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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Sea Caves and Kelp Forests of Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island cliffs west of Scorpion Harbor, with Anacapa in the distance

Absolute dark above and below, behind and to the sides. The only light, and it glowed strong, came from the narrow entrance to the Santa Cruz Island sea cave, some 30 feet behind me. The kayak rocked gently as waves washed into the cave, traveled to the back, and broke quietly against what sounded like a small beach. I feathered the paddle and turned myself about, to look out the entrance.

It felt good, being sheltered within this basaltic rock that had erupted out of the sea floor off the California Coast in the Miocene, 20 million years ago. Protected. I liked the sound of the ocean lapping quietly against the rock all around me. I liked the dark. It all—especially the quiet—reminded me of being in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, on a snowy November weekday five years ago. As the flakes began to fall about me, I sheltered within the burned-out cavity comprising half the trunk of a tree 25 feet wide and 200 feet tall. Sitting there within a creature over a thousand years old, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, alone on the hilltop as I watched the snow drift down outside, I also felt sheltered. Safe. Part of something that had been going on for a long time.

But the best part of the many sea caves along the edge of Santa Cruz Island off the coast of southern California is emerging from them into the daylight. The world seems to explode around you. Oh yes, the sky is that gorgeous blue, isn’t it? The ocean’s surface dances green  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

The stark choice facing humanity: creation or destruction?

Part 8. Two Paths, and a Choice

Six months after the Paris climate conference, little seemed to be happening. With the exception of Greenpeace and 350.org, most environmental groups were curiously quiet. They pressed ahead with fundraising, as always; they published their magazines with glossy photos; but in truth gave little sign that a critical moment in human history was upon us.

In contrast, the significance of Paris spurred considerable pushback from Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Mining. Most observable activity post-Paris originated from fossil fuel corporations pressing vigorously ahead to cash in as much of their reserves as they could before any restrictions might be applied.

Shareholder meetings of Exxon and Chevron in May of 2016 saw the lopsided defeat of resolutions presented by climate activist investors. Chevron CEO John Watson emphatically rejected  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

Not a victory, but a start--barely

Part 7. Hope Blossoms: Paris, December 2015

The 2014 U.N. climate conference had asked the world’s nations to submit by October, 2015 their pledges (INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to form the platform of the much-anticipated December, 2015 climate summit in Paris. These pledges would be a test of how seriously the world’s leaders were listening to the data and predictions of virtually every scientific body in the world, and the pleas of climate change activists.

In the scientific and environmental establishment, at least, the 2015 summit was considered the last opportunity to craft an international consensus that would avert global catastrophe. Optimism was not widespread, given the utter failure to reach such agreement in every other preceding summit. Klein’s hoped-for mass movement had not mushroomed in the year since her book’s publication, nor were there any signs of Pope Francis’ hoped-for “ecological conversion” occurring throughout the world.  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

The author of environmental encyclical Laudato Si'

Part 6. Dawn of Hope 2015: Pope Francis’ Encyclical

Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Francis as his apostolic name set the tone for his papacy, reminding all of the 13th century friar who wrote canticles to “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” and talked to songbirds and wolves. The name also presaged the contents of his summer 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. Certainly the document, an official church teaching, had been the subject of debate for months before its issuance. Environmentalists worldwide eagerly awaited it; conservative Catholics, particularly in America, denounced it in advance, sternly advising Francis to “stick to religion, and we’ll stick to politics,” in the words of Republican (and Catholic) then-Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner.

When the encyclical finally arrived in June 2015, it proved to be everything that had been hoped and feared—and more. Francis’ analysis was thorough and in depth; the proposed solutions ranged from the theoretical to the practical, sparing no institution or entrenched power. The document was radical, and spawned a torrent of shocked criticism Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

The target of the Sierra Club's invigorated "Beyond Coal" fight

Part 5. Clarity 2012-2014: Sierra Club, 350.org, Naomi Klein

The confusion and dismay characterizing the environmental movement in the first decade of the new century gradually yielded in the several years following 2012 to clarity on the depth of the crisis and a general approach to its possible resolution. Partly this was just due to the devastating climate-change scenarios being projected; the coming world they foresaw was so terrifying, so clearly unacceptable, that a positive response was wrung out of the dismay. Partly the emerging clarity was due to the increasing attention that the newly assertive scientific world demanded from governmental leaders and policy-makers. The attention of the world was, finally, being caught by those chronicling climate change and its consequences.

Another source of attention was a series of long-running confrontations pitting peasants and indigenous peoples against extractive operations, which peaked in 2013. Because these skirmishes usually result in road blockades (by either the protesters or the authorities), the phenomenon has been labeled “Blockadia...not a specific location on a map but rather  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

Earth, newly imperilled

Part 4. Confusion and Dismay 2000-2012: “Is Earth F**ked?”

