Friday, November 17, 2017

Bill Thompson 1946-2017

Bill Thompson in 1968, on the back porch of the
Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.  The pose
was a kind of joke--we were riffing off the rural
cover of Bob Dylan's then new album "John
Wesley Harding."  BK photo.
Not hearing from Bill for months wasn't unusual.  Although I was a little surprised he didn't email me or comment on the Sergeant Pepper post that mentioned him (I was with him when he bought the album and we listened to it straight through for the first time together the week it came out) I knew he was reading this blog, because he always did.

But it turns out he never read that Sergeant Peppers post.  About a week after his last email to me, and a few days before that post appeared, Bill Thompson died suddenly, as his obituary says, while fly fishing.  He was 71.

I knew Bill in college, especially in our senior year of 1967-68 when we shared a great old Victorian Gothic house on West First Street in Galesburg, Illinois, that Bill dubbed the Galesburg Home for the Bewildered.

When I learned of his death only recently, from the Knox College alumni magazine, memories both specific and vague spun through my mind.  Fried chicken and Riesling wine, Vietnam teach-ins in the Gizmo and silent vigils in the windy town square, ceremonies of the weed in the attic alcove we called the temple,  the party we had on the night of the 1968 California primary to celebrate whoever won (Bill backed Eugene McCarthy, I backed Robert Kennedy), which ended with the news of Kennedy's assassination.

In one of our recent e-mail exchanges, we tried to figure out whether I had been with him when he first crossed into Canada the summer of 1968.  I know that Mike Shain and I had at least driven a trailer of his stuff to his new home, though my only real recollections of that trip are of a stop at Stratford on the way back, to see a couple of plays.  But thinking about it since, it seems maybe we did drive him there.

In the subsequent half century, Bill established a life in Hamilton, Ontario.  I visited him there in the early 1970s, but lost touch with him later in that decade. We missed connections when I had a speaking engagement in a nearby Ontario town in the 1980s. Which is by way of saying that there's a lot of his life I missed and know little about.

a more recent photo he sent me,
wearing a cap a friend brought back
from Albania.
 Exactly how we reconnected in 2002 or so I'm not sure, but it had to do with my blogs.  I was one of the first bloggers, and now am one of the last, and Bill was a devoted reader and occasional participant for all of those years.

 When I created the blog that became American Dash, I invented the Dash family of brothers to represent different facets of writing (Gabriel the poet, Morgan the fictionist, Christopher the playwright, Phineas the philosopher and Theron the political pundit), partly so I could have arguments with myself.  Bill became a fan and a participant, so that I soon made him a cousin of the brothers, and called him Lemuel Dash,  after the hero of Gulliver's Travels, though I'm no longer sure why.  Bill was delighted and was still signing comments and emails as Lemuel (which he spelled Lemmuel.)  He was the official Canadian correspondent for this blog.

In what turned out to be his last email to me, on May 24, he wrote that he was mentoring young people.  "I believe I provide value by sharing my experiences, coaching, and acting as a 'living relic' to show that you can have a life in modestly radical politics and still have a moderately sane and healthy family."  These young people, he added, "provide me with a great gift: hope."

Bill was a local official in the New Democratic Party of Canada, and had been considered for nomination as a candidate to the federal legislature.  His activism in the NDP and otherwise led him to be an official witness to the dismantling of some nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union.

More recently, he helped build a community coalition of labor, environment and business people that built the first offshore wind power assembly facilities in North America, and spoke at the dedication.

He managed a training program for unemployed workers and their adult children living at home, and helped build a local coalition to push city government to use property tax to finance energy-saving refits of low income housing, hiring unemployed youth to do the work. The last project he mentioned was a cooperative credit union for the working poor.

He started on this road in college, where he organized Citizens for Independent Politics that ran several Vietnam teach-ins, where faculty and students exposed facts about the war and the region's history.  (At one of these in the campus coffee shop, I recall reading from Frank Harvey's Air War: Vietnam until I found myself choking back tears.)  Though at different times, Bill and I were editors of Dialogue, the campus discussion magazine edited jointly by faculty and students.  He wrote a satirical piece for that magazine about privacy invaded by technology, which has taken on new relevance.

In these decades our email exchanges tended to be about political matters, so we didn't discuss much about our personal lives.  In consolation over the 2016 elections, he wrote:" My wife Shelley is from Manitoba and is of Scottish background. Her advice would be 'lye thee down and bleed awhile then rise up and join the fray.' Your voice is needed."

But he told me enough that I knew that he had succeeded in family life.  In recent years he accompanied his daughter to her cancer treatments (and noted that his daughter and son-in-law received upwards of a million dollars worth of medical treatment, thanks to Canada's single payer heathcare system) and he gloried in his granddaughter.  I hope I made it clear to him how much I admired him for this.

