Fighting for a world with less oil and more honey!

November 9, 2018

Responding to Bill McKibben’s book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014)

In 1989, when he was still in his twenties, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature. It was his first book and the first of its kind, a book on climate change written for non-scientists. It was a best seller, translated “into a couple of dozen languages.” He continued to write, more books, magazine articles, op-eds, and blog posts, hoping that people would be persuaded about the climate dangers facing the world and change how they lived.

When changes did not occur even after twenty years had passed, Bill concluded that more direct action was necessary and that he had to take the lead. He gathered friends from across the country, consulted with experts on activism, and recruited students from the Vermont college where he taught.

Early in their consultations, they decided that the oil industry had to be their target and they focused attention upon a project that previously had been little known, a pipeline proposal called Keystone XL that was designed to transport almost a million gallons a day of oil pumped from tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Construction was underway and all that seemed still to be needed was approval from President Obama who had already given signs that he was likely to approve.

Bill and his collaborators formed an organization entitled He cross-crossed the nation, making speeches to audiences that kept growing in number. He led protests, frequently being one of the people arrested. During this period of time, the nation was experiencing increasingly serious weather that seemed to confirm what Bill and other activists were saying, but even so there seemed to be little response from business or political leaders. Dangers because of human impacts upon climate continued to become more threatening.

At the same time that he was learning to be an activist in the campaign against big oil, Bill was becoming an activist of a radically different kind. He became friend and then business partner with Kirk Webster, a reclusive Vermont beekeeper who was developing what Bill describes as “a very different, very beautiful way of dealing with a malfunctioning modernity.” In 1985, Kirk had begun raising bees and selling colonies, queens, and honey. Despite the increase of disease everywhere that was decimating the bee population, Kirk was determined to pioneer a better response, which was to refuse the use of chemicals and develop bees resistant to disease and adapted to new conditions, including those brought about by climate change.

He lived alone, made no use of the internet and other technologies that seem to dominate the lives of most people today. When Bill needed respite from his battle against big oil, he spent time on Kirk’s little farm, helping him during the course of an entire year covered by the book. Kirk was demonstrating the “wonderful kind of life that’s possible with full-time farming on a small place” (p. 2).

Late in the book, Bill gives the moral of his double narrative. It is not what one oil executive was saying, that global warming is an “engineering problem with engineering solutions,” and that as weather changes require us to move crops around we’ll adapt. Rather, Bill writes: we should instead start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers such as Kirk Webster, who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace, and who don’t do much damage in the process.” Already, Bill continues, people are making that change. In the previous year, after a century of decline, there had been “a net gain of thirty thousand farms in the country. And almost all the new ones are small” (p. 167).

At book’s end, Bill was coming to a second conclusion. Despite the success of his activism, including the public acclaim he was receiving, the life he was living didn’t feel like his life. “[I]t wasn’t me, or at the least it wasn’t the me that used to be the one that wrote difficult books, that had time to figure things out instead of just reacting.” He supposes that some people thrive on the constant rush of the internet and public action, but he concludes that he is not one of them. “A writer, if you think about it, is someone who has decided that their nature requires them to hole up in a room and type. You can violate your nature for a while, but eventually it takes a toll” (p. 239).

I for one am glad that Bill McKibben is a writer and continues to bless the world with what he writes. Oil and Honey is one more proof that his proper work is putting words on paper and giving them to the world—words that describe reality, identify wrong doing, propose new possibilities, and give us hope. In the paperback edition that I read, Bill writes a new afterword, describing a change of mind that he was experiencing, one that depended much less upon a few leaders than upon movements of people, vast numbers of people everywhere who develop new ways of life and resist the energy-hungry, climate-changing way of life that now is threatening to destroy the world.

He sees an analogy in what the power industry describes as “distributed generation.” Instead of a few huge power plants, what we need are “ten million solar arrays on ten million rooftops” linked together to provide the electricity we need. While we need a few gifted people to lead us forward, even more, we need millions of ordinary people who are changing the way they live in order to live better lives and, while there’re at it, saving the world. Together, we are “fighting for a world with less oil and more honey.”

The Great Migration

November 1, 2018

Responding to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2010)

The two cities where I have spent much of my life (Portland, Oregon, and Indianapolis) are alike in two respects: historically, they have been anti-slavery and highly resistant to settlement by African Americans. In parallel but distinctly different ways, both cities were strongholds for the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. One of my current research interests is to learn more about these racist social systems within which I have lived for nearly seventy years. My purpose, in part, is to do what I can to help shape a better future in cities like the two I have known.          

