Stories are Doors

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القصص أبواب = stories are doors 

The first word I learned on my first day of Arabic class was الأمم المتحدة, the United Nations.

Five years later, I walked inside COP22 in Marrakech, the U.N. talks on climate change, trailing red Moroccan mud on my shoes.

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After passing through airport-esque security (no, my shotgun microphone is not a weapon; no, I’m not concealing anything in my hair), I waited in line for my accreditation badge to be printed. I stood behind a delegation from Sudan and an ambassador from the World Bank. The World Bank man liked our green shirts printed with the words “Climate Justice Storyteller” across the front.

I studied Modern Standard Arabic for four years (2009-2013). Save for layovers* in Doha and in Abu Dhabi, I had never set foot in the Middle East before attending COP22 this November.

*Airports don’t count, right? But they are beautiful intersection points. See Naomi Shihab Nye:

Harvard students who take Arabic fall into neat categories: the vast majority who want to work for the State Department or the CIA; aspiring business leaders; the ROTC guy who occasionally came to class in uniform; and a poet obsessed with words (*points at self*). Our vocabulary lessons were skewed accordingly. It was two years before I learned how to ask to use the toilet. Official state functions were deemed more important.

In Morocco, my Modern Standard Arabic was woefully useless. I could introduce myself politely and barter for a taxi or a handful of oranges, but not much beyond that. The dialect spoken in المغرب diverges sharply from the formal stuff I learned in class. If I spent a few more months focusing on immersion, I could probably pick it up. Living breathing languages are beautiful for their twists and turns, but COP was about something else.

One thing I love about learning languages is that it teaches me to be a better resident of my own tongue. I’ll never be done learning Arabic, or English (!) for that matter.

Language is an approximation, always. The words that describe the thing (round, asinine, plastic, vertigo) can never BE the thing. Ceci n’est pas justice climatique. 

I’m most interested in the ways that stories (and poems) become doors, portals through which we access experience that is outside of what we would have come across otherwise.

I remember the first poem I ever read: “Zinnias” by Valerie Worth

Zinnias
by Valerie Worth

Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard,
Round, in neat flat rings.

Even cut and bunched
Arranged to please us
In the house, in the water, they
Will hardly wilt– I know
Someone like zinnias: I wish
I were like zinnias.

That poem, for me, was a door. I had never seen a zinnia before, but I felt like I could feel the flower’s texture. I wanted to be “stout and stiff”––as if looking at a flower could make me more confident, more alive. It wowed me (and still does) that words could do that.

How can the climate movement harness the power of a poem? How can we be “like zinnias” and “stand no nonsense”? Where do stories come into play?

@SustainUS celebrates the end of #COP22

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A group of 13 storytellers from as far afield as Utah and Hawaii joined together to find out. We were selected as part of a Storytelling Challenge run by SustainUS.

Hundreds of people applied. I had my second round interview when I was super-sick, an amoeba wreaking havoc inside my intestines in Cambodia. I must have said something semi-coherent, though.

It was a privilege and an honor to receive the call from Morgan Curtis on July 4th: “Will you join the delegation?”

I said yes.

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SustainUS Climate Justice Storytellers at COP22

Fun fact: I met Morgan Curtis through this blog! She wrote to me about a year and a half ago asking for tips for her bike trip to Paris for COP21, which resulted in this post. And on Monday we’re meeting up for vegan pies in Oxford. LOOK OUT, WORLD.

In the months before November, the SustainUS delegation had weekly Google Hangout calls to work out travel logistics and figure out how we wanted to show up together inside the U.N space.

At a retreat in Oakland, California, we gathered to do a version of Joanna Macy‘s Work that Reconnects and to practice the basics of Nonviolent Communication, a method that involves listening without the intention of responding. Instead, I learned how to listen for needs.

It is a huge privilege to have access to the U.N. space, even as an observer. I wanted to honor the stories of climate change that need to be told; the voices that weren’t present inside the tents of COP22 because they were not allowed access, or the voices that, even present, were systematically silenced within. Why don’t indigenous nations, for example, have a seat at the negotiation tables as sovereign nations? Tribal sovereignty and environmental justice / climate issues go hand in hand.

I view my purpose as one of amplification.

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I spent the eve of COP22 on a rooftop with local activists talking solidarity across movements. Stories = fuel.

Earlier that I day I attended COY, the Conference of Youth that proceeds the Conference of the Parties (COP) each year. I stopped in at Green School Bali‘s booth, a storytelling space inspired by this episode of This American Life where a Japanese man uses an old phone booth on top of a hill to communicate with the dead. Inside the Green School booth, you could sit down and tell your own story of climate change. The personal is political is ecological.