Bill liked this blog's emphasis on the future, and integrated that perspective into his commitment to "think globally, act locally" and "all politics is local."  That he was actually doing things that I was only writing about seemed to be the necessary other half of the process, and I was grateful to know he was doing that.

50 years later, maybe the same hat?
Years ago, when I was in a particular career funk, he invited me up to Hamilton to do some fishing. I couldn't make it, but it was clearly something he loved. That's what he was doing on May 31 when he passed away.

Apart from the shock of learning this, especially so long afterwards and in an almost accidental way, it's hard for me to believe he's not out there reading these words.  He was always one of the people I thought about when I wrote for this blog, and I don't think that is really going to change for as long as I keep writing it.

I can pretty much name the day in 1990 when I realized that the quality in friends likely to be most important to me for the rest of my life--and most important for me to return in my relationships-- would be loyalty.  Bill Thompson was a consistently loyal friend for all these years.

I'm sure Bill's family, friends and colleagues were devastated, and I can only offer my belated condolences. May he rest in peace.  His work lives on, not only through his projects and accomplishments but through them-- his family, his friends and colleagues, and those young people he mentored, who gave him hope.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Climate Crisis: From Resistance to Rebellion

The first major international summit on the climate crisis since the 2016 election is happening now in Bonn, Germany.  Reports coming back indicate that resistance to the current US administration's suicidal idiocy on climate is not only widespread, but is morphing into revolt.

The rebellion is both political and actual--that is, action to address the crisis that the US officially denies.

International resistance has been unanimous, as no other country has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords.  The pathos of the US position became even more pronounced by the announcement that the hateful regime in Syria was joining the accord, leaving the US the last nation on planet Earth not to at least pretend it is defending planet Earth.

That's the resistance.  Apart from the presence and efforts of activists, the rebellion made its first news when US leaders showed up to say the official US government position didn't represent them.  Democrats took the early stage.  As Politico reported:  A handful of Democratic governors and scores of other lawmakers and mayors are mounting an insurgency at the United Nations climate conference here, orchestrating a highly choreographed campaign to persuade world leaders that President Donald Trump doesn’t speak for the United States on climate change."

The rebellion was somewhat bipartisan, with Michael Bloomberg and particularly when mayors, regional and local officials joined it--and some big American-based corporations.  The Guardian reported:

A US Climate Action Center has been set up for delegates in Bonn, representing the climate change priorities of several thousand US cities, states, tribes and businesses. Corporate giants Mars, Walmart and Citi are expected to push for action on climate change. The center is in lieu of an official US presence – for the first time, the US government won’t have a pavilion at the annual UN climate summit.

The leader of the pack seemed to be California Governor Jerry Brown, or as  Politico called him, President of the Independent Republic of California.  In fact California has entered into international climate crisis agreements on its own (including one that predates Paris), as well as leading the US in efforts to address the crisis.

In Bonn, Brown made a case for the practical as well as political rebellion:

“This is not just a top-down structure that we have in the United States,” the governor said. The small crowd burst into applause when he added, “Over time, given the commitments that we’re seeing in this room today, and what we’re seeing around the world, the Trump factor is very small, very small indeed.”

In an interview, he outlines the stakes in a way that few politicians do. "The climate, he went on, “is fundamental. It’s not like dietary requirements. It’s not like a tax measure, or a school curriculum, or many of the issues, even a crime bill. It goes to the essence of being alive, living things. Whether it’s humans or fauna, flora, the basis of life is embedded in this chemical structure, biological structure. And it’s threatened.”

The rebellion on view in Bonn is taking those stakes seriously--and Brown is not immune from that rebellion.

 When the current Washington administration tried to use Bonn as a p.r. opportunity for so-called clean coal, it met with vocalized anger"The Trump administration's effort to pitch coal at the international climate change meeting backfired on Monday, drawing heckling and booing at White House officials and energy industry representatives at a U.S. event."

But Jerry Brown got booed as well, presumably by some of the same people. More than 500 NGOs support the "managed decline" over time of fossil fuel extraction and production, but (as Bill McKibben reports) few political leaders will go even that far.  That includes Brown, who "has so far declined to curtail even fracking and urban drilling, the dirtiest and most dangerous kinds," as governor of the third-largest oil and gas producing state in the US.

He is hardly alone in this--Justin Trudeau, the young Canadian p.m. with an heroic image in the US, supports exploitation of western Canada's tar sands oil, which  is enough to just about sink all prospects of  lowering CO2 emissions.  All this is even more urgent with the news that after several years of decline, global C02 emissions are projected to have increased this year.

