Monday, October 26, 2009

Message to a Power Plant: 350!

On October 24, Radical Joy for Hard Times chose to take part in 350: The International Day of Climate Action in a very direct way. We went right to a power plant to present our message.

Nine people braved heavy rain to gather in front of AES Westover, a coal-fired power plant in Johnson City, NY and a major supplier of the electricity in our area. The message we conveyed to them and to coal-fired power plants around the world: We demand a planet where 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the absolute maximum!

The 350 event was organized over the internet by Bill McKibben, the environmental activist and author of The End of Nature and other books. 350 is the parts per million of carbon dioxide that climate scientists have determined to be the maximum level for a healthy environment. Currently, levels are at 389 ppm. McKibben urged people around the world gather together to demand that policy makers take drastic steps to bring carbon levels to 350 ppm. All people had to do was somehow depict the number 350, take a photo, and send it to the website.

As of this posting, two days later, it is estimated that more than 5,400 events were held in 181 countries around the world. Looking at the website or at the photo stream on Flickr is an amazing and moving experience. Soldiers in Iraq, children in an orphanage in Bali, large groups of people forming the magic number with their bodies and being photographed from a height, small groups with hand-painted signs, people in front of historic buildings, ancient temples, glaciers, and mountains.

Radical Joy for Hard Times chose to take the message right to the source of the problem: the coal-fired power plant. Although AES Westover recently installed $50 million of new equipment to reduce emissions, “power plants are the nation’s biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastics and paint manufacturing and chemicals,” according to a recent report in The New York Times.

What we had in mind, however, was not protesting or blaming, but simply giving people the opportunity to reflect, up close, on the source of power that, as much as we want to hate it, we are all complicit in using.

I had called the plant a couple of weeks earlier to ask their permission for a small group to sit in front of the gate for two hours. I also invited Westover employees to join us. However, plant manager Jim Mulligan denied my request.

Nine of us showed up anyway. After we had introduced ourselves, Dick Rehberg, a member of the Radical Joy for Hard Times board, gave an introduction to coal and coal use. Coal provides 22% of energy use, and 91% of coal goes into firing power plants. Among the toxins emitted by coal plants are sulphur dioxide, arsenic, aluminum, and mercury.

Before long, a young security guard, on his first day on the job, approached us and told us we had to leave. We simply went across the street and stood under a bridge—after first snapping a photo with our 350 sign (made by local school students and recycled to other 350 events during the day). Under the bridge, we still had a good view of the power plant, and we were out of the rain as well. Over our heads, a steady stream of invisible traffic provided an audio accompaniment to our reflections on energy use.

Then, as is the practice on all our Earth Exchanges, each person took some time to be alone and reflect on the power plant, on energy use, coal, and whatever else in that immediate environment struck their attention—while also paying attention to how what they noticed sparked emotions, memories, thoughts, and ideas.

Here are some of the fascinating comments, each reflecting a completely different sensibility, experience, and perspective that people made as we sat under the bridge only half an hour later:

“While I was standing across the street looking at the power plant, I was struck by how, from this perspective, this maple tree towers over the smokestacks. It affirmed for me that nature will prevail.”

“Until recently I didn’t pay that much attention to global warming. Now I feel I’ve lost my innocence. Part of me wants to go back to that innocence, climb that tree like a little kid and pretend everything is all right. But I know I can’t do that.”

“I was standing at the entrance staring at the plant, and the guard saw me. For a moment our eyes met. He seemed like a nice young man. I wondered what he is making of all this.”

“I’m a nurse. I take care of people with deep wounds. I feel I’m now being called to take care of the wounds of the Earth as well.”

“I was thinking about the shrubbery in front of the plant. When I was young and growing up in Chicago, you never thought twice about power plants. Now, with this shrubbery, it’s like they’re trying to hide what they are, what they do, to make it seem more ‘natural.’”

Besides calling attention to the urgency of bringing CO2 levels down to 350, our group had a personal encounter with the predominant force that suffuses the air with this planet-altering chemical. We all have a more personal understanding of what we’re dealing with and how, in matters of the environment, we are all deeply and personally involved in countless ways.

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