A chance conversation recently called my attention to a book that helps me understand race relations in the century that started around 1915, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. She writes that beginning with World War I and continuing until the early 1970s, “some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s” (p. 9).

Black southerners left all of the states of the old South—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—along with Kentucky, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. They traveled to the former Union states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, California, Nevada, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, along with the border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri, and Washington, which was admitted to the Union after the Civil War (p. 556). Their numbers overpowered the size of earlier migrations across North America, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, with 100,000 participants, and the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s with 300,000.

I became aware of the movement of African Americans into Portland, where I grew up, during my pre-teen years when many people, including black southerners, came to the Portland-Vancouver area to work in the shipyards during World War II. During my first three years in high school, I was aware of only one African American in my traditional college-prep school, and he, an upper classman, was one of the more popular students on campus. In 1948, the Vanport flood destroyed the homes of many people who had moved to the city during the war years and many families were relocated. As a result, approximately thirty-five African American students were transferred to my 1,200-student school. Although a tiny minority, they were a conspicuous presence because they stayed together as a group. Those of us already there, most of us white with a scattering of Asian American students, didn’t know how to respond to classmates with a different way of using our mother tongue and with different social mores. We kept to our separate ways. Read More ….Great Migration Wilkerson


Modern-day slavery in America

October 4, 2018

I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won, by Susan L. Marquis (Cornell University Press, 2017)

In an earlier time, slavery was a central feature in American life, openly practiced, justified by academics and clergy, and essential to the nation’s economic system. Even after slavery was outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and legislation, patterns of segregation and injustice persisted in American life, and continue in slightly veiled forms today. One example of the virtual slavery in our own time was described in an article by Barry Estabrook published in the March 2009 issue ofGourmet. As Susan Marquis summarizes the essay, he tells a story of “unrelenting abuse of farmworkers, of modern-day slavery, complete with beatings, wage theft, and workers locked in the back of a box truck that served as their home” (p. 2).  This was happening on tomato farms in Florida in 2009.

When she read this article, Susan L. Marquis was beginning her work with the Rand Corporation as dean the Pardee RAND Graduate School, which she describes as “the oldest and largest public policy PhD program in the United States.” There she became aware of the Coalition of Immokalee [rhymes with “broccoli”] Workers. She began reading about tomato pickers in south Florida who had succeeded in overcoming their terrible working conditions, reducing violence and abuse in the fields, and increasing wages. Their success was achieved, in part, by enlisting the aid of fast-food chains in their efforts.

Marquis traveled repeatedly to Immokalee and over time became thoroughly knowledgeable about every aspect of this remarkable story. Her many interviews with people on all sides of this struggle gave her insights into the ideas and motivations that have been at play throughout this struggle for justice and equity. Her previous experience in systems analysis—fifteen years with the Department of Defense and “a half dozen years running a defense, healthcare, and analysis group in a Washington, DC, nonprofit” equipped her to understand and interpret the work being done by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

The key figures in initiating this transformation were Greg Asbed and Laura Geronimo, paralegals who worked for the Florida Rural Legal Services’ Immokalee operations. As they studied conditions faced by the workers, they began asking a “What if” question. What if the workers themselves, rather than concerned outsider advocates, “came together as a community” and instead of fighting individual legal battles concerning injustices fought a united battle for their human rights?

In full detail, Marquis describes what happened as Greg and Laura began working along these lines. They talked with many workers to get a full sense of their working conditions and included workers in meetings where coordinated responses were crafted. Together they created the CIW to be their means of working together in their efforts to persuade growers to transform the conditions faced by pickers. At every point workers were directly involved in reporting abuses to the growers. A basic principle was consultation rather than confrontation.

Although significant improvements in working conditions resulted from this phase of their work, it became clear that the growers themselves were limited in what they could do, especially with respect to wages they could pay. They were caught between the workers’ calls for better wages and pressures on the other side, from the buyers of their produce, who demanded the lowest possible prices for the tomatoes they bought. As this factor became clear, staff and leaders of the CIW concluded that they had to find ways of bringing major buyers, the fast food chains and major grocery companies, into the process. If they could force prices down, they could also force prices up. Read more. . . .I Am Not a Tractor copy

Confronting the History of Racism

September 4, 2018

Responding to In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu (New York: Viking, 2018)

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans,tells two stories in this memoir. One gives the book its title—the removal of four monuments in New Orleans that were erected some years after the Civil War ended to perpetuate false understandings of that war and the racist culture that had made it necessary. The second story contains key passages in Landrieu’s life that formed his character and led him to remove these civil war statues as the culminating action near the end of his eight years as mayor.