Update: Moreover, according to this informative history in the Atlantic, Democrats have no clue on how to advance the efforts to address the climate crisis with federal law or policy, should they get the keys back.

The rebellion is fueled by climate crisis news that has very little new about it.  It continues to be mostly piling on proof and confirming that consensus projections are being fulfilled in the real world.  The only news is that reality is beating those projections in speed and severity, which at this point is also not new.

Yes, a major US study which is so not new that this administration actually allowed it to be issued (to resulting indifference), affirmed that the climate crisis is real, is getting worse and is due to human-caused greenhouse gases.

Yes, the climate crisis is fueling disasters and disease "in possibly irreversible ways," as predicted.  Yes, the climate crisis is making mega-storms like Harvey more likely, frequent and violent--and because more global heating is inevitable due to past and ongoing emissions, all this will get worse.

There are plenty of revisions to come, and some unknowns, but basically the stark outlines of the climate crisis and the related but more general prospect of environmental apocalypse have been known for at least a generation.

 This week, the Union of Concerned Scientists updated their warning of precisely this situation that they first issued 25 years ago in 1992.  Some 15,000 scientists from 184 countries participated.

“Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” they write. This letter, spearheaded by Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple, serves as a “second notice,” the authors say: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

That's another consistent message--that soon it will be too late.  Expert opinion these days may vary on what constitutes "soon" or whether it is already too late but it's not very polite to say so.

As I've said before, I have to factor in my age when offering the opinion that it does seem too late to save everything, and maybe to save anything.  But even if we can't in the end save something, what kind of person won't even try?  Do you want to be that kind of person?  That's going to be the test for younger people for now and the future.  It's a life's work.

Once resistance and anger and commitment are expressed, that's really going to have to be the core of the rebellion.  In the end it will be need to be a quieter, more peaceful, consistent, dedicated rebellion through positive actions, many of them small and repeated.

Such actions--such vocations--include those implied by the 12 steps outlined in this U of Concerned Scientists letter.  Not in order of priority--and translated from geek speak-- they are:

1.Create protected reserves for a "significant proportion" of habitat for land, water and flying life. 2. Stop destroying such existing habitats.  3. Restore forests and other large-scale plant communities. 4. "Re-wilding" of regions with native species. 5. Stop poaching and the threatened-species trade.  6. Promote shift of human diet to plant-based foods (presumably partly because beef production leads to forests destroyed for grazing land, and cattle adds a shocking amount of methane to the atmosphere.)

 7. Reduce human fertility rates through education and voluntary family planning. 8. Increase outdoor nature education for children and everyone else.  9. Shift investments from what destroys the environment to what supports it.  10. Devise and promote new green technologies, phase out subsidies for fossil fuels. 11. Revise economies to reduce wealth inequality and to count the true cost of environmental damage by consumption as well as production.  12.  Estimate a human population that the planet can sustain and rally the world to make staying within it a vital goal.

All of those are large-scale goals, ranging from big projects to stupendous changes.  But similar kinds of projects and changes, as well as others not directly covered in this list but which are needed and will emerge as crucial, operate on the very local and even individual level, wherever people find themselves.

Sarah Van Gelder writes about such efforts now beginning and ongoing--for example, in response to hurricane damages in Puerto Rico.  She quotes Albert Einstein: "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” She calls for a reimagining, but one based on confronting local and personal realities and crises, but in a new way:

"Obsessing over Donald Trump’s latest tweet or the misdeeds of the powerful keeps us within that old mindset, distracting us from work that might actually save us, the work of reimagining the world we want, and creating it.

I’ve come to believe that this work of reimagining is humble, small, often taps feminine energy, is fundamentally indigenous — and local. One way to learn what that means is to ask people who are rebuilding after a major collapse, like those now living in Puerto Rico."

The efforts she briefly describes in this article are effective, responsive and also fulfilling.  The language at least may strike some as other-worldly, or more fashionably (and often politically) as "touchy-feely", etc.  And there might well be some self-deception involved in the practice, though the efforts are positive.  But in general, she's got a very perceptive and relevant point:

"Building together locally is a no-regrets strategy. It releases joy at a time when so many are stressed — just the company of others, engaged in a common purpose, satisfies a deep soul yearning. And if there’s a natural disaster, we’ll need each other to rebuild. Same thing if civilization cracks under the stresses of the climate catastrophe (or from one of the other possible disasters — global or local). If we muddle through with the old power structures intact, local power will prevent the worst abuses, relieve isolation and increase prospects for a society that works for all.

Through this long, hard — but also joyful — work, we may indeed find more and more of our communities becoming more just and ecologically sustainable and maybe even more filled with compassion. And from this foundation, we can build a better country and a better world, rooted in authentic relationships where we live."