Leaving Washington after 10 days in front of the White House, I ride the train through hills and mountains – Maryland, West Virginia? I look out on trees, rocks, river: wide river, shallow with rocks, winding, here and there a small island; now an old stone building, a wide field, a farm; now trees again, roads, farms. “Beautiful,” I think. There's a bit of mist, now turned to rain streaming down the windows. Across the aisle a baby is entertained by his mother.
This is what it is about – that life should continue. Perhaps I should say, life as we now know it. The teaching says, “Accept what is offered,” but I am not yet able to accept the end of human life, the end of trees, of rain, of deer. I am worried at the loss of insects. Suddenly I remember, driving a car in the summer 10, 20 years ago meant a windshield splattered with insects, frequent scrubbing and cleaning of their dead bodies – and this is no longer true; the insects are nearly gone. What else is lost, will be lost every day in this great extinction? How can I come to terms with it?
About six years ago, I attended a talk by Richard Heinberg in which I learned that my unease about the end of our energy resources was not only right, but too optimistic. We face a crisis. Then I visited my 5-month-old grandson. He laughed all the time. I thought we are betraying him, imagined how he will feel when the world collapses around him. A year later I began learning permaculture and realized that we could stop it if we have the will. Climate change, peak oil, environmental devastation and political disaster are all consequences of human dedication to the three poisons. (I say dedication intentionally. Greed and profit have been legislated into the highest values in our society. In the history of the world, this is an aberration.)
Now I study what it means to free all beings. It's not a physical thing, yet it does not allow me to cooperate with the destruction of millions of lives, millions of points of awareness. My life does not belong to me.
I'm returning from an action about the Alberta tar sands, specifically about the plan to put a pipeline from the tar sands to Canada, through the middle of North America, through wilderness, farms, ranches, mountains and the Ogalala aquifer. Every day groups of us stood or sat in front of the White House and got arrested for disobeying police orders. It was all polite and civilized, though uncomfortable. Most of us paid our bond and left in a few hours, never seeing the inside of a jail.
"It was all polite and civilized, though uncomfortable. Most of us paid our bond and left in a few hours, never seeing the inside of a jail."
In 14 days, 1,252 citizens were arrested. Most came and left in three days. Some stayed to support or volunteer. On the “religious leaders” day I spoke for Buddhism and got arrested in full robes. On the other days I sat zazen an hour or so on, facing the White House.
During my 10 days, I talked with a photographer. He was doing a documentary. He'd been to the tar sands region, and to places where pipeline spills had happened, and to refineries. Each place, people described the same illnesses and the same destruction of their landscape, of their water, of their way of life.
At the tar sands, the Cree have lived off the land for thousands of years. To be unable to eat the moose because the moose are cancerous, to lose the boreal forest which, is their identity as well as their livelihood, to have no drinkable water that is not flown in; how does this compare to simply watching your children, brother, sister, uncle, mother, best friend get cancer? I would not want either for my grandchildren, my children or myself. Or for anyone, including moose, voles, willows and ravens.
The pipeline will increase the output of the tar sands by 30 percent. The sands will be processed to turn them into something resembling oil, then piped across Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, the plains (over the Ogalala aquifer on which the Midwest depends for water) down to refineries in Texas to be sold to the highest bidders. Each barrel of oil, before piping, will be processed using four barrels of water and one of natural gas – sometimes from fracking, sometimes not. The economy does not distinguish. Money does not value the lives of humans or moose, moss or polar bears, soils or forests.
Oil from the tar sands, for all these reasons, contributes more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than ordinary “light sweet crude,” which we have nearly used up. The climate is already changing – hard to deny that in this year of floods, droughts, fires and hurricanes – and if we continue to develop the tar sands, we invite ever-faster change and the point of no return.
Talking about this always makes one sound overdramatic, even hysterical. But when I was asked why I was there, I answered “We need a planet to live on.”
Shodo Spring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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