Not Like This

marchers
Seeing so many millennials show up at protests this past week got me thinking about how a common lament of their generation has been that they haven’t had the deep issues of the 1960s to connect to. They (and their boomer parents) often see the activism of that time through rose tinted granny glasses. I spend a lot of time with 20 and 30-somethings. Not only because I’m the mother of two daughters in that demographic, but because of my work as an activist in the environmental movement. Protecting the environment is an issue that many millennials have gravitated to over the past fifteen years. They grew up with a well publicized push to Save the Rainforest, photos of precious polar bears floating away on melting ice sheets, and the virtues of the three ‘R’s. Not Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic like it was for their parents, but Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. And even though the environmental movement was also inspired by the boomer generation with the first Earth Day, it has suffered from not being able to attach a human face to the issues and therefore it’s been slow to attract the same kind of passion and urgency of movements of the past. Millennials in the U.S. want their own Vietnam to protest against, their own Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements to march for. They want to care about something; a unified chant worthy cause à la: Give Peace a Chance.

Then along came the corrosive power of Wall Street and multinational corporations and banks, which led to the greatest recession we had seen in decades. This was followed by the reprehensible behavior of these industries going unpunished and the very personal concern for young people over college loans and high unemployment. There was a common enemy and the Occupy Movement was born. Millennials were motivated…for awhile. But some say the problem with Occupy was that it was more about the participants attracting attention, having their voices heard, than actually about getting results. My feeling is; what they were rallying against didn’t strike a painful enough chord. Not so with recent events, which leads me to think: be careful what you wish for.

None of us could have foreseen that decades later we’d be fighting many of the same fights. We’ve got wars galore—conflicts where there can be no winners, where peace eludes us. When it comes to injustice—women are still being discriminated against, particularly in the workplace. And from Ferguson to New York, and all points in between, while we’ve moved one step forward in addressing racial inequality, it feels like we’ve taken two steps back. Even the environmental movement is gaining more critical mass momentum as the rate of the devastating effects of climate change on humans is escalating.  The system is broken.  So young and older are once again taking to the streets to put democracy into action, to hold those in positions of power accountable, and try to affect change. But for all of us who have romanticized revolution, I think we can agree; we didn’t want it like this.

Putting a Face on Climate Change

Climate March small

Fourteen years ago I was a local coordinator for the national Million Mom March for sensible gun legislation. At an environmental conference a few months later in Washington, DC, I addressed the group saying that what we needed was a march to protect our planet.

At the Million Mom March we invited families who had lost a loved one to gun violence up to the stage on the Washington Mall. One by one they shared their stories about a parent, a brother, a child who had been killed. Over time, we’ve come to understand that gun violence is an issue of public health. Similarly, I thought at an eco march, we could have individuals whose lives and health had been impacted by environmental degradation and assaults on their air, land and water, tell their stories—all in an effort to put a face on climate change.

Over the past twenty years I’ve been speaking and writing about environmental issues, in particular about the threat of climate change. In all that time it has always been a tough sell. If you see a homeless person, a hungry person or an infirm person, you know there’s a problem. But with climate change, if you can’t see the problem or make an immediate cause and effect connection, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. Al Gore spoke about humans’ complacency when it comes to global warming in his film, An Inconvenient Truth. He compared it to the cautionary tale of tossing a frog in a pot of boiling water. The frog doesn’t jump out right away because it’s a slow boil.

Over the years I’ve presented on panels with indigenous peoples from low-lying island nations where sea levels are rising, who have lost their livelihoods and/or have been displaced from their homes—climate refugees. I’ve addressed numerous groups and spoken about at-risk people, and I could tell from the audience’s faces that they couldn’t relate to them or to the faraway places they lived. Many of them couldn’t even relate when I talked about our local neighbors: children with asthma, adults with respiratory illnesses and families living in environmental blight. But all that has changed in the past few years. Many of us are now living in vulnerable communities; we’ve become climate refugees. To those who take refuge in NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), beware; climate change is coming to a neighborhood near you!

