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Getting Ready for a New, Necessary and Better Way of Living

Planet Earth
NASA Image: Earth from space.

A soft and pensive voice says, "I think that most of us feel that something bad is coming our way."

The voice is that of a 13-year-old girl in the short film Sand Castle (embedded below) talking about the realities of the dire situation we face as a society today due to Climate Change. It is a stark video that is also somehow cathartic. Speaking the truth - or even hearing it spoken from the mouth of a child - has a way of allowing some sort of release, a letting go, an acceptance.

"Wildlife is disappearing. Forests burn. Ice is melting. Trash is everywhere. We caused it and everyone suffers, including us," she says.

She then proceeds to ask some of the most important questions any of us will ever face. "Is this how our civilization will end?" "What will our lives be like?" "Will we have to survive disasters? Wars? Disease? Starvation?"

These are tough questions and ones not many people eagerly ask, in part because meaningful answers are elusive. No one can predict the future. But ask the questions we must because one thing is becoming increasingly clear: in our lifetimes human society is going to need to dramatically evolve if we are going to survive on this planet. A large and growing number of people already understand this. Yet people avoid doing anything to change it, because, as the girl in Sand Castle says, everyone feels too small and too weak.

An admittedly unscientific poll we conducted tells us something about how many people believe this to be true. We asked our community to respond to a simple question. We asked, "Which of the following statements best describes your overall belief about climate change?"


Climate Change poll question
The poll as it appeared on our website.


The responses were both eye-opening. Nearly 90% of survey respondents said they believe that Climate Change is real and that the collapse it is causing has already begun.


Climate Change poll responses
Breakdown of Climate Change poll responses


Our simple neighborhood poll is consistent with much larger national polls that all show public opinion about Climate Change has shifted dramatically in the last year, even in communities like ours that have been relatively insulated from the extreme climate events that have occurred elsewhere. That being said, those of us who pay attention to what is going on in the natural world here have already noticed a dramatic decline in overall insect populations. We see animal species living around our homes that didn't used to live this far north. We also find that predicting the year's gardening season is becoming increasingly difficult as temperatures, moisture levels, storm intensity and other factors have become increasingly volatile.

Science tells us that Climate Change is here and if we are paying any attention at all, we are already seeing it happening.

In other parts of the world, things are already getting really bad. Large scale migrations of people are taking place as people face droughts, heatwaves and deforestation at record levels. Others face floods, fires and monster storms that are appearing across the globe at scales not seen during recorded history. As news of these events - which scientists are increasingly connecting to Climate Change - get broader coverage, it is unsurprising that growing numbers of people - even in our (so far) insulated communities - are coming to understand that Climate Change is not some distant future scenario. Science and today's daily reality say that it is here. It is now. And, it is getting worse.

The most up-to-date science also says that the worst case scenarios previously predicted by climate models have been too optimistic, that it is coming harder and faster than most anyone imagined and it is made even more complicated by other highly complex issues, like human overpopulation and our addiction to excessive consumption, which is fueled in part by our lifestyles that are utterly disconnected from nature.

So disconnected are we from it all that even though we know that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of Climate Change, we continue to drive gas-gobbling SUVs while our government pays subsidies to fossil fuel companies. These and other facts have caused a growing number of people to conclude that we have already passed the critical tipping point of Climate Change such that avoiding a total collapse of society as we know it is no longer possible.

A paper written by Professor Jem Bendell titled Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy has gone viral since it was published in July of 2018. It is based entirely on the premise that a near term collapse of society is inevitable. To quote from the paper:

The approach of the paper is to [analyze] recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.
That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.

We (George and Mike from Our Urban Farms) first realized the the systemic nature of this issue decades ago. We periodically recall one specific insight we had in 1989. We were in a tent in Seward, Alaska, where we had gone in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We were helping to care for rescued Sea Otters that had been brought to the Sea Otter Rescue Center.

Sea Otter research book.
A book published years after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill confirmed the things we knew - that we were not supposed to know - while working with the otters.

After a long shift at the Otter Center, we were eating dinner in one of our tents with a friend of ours who had traveled to Alaska with us. We were all feeling particularly angry. The public perception of the oil spill response bore little resemblance to the realities we were observing boots on the ground. We had learned, for example, that the Sea Otter Rescue Center itself was less of a "rescue center" than it was a "research operation" and the research being conducted meant that 50% of the otters were not being washed, including mother otters who had given birth to the first baby Alaska Sea Otters to ever be born in captivity.

Those of us caring for the otters were not supposed to know that otters were not being washed, much less which otters were unwashed. But, it was not hard to tell. When we would approached a pool of unwashed otters we could see an oil slick on the water and smell the crude oil in the air. Said another way: we soon realized tiny newborn sea otters were being forced to ingest crude oil that was intentionally left on their mothers' fur in the name of "research" at the Sea Otter "rescue" center.

Us in our meal tent and a baby otter
Photos: (Above) Sitting in our meal tent, where we gathered after shifts at the Sea Otter Center, left to right: Miki Cook, George Hamm & Mike Fry. (Bottom) One of the baby otters we cared for.