He describes his boyhood in New Orleans, education in Catholic schools, and political career in Louisiana prior to becoming mayor of his home city. Landrieu devotes a chapter to David Duke’s brief political career in Louisiana, pointing to the similarities between Duke’s techniques and those of Donald Trump.

The context for two chapters is Katrina and its devastating, lingering impact upon New Orleans. During the storm itself, Landrieu was lieutenant governor of Louisiana and, more than anyone else, responsible for managing rescue and relief activities and the rebuilding of the city. During the storm and its immediate aftermath, “the nation suddenly found a mirror, and we did not like what we saw. How could there still be such poverty and desperation—in America the superpower?” Clearly visible were the results of the century that “had passed between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, a century of disenfranchisement, political and economic” (p. 111).

Although Katrina had impacted people of all classes and colors, those least able to respond were the poor, and most of the poor were black. He concludes the Katrina chapter with a statement of what he and the nation learned during that time of distress. “Katrina taught us that while we had come a long way in civil rights, the inequities that still existed were a result of the lingering shadow of Jim Crow. Race was an issue we’d have to confront directly if we were ever going to move our city and country forward” (p. 123).

In a chapter entitled “Rebuilding and Mourning in NOLA,” Landrieu describes his work during two terms as mayor of the city. He began his time in that office during the disaster caused by the explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf and Mexico. He inherited a city government in shambles, much in debt, and in desperate need of reform in order to undertake the radical reconstruction of the city that had to take place if it were to resume its well-being. His primary challenge, he writes, “was to rebuild public trust, to restore credibility, and to heal a city that was broken—economically, spiritually, racially” (p. 135).

Landrieu devotes nearly half of this chapter to what he calls “the shadow story of my city’s stirring comeback”—”the horrific loss of human life through gun violence, most of which erupts in the poorest parts of town” (p. 143). These pages, perhaps the most heart-rending of the book, bear directly upon Landrieu’s decision to remove the Civil War monuments. Some of the people opposing his intention to remove the monuments insisted that he should focus on stopping the murders rather than upon the statues. None of them, however, helped him in his fights against murder, and his “record on murder reduction is unlike any other administration” (149). His conclusion leads inexorably to the climax of the book.

“Murder and violence are the poisonous fruit grown from the soil of injustice, racism, and inequality—fertilized by guns, drugs, alcohol, and disintegrated families. Hope fades, hate grows, people feel they have nothing to lose. To those who say it has always been this way, I answer: We made this problem by neglect; we can be proactive and fix it. All of this happens in the shadows of statues whose message has always been, as Terence Blanchard said: ‘African Americans are less than’” (pp. 153-4). Read more. . . In the Shadow of Statues


Aftermath of Emancipation: A Chapter in Indiana History

July 27, 2018

Since Emancipation: A Short History of Indiana Negroes, 1863–1963, by Emma Lou Thornbrough (Indiana Division American Negro Emancipation Centennial Authority, 1963)

Emma Lou Thornbrough (1913–1994), taught history at Butler University from 1946 until her retirement in 1994. Beginning with her doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan (“Negro Slavery in the North: Its Legal and Constitutional Aspects”), and continuing throughout the rest of her life, her major area of interest was black history, especially in Indiana. The Negro in Indiana before 1900, published in 1957, established the pattern for her work. It gives a fully documented exposition, based on a wide range of government documents (both federal and state), newspapers from across the state, diaries (published and unpublished), and monographs and books. Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (published posthumously in 2000) continues in this same mode.

Since Emancipation, as its subtitle indicates, bridges the two comprehensive studies, covering thirty-seven years of the nineteenth century and sixty-three years of the twentieth. Thornbrough characterizes it as “a mere summary” of her earlier book, “covering trends and developments which I consider most important” (vii). Including the bibliographical note, this monograph is only ninety-eight pages long, and it was written specifically for Indiana’s participation in a nationwide celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Indiana State Library has a full collection of materials from the year-long celebration.