Ironically, even though more frequent and severe storms, flooding, drought, disease, dangerously high temperatures and wildfires as a result of extreme weather events, are creating more homeless, hungry and infirm people, and leading to catastrophic loss of life, we still haven’t taken the kind of strong action needed to combat climate change. The climate change deniers, including many U.S. politicians still don’t see the dire need to address this issue. The U.S. continues to contribute disproportionately to the world’s carbon pollution. And by not taking responsibility, our unsustainable energy consumption and wasteful use of resources is contributing to global environmental injustice.

On Sunday, September 21, tens of thousands of people of all ages and from diverse communities including: public health, scientists, faith, veterans, farmers, immigrants, workers, indigenous peoples and our neighbors whose lives have been ravaged by hurricanes and superstorms, will gather together on the streets of New York City for the People’s Climate March.This will be two days before the UN Climate Summit 2014, which will convene world leaders in government, civil society, and the private sector to mobilize support for negotiating a global, legally binding treaty in 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to provide poor and vulnerable populations with significant support to build climate-resilient communities. The march is our wake-up call that climate change is real and that it needs our immediate attention because we are at the tipping point. According to the majority of the world’s scientists, we have already exceeded the safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and are therefore experiencing human-caused global warming right now.

There won’t be any speakers at the People’s Climate March the way there was at the Million Mom March in 2000. There won’t be any organized way for people to tell their stories as I had suggested fourteen years ago when I first began thinking about a march like this. But sadly, all these years later I realize that we don’t need to single anyone out, because if we were to put a face on climate change today, the face would be of you and me.

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Just as important as showing up for the march on September 21 is what we are going to do on September 22 and beyond. Check out the events before and beyond the march. Calculate your carbon footprint. Take action to live more sustainably. Get engaged in the issues and vote for legislators who support a healthy, clean, sustainable environment!

To combat climate change, we need to create change.

Sign up and join us at the People’s Climate March!

 

The Power of Pete

me and Pete

Pete Seeger will forever be referred to as a legend. The word legend is defined as “a person whose fame or notoriety makes him a source of exaggerated or romanticized tales or exploits.” But there was nothing exaggerated about Pete Seeger. He was the real deal. In fact, Pete was something much greater than a legend. He was an engaged citizen who believed individuals taking action, even on the smallest level, could save the world. Pete believed in the power of the people.

I first met Pete sixteen years ago at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, the zero-waste, bio diesel- and solar-powered music festival at Croton Point Park on the shores of the Hudson River in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. He was scheduled to give a talk about his electric battery powered cherry red pickup truck in the designated Energy Area. My husband and daughters and I went to the talk and afterwards I told Pete that I was an experiential, environmental educator and that I had recently built a homemade solar cooker using cardboard boxes, aluminum foil and glass. While building a solar cooker turned out to be a fun and educational science fair project for our daughters, it was so much more. Using the power of the sun, a solar cooker can be an essential cooking tool for communities living in developing nations that don’t have access to electricity or safe ways to gather firewood, often a dangerous task particularly for women.

Pete got really excited about the solar cooker project and asked if I would teach a workshop on how to make them at the Clearwater Festival. He said to give him a call to discuss it. He wrote a note to me along with his phone number on my Clearwater Festival program booklet. A few days later I was calling Pete Seeger. “Hello, is Pete home? His wife, Toshi, put Pete on the line and we worked out a plan to bring the project to the Festival.

The following spring I led a workshop on how to construct a solar cooker and spoke about its benefits as a healthier cooking alternative for people and the planet. Throughout the day as Festival participants passed by, we gave out solar cooked nachos and a healthy version of s’mores, along with a quick lesson on the importance of  renewable energy. It was what you call a real teachable moment. One of the reasons Pete was so enthusiastic about the solar cooker project was because for him it was always about hands-on education leading to advocacy.

