On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

The View from the Top of the World

Arctic - approach
The Arctic from above

Sailing around icy fjords in the Arctic Circle? In June, when it’s 24-hour daylight, not even a twilight, let alone darkness? Which means you don’t even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You are, however. guaranteed to freeze your nose and burn your face from the sun and snow unless you bundle into parkas and slather on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen. Who would do such a thing?

Well, it turns out, yours truly. My late, greatly beloved husband died on February 15th, his voice ringing in my head with recollected snippets – one of which was: If you didn’t have me to look after, you could go on this wonderful trip to XxxxXx. Not my favorite snippet, but there it was. So thanks to some bizarre urge that a highly trained grief counselor might be able to analyze, I found myself saying – on about February 25thwhy not?

Arctic - Fran on mtn
Fearless explorer

Conveniently there was a Commonwealth Club expedition to the Arctic Circle with a bunch of climate people, even including a casual acquaintance interested in a roommate. It was somewhat of a cruise (read: too much elegant food, drink and royal treatment onboard) but it promised firsthand views of what we humans are doing to this beautiful planet. Plus countless lectures about millennia past and (hopefully) future by impressively credentialed people. So off I went. San Francisco to Paris to Longyearbyen, Norway to the Arctic fjords, the last leg aboard the small but lovely Ponant ship l’Austral. This is the first of what may be several reflections from the northernmost tip of the globe.

It is incredibly beautiful, this planet.

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Wildflowers on the tundra

At its northernmost tip there is a breathtaking expanse of blue, gray and white: snow, ice, sea ice (salt water turns to ice at about 28 degrees,) azure blue skies streaked with gossamer-gray clouds melting into the sea – which itself changes from shades of sapphire to emerald-blue in an instant with the shifting skies. The fjords are defined by mountains fronted by stretches of tundra and permafrost – the differences between which (tundra has vegetation, permafrost is permanently frozen) were carefully explained to me.

Accompanying our group, in addition to the impressive lecturers, were about a dozen naturalists who appeared (to this octogenarian) to have a median age of about 15. But they had PhDs and post-doctorates in things like polar ecology,  bioscience and glaciology. One of them left me with an unforgettable phrase and indelible image that sums up the Arctic experience for me. I wish I could videoconference the moment with every climate change denier, every fossil fuel enthusiast, every deregulation proponent and every grandparent who believes – as I continue to do – that our grandchildren will save the planet.

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Walruses, & sea where once was ice

We had come to shore to study the wildlife (a clump of resting walruses) and wildflowers (there are over 400 varieties of tiny flora in the tundra) via inflatable rubber boats called zodiacs. Zodiacs  could navigate the distance – in this case it was about a quarter of a mile – from ship to shore.

“You see where our ship is?” said my naturalist friend, pointing toward the sea. I nodded. “This time last year, that was ice.”

 

 

 

 

Staying Secure in the Digital Age

Security - dr licenseThis space is proud to announce my having passed the California driver’s license test. Which means – if my eyes and my car hold out – I’m good for another five years, with a valid ID in my wallet. Or so I thought. Turns out I neglected to apply for a Federal Compliant Real ID driver’s license rather than a regular old driver’s license. Who knew? As of October 2020, unless I go back to the DMV and successfully complete whatever I inadvertently omitted, this lovely new license will not get me through the airport. If I knew not, I know now: Instead of the golden bear signifying this is a Real ID Driver License in the upper right corner, my brand new license bears the small print: Federal Limits Apply. No getting into the Federal Building for me. Sigh.

At the moment I am headed out of the country and into an exploration of the Arctic Circle (more on that later, when we find out how many glaciers haven’t yet melted, and after I return to internet access territory.) My new license, combined with my old but still valid passport, almost got me into the security check at SFO. Security - TSA preWould have, actually, except the TSA lady said my boarding pass didn’t have the green check for my TSA Pre-check. As I was not about to join the mile-long non-TSA Pre-check line, I returned to the Air France people and eventually procured a new boarding pass with the magic green check. Happily I had my Trusted Traveler number with me.

A few years ago I drove (legally) out to the TSA place and spent the best $85 I’ve spent in a long time getting finger-printed, answering a bunch of questions and – after I got back home – waiting a few months before I learned that the Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security thankyouverymuch had satisfied itself that I was not much of a threat to public safety. Ever since, I have happily skipped the endless lines waiting to get through airport security in favor of the quite manageable (usually, unless it’s Hartsfield-Atlanta) TSA Pre-check lines.Security - Gl EntryTSA Pre-check will get you out of the country, but good luck getting back in. One emerges from a wearying international flight to be greeted by the endless lines waiting to go through Customs.

