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Deep State: The ecosystem defends itself — The Sierra Club’s Climate Conference

“I’m an example of the ecosystem defending itself.” — Shri Verrill, a wetland ecologist, speaking in Belfast

Three people stifled sobs when they spoke. I was surprised how emotional things were. But I shouldn’t have been. In Maine, May is the cruelest month. Here we were on this cool-warm, cloudy-sunny spring day, with blossoms on the trees starting to appear, contemplating the end of the world as we know it.

That indeed was the subject of the fourth Climate Action Conference of the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club on May 4 at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast. About 150 people wanted to know what they could do about the crisis we’re already in.

“Welcome your emotions” was a suggestion made by Bill Price, a professional organizer, who was there to loosen people up. His suggestion led to a mass holding of hands with strangers and a chanting of “welcome” to every identity group in existence. (I confess that at such touchy-feely rituals my stuffy Puritan forebearers reach across the centuries to make me flinch.)

The participants’ emotions didn’t need to be prompted. The positive reception given the keynote speaker showed how riled up this group was: Gus Speth is a semi-legendary figure in the environmental movement, cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, former head of Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and former administrator of the United Nations Development Program. At 77, he sounded like a young radical.

To confront global-warming-caused climate change that, he said, is going to be worse than the group could imagine — and this assembly was already convinced that things were going to get bad — “a new level of political activism” is required.

Make “beautiful trouble,” he urged, including “civic and civil disobedience,” recalling with pride the three days he spent in jail after a Washington, D.C., climate protest.

Answering a question about how more Americans could be brought to engage in the necessary transformations to avoid climate catastrophe, Speth was pessimistic: a crisis event would probably be needed.

Changing “the system,” he said, means questioning economic growth and “runaway consumerism” and confronting “powerful corporate interests” to which government is subservient. And it means not neglecting to involve the “paycheck-to-paycheck” people.

All this has been said, of course, for decades. Yet greenhouse gasses keep cooking the planet. Carbon emissions nationally rose 3.4 percent last year — all those cars, trucks, furnaces, factories, and power plants of economic growth that we don’t question. Still, determinedly, the conference was about continuing to try to transform things.

Speth’s suggestion of “owning your own utility” drew cheers from an audience alienated from Central Maine Power Co. and its proposal for a giant transmission line through the North Woods. The cheers demonstrated an awareness of the legislative proposal to have the state take over CMP and the other large power company, Emera Maine.

Rep. Chloe Maxmim (D-Nobleboro), sponsor of Maine’s Green New Deal legislation, also hit full-throated notes on the need for political action, receiving the only standing ovation of the day. This audience was thrilled to see such a competent, dynamic recent college graduate, our own Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A variety of ages was represented at the conference, but with a good proportion of the gray-haired set. (“Anyone who can’t hear me, we found your hearing aid” was one announcement.)

When the political system “refuses to take action” on climate change, Maxmin said, the focus on meeting the challenge needs to be political, including getting the labor movement and “working-class folks” involved. Maine’s AFL-CIO is the first labor federation in the country to back a state Green New Deal.

Maxmin’s bill, LD 1282, is modeled after congressional legislation that envisions putting huge numbers of people to work retooling American society to lessen and adapt to the climate challenges. Like the national Green New Deal and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ climate pronouncements, the Maine bill is aspirational: big on goals and small on means, like appropriations and regulations.

But maybe a new political consciousness is needed first. That seemed to be a consensus. Scott Vlaun, a Norway, Maine, environmental activist, said America’s currently “booming” economy is “an illusion” perpetuated by the wealthy that needs to be dispelled. How can an economy be called booming, he asked, when tens of millions of people are poor, pollution and climate change are accelerating, and nature is “collapsing”?

(As I write this, I glance at a headline: “One million species face extinction, UN panel says. Humans will suffer as a result.”)

A classroom day, too

Much of the day was what used to be called a teach-in. Across more than a dozen sessions big and small, information was laid out by experienced activists and college professors on issues ranging from “Local Grassroots Organizing 101” to understanding how global warming threatens Maine’s small streams.

There were many lifestyle-change, use-less-energy suggestions. Duane Hanson, the now-well-known CMP-power-line opponent, spoke in his down-home manner about how “we need to go backwards” toward simpler living and conservation.

He also made the point that, in solutions to the climate crisis, “everything is not what it appears,” citing the giant dams in Canada that would be the source of the electricity running on the CMP corridor from Quebec to Massachusetts, which is eager to use renewable energy. The dams have drowned carbon-dioxide-absorbing forests in Canada, a development that may more than offset whatever carbon-reduction benefits result from hydro power supplanting fossil-fuel plants in Massachusetts.