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presidential

November 9, 2016: we are mourning, we are taking action

And while we listened, the world changed. My country elected a climate denier / sexist / homophobe for president. OH JOY.

The day after, SustainUS gathered with international youth climate activists outside COP22 to mourn the election results. The president elect isn’t going to do shit for the planet, so it’s up to the people. We sang. We stood in solidarity with youth climate activists from around the world.

If I had to be in this struggle, there’s no other youth activists I would rather be in it with. Our work starts now. The next four years are critical to take action to limit catastrophic climate change.

I am inspired by how this group shows up, together, in the face of systems of oppression and extraction that feel so heartless.

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prayer circle for Standing Rock held outside COP22

We brought human stories to the UN. We listened.

There’s no other group of people I’d rather be facing the climate crisis with. Now the real work begins.

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At the midpoint of the conference, I marched in Morocco’s first climate march with thousands of other activists.

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“People change not climate change. System change not climate change. Today, today, before tomorrow.”

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Local activists marched alongside the international community. In their eyes, the Moroccan regime used COP22 to greenwash its crimes. SustainUS stands in solidarity with local Moroccan activists fighting against an oppressive regime that values profits over people #300kmsouth.

I traveled to COP22 not because I believe that the U.N. can solve all the worlds problems, but for stories. I believe that storytelling, listening, and amplifying voices can be tools for social change.

Manari Kaji Ushigua Santi, President of the Sapara Nation of the Ecuadorian Amazon, took the time to talk with me about climate change:

“We have to get to know ourselves again – who are we? We are part of a chain of life in this earth. We are not a being more important than all other beings. No. Where do energies come from? From the sky and from the earth. We don’t want people to exploit all these natural resources. Each resource: petroleum, gold, uranium, copper – all of those have life. They are elements that help us balance with the sky and with the earth, so that the earth sustains itself. What happens if we exploit all those resources? The world starts to dance.”

Since the end of COP22, I’m thinking more about the dancing world. The unsteady world. The world in which I will grow old.

(P.S. For an awesome book about dance, check out Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I’m in the middle of it now and the way she writes about movement is stunning.)

How will people look back at this time: the age of screens? The age of environmental indifference? The age when we stood by and let destruction happen––the destruction of species, of the oceans, the Arctic, our coastlines?

Stories are the doors I build and walk through.

How can we tell the stories of the climate justice movement so that it brings in more people than it shuts out? COP, for example, has an old white man problem. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

I want to move through and move beyond closed doors and into new doors. Old doors. Doors where I dismantle the hinges, piece by piece. Doors I ram through and slam my body against, day after day. Doors I repair. Doors where I have no idea what’s waiting on the other side.

a city of doors 🚪 #marrakech #morocco

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Hungry for more? Here are a few door-like essays that I wrote during COP22:

Truthout: “From Standing Rock to Morocco: Indigenous Protesters Act in Solidarity Against Corporate Polluters”

Earth to Marrakech: “Meet Andy Costa, a Cycling Activist from Cote D’Ivoire”

Everyday Feminism: “Five Alarming Ways that Climate Change is Racist”

Earth to Marrakech: “Indigenous Leaders at COP22 Stand in Solidarity with Standing Rock”

Pacific Standard: “How Youth Delegates at COP22 are Mobilizing Ahead of a Trump Presidency”

Sierra Magazine: “Dispatches from a Youth Delegate at COP22”

(If you’re wondering to yourself––how can I keep this little storytelling boat afloat?––pop on over to my Patreon page. Any and all support is much appreciated. Plus you’ll get access to cool stuff like 1x poem every month written by yours truly.)

Until next time,

indigogirls

Imlil, Morocco; mountain dance

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A Kickstarter Campaign to Get Devi (Flight-Free!) Across the Tasman Sea

BIG NEWS TIME:

I launched a Kickstarter campaign today.

I have 30 days to raise $$ so that I can cross the Tasman Sea aboard the ANL BINDAREE, a cargo ship.

I want to write you #poems and send hand-written #mail to your mailbox.

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…more on the Kickstarter page itself––there’s lots of little nuggets there at all price points that I hope you’ll enjoy.

~

I’m taking a BIG risk here––committing to not flying while I work on this project to collect 1001 stories about water and climate change around the world. And I’m nervous about it.