The power of Pete was that he knew that in order to disseminate a message you need to engage people in a way that they don’t feel they’re being hit over the head. Best case in point was Pete’s passion to clean up the Hudson River, a local issue for him since he lived by the river. He, along with a few friends began their Clearwater mission in the 1960s when the Hudson was saturated with raw sewage, oil pollution, pesticide runoff and toxic chemicals such as PCBs caused by industrial manufacturing. Pete felt great despair over the pollution of his beloved Hudson River. Key to the mission was to connect people back to the river; to create majestic sloops from which people could experience the beauty of the river, and that also served as environmental sailing classrooms; all in an effort to move them to want to preserve it. In fact, my introduction to Clearwater was sailing on a sloop with my daughter and her class on an experiential field trip. Through the years our family has continued to be Clearwater Festival regulars; we presented other eco programs, volunteered in various capacities, and sung and strummed along with Pete. Pete touched millions through his songs, but personal moments with him were especially empowering. We will greatly miss his humble and purposeful presence.

Throughout history, music has been a catalyst for change, a medium for protest and a way to deliver a message of hope. (Clearwater website)

For Pete, music was integral to the mission because music brings people together and creates community; hopefully, a community that will take action and create change. When Pete addressed an audience, he would interject spoken messages of peace and environmental stewardship. The power of Pete was that he knew he had a captivated audience and that while they were singing along, they would learn something too. As Pete said, “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

But he also knew that music alone was not the solution. For Pete and countless dedicated individuals inspired by him to act locally, the incredible work they did to clean up the Hudson paid off globally as well, as it led to helping to pass landmark environmental laws, both state and federal, including the Clean Water Act.

Being an environmental activist has always been challenging, and while we’ve made great strides, it’s hard not to feel discouraged in light of the omnibus spending bill that was recently passed by Congress, which essentially undermines environmental regulatory actions and environmental justice.

For Pete’s sake, we need to let our legislators know that the laws that protect our environment, do make a difference. For Pete’s sake, we need to take personal responsibility as stewards of our planet. For Pete’s sake, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions if we want to have a fighting chance against the devastating effects of climate change.

More important than being a legend, is leaving a legacy.

Making the Most…of Compost

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One of my great weekly pleasures is the Sunday ritual of dropping off my compost in the bins at the Farmers Market up the street from my home, and then shopping for fresh, local veggies and fruit. It’s a full circle, soil cycle experience.

In a final attempt to make New Yorkers and the city they live in healthier, eco-friendly mayor, Michael Bloomberg, wants to create a mandatory food-waste recycling program – that is – mandatory composting! The city is even seeking proposals to build a plant to process food waste into biogas and convert it to electricity. The program should be citywide by 2015/16 and will start out on a voluntary basis, but will eventually be mandatory. Of course Mayor Mike won’t be around to fine New Yorkers who don’t separate their food scraps, but Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, says if elected, he will eventually make composting mandatory. It will be very interesting if that really comes to pass since during the NYC Democratic mayoral debate last month, all five of the candidates were asked if they composted and not a single one of them did.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic, though, if the uber-energized city that never sleeps could one day literally be fueled…by a Big Apple!

 

I Can’t Swim: Reflections on the Need for Climate Action

When I was eight years old, at a swim club with my family, a friend of my brother’s thought it would be funny to toss me in the pool. I couldn’t swim. Panic ensued as I tried to paddle my way to the wall, all the while with my nose and mouth dipping below the surface of the water. When I was nine, my mother took me for swim lessons. I hated it. I hated the smell of the chlorine. I hated how the Polyester bathing suit felt against my skin. I hated the chill I felt before I actually got in the pool and I hated the viscosity of the water once I immersed myself. I learned various technical skills, but I didn’t learn to swim with any proficiency. And while I spent my summers as a child at the beach, my ocean skills weren’t much better, having been knocked down by a wave more than once, gulping enough salt water to raise my blood pressure.