Roberta Benefiel, a Labrador activist touring New England to raise consciousness about the destructions caused by these “mega-dams,” dwelled on another harm from them: the “methylmercury poisoning of aboriginal, traditional food sources” — fish — which she likened to “cultural genocide.”

Rotting wood from drowned trees releases this neurotoxin into the water. It then gets into small fish and is concentrated up the food chain into the larger fish that Native Americans in Canada catch and eat.

The large hydro projects are “devastating the Canadian North,” Benefiel said. They’re “not green, not clean, and certainly not cheap.” When she was asked what people in our state could do to help in the struggle against the devastation, she replied, “First, prevent the corridor.” Hydro-Québec, the company that would send the electricity down through Maine, is heavily involved both as an owner and a purchaser of Labrador’s hydro power.

Tony Marple, of Whitefield — one of the few environmentalists present, it appeared, who believed the CMP corridor will help on balance to reduce carbon emissions — challenged Benefiel. Given the needed electrification of transportation and heating to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, he said that accepting the corridor would be a tolerable sacrifice. She answered that the “492,000 cubic meters” of rotting, poison-leaching wood that would result from the still-under-construction Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador was “not a small sacrifice.”

Laura Sewall, who teaches at Bates College and oversees the Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area near Popham Beach, gave a “lightning round” presentation on the storm-protection and little-known carbon-impounding value — more than similar-sized forests — of salt marshes. But sea-level rise from the warming climate is causing a big salt-marsh loss in Maine and elsewhere.

Wouldn’t salt marshes migrate inland as the sea level rose? Sewall pointed out that culverts, dams, and roads would often prevent this. How about having part of the Green New Deal “take out these restrictions” along the coast, she suggested? She observed, however, that this kind of project would require “a flip in our worldview.”

A psychiatrist, Janis Petzel, gave a chilling talk, “Death by Degrees: The Health Crisis of Climate Change in Maine.” Global warming means more Lyme disease and other insect-borne sicknesses such as anaplasmosis; more heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration; allergies from increased pollen; and mental-health problems such as post-traumatic-stress disorder after catastrophic weather. A subtle mental condition could ensue, she suspected. People may “feel they have no future.”

In another speedy but detailed presentation, Susan Colvin, a fisheries scientist at Unity College, described how a warming climate is disrupting fish in the state’s streams. Alewives are running 13 days earlier than in the 1970s. But the Trump administration is proposing lifting environmental protection for many small streams.

Even in these presentations of scientific data, there were calls for political action. David Gibson, of ReVision Energy, a solar-energy contractor, described one possibility for activism: LD 1634, a bill now before the Legislature to establish a “statewide green bank.” It would be financed by $100 million in bonds.

Reaching the Trump supporters

In the final session, the impromptu subject was how to reach people not likely to attend such a conference. This politically liberal crowd tended to refer to them as “Trump supporters.” Trump denies human-caused climate change.

“They’re not bad people,” one woman ventured. This was contested by a woman who felt “moral” boundaries sometimes were crossed by global-warming deniers. Emotions rose.

In the morning, Gus Speth had brought up the importance of environmentalists raising the consciousness of their neighbors. But this is difficult, he admitted. Many people in his Vermont town seem preoccupied with the issues of schools and roads.

There undeniably are many obstacles between these environmentalists and a lot of other Americans. For example, part of what’s needed for an economic transformation, several speakers insisted, is a return to a simpler life. But that’s impossible to preach to the desperately poor. (There didn’t appear to be a lot of poor people at the conference.)

It’s probably difficult, too, to preach this gospel to the paycheck-to-paycheck people, many of whom are economically frustrated Trump supporters, even when they’d benefit from not feeling they had to have so many of the material things incessantly advertised to them. One subject not discussed during the conference — at least, in the meetings I attended — was the influence of the mass media in creating our endless economic-growth predicament.

Lots of people are upset. Maybe the emotions that installed Donald Trump as president and that fuel the opposition to him are related. Except for the people who profit, increasingly, from our politics and economics — the rich — on all sides there’s disillusionment with, and anger at, the corporate capitalist system, although it’s unacknowledged among the Trump supporters.

In the end, there was no consensus on how to reach the unconverted. Meanwhile, keeping people living paycheck-to-paycheck may continue to work well politically for those at the top — those who benefit from things as they are, and who in 2016 constituted another pillar of Trump support.

Nobody knows, of course, the outcome of our crisis. It’s impossible to say how emotions will run and what the consequences will be when more people face the end of the world as we know it. But at least there are some people valiantly trying to face it now.