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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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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Interview with Writer Laura Kiesel

Laura Kiesel is a published journalist, essayist and poet. As a journalist, she frequently covers the topics of climate, energy and the environment and has written for The Street, Al-Jazeera America, BioScience, Salon, Orion, E Magazine, Science, Earth Island Journal and InsideClimateNews.com. She holds a Master’s degree in natural resources and environmental policy from the University of Vermont and a Bachelor’s in English and journalism from the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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How do you see poetry and journalism as similar? How are they different? Does your work in one genre inform your work in the other? 

Both are ways to tell a story.

Poetry is a more artistic outlet and form of writing than journalism. Whereas with journalism you are usually exploring the hard facts of a topic––the who, what, where, when and how––poetry goes deeper into the emotional and even spiritual implications of whatever themes or topics it is exploring. And while there exists more literary or narrative journalism that can implement poetic devices, I unfortunately haven’t had much opportunity to write that kind of journalism.Sometimes my work in one genre will inform or complement my work in another, mostly in that both contain an inherent sense of the importance of justice and both can wax polemic at times.

How does your background in biology inform the way that you approach the world?

Having an educational background in biology has offered me a keen awareness of how closely connected everything is and how delicate that connection can be. Since I know erasing a species from this planet can set off a domino effect and cause entire ecosystems to become unstable or unravel (whether from the top down or the bottom up), or that there is no “away” when disposing of items, I have tried to live as low impact life as I can for an individual living in an urban area of the United States. Many of my life choices, from becoming a vegetarian to abstaining from using certain products/chemicals and trying not to purchase new electronics or clothing is inspired by what I learned about biology either through my schooling or independently.

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

A few years back I went to the annual conference for the Society of Environmental Journalists in Madison, Wisconsin and the keynote speech was on water scarcity in the coming decades. There must have been at least 50 tables with five or six places at each table. At each place was a pre-poured glass of water. Only about half the chairs were taken, which meant that all of that water was dumped right out afterwards and went to waste. It seemed the height of hypocrisy and drove home to me how we still don’t quite get how deeply we have to change and start walking the talk.

On a larger level, here in the United States our carbon emissions have been going down, but this is mostly because we have had a natural gas boom and NG has a lower carbon footprint than coal or oil (at least at the stacks). Yet, most natural gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which uses enormous amounts of water in the process. So, the argument of natural gas is the more sustainable choice is a myth as it is hugely resource (specifically, water) intensive while also being very polluting to groundwater resources. Our dirty energy choices combined with climate change are seriously threatening our water security in the near future. I’ve been so inspired by the threat climate change and our energy drive has on water, I am currently at work on a young adult dystopian novel about a world where water is rare and is rationed called “Thirst.”

What is the role of writing and storytelling in the push for meaningful measures to address climate change? 

People do not usually react to an issue in a meaningful way unless it is made personal for them. Writing about climate change and putting a human (or in other cases, animal) face can help people relate and understand the topic not as something abstract but something that impacts them personally and emotionally. Otherwise, climate or our environment is perceived as an “other” — something separate from us rather than what we are part of.

You might find this blogpost of mine relevant to this question: http://survivalwriter.blogspot.com/2010/09/lessons-from-literature.html

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

Yes and no. On one hand, I think that like any major movement that has occurred in history and required a huge paradigm shift (civil rights, women’s rights), there will need to be a strong social uprising in order to confront climate change on the level we would need to to make a dent in averting its worst impacts. This would take nothing less than a large-scale and cohesive grassroots movement that occurs from the bottom-up. And like with civil rights, this movement will need to push a very reluctant political system to pass strong legislation to enable action on climate change, because individual changes (even in the aggregate) will not be enough to address it since we need to restructure our entire society and the way it does business. I think we’ll need to get a lot of the money out of politics before we can achieve this, as the system is too entrenched in the interests of the fossil fuel and agribusiness lobbies. Also, I just don’t think our current capitalistic economy is compatible with creating or maintaining a sustainable society. An economy based on unlimited growth and inflation does not make sense in a planet with finite resources and a carrying capacity (of which have already far exceeded ours by pushing countless other species into extinction while we crowd them out, hunt them to extinction or build over/pollute their habitats). I believe we would need a steady state economy to achieve climate stability. We need to learn to truly live within our means, and that might mean giving up things we don’t want to like cars and plane trips to other parts of the world or eating hamburgers on a regular basis.

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

It depends on the situation and the context. As an online journalist/columnist who frequently reports on climate/energy issues, I am often the target of climate deniers in the comments section. Initially I tried to engage some of these commentators in a meaningful discourse, but that seemed futile. I sometimes have used humor and other times have tried to appeal to reason and other times to one’s conscience or morality. Overall, it can be very frustrating to deal with die-hard climate skeptics. But also, I have had dialogue with those who just don’t understand the topic very well and are open to learning about it and through discussion can come to understand it more and care about it.

What do you hope for the future? Is fear a part of that vision?

Fear is a major part of my vision. My hope is that we will get our act together on time to avert the worst impacts of climate change and salvage our species. Unfortunately, though, I think history has taught me that we usually don’t get it until it’s too late, or almost too late. So, my somewhat more positive hope is that it will be the latter of those two scenarios and we can make changes on time to not totally lay waste to this world as it exists now. We’ve already inevitably bought ourselves a decent amount of warming over the course of this century that will lead to greater frequency in floods and droughts and that will compromise the future security of some staple crops. We really need to start focusing on adaptation and creating some local and regional economies that are growing their own food when/where possible and that we no longer have such a staunch car culture. For me, I’ve decided not to have children because I worry what the future will be with climate change, which will become more apparent mid-century at the same time our overpopulation will be reaching record numbers and our resources will be more strained than ever.

Outside of writing, what do you love?

Being a writer, I love to read and tend to do it voraciously, as well as consume other forms of art, whether it be film, museums, and music. I love music: Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elvis Perkins, Bob Dylan, the Shins, Jimi Hendrix, etc.
I also love being outside, whether hiking, biking, cross country skiing, swimming or just sitting in and being surrounded by nature.

What are you reading right now? 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

What is your favorite word?

Melancholy. What a beautiful word for such a sad state of mind.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am writing a collection of personal essays about my life as well as working on two novels (including the aforementioned YA novel, though that’s on the backburner). I am a weekly contributing writer for MainStreet.com and am working on a series of articles about women in today’s workforce.

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.