I was a young professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis at that time, but I have no recollection of the multi-faceted celebration that took place during that year. The preface to Since Emancipation lists eleven activities in Indiana’s celebration of the anniversary, including an Emancipation Day Mass Meeting at St. John’s Baptist Church in Indianapolis, a state-wide church day observance of the Emancipation Centennial, speeches at many organizations including churches and colleges, and special programs “depicting the contribution of the Negro in Music, featuring Spirituals, Jazz, and Classics” (p. iv).

For some readers, the first chapter, “Aftermath of Emancipation—Attainment of Citizenship and Political Rights,” will be the most important part of the book. In eleven pages, Thornbrough describes the historic hostility experienced by black people in Indiana.

“The men who wrote the state constitution were determined to abolish slavery but beyond that they showed no concern for the rights of colored persons. Among the white population of the state as a whole there were strong racial antipathies which were reflected in legislation which denied Negroes within the state the same rights as whites and which attempted to prevent Negroes from coming into the state. No northern state except Illinois enacted as severe Black Laws as did Indiana. These extreme measures are remarkable in view of the fact that negroes constituted only about one per cent of the population of the state” (p. 2). Read more. . .Since Emancipation


Learning how to bicycle farther and faster

July 5, 2018

Ultra-Distance Cycling: An Expert Guide to Endurance Cycling, by Simon Jobson and Dominic Irvine (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017)

I became aware of this book when I saw it on display at the public library near my downtown apartment. It is slightly oversize (7.5 by 9 inches) with high-gloss paper and magnificent photos. Although the text is double-columned with small type, the format is reader-friendly.

On the back cover, the publisher states that “this definitive guide provides riders with everything they need to ride longer and faster, and to excel at ultra-distance cycling events.” The book is premised on the fact that “what once was elite is now common place, and today thousands of dedicated riders cycle up to and over 100 miles on ultra-distance rides every week.”

Until picking up this book, I had always associated ultra-distance cycling with events like El Tour de France and Race Across America. The closest I’ve come to that kind of cycling was in 1987 when I rode BAM (Bicycle Across Missouri), 540 miles from St. Louis to Kansas City and back, in 58 hours, sleeping about two hours on each of the two nights. Much easier was RAIN (Ride Across Indiana), a 160-mile ride from Terre Haute on Indiana’s western border to Richmond on the eastern border, which I rode during daylight hours on a Saturday in 1994.

The authors of Ultra-Distance Cycling, however, set the entry line much lower. They include cyclists determined to ride “a very long way, fast,” and able to do at least 160 kilometres (all measurements in the book are given in metric measure), which converts to 100 miles, over a 24-hour period. Across the nation, thousands of ordinary cyclists are able to ride that way, which is demonstrated by the large number of festive century rides that take place every weekend during the cycling season.

Although this book is pitched for cyclists who can ride the much longer, usually competitive events, six of the nine chapters discuss topics that are important even to  the 100-miles per day ultra-riders: (1) Riding Technique; (2) In Balance: Life, Work and Cycling; (3) Diet and Hydration; (4) Equipment; (5) Fitness; and (6) Approach: Developing an Ultra-distance mindset. Three chapters are for the long-distance, competitive cyclists: (7) Sponsorship and PR; (8) Teamwork; and (9) Putting it All Together.

“It is anticipated,” the authors write, “that the reader will dip in and out of the book, trying out the ideas and suggestions made, and then coming back to experiment a bit more.” That’s the way I’m reading it, and at this point have given primary attention to the chapters on riding technique, fitness, and diet and hydration. Much of what the authors say is similar to principles I have worked with across the years. The authors, however, update the information and discuss topics that are becoming the new orthodoxy, such as the conclusion that wider tires with lower pressure are faster than the narrow, very high pressure tires that used to be standard for most “serious” cyclists.

Simon Jobson, the primary writer, is a professor in sport and exercise physiology at the University of Winchester, in the United Kingdom. Dominic Irvine is a competitive cyclist who trained with Jobson and with a partner set a new tandem record for the UK’s “End-to-End” race, 1,365km (848 miles) from Land’s End to John of Groats, riding it in 45 hours, 11 minutes.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this book is that it is written in clear, straight-forward language, with none of the clever, sometimes off-putting descriptions of cyclists other than those to whom the book is addressed. Sometimes, the authors use playful common sense language to state their case.