Travel culture is not built to accommodate people like me. It’s about 1000x easier to log on to the internet and book a flight than it is to figure out passage aboard a cargo ship or sailboat.

Flights don’t have a fuel tax. The cost of a flight doesn’t accurately reflect the burden that those carbon emissions place on the planet. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial melting iceberg.

I want to set an example.

for climate activists
for all of us
for the future.

I have decided to give up flying because it is the single worst thing that I am doing for the planet.

“Only 5 per cent of the world’s population has ever flown. Flying is still a rich person’s pastime. Poor people in poor countries don’t do it. Yet these are the very communities that will be hit first, and most acutely, by climate change.” – John Stewart, in Beyond Flying (Green Books, 2014)

Climate change is an ‪#‎environmentaljustice‬ issue, and I am doing my best to take a stand.

I am nervous that as a woman pursuing her dreams, I will be targeted for my beliefs.

But I am not afraid of that.

I just bicycled over Arthur’s Pass in the South Island of New Zealand, 920m in the air, despite the fact that many folks along the way told me that it would be too steep to pedal up.

Looking at some of those hills, I’ll tell you––I was nervous. Heart-pounding nervous. The shoulder was narrow and my legs wanted to stop.

But I don’t let fear rule me. I look at fear––of climate change, of all the shit that could happen to me for being a woman––and I continue moving.

Because movement is the language I come from. And the only way I know to get around an obstacle is to keep on creating. To let the movement of my body guide the movement of my mind.

Please, if you deny the science behind climate change, know that I want to hear from you, too. All stories matter. If we meet, I want to hear your voice.

… but not in a way that attacks me personally or attacks my work. The internet can be a difficult place to be a woman. Let’s all work on changing that culture, okay?

Thank you!

Please share this post and contribute if you can.

Here’s to poetry and storytelling and cycling and activism and doing the things that scare us.

xo
d

Christmas Island

As ever, I am interested in the intersection between poetry and storytelling, how the voice in a poem can leap from the page (or screen) and tell a story of its own.

This story that Nacanieli Seru told me in Nukuloa-i-Gau, Fiji has been haunting me for nearly three months. While I didn’t have the audio recorder on while he told it––it’s not explicitly a water story or a climate change story, either––I think it belongs here.


 

Christmas Island 

They told us to turn our backs. We stood on the beach, all 300 of us from the Fijian Navy Reserves. It was a beautiful, blue day on Christmas Island, the day they tested the British hydrogen bomb.

I could feel the heat. The top of the explosion was like ice cream. Billowing fire.

Some of us, when we came back, our hair fell out. Most of us, when we came back, had miscarriages.

I knew something was wrong when albatross fell out of the air, dead. Birds farther away flew into buildings, blind.

My son was born two years later. He was always sick.

Sakiusa Seru died at age forty-nine. In the autopsy they couldn’t find anything wrong.

It’s a thing you wouldn’t wish on any parent, having to bury their child.

OperationGrappleXmasIslandHbomb

Interview with Journalist Kat Friedrich

I met journalist Kat Friedrich through an online group of women writers that focuses on climate change. Kat approaches these issues from an engineer’s standpoint, which is a critical voice in the conversation. She works with clients across the United States to create content related to clean energy, green construction, and higher education. You can read samples of her work here.

“Communities that deal with racial disparities in environmental health – also known as environmental justice communities – may become the places that suffer most. Environmental justice health risks and global warming go hand in hand…With global warming, there is no ‘opt out’ button. Either we face the situation or we don’t.” – Kat Friedrich writing for Scientific American

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I reached out to Kat to see if she might answer some questions on water, climate change, and engineering. Her responses are below:

Disclaimer: This interview represents Kat’s personal viewpoint and is not intended to reflect the views of any of her previous, current or future clients or employers.

How does your background in mechanical engineering inform your work as a writer on climate issues?
 

My entire writing career has been built on my experience and training as an engineer. It isn’t just a foundation stone––it’s the entire first floor. I write about engineers frequently. I help them share their enthusiasm about the solutions they are trying to develop. I understand their culture, but because I am a writer, I can see the bigger picture and help engineers communicate with non-specialists.

My training as an engineer also taught me how to plan projects and meet deadlines, which is an asset in my work as an editor at Yale’s Clean Energy Finance Forum.

Engineers and tradespeople will be some of the unsung heroes of the battle against climate change. They are the ones who will work to save the infrastructure of our society––our buildings, our dams, our bridges. They will also provide us with energy technology that can allow us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Engineers helped to create the environmental problems we face today, but they can also solve them. We need to harness the best tools at our disposal to fight climate change.