Sitting in our tent that night, we were angry about all we were seeing and learning about the consortium of oil industry special interests that were running operations. Infant otters being forced to ingest crude oil for research was only one of a long list of horrific things we learned that came at us as a daily assault on the naivete that brought us to Alaska to help in the first place: Oil companies selling "rescued" otters to zoos, politicians posing for photo ops at the "rescue" center while making secret deals with oil industry, fishermen capturing healthy otters and deliberately covering them in oil so they could collect "bounty" money for "saving" them... it was a long and painful list of horrors, enough to fill multiple books. That night eating in our tent we railed against all of it, the oil companies, the zoos, the politicians, the press that failed to expose most of it. It was all so bleak and dark. There was too much to take in. But, there was more...

We don't remember who exactly said it. But someone did. "Ya. And here we are having this conversation sitting in a tent made of petroleum," they said.

Then someone else added, "getting ready to crawl into our petroleum sleeping bags."

"Eating off plastic plates and with plastic silverware," said another.

The list kept going: using a petroleum lantern, wearing petroleum-based long underwear and on and on... and then we were quiet. A kind of grieving had set in. Railing against the machine became harder once we owned that we were cogs in the machine, or, as some would say, "batteries in the Matrix," a reference to the movie, The Matrix.

The insight that our own lifestyles - the choices we were making in our lives - were contributing to the things we wanted to change set us on a decades-long journey that pressed the reset button on our lives, ultimately bring our decisions and actions more in alignment with our values. To achieve this, we had to come to terms with many things we did not want to acknowledge, like, for example, the fact that most of the choices we made about what to buy were not given very much thought. They were largely automatic and overly influenced by what you could call the norms of society.

Like many people, we bought this, that or the other thing because it was the current trend or fashion, with little concern about where it came from, what it was made of, or how it got from where it was to our homes. Like nearly everyone else we knew, we were consumers who were asleep at the wheel much of the time, digesting the things popular culture told us we needed.

Exxon Valdez began waking us up to our need to change the way we lived. Another disaster - Hurricane Katrina - affected our lives even more.

With no advanced notice and with no opportunity to prepare, we were called upon to lead a large-scale rescue effort in the wake of one of our nation's largest and deadliest natural disasters, which struck New Orleans on August 31, 2005. When Katrina made landfall, it was a category 5 storm that caused unimaginable devastation to one of the Gulf Coast's most beloved and populated cities. The storm itself was just the beginning. In its aftermath, there were more than 50 breaches of the levee system that protected much of the populated area - that were built on land that is situation below sea level - from the surrounding ocean.

When levees were breached, homes were engulfed in salt water within minutes, drowning residents in their homes and trapping others who had sought safety in their attics. For the next six months, we coordinated twice weekly transports of staff, volunteers and supplies into the disaster area while bringing animal survivors to Minnesota as we sought to locate family members with whom the pets could be reunited.

It was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually grueling work. And our success, which was written about in books and featured in the documentary film, Left Behind Without a Choice, and other places was largely due to the training and preparation we gave to our teams prior to deployment. Though nothing could have fully prepared anyone for the things our staff and volunteers encountered, because there is no possible way to prepare - at least in the traditional sense of that word - for a disaster like Katrina.

What we could do, however, was to help people to learn to live adapably, and in the moment, understanding that the daily reality of the disaster continued to unfold and change. Nothing was a given in the disaster zone other than change, discomfort and urgency. Lives literally depended on our ability to adapt to a constantly changing situation.

People needed to learn to let go of everything they were accustomed to in their daily lives; to live in tents in the rain, the heat; to stare death right in the face and move forward in an unflinching way.

It was intensely difficult and rewarding. And it taught us many things that we have carried forward in our lives ever since: how to prioritize the things in life that are really important; how to live with less than we thought was possible; the importance of community and sharing and more, things we believe are going to be increasingly necessary in the volatile future predicted by Deep Adaptation.

Transitioning: The Learning Experience

To help share this learning with our community, Our Urban Farm has created an 8-week learning experience called Transitioning, in which participants will be called upon to imagine their lives in a post-disaster world in our south Minneapolis neighborhood. Participants will work in partnership to rebuild their lives in this new imagined world where resource availability is very limited.

We do not believe that anyone can teach others how they can or should live in the future. We also know that develop skills and insights that will help them discover their own ways of living in harmony with the world around them, to find peace amidst chaos, to discard things that no longer serve them and to embrace new paradigms that are more in tune with their hearts' desires. For more information, visit our Transitioning Page or contact us.

As we said earlier, no one can predict the future. Will Climate Change, human overpopulation, the mass extinction of species and the other global crises we are seeing happening today cause the predicted collapse of society as we know it in our lifetimes? We cannot say. What we know is that by living our lives as if they depend on our figuring that out, we have made them much better. We feel more connected to the world around us. We are happier, healthier and we are leaving a lighter footprint on the planet, too.

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