In June of 1988 the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, testified before a congressional hearing that the earth’s climate was threatened by a buildup of heat-trapping “greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere. The phenomenon was not newly-discovered; for several decades climatologists at Hawaii’s Moana Loa Observatory had tracked steadily rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and many scientists had warned of its effect on atmospheric temperatures. By 1988 sufficient data was available to make a credible case (to scientists, at least) that “greenhouse gases” were changing climate with serious, deleterious consequences to humanity.

Thus was engaged the most serious threat to the continuation of the human presence on earth that our species has encountered in its 200,000-year tenure on the planet. The response would not be encouraging. Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

Greenpeace "kayaktivists" in Seattle block Shell oil rig's departure to Arctic

Part 3. Fragmentation 1970-2000: Radicals and Men in Suits

The same 1970s that produced the explosion of environmental legislation from the U.S. Congress also produced the first realization, among some, that not nearly enough was going to be accomplished using the approaches of the mainline environmental organizations. Greenpeace, Sea Shepherds, and Earth First! earned the designation of Environmental Radicalism through their groups’ espousal of the Gaiacentric, hidden Muir, and their brash bodies-on-the-line activism—sometimes legal, sometimes not. They were the first to channel the hidden Muir, though it would not lead to a larger awakening.

In 1971 a loose band of environmentalists in Vancouver, Canada decided to adopt confrontational direct action to stop nuclear testing. Bob Hunter and his comrades hired a fishing boat to motor them directly into Aleutian waters near Amchitka, where a nuclear test was scheduled to detonate.  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

"All the other torches were lighted from his."

Part 2. Early Victories 1960s, 1970s: Cleaning Up America

Considering the disastrous conclusion of Muir’s battle to save the Hetch Hetchy valley from San Francisco water interests, what can we say of his legacy? John Muir left dozens of national parks, national monuments, and forest preserves created by his efforts and those he inspired. He left his name on scores of mountains, glaciers, high passes, groves, and schools.

But a further legacy stands above all the others, a legacy that has changed world history. The scope, intensity, and tactics of the 1902-1913 battle to save Hetch Hetchy created the modern environmental movement, and John Muir, more than any other single person, marshaled that battle. As publisher Robert Underwood Johnson put it in his eulogy to Muir: “To this (movement) many persons and organizations contributed, but Muir’s writings and enthusiasm were the chief forces that inspired the movement. All the other torches were lighted from his.”

Even before the battle over Hetch Hetchy was joined, Muir was clear about the forces that threatened the vast areas of exceptional natural beauty with which America was blessed. “These temple destroyers, devotees of a ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”  Read More 

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John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement

The Father of the Environmental Movement

Part 1. The Battle for Hetch Hetchy, 1902-1913

John Muir came relatively late in life to what became, later, “the environmental cause.” Full of love though he was for the natural world, it was not until 1889, when he was 51 years old, that he was finally persuaded by one determined friend to seriously take up cudgels, and battle to protect and preserve his beloved realm. Prior to this, his abundant energy had simply been directed to other areas. During the 1870s he was exploring California’s Sierra Nevada and other wild areas; the 1880s saw him raising his family and working very hard at the Martinez orchard and ranch to secure their financial security.

To be sure, Muir’s journals reflect early and lasting disdain for “Lord Man” and the general assumption the natural world exists for his sake, particularly Lord Man's constant readiness to sacrifice Nature for monetary profit. Muir had groused for decades about the devastation wrought by sheep (“hooved locusts”) grazing in meadows of the High Sierra. He had penned a letter  Read More 

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A Jubilee of Yosemite Waterfalls

"The might torrent of snowy, cometized water..."

“Today the (Yosemite) falls were in terrible power. I gazed upon the mighty torrent of snowy, cometized water, whether in or out of the body I can hardly tell—such overwhelming displays of power and beauty almost bring the life out of our feeble tabernacle. I shouted until I was exhausted and sore with excitement…
(The mountain waters of Yosemite Creek at the brow of the falls) “finally moved over the brink with songs that go farther into the substance of our being than ever was touched by man-made harmonies—songs that bear pure heaven in every note. The fleecy, spiritualized waters take the form of mashed and woven comets, going with a grace that casts poor mortals into an agony of joy.”

--John Muir, 16 January 1870

If, like Muir a century ago, you’re an admirer of waterfalls and the surge of wonder they provoke, then a springtime pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley is a must. California’s past four years of drought destroyed the annual spectacle, but this winter we managed average rainfall. Though not a banner year like Muir’s 1870, the spring snow melt was producing quite a show. And my buddy Al and I were there,  Read More 

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