally stopped.
It's my hope that it doesn't go back to normal. I don't want to go back to a world in which we're all hustling to make ends meet and we're working so hard and so long that we don't have time to connect to each other.
I do think it's showing us what's possible. All of the politicians and businesspeople have told us for a long time that it's not possible to stop the system and change it all in order to stave off the climate crisis—but we're doing it.
If the New York Times was reporting on the climate crisis as much as it's reporting on the coronavirus crisis… that could change things. If everyone was told that we have to stop using our cars and we have to stop doing this thing and taking flights and traveling for our safety and so we don't die…maybe we wouldn't have as big of a problem. The response we've been taking with coronavirus actually needs to happen with this climate crisis.
It all does seem like a wakeup call. Before this, it seemed like most of the people I know—even if they weren't plugged into the climate crisis—had the feeling that something unsustainable was going on, that something precarious was happening. And this does seem like a large planetary exhale to me.
We need to bow down and honor what's happening to us, to step back and see how enormous this shift is. It kind of takes my breath away. It's honestly the same feeling that I felt when I was sitting in jail.
It's interesting that you compare the feeling you're having in this crisis to the feeling of being in jail. Those both seem like moments of great change and shift. I keep seeing Octavia Butler's "God is change" quote everywhere and it feels like these moments could be related to that.
I love that quote. It's probably my favorite way to describe God.
I'm seeing all this in two ways: There's tragedy, but there's also growth that could be happening. It feels like if anything it's waking us up to the importance of community and the current lack of community. Even a lot of activism work doesn't seem to hone in on community or connection or rest and then there's so much burnout, and it feels like all this is kind of calling for a practice of rest and community-building.
I think it's so easy for humans to jump in and ignore all of our feelings and ignore connecting to each other, focusing on how we might fix this painful feeling, instead asking—what is this moment telling us? There's something beyond my comprehension happening right now.
It's easy for me to say that in times of crisis, people jump into action to help each other, because that's what I see in communities. But it's also true that there are people who get scared and hoard and only take care of their own.
I think every human has both responses possible in them, and this reminds me of a story that I read as part of my apocalypse research called Why the World Doesn't End by Michael Meade. He says there are three kinds of people in the world: There are the people who just only care for themselves and maybe their families, who in times of crisis will turn on their neighbor, and who are just trying to survive. Then there's a second group of people that really care about others and contribute to community and are attuned to other people's needs; but those people, under great stress, will also turn on their neighbor and contract and hoard and try to protect and defend themselves and their families.
But then there's a third kind of person that in the midst of crisis will rise up and reach out when the impulse is to actually turn back in. I think that's what being a sacred activist is: someone who can be with the unknown and who can be with the vulnerability of reaching out in times of danger.
I think in order to be able to reach out, you have to rely on something other than yourself. You have to be able to rely on something, even if that's your community or if that's God or spirit or even the earth. You have to feel supported enough to reach out to others in a time of crisis.
I think that's been sticking with me. Who's going to be that third group of people?
Alright, I'm done on my soapbox. That's my sermon for today.
What do you suggest people dive into, if you're looking for a way to get involved at this time? I know you mentioned mutual aid.
XR has been plugging into neighborhood groups and existing networks of mutual aid. That could be taking care of your neighbors and seeing what they need or delivering meals to aging populations. Also there's something called The Leveler, a wealth redistribution tool that allows people to donate a certain amount of money to people who just lost their jobs.
But also...check in with people. Be with the feelings. XR has ramped up offerings for people to connect with each other and share their feelings and meditate. It's called "Extinction Resilience," and it'll pretty much be happening twice a week right now, and that's a great place to cultivate inner resilience.
Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair!
There is a saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
Entrenched systems of power have established bulwarks against the kind of institutional reform that younger Americans have recently been pushing for. By controlling the political conversation through lobbying, control of mass media, regulatory capture, and authoring of legislation, the ultra-wealthy maintain the status quo in a way that makes changing it seem impossible. The problem is that change is desperately needed if we are going to maintain any semblance of civilization.
While political dynamics have become so rigid that the boundaries of what we can achieve begin to feel impenetrable, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the vital structures of our society—a society that is superficially so robust—have been so weakened that a collapse in one form or another is inevitable. We are the world's superpower, yet faced with a slightly more contagious, slightly more lethal virus than the flu, we are powerless. How did it get to be this bad? How were we so blind to it?
To clarify, depending on the part of the country you live in, it could seem like I'm exaggerating. It may not seem "so bad," or like we're on the verge of collapse. Not long ago the president and many of his loyalists on Fox News and AM radio were still calling dire forecasts around the coronavirus a hoax. At the time it seemed reckless but not unhinged from current events—which were still largely unaffected. In much of the country there is little cause for alarm, so few people are doing much to change their behavior. That's about to change, and the areas hit worst will soon be making the dire choices that Italian hospitals were recently faced with—which patients are we going to hook up to ventilators, and which are we going to allow to die. We are already started on a path that leads to overflowing hospitals in every major city.
A makeshift testing facility in Seattle, Washington Getty Images
The problem is that our entire economy is set up around the same kind of short-term thinking that drive publicly traded corporations. The mentality that "government should be run like a business," leads to cost-cutting measures that only look to the current budget, with minimal consideration given to the kind of intermittent crises that we are bound to face—like a viral pandemic. If it's not particularly likely to happen before the next election cycle, it's better not to even worry about it. This is the kind of thinking that led Donald Trump's administration to push for cuts to the CDC and to disband their global health security team in 2018.
But the systemic issues go much deeper than that and started long before Trump took office. Trump and his ilk can't be blamed for the fact that the US has two hospital beds for every 1,000 citizens. Nor are they responsible for the fact that almost every aspect of America's critical infrastructure receives a near-failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. This includes airport congestion—which has already become an issue with the current pandemic—and important shipping routes that we will rely on to maintain the movement of necessary goods as conditions around the country worsen.
Add to those issues the fact that we have a massive population of prisoners sharing tight quarters with poor sanitation, a substantial homeless population with no way to quarantine, a dearth of worker protections like paid sick leave, and it becomes hard to imagine how we'll get through this unscathed. And, of course, this is still ignoring the elephant in the room—a for-profit healthcare system that discourages millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans from seeking medical advice or treatment until it's too late.
Meanwhile, the economic hardships imposed by the necessity of social distancing are being exacerbated by an economy that is heavily reliant on the whims of financial speculators who create an echo chamber of divestment that heightens every crisis. The stock market, in other words, is going crazy in the worst possible way. It's too soon to say how thoroughly the weaknesses in our system will be tested by the developing pandemic, but even in the best case scenario they are going to be strained to a terrifying extent.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to shore up some of the most obvious breaking points so we can avoid complete societal collapse. They may turn out to be too little too late, but even if they get us through this current disaster, how long will it be before the next one hits? The best models of climate change predict that we are nearing an era that will be ruled by powerful natural disasters and refugee crises that will threaten economic stability and critical infrastructure and may heighten the threat of infectious diseases. Temporary, reactive measures cannot save us if the next crisis hits a little harder or when multiple crises overlap.
A strong social safety net like the one the US tried to develop under FDR would serve to mitigate the damage from this kind of crisis. But modern American politics has worked for decades—in an effort that became an object of worship under Ronald Reagan—to whittle the welfare state of the New Deal and the Great Society down to a fragile bare minimum.
We need to take seriously the voices of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have called for the kind of broad, sweeping legislation that stands a chance of upending the rigid political dynamics that maintain the status quo. The Green New Deal would be a good start. The alternative, one way or another, is the end of our civilization and the world as we know it.