Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where There is Fear, There is Power

I could barely hear the man at the podium speaking, and the voices in the hall hushed to hear him.  We'd all been sitting there at the public comments hearing at the California Public Utilities Commission meeting for over an hour and a half, and folks were getting restless, their rancor most notably directed at the slightly plump young woman with the bell who's sad duty it was to ding you when you're one minute of airtime was up.

The man's white hair, which stood out starkly against his dark skin, fluffed out to the side, giving him a distinct likeness to Albert Einstein.

"I was a veteran of Nagasaki," he said, or at least I think that's what he said.  He spoke with the very slow, barely audible mumble of someone well over seventy, but the woman with the bell had enough sense not to try and ding him -- whether because she knew it would send the already disquieted crowd into outright chaos or simply because her mother had raised her right, I don't know.  "I've served this country for along time.  But now... (mumble, mumble)... PG&E rate increases (mumble)... I was without heat in my house for five months this winter.  I lived in a cold house for five months.  (mumble, mumble) not allow PG&E to increase our rates any higher."

Watching him, I was struck by his quiet power, the clarity I felt from him in spite of my confusion over his specific words, and the sadness of this small personal truth -- that this old man, and undoubtedly countless others like him, was going without power in the dead of winter and had traveled here to the pomp auditorium at the San Francisco Civic Center from West Oakland early in the afternoon in the pouring rain to challenge the CPUC's approval of smart meters.

At first when Jason suggested that we go to the public comments hearing to talk about Diablo Canyon, I had thought that it didn't make much sense.  We've been positively obsessed with organizing around shutting down Diablo Canyon since the catastrophic events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant earlier this month.  Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant sits on not one but two active fault lines, one less than 1000 feet from the plant.  These faults are in the same system as the one that caused the quake in Japan, and overall, there has been a growing amount of seismic activity in the Pacific Rim in the last ten years.  Excitingly, DCNPP is built only to withstand a 6.7 earthquake, has relatively no preparedness plan for a seismic emergency, is under such intense scrutiny that their backup safety mechanisms were not working for over 18 months, and is located about 250 miles from my house.

But, obsessed or no, I couldn't see what our arguments against Diablo Canyon had to do with a public hearing focused on smart meters, and I didn't want to distract the CPUC to get confused with too many issues at one meeting.  But as I heard the old man speak, and the countless others who had come, I felt a surge of intense emotion and a sense of belonging -- belonging to this group of people passionate, desperately passionate in some cases, about protecting our lives against corporate interests who are willing to take risks with potentially armageddon-inducing technologies just because the risk-to-benefit analysis somehow makes sense to them on their little calculators.

Elaine spoke first, then Marg.  Jason and I had to wait a long time, and by the time it was my turn to go, I felt my whole body shaking with emotion and was sure that I was either going to be moved by spirit to say things I would never remember but other people would think were pretty good, or would collapse into a pile of tears and gibbers like a total fool.

The auditorium is not set up to benefit the nerves of public commentators.  You stand off to the side, below a stage where the commissioners sit behind a tall desk in plush cushy chairs, seemingly completely at ease while you struggle to figure out how to adjust the mic to go near your mouth.  As I got up to speak, I noticed that while most of the commissioners appeared to be rather bored and trying to appear interested, they did at least look at me.  That was a good sign.  I decide to go for it.

Well, I don't remember what I said, but other people seemed to like it.  I know that I said something about the fault lines, and how we need to immediately shut down these reactors until the seismic mapping is completed and can prove that DCNPP is safe -- which simply won't and can't happen.  Jason went next, and as I watched him, I was struck by how incredibly sexy I find it to see him in his power, speaking strongly for the things that we're fighting for -- speaking in defense of the earth.  He told the commissioners that they would be held accountable for not shutting down the reactor if and when something goes wrong there, and I could see how that unnerved them.  Which I think seems like a pretty appropriate response.  After all, it's a pretty unnerving situation.

Now, a couple hours later in a cafe, I'm no longer thinking much about the commissioners, even though I do have a fantasy where they announce tomorrow that they've seen how dire the situation is and will immediately shut it down.  What is striking me is how beautiful the hills are around Diablo Canyon, green and covered in trees, like a small peace of heaven.  We've been given the keys to eden, and the sacred covenant of caring for one another: humans young and old, non-humans of infinite and majestic variety, the land herself which rolls like waves along the coastline where we've built this thing of terrible, awesome power.  Most of all, I'm remembering the thing that Starhawk says that I've heard so many times that it's almost cliche: where there is fear, there is power.

Immense power.  Sometimes, overwhelming fear.  Sometimes, immense power that helps us overcome our overwhelming fear, even in places as unlikely as bureaucratic meetings and from people as unlikely as you, or me, or an old man who's voice can barely reach above a murmur.

Which makes me think of something else that I know about power -- that it's in each of us, and that it grows when we're together.  I can feel that I'm at the beginning of another journey with this Diablo Canyon thing... I hope that you'll come with me.