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Notes from a Small Planet: Building an Environmental Sanctuary

Basia Yoffe
June 8, 2014

While Standing on One Foot

by Basia Yoffe PRESIDENT OBAMA WAS INTERVIEWED by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times last week, and warned, regarding climate change, that the “most important thing is to guard against cynicism. I want to make sure that everybody’s who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that, well, we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it.” activistleader3I found the comment condescending. Of COURSE people will work to mitigate climate change and adapt our lives to protect our families and the broader human family — IF ONLY we could find leaders, people actually empowered to make things happen, who will show a commitment to tackling the problem, with all of its complexity, as an existential issue, rather than as just another piece of their political strategies. Basia-ONline-300x171Such leaders, with actual decision-making power, have not really emerged — although Obama Unleashed is a lot more heartening a leader than Obama In Search of Bipartisanship. In general, however, our elected representatives at best are ready to take only small, careful steps that they see as politically feasible and safe; our clergy has not really taken on the issue either in moral or religious terms; corporate leaders are mostly moving backwards to protect profits while the future calls for innovation and sacrifice. And red states are already seeking ways to implement the President’s new carbon-emission rules in the most corrupt and half-hearted ways they can, in imitation of their non-compliance with Obamacare, while blaming the federal government for their citizens’ energy costs. Meanwhile, it is increasingly evident that climate change is a danger to the whole world — and to New York, where I live, in particular, given the city’s vulnerability to the sea and extreme weather. According to the Obama Administration’s third National U.S. Climate Assessment (2013), already communities in the Northeast “are affected by heat waves, more extreme precipitation events, and coastal flooding due to sea level rise and storm surge.” Hurricane Sandy was enough to prove that first responders and the National Guard are not prepared for the superstorms that will be a regular part of our future. In the days after Sandy, I was horrified by the large number of seniors who were stranded in high rises in Rockaway Beach and on the edges of Brooklyn. Occupy Wall Street activists told me about seeing a National Guard truck and fearing that the Guard was there to shut down Occupy Sandy’s rescue work; instead, it turned out that the National Guard was asking Occupy Sandy for help. Fossil-fuel extraction is leading not only to climate change but to declining air and water quality. Fracking, in particular, which New Yorkers are continuing to oppose, uses chemical process that pollute water at a time when we are facing unprecedented drought; if Governor Cuomo ever opens the Marcellus Shale Region to fracking, watersheds across the southern tier of the state, including New York City’s supply, will be endangered. One of the disheartening items of the National Assessment deals with the impact of climate change on agriculture. The possible benefit of increased carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons for plant life has not materialized; instead, we have drought in California, a major food-producing region, increased bug infestations that affect trees and crops, and worse to come. activistleader2What is a concerned citizen to do? READERS OF THIS BLOG will know that I’ve regularly participated in direct actions such as the Climate March this September, and been arrested for protesting against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Now I’m also taking more drastic, if more personal, action. This summer I will be moving from New York City to the north country of New York State, in St. Lawrence County. I have rented a studio apartment in Potsdam and purchased wooded land in Colton. I have made contact with the Potsdam Synagogue — which first got my attention with a posting at a Jewish Intentional Community Facebook page — and I have also met a community of homesteaders, the Local Living Venture, who exchange information and hold lectures, workshops, green home tours, and a festival every eighteen months. There is no fracking in St. Lawrence County — there is no shale. The closest nuclear power plant is over 100 miles away in Oswego. All Superfund pollution sites are downstream. There is a plethora of organic farms and farmers’ markets. The local water flows down from the Adirondacks. The air is fresh, the Adirondack Park is close by, and the beaches of Lake Ontario are not far away. Ottawa is ninety miles away, Montreal 110. St. Lawrence County boasts four universities, all with sustainability programs of some kind. I have become increasingly unnerved about the future of life in New York City, and my search for a new home has taken seven years. My personal carbon footprint will remain very low, perhaps even lower than in New York City. My studio in downtown Potsdam is walking distance from everything I need. I AM ALSO NOW the nurturer and caretaker of Jonah’s Woods in Colton, New York, which I named to honor Jonah Adels, a beloved young member of the Jewish environmental community who died last year. I plan to cultivate an edible forest garden there, with the goal of developing a model of sustainable living for others to follow. Sustaining forests is today a key to mitigating climate change. You can click here for a map of Jonah’s Woods, which is land north of County Route 58. The North Country is a good place for me and it may be a good place for you. I welcome visits from readers and have plenty of helpful information to provide, even about colleges and overnight stays in the area. Contact me via Jewish Currents. My life has the flexibility for me to do bold things; not everyone is so fortunate. Yet there are many measures to take between uprooting onself and moving 320 miles away to build an edible forest garden and doing nothing. I urge readers to fill that space, as energetically and creatively as you can. Basia Yoffe conducts the “Notes from a Small Planet” column in Jewish Currents; she is also a member of our magazine’s editorial board and a very active activist.