To say we are living in turbulent times is to state the painfully obvious. The political landscape veers between frightening and farcical on a nearly daily, if not hourly, basis.
As we reel from news of one act of terror to another horrific gun shooting and careen from extreme weather event to bracing for the latest sexual predator reveal, it is enough to make one want to hide under the covers and say “wake me up when it’s over.”
However tempting, that is not an option so how do we cope with the current chaos and relentless assaults on our sensibilities? Especially those of us who, for better or worse, have made it our life’s purpose to be agents of change? How can progressives advance the full agenda for a better tomorrow when politically motivated short term thinking is pushing us backwards fast? With so many messes to clean up when and if we do get turned around in the right direction, it feels downright daunting. Where do we find the fuel to keep going and sufficient energy to refill our hope tanks if we dare to care about the fate of the planet and humanity?
With so many bullets to dodge, the title of a weekend conference held at New York’s Omega Institute last month was especially intriguing: Being Fearless: Action in a Time of Disruption. As a passionate broadcast journalist-turned-environmental writer, commentator, speaker and advocate for action, even I was in need of a chutzpah and hope reboot in order to stay in the fight. Based on the West Coast, I had heard of the Institute—and its Center for Sustainable Living—but had never been. When I found myself with a rare free weekend in New York City last month, off I went.
Omega is a warm and welcoming place located in the Hudson Valley River town of Rhinebeck, where Chelsea Clinton famously wed in 2010. Situated on 250 acres, the camp-like setting includes a main hall for presentations, a large dining lodge where tasty “mostly vegetarian” fare is served cafeteria style and cabins of various age and size surround the center. Walking paths and gardens connect the buildings and in mid-October, flowers were still in bloom and the trees barely beginning to change color—a late start I was told—courtesy of global warming.
The weekend kicked off with a reception Friday evening for speakers. As media, I was included and immediately felt at home in the company of staff, presenters, and performers. After we joined attendees in the big hall, Omega’s CEO, Skip Backus, kicked things off with words that resonated about the need to take pause, listen and learn before we take action to make the kind of deep changes these times demand. Assembled with seemingly kindred spirits of varying backgrounds and professions, it felt comforting to be a part of something bigger, an oasis from the craziness, however fleeting.
There was a succession of speakers that first night, each compelling but the standout for me was Dr. Cornel West, a dynamic professor who is part historian, part poet, and part preacher. I had seen him on television but in person he weaved, bobbed and circled the podium like a spinning top, all the while giving social commentary in lines that rhymed and reflected a brilliant mind. In fact, the program bio called West “a provocative democratic intellectual” and the professor of philosophy and Christian practice lived up to that billing. Among his keen observations, “America is a problem-solving people but when it comes to catastrophe, we’re in denial.” He cautioned that “we will find out who we really are in these times.” Indeed West and many other speakers had a similar thread in their messages; if we don’t like what we’re seeing around us it will take a commitment to telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice. As many who preceded him have also noted, we must love ourselves first and change within before changing the world.
One of the tools is practicing mindfulness, also not a new concept at least not where I come from. That said, it is one thing to talk about it and another to practice as I am learning.
Saturday morning kicked off with a meditation led by stress reduction guru Jon Kabat-Zinn. His soothing voice and friendly manner set a relaxed tone which continued into the next session with Rhonda Magee, a professor of contemplative law. Their topic was “mindfulness in the face of injustice” and “identity-based suffering.” All the talks were recorded as were performances by talented ensembles including Climbing PoeTree, a combo dance, poetry, rap group with mesmerizing moves that punctuated their social commentary.
The morning concluded with Paul Hawken giving his slideshow on “Project Drawdown” based on his book about the most impactful ways to reverse climate change. He includes some less obvious contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, like food waste—-the third largest factor—and solutions like educating women in developing countries to help them rise above poverty and have fewer children. I would liked to have heard something about the need to better educate all people to raise ecological literacy, especially here in the U.S. where an active and well-funded disinformation campaign has had such a negative impact on progress. The unmet potential of our mainstream news media to effectively counter economically motivated falsehoods and clear up confusion about our climate crisis is an inexcusable failure.