For 18 years or so, I have been writing, speaking and teaching about the threat of climate change – the crisis formerly known as global warming. It’s always been a hard sell because a) nobody wants to hear about doomsday scenarios b) to do anything about it; that is, to reduce our energy use, requires change, which is hard and c) it seems totally disconnected to our “developed” country  lives – it’s someone else’s problem. For many years it has been a problem for more vulnerable populations – the poor, indigenous populations and people living on small island nations. Well, guess what? My fellow New Yorkers and I live on an island too! And for anyone who rides the Lexington Avenue subway trains, you know that all it takes is a heavy rain to cause the East River to surge and flood the FDR, and cause delays on the 4, 5, and 6 trains. The idea of flooding in the subways began to get some serious public attention during the threat of Hurricane Irene this past summer.

During Irene the storm surge was 3.6.  According to Columbia University professor Klaus Jacob, one of the nation’s foremost experts on transit and climate change, “Had it been not 3.6 feet but 4.6, we would have been in deep trouble.” In other words, one foot of a difference.

According to the article “For Transit Agencies, Climate Change Can Cost Billions,”  “What the city dodged was the ghost of climate change future — higher sea levels, intense storms, and elevated amounts of precipitation, all of which could combine to cause widespread flooding of the subway system.”

The transit infrastructure measures needed to be taken to protect us from catastrophic destruction could cost New York’s MTA as much as $15 billion. The MTA is already $10 billion short in funding its current capital campaign. The longterm fix would be to spend this money instead on investing in and producing more sustainable energy and  in offering more incentives and alternatives to help reduce the amount of human-made greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. But with limited available funds, neither may be feasible. The money aside, Americans typically only act after disaster has struck. We’re on a fast track and stopping to take preventive actions would slow us down; many also believe that being forced to make lifestyle changes to lower our carbon footprint would be infringing on our right to use an abundance of energy as we please. Let’s consider, though, that 5.2 million people ride the NYC subway a day. As stated in the article, a halted subway would almost halt the city’s economy, which, Jacob says produces $4 billion a day in economic activity. Our only hope may be that the almighty dollar will be enough of a wake-up call for us to begin taking action.

With this threat looming, I’ve thought that maybe I should once again look into swim lessons, but under these circumstances, even knowing how to keep our heads above water, won’t help much.

My Fantastick(s) Memory

For me, one of the all-time gems of New York City is the show, The Fantasticks. After 42 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, it relocated to The Snapple Theater on Broadway in 2006, where they are happy to welcome students and groups of any age. In fact, a few months ago, we took a group of students participating in Urban Glee NYC, a project of our in-school arts education organization, Literacy Takes a Bow (LTAB), to see the show. It was thrilling for them, especially when they got to hang out with some of the actors during the Talk Back and ask questions about their acting process and the production. I have always had a special place in my heart for The Fantasticks. Here’s why…

As a college student attending NYU in the 1980s, I had an apartment over Rocco Restaurant on Thompson Street between Bleeker and Houston in Greenwich Village. In the height of the summer, the hot, stagnant air, pregnant with the pungent fragrance of roasted garlic from Rocco’s, filled my apartment. For a respite from the heat, I would sit on my windowsill, which opened out to the fire escape, to try and catch an occasional cool breeze. One night I made an incredible discovery. The back of the Sullivan Street Playhouse was directly parallel to my apartment. Seeking some relief from the sultry temperatures, they would often open the stage door resulting in the sweet sounds of the The Fantasticks flowing out the theatre door and in through my open window. As an aspiring writer and student in NYU’s School of the Arts, I was passionate about theatre. What greater gift could there have been, than to be serenaded night after night by the world’s longest running musical? It’s a memory I haven’t had to “Try to Remember,” because it has stayed with me all these years.

                                                                         

A Grand Time

Last week my family and I hiked Grand Canyon. The view and the colors were beyond extraordinary. They don’t call it one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world for nothing! And of course it was more and more incredible as we descended from 8,000 feet down into the Canyon, surrounded by 17 million year old rock formations. We’ve done a lot of hiking over the years, particularly in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, but I found this hike to be particularly challenging. From the expressions on the faces of the people we passed on our way down, I know I wasn’t alone. (Of course it may have had something to do with the fact that it’s been a few years since my last major hike and I have no regular exercise routine—btw, kudos to all those who do!) To instill fear in our hearts, there was a sign that read: Hiking down is optional. Hiking up is mandatory. The film 127 Hours came to mind as we continued to keep ourselves hydrated.