But I now have Global Entry!! Like TSA Pre-check, Global Entry is a program of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of this overseen by the Homeland Security people. If our homeland is not secure, I don’t know why. (Well, yes I do, actually, but Mr. Putin told Mr. Trump that everything is fine, so we shouldn’t worry about Russia.)

On my return I guess I’ll trudge back to the DMV and apply for a Real ID to go with my TSA Pre-Check, Trusted Traveler number and Global Entry card and – well, I do have a Social Security number, and a U.S. passport and a Brazilian passport (possibly expired now but still . . .) and 4 pages of saved passwords somewhere, if I can remember where I filed them. All of these, with luck, will be all the global security protection I need in this modern day and age.Security - Univ Enroll It is tricky to keep track of it all. One has to hope that our planetary borders are secure.

And meanwhile, God bless us every one.

Planet earth

Can Planet Earth Be Saved? Maybe. Still.

Wildfires 11.18One thing we absolutely know: the recent, tragic California wildfires were NOT due to “poor forest management.” Perhaps someone clued our president in on a few facts – since he did ease off the “It’s all their fault, stupid Californians” rhetoric. The facts: essentially all of the state’s publicly owned forests (including Plumas National Forest where the deadliest fire began) are controlled by the federal government. Mr. Trump recently reduced funds for cleaning up fire-prone vegetation. Meanwhile, though, who knows how many of those who simply accept Mr. Trump’s lies now have one more lie to confirm their belief that the globe isn’t warming and climate isn’t changing, and who needs to worry about the planet?Planet earth

It is our children’s and grandchildren’s planet we are playing with. Every regulations rollback that puts more pollution into the air and water, every “economy-boosting” measure that sends more CO2 into the atmosphere, every additional acre released from federal control so a few billionaires can get richer by mining, drilling, logging is lopping off health and life for future generations. That is, assuming the planet survives beyond the generations already born.

Planetary survival was at the heart of a recent Commonwealth Club program titled “A Four-Zero Climate Solution.” Climate One founder/director Greg Dalton brought together three leaders in the field to talk about the growing problem and discuss potential solutions. (Just to hear the words ‘climate’ and ‘solution’ in the same phrase is somehow heartening.) Panelists included Kate Gordon, a Partner in the Sustainability Practice of Ridge-Lane LP and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of clean energy and economic development; author Hal Harvey (Designing Climate Solutions😉 and Stanford professor Arun Majumdar, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Climate One 11.13.18
l to r: Arun Majumdar, KatenGordon, Hal Harvey, Greg Dalton

The panelists were talking about answers to the critical state of our plant’s climate being a four-pronged solution: getting the carbon grid to zero, switching to zero-emission vehicles, replacing (eventually – but all of this is long-term thinking) existing buildings with zero net-energy buildings, and moving toward zero-waste manufacturing. It’s complicated, politically fraught, and no easy task. But there IS a solution.

Now – if only we could start working toward it, our grandchildren might still have a planet. Most estimates – by people with working brains, that is – are that we have another 10, maybe 12 years max to tackle the problem; after that we can start looking for a way to move to Mars. But Mr. Trump just shrugs off the report issued by his own White House detailing what is clearly happening, saying, “I don’t believe it.”

We are in deep trouble.

On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2
by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18
With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.

Cloud Appreciation. It’s free!!

Clouds 4.26.18
Clouds around (& above) Salesforce Tower

Here is one universal, guaranteed, free way to lift your spirits in these often dispiriting days: look up. Stare at the sky. Notice the clouds. Once you start noticing clouds – which are up there just quietly asking to be admired, after all – your passport to lifted spirits is issued.

Clouds - Ferry Bldg 5.17.18
Wisps around the Ferry Bldg

My passport number is #45,662. That is, this message comes to you from Cloud Appreciation Society member #45,662. My membership number came with an official certificate proclaiming that I joined this society on 13th May (it’s a very British society) and “will henceforth seek to persuade all who’ll listen of the wonder and beauty of clouds.”

So that’s what this essay is about. You can quit reading if you don’t want to be persuaded.

One thing the Cloud Appreciation Society brings you (via email) is the Cloud of the Day. Imagine starting your day – before you even look up, perhaps – not with news of wars and corruption and presidential vulgarity, but with the Cloud of the Day. Which on most days is stunning.