The chapter on diet and hydration, for example, “combines diet and hydration information…from academic research with advice from the authors’ experiences of ultra-distance cycling. There is, however, no substitute for trying it all out yourself, during training and non-priority cycling.” Later in the paragraph they note that “palatability is as important as the scientific complexities of the event’s nutritional demands. Sports foods are all well and good when the sun is shining and you’ve been on the road for two hours. However, when riding over a mountain top in freezing mist at 4 a. m. after 24 hours of pedalling, all you really want may be a bowl of hot porridge.”

I’ll continue using the library copy of Ultra-Distance Cycling for a few more days, but then I’ll buy a copy for my home collection to refer to in the future and share with others who want to ride farther and faster. Most important, this book will help me as I learn how to become a senior ultra-distance cyclist.

Letting my legs take over the ride

June 15, 2018

legsWith my injured leg muscles well again (thanks to my therapist’s counsel and a winter that stretched into April), it’s time to regain strength in my bicyclist’s legs. The sports medicine doctor assured me that I will be able to continue cycling the way I have done all these years: many miles per day, day after day (age-adjusted, of course).

My sister, a few years younger than I, has invited me to an aggressive ride up Hurricane Ridge Road in the Olympic National Park in celebration of her mid- August birthday. A four-day bike tour of the Columbia River Gorge earlier that month will help me resume this kind of cycling.

My training plan to get ready for these events combines advice from doctors, expert long-distance cyclists, and my own experience as aggressive open road cyclist.

Ride enough miles all year to keep good base strength. For several years, I’ve been cycling about seventy-five miles a week, including one vigorous ride of thirty to forty miles. During this winter of reduced mileage, that base has declined, and now I’m beginning to rebuild. Progress during the past month is encouraging.  

Overtraining does more harm than good. So get your rest days in. This wording comes from an article by Dr. Conan Chittick with IU Health Physicians Family and Sports Medicine. A day of reduced activity after three days of hard activity, he writes, allows muscles to restore and regenerate. At this stage in my recovery, I’m finding that one long, hard ride per week, two or three shorter but vigorous rides and at least one day with no rides at all is a pattern that works. I’m back to seventy-five miles per week and feeling better!

Ride about 10% of your miles, especially on longer rides, at close to maximum effort. This is one of the recommendations that ultra-marathon cyclist Lon Haldeman gives to cyclists who sign up for the challenging tours that he and Susan Notorangelo conduct through their company PAC Tour (Pacific Atlantic Cycle Tours). I’ve done ten of these tours  and know from experience that this guideline works. These short bursts at full power output help legs and lungs learn how to ride that way and gradually all of a cyclist’s miles become faster and overall condition improves.

I don’t keep a close count on these miles; instead, I let the road do the counting. Most routes have hilly sections, even if some are little more than highway and railroad overpasses. Rather than gearing down, I keep pushing and often can ride right through.

Hydrate more. On one of my many several stays in Claremont, California, I was cycling up an easy grade on a lower slope of Mt. Baldy. Twenty minutes into the climb, I stopped to watch a filming crew at work. Standing there, I grew so dizzy that I had to lean on my bike to keep from falling. As soon as I got home, I talked with my doctor (also an experienced road cyclist).

After examining me and finding nothing wrong, he recommended that I wear a water carrier on my back so that I could more easily keep hydrated. On long rides, especially in remote areas I do what he recommended because it is easier to keep the liquid flowing in when the drinking tube is right there by my mouth. On shorter rides, I still depend upon water bottles. The purpose is to keep drinking so that the heart more easily can keep the blood flowing.

“And don’t push so hard; it might be dangerous.” As I was leaving, my doctor added this warning, explaining that no matter how much you train your heart slows down as you grow older. It made sense, partly because on my own I had recognized that I could push too hard. Maybe thirty years earlier, I was climbing legendary Mt. Tabor Hill on the Hilly Hundred cycling event near Bloomington, Indiana. At the top, I nearly passed out and vowed to ease up a little. I also got some lower gears on my bike to help me in the effort.

A corollary to the rule: “There’s no hill too steep to walk.”

Pay attention to muscle memory. On a thirty-mile ride two weeks ago, I realized as I neared home, that my head was telling me “Slow down,” but my legs kept saying “Go!” There are times when pedaling cadence, breathing, and muscle load are in perfect balance and you can go forever, or so it seems. On two or three rides this spring that same feeling has come, and for a few minutes I quit thinking and let my legs take over the ride. The next day, of course, I sit around a lot.