It was great to know that I had the stamina. More than once I’ve asked my doctor why it is that I can hike mountains, but I find New York subway steps exhausting. (Ladies, if you’re a subway-riding New Yorker like me, you know what I’m talkin’ about.) My doctor says she gets that question a lot from her female patients. Her answer is because it uses different muscles. I definitely employed some of those same muscles on the stairs-like climb back up Grand Canyon. Oh, and did I mention that the temperature was close to 100º? (As you hike down, it gets hotter – adds to the bragging rights.) Needless to say, we were ecstatic when we successfully made it to the top. Back in New York, I now feel empowered as I make my way up from the subway platform, quietly grinning to myself and thinking, hey, I just climbed Grand Canyon. Of course I still find the subway steps exhausting!

Hand-Me-Downs, Hand-Me-Ups

When I was a college student at NYU living in Greenwich Village in the early ‘80s, from time to time I’d drop in at the indoor flea market down the street, going from stall to stall to garner some interesting item to spice up my wardrobe. Over the past few years, my closet has become a flea market. My younger daughter, in particular, has been raiding my closet with an interest in my “vintage” clothes from the 80s and 90s, which I’ve held on to. a) Because I’m a pack rat, especially with clothes I’m sentimental about and b) Because I’m a firm believer that everything eventually comes back in style.

While my daughters have benefited from a few choice hand-me-downs from me, as they’ve been growing up and growing out of their clothes, or as their clothing tastes have changed; they have been passing on “hand-me-ups” to me. Not only does this keep favorite clothing items in the fam, but it’s a way to reduce, reuse and recycle all at the same time! Interestingly, it’s had a dual effect on me where I feel both young and old at the same time. Young, because I’m wearing my daughters’ more “youthful” clothes; old, because of the fact that I have daughters old and big enough to pass on their clothes to me!

Secret Garden


Earlier this year I was commissioned to write an essay for a book on ethical eating and food in Jewish tradition. My assignment was to focus on community gardens, a topic of great importance to me. It was part of an interesting chain of events. A few months prior to taking on this task, I was offered the job of Social Responsibility Consultant for JCC Association with a focus on creating a community garden at every JCC around the country with a large portion of the produce going to emergency food providers (e.g., food banks, food pantries, etc…). In D.C. I met with a representative from the United States Department of Agriculture and discussed the USDA’s People’s Garden Initiative (which JCC Association signed on to as the first faith-based organization to support this initiative).

Around the same time, I saw a notice on the community garden across the street from my house in my Carroll Gardens neighborhood, announcing that a few coveted spots had opened up. It’s the same garden where I pick up my CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share, but I didn’t realize that individuals could garden there. The woman in charge expressed concern about people in past years who hadn’t kept up with their gardens and they became eyesores. I began to get cold feet. We spend most weekends away in the summer and on top of that, I don’t have a great track record for tending to houseplants (that’s my husband’s domain), mainly because I can never keep up with the amount of watering they need. I considered not having my own plot, and instead for this first year, opting to help tend to the community plot. Realizing she hadn’t been very encouraging, she expressed that she had faith in me, and so I kept my plot. She still had her doubts and even shared them with another gardener—both of whom felt they had to give me a lot of start-up advice. Little did they know that prior to moving back to Brooklyn, I lived on hundreds of acres of farmland. That land was gentleman-farmed, but I did grow veggies and flowers before discovering the wonders of belonging to a CSA in Pennington, New Jersey (one of the first and largest in the country). Or, little did she know that my daughter (who assisted me with the initial creation of the garden) had interned at Garden of Eve Farm, on Long Island, our Brooklyn CSA farm. At any rate, a few weeks before Memorial Day, I was in possession of a raised bed and a coveted key to my secret garden.