Do you have a story about water or climate change that you would like to share? 

I wrote an article for Scientific American about how a Burger King in East Boston would be flooded as sea levels rise. I think it’s really important for reporters to write stories that bring climate change down to the local level.

In East Boston, this is also an environmental justice issue because that area is not a wealthy community and a lot of new immigrants come to that neighborhood. When seas rise, where will those people go?

What concerns me is that a lot of people can’t afford to retrofit their homes to withstand the onslaught of sea level rise and cope with other weather disasters. Wealthier people may be able to move to higher ground more easily than others, but that will not be a panacea, because other natural hazards come with global warming too. Not everyone will be able to sell their homes when sea level rise arrives. Where is that money for resilience and relocation going to come from?

I write about creative clean energy financing strategies for Yale and talk about how it is very intelligent to invest in renewable energy. That conversation is now expanding internationally to include resilience and adaptation funding. New York and New Jersey are two of the states that are leading the way here in the United States.

But there is an immense amount of investment beyond these funds that will be required to help people relocate or retrofit their properties. I have no idea where all of that money will come from. I am concerned that many people may be left with rotting basements and no money to maintain their homes. The Washington Post published a story about maggots in a Chicago basement that illustrates this.

How can we continue to push for meaningful measures to address climate change?

My work involves online journalism. Much of it is business-oriented. I do not consider myself an environmental activist. I think that’s an important distinction to make. I am not in a public relations or lobbying role.

But based on my research on environmental communication, I can say news reporting is not enough to change behavior. Providing environmental information and creating awareness do not lead to consistent action.

Social scientists say a major piece of what is needed for sustainable behavior is a fundamental change in social norms. I would recommend that you visit the Community-Based Social Marketing website to see how environmental behavior change operates. It’s really very thought-provoking how few results come from information-based campaigns.

My personal opinion is that climate change needs to be approached from a large-scale, system-wide standpoint, including people of all social classes. This requires massive financial investment––we need large, mainstream organizations to put their shoulders to the wheel and change the course of our future.

Climate change prevention is a very good use of our collective financial assets. We should make extensive use of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

I see this as an opportunity to retool our industries and communities so we can survive and thrive on this planet. We cannot afford to have environmental choices remain part of a non-mainstream ideology––they need to be the default option.

Do you believe that the solution to this problem lies inside or outside of the political system?

Both. This is a large-scale problem and it requires a massive collective effort. The powerful organizations in our society need to spearhead that effort. Decision makers need to be on board. We really can’t afford to look at climate change mitigation as a matter of individual action at this time.

In the United States, because of our federal political gridlock, it is necessary to move this effort forward at the state level and at the corporate or business level. Other countries that are less polarized may be in a different situation. The political polarization in this country is really regrettable.

How do you respond to people who don’t believe that climate change is an issue? 

It is not necessary to believe that climate change is an issue to support clean air, energy efficiency, or the wide variety of benefits that come along with taking steps toward a resilient economy. There are even national security benefits that come with clean energy.

It also isn’t necessary to convert every single person to a belief that climate change is real. What is necessary is to change the social norms and default options we choose for our lifestyles to make them more environmentally sound and efficient. This requires a massive cultural shift.

Most of those norms and default options are in fact created by the owners and managers of businesses. If they say the default type of new house will now be a more energy-efficient one, that’s what people will buy, as long as the houses are well-designed and marketed.

What do you hope for the future? 

To be honest, my hope is limited. We are a resilient species, but until I see proof of more concrete progress toward curbing global warming, I will not be very hopeful. There is a great deal of work to be done.

Of course, there are industries that will benefit from the transition to a cleaner economy. We need to act quickly to take advantage of the window of time we have available to improve our future.

There are some things that can be done to make local communities more resilient. One of these things is to access local renewable energy resources. I am encouraged by the efforts that communities are starting to make in this direction. Much more needs to be done.

What is your favorite word?

Copacetic. Most of my life is relatively copacetic right now, even though I deal with difficult subjects in the news.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently expanding my geographic areas of coverage and writing more about the West, South and Midwest. I am also writing about some of the climate finance challenges facing developing nations. They are really experiencing an uphill battle. I am very impressed by the work of some of the overseas solar entrepreneurs. This month, I have been writing about the auto industry; engineering students are designing an energy-efficient version of the Chevy Camaro. I wish I had time to take on more projects than I am doing… I have a long list of unfinished story ideas.