It is my longtime preoccupation with this lapse that drew me to the Fearless conference. In particular, a panel discussion featuring CNN contributor, Van Jones, and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman about the Changing Roles and Responsibilities of Media. Bill Moyers was to have been on the panel, as well serve as conference keynoter, but he was not able to make it. Moyers was replaced by presidential historian, Jon Meacham whose current claim to fame is having been fearless enough to ask Donald Trump what he reads. Although Meacham is a contributor on MSNBC, offering analysis on the Trump presidency seen through a historical lens, media is not his primary focus and he said as much on the panel. Although not his fault, nor the conference planners, it would have been helpful to hear Moyer’s perspective, having worked in public television for decades.
That, and the fact the moderator did not steer the discussion in the direction of the panel’s title, yielded a discussion more focused on politics than the changing role and responsibilities of media. Despite the disappointing pivot there were some relevant and revealing quotes that emerged at the end of the panel and in the Q & A session that followed when news media and climate change briefly became the focus.
A bit of a disclaimer is in order here. With a long background in broadcast news, most of it spent working for the CBS Radio network, I experienced the impact of being heard on a national channel in terms of reach, even if only reading breaking news of the day. I left to cover environmental issues as an independent producer and host of green radio shows. Ten years later I decided TV has the advantage of showing both the problems and the people with solutions and have been pitching the news networks on what would be the first program dedicated to addressing our urgent eco-challenges. I would love to have been on that panel to share insider insights. Over the years I have heard every excuse in the book from program execs resistant to offering content on climate and green solutions, none of them legitimate in my strong view. Their responses are revealing in terms of them not recognizing the game-changing potential of getting America to wake up and smell the carbon.
Van Jones was on my Air America radio show on World Environment Day in 2005 before he was well known. I was so impressed with his brilliance and bold ideas that I told him he should be in the White House and after our in-studio interview I suggested he use “Green Collar Jobs” as a renaming of his then movement, “Green Jobs, Not Jails” because I loved his vision of training underprivileged youth to work in solar and other green sectors (I hate waste and there is nothing worse than a life wasted). He ran with it and used it in the title of his best-selling book, “The Green Collar Economy.” Fast forward to 2017 and since I had recently pitched CNN on a climate series I was particularly interested in his thoughts on the news networks’ near-failure to connect the dots between recent record-breaking hurricanes, floods, wildfires and a warming earth. If more emphasis was put on what’s fueling these devastating weather events by CNN, MSNBC and the Big 3 (ABC, CBS, NBC), then FOX would not have the undue influence it has had in fomenting the politicization of climate and other environmental threats, thwarting both political and public progress as FOX actively sows dissension, doubt, and denial.
The most pertinent comments, for my purposes, came from Amy Goodman who said we need media that makes these connections, as she has done so well on her award-winning Pacifica radio program. Goodman has long been fearless, an outspoken critic of the so-called corporate media and its repeated failure to explain why we are seeing such devastating weather events. Her reporting on Standing Rock was a stand-out and she even got arrested briefly as a result. When she turned to Jones and asked why CNN spends so little airtime discussing climate change, he replied that whenever they tried to discuss the topic, the ratings would go down, according to his bosses.
I have heard that before—from Van and a few CNN staffers—-and question how they can even track ratings based on such fleeting mentions. I also wonder when they last tested that since, as Amy said onstage, everything has changed in light of the recent hurricanes and fires, the latest evidence of “weather on steroids.” I loved what Van went on to say and with some dramatic flourish, “there are only two things we cannot recover from and we are now seeing both, runaway climate change and the prospect of nuclear war. The way we live can kill us and the way we kill can kill us all. These two existential threats should get us very focused and very calm to build the kind of movement that can win the country back over. Anything we’re doing that’s not that is a criminal waste of time.” That strong statement rang true, not only with me but with the audience that applauded loudly.
When pushed further by Goodman on whether CNN has an anti-climate stance, Jones paused briefly to consider and offered—by way of observation more than justification—that “the public is ahead of corporate media and politics which will have to catch up,” adding “the news media and political parties don’t lead anything, they’re lucky if they’re the caboose at the end of the train. What leads stuff, he concluded, is the people.”