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Sunset from our window

I have been hooked on sunsets ever since moving into a seventh floor condo with one large window that looks directly west toward the Pacific Ocean. But my path to cloud appreciation actually started with the lovely, gently persuasive book A Sideways Look at Clouds by Maria Mudd Ruth. Ruth, author of the award-winning book Rare Bird, became curious about clouds on moving from the east coast to the rugged, foggy northwest. In Sideways she combines that daunting intellectual curiosity with a persistence few of us share. I mean, slipping into a frigid lake at dawn to experience fog? I have never met the author. But I’m a very longtime friend and fan of her famous father Roger, and her late mom was a poet – which leads me to understand that Ruth comes by her writing gifts honestly. The book is a winner.

Clouds 9.15
Clouds from airplane window seat

In addition to my Cloud Appreciation Society membership certificate and sky-blue cloud pin, I am now the proud possessor of the Cloud Selector wheel, identifying the 10 main cloud types. You thought there were just puffy white things? Wrong. The ten main groups are divided according to altitudes and shapes, whether they’re made up of clumps, continuous layers or wispy streaks. You probably know Cumulus (Cu.) The Cloud selector tells you what to look for: “Cauliflower tops, flattish bases, crisp edges;” typical altitudes (1,000 to 5,000 feet;) whether there’s precipitation (None, unless very large) and offers a picture just so you know you’re right. How better to be an instant cloud expert?

Cloud appreciation, though, is not about expertise; it’s about pure pleasure. Given the high cost of movies and ballgames, this space is pleased to recommend cloud-watching as a viable alternative entertainment. You can also buy A Sideways Look at Clouds for less than $20, or you can become a bona fide member of the Cloud Appreciation Society for $23.25/year plus a $13.29 sign-up fee. (You can also become a CAS Friend, for free, and receive their Somewhat Occasional Newsletter.) After that, you’re on your own.

The planet may be in a mess, but the skies above are filled with wonder. Cloud wonder.

Clouds1 4.27.18
Clouds from the top of Post St, unspoiled by overhead wires even

 

 

Kindness for the New Year – Why not?

About that cup of kindness – –

Let’s take a cup for a few of the auld lang synes of 2017, in the highest hopes for this brand new year.

Planet earthA cup for the planet. Despite the best efforts of the Environmental Destruction Agency to foul the air and water, and similar efforts to open up our lands for desecration and private development, this fragile globe survives. You can Google “Good news for the planet” to boost your spirits. Here’s a toast to everyone who switches to solar, picks up litter, and pays attention to ways we can protect our grandchildren’s heritage.

A cup for women! Beginning with the inspirational Women’s March and marching through to the #MeToo movement, women have earned more than a little kindness yet. They won’t get much of it in the reproductive justice realm. You cannot confer rights on a fetus without denying rights of the woman carrying it.march - crowd Anti-abortion forces sneaked wording about rights of “the unborn” into the harsh new tax bill, so chalk one up for regression into the dark ages of womankind. But here’s a cup o’ kindness toast to every #MeToo, as well as to heroes like Willie Parker out there fighting to protect all women.

A cup for people of all faiths working together. There may be constant headlines, not to mention tweets, designed to set us against each other, but interfaith groups across the country are determined to keep respect and mutual support alive. Google “Interfaith work” in your city or state and find how many kindnesses are underway.

A cup for the hopeless. Remember those huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’re still out there, in force: refugees and asylum-seekers, people mired in poverty or joblessness, sick children without healthcare, undocumented immigrants in families being torn apart. ENDURING FREEDOMBut if our government is turning its back on them, a multitude of individuals and organizations are working around the clock to get the lamp lifted again. Google “Help undocumented immigrants,” or “Fighting poverty in my community” for starters. Cups of kindness abound.

And a cup of kindness for kindness’ sake. A group of people with vastly diverse backgrounds and philosophies met just after New Year’s Day to talk about how to retain optimism – hope, at least – on all of the above in the face of current divisiveness and a mentally unbalanced president. Said one member of the group: “It helps to commit conscious acts of kindness throughout the day. Might be just a tiny thing, but it makes you feel better, and kindness can be contagious.” Pope Francis thinks so. In his New Year’s Eve homily he expressed optimism about ordinary people going about their lives doing ordinary acts of kindness. The “artisans of the common good,” he called them. So here’s a toast to every artisan of the common good. May we all join their ranks this year.

Footprints of kindness