Your Revolution at Home: Radical Fossil Fuel Divestment

Photo by Fotolia/PixieMe

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of people across the country have left their banks in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. American citizens have suddenly become aware that, in the absence of a government that will protect us, we must shift market forces ourselves. The climate justice movement, clean energy, and protests on the streets are critical and must continue, but there’s a missing element. It has been neglected, or at best mentioned but minimized, because it is uncomfortable.

Here’s the unfortunate truth: the climate problem is us. Americans are the biggest driver of climate change, not only in terms of our individual practices but also in the globalized, comfort-centric market we support. DAPL is being drilled for us so we can take road trips and keep our houses at 75 degrees in January.

It is much easier to blame the rapacious practices of fossil fuel companies and to say that individual change does not amount to much. But we are the demand driving the market. We cannot expect the fossil fuel industry to paternalistically deny us oil for our own good and for the good of the planet. They will continue to drill for as long as we pay them to do so. While we must continue to divest from fossil fuel companies, we cannot absolve ourselves from our own participation in the fossil fuel demand chain. If we truly want them to keep it in the ground, we must drastically change our culture of consumption.

The average carbon footprint for Americans is 20 cubic tons per year (calculate yours here at carbonfootprint.com). The average for Europeans is 10. The worldwide average is 4. In order to decrease climate change, everyone’s individual carbon footprint must be 2. This demands not just rallies and protests in the public sphere, but radical fossil fuel divestment in the private sphere as well.

It was easy to be complacent under the Obama administration, to feel like “advocacy” and “awareness” were working and the government was making incremental but important progress. President Obama set carbon pollution standards for power plants, so it’s OK for me to fly four times a year or eat fruit from another hemisphere.

The new administration will not prioritize climate change. And fossil fuel companies are certainly not going to stop drilling of their own accord. The clean energy accord in Marrakesh is important, but we as global citizens must support these initiatives by bringing the principles of climate conservation into our own lives. We need a new environmental ethos along with new forms of energy.

In our globalized culture of consumption, we have unquestioningly accepted a comfort-centric view of our lives on this planet—that we can travel anywhere we want by airplane or car, that we can eat whatever food we desire at any time of year, that temperatures should always be pleasant, and that our own convenience is paramount. To continue believing this now is dangerous. You cannot use oranges from Chile and ginger from China in that recipe. You cannot fly to Thailand for your honeymoon. You cannot drive in a SUV alone across the country to protest oil drilling at Standing Rock. (Carpool, go to a local protest, or send money instead.)

What follows is a list ranked roughly in terms of carbon cost. A few items may seem like things that only the affluent can afford. If you truly can’t afford them, skip them. But people in developing countries and poor people in our own country already have a small carbon footprint. For the rest of us, there’s a tremendous amount we can and must do.

Let us be clear: climate change is causing massive loss of life, livelihood, and home, in most cases for the poorest communities. With this at stake, to be unwilling to make lifestyle changes is unconscionable. And just to take shorter showers or use green light bulbs is vastly insufficient.

The revolution is not just in the streets; it is in our homes. It is not always exciting or emotional. It is also tedious, cold, frustrating, and untasty. We need to shift how we live and we need to do it now. Individual change becomes collective action.

(Note: this list is neither perfect nor complete. I hope others will amend and add to it as we develop this new ethos together.)


1. Have fewer children.

Having children in a developed country is far and away the most harm you can do to the environment, no matter how good-hearted or brilliant your child may grow up to be. The climate crisis is in many ways a reproductive crisis. Slowing population growth could provide 16-29% of the necessary emissions reductions necessary by 2050 to avoid a climate catastrophe. By driving a hybrid car, being a vegan, and using clean power, you would save 488 metric tons of carbon dioxide in an 80-year lifetime. By having one fewer child, you save 9,441. This is a personal and complicated question for those who have always wanted children. Many couples have decided to opt for a “one and done” policy and for any further children to come through adoption. 

2. Stop eating beef