While I definitely agree with Van’s belief that the major news networks are not trailblazers, in my view the people have spoken. In the last few years alone hundreds of thousands of Americans have marched, as well as across the world, to demand action and leadership. The People’s Climate March in 2014 was almost entirely ignored by the New York-based news networks in terms of coverage, despite 400,000 turning out in Manhattan alone. Never mind that the march went right past several of the big network headquarters. Last April two back to back science and climate marches in Washington D.C.— and around the country—did get decent coverage from the big cable and broadcast news networks, but there was still something important missing from the coverage. There were zero climate scientists, environmental experts or advocates doing in-studio commentary. Instead, CNN and MSNBC, which I monitored, had their “political analysts” on discussing climate as a political issue, framing it as a Trump vs. climate activists competition, as if there were competing teams in a sporting event. This is a recurring problem that perpetuates the status quo of avoiding serious discussion of the urgency, irreversible ecological and humanitarian consequences and economic impact of a warming world and all its manifestations. If the public doesn’t see it on the news, how serious a problem could it really be? In other words it is something they can ignore.
So while Van makes a good point, especially the news media lagging on taking climate as seriously as the threat would dictate, in my view that is no reason to excuse or let those tasked with informing the public off the hook. I can see where Van may not want to challenge his bosses but I sure wish someone would enlighten them! Since when should what is covered be determined by ratings? And perhaps viewers would be more interested if they had a better understanding of consequences that can be mitigated and opportunities inherent in the crisis.
If I seem to be harping on this it’s because I firmly believe (and have fought to change this for two decades) that until there is better coverage and connecting of causal dots, the misinformation—and paralysis—will continue. And while a failing climate, warming oceans, and collapsing ecosystems are not the only arena in which there is political gridlock and media malpractice, these are challenges that will not be easily reversed, if at all. Time is key and enough citizens have spoken up and taken to the streets that there is no legitimate reason in 2017 for the climate silence, and same for other eco threats. At the same time there is an underlying environmental literacy issue that must be addressed. I cannot think of a better use of mass media channels than this given that is at stake.
I would love to have asked some follow up questions of Van but as is usually the case, most of the speakers didn’t stick around after their presentations, which is unfortunate.
A few highlights from Sunday morning included David Orr, an author and Oberlin environmental studies professor, and Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. There was one standout presentation from someone who did not stand very tall but who loomed large in every other way. Thirteen-year-old Elijah Coles-Brown, a young orator who appears to have what it takes to be an up and coming Barack Obama, captivated the audience with his mature mannerisms and motivating message about rising above being bullied “when I was young.”
It was also unfortunate that I didn’t have time to tour Omega’s Center for Sustainable Living, touted for its LEED Platinum building certification and state-of-the-art water reclamation facility—but now I have reason to return next year for one of their many workshops on topics ranging from personal growth to social change. In addition to the usual self improvement programming fare I was impressed to see Omega offering innovative programs for Veterans including yoga and other modalities to help vets heal from the trauma of war.
I left Omega feeling recharged for the battles ahead but already just one month later, there have been two more mass shootings, a terror attack in downtown Manhattan, and a steady stream of affronts to our senses coming from occupants of the White House.
As I struggle to retain the sense of community and shared purpose that was palpable at Omega, I find myself clinging to one overarching hope; that with all the shaking up exposing an underbelly of what’s wrong with America in terms of inequity, hypocrisy, sexual predators and just plain evil, it is painfully evident that the old ways are not working and will not get us where we want and need to go in order to thrive. If indeed the time has arrived for karma calls to manifest then bring it on but we can’t get through this alone. More than 500 attended the weekend at Omega with 2,500 participating in the live stream but organizers want to share it with a much wider audience.
The way the world is going there will be challenges anew to tackle and while I do believe change begins with ourselves—and that was certainly an overarching theme to the weekend— it is also true that there are still not enough of us needed to fight all the hate, falsehoods, denial and polarization we see reflected in the news every day. This has always been the challenge but with a growing sense of urgency I feel too impatient to wait for enlightenment to spread person to person.
I guess I should meditate on that but in the meantime please spread the word that what happened in Rhinebeck doesn’t have to stay in Rhinebeck. For another month, until December 14th, you can access all the presentations I’ve written about, and many others I couldn’t cover, for a mere $5 fee that helps to offset the costs of bringing the conference to a worldwide audience. You can find the link at https://www.eomega.org/online-workshops/being-fearless-on-demand
I encourage you to check it out for your own well being, all of our sakes, and mostly for our children who deserve to have a future they can look forward to and not dread.
My takeaways are that it’s necessary to shore up for the long haul while being prepared for short term setbacks. Barring nuclear attack or climate meltdown, we’ll be around for the foreseeable future. While there is plenty to be upset about we only have one precious life so we ought not let anyone, or anything, ruin it. In the end Donald Trump isn’t worth it. Just don’t stop caring because we need all of us to get through these dark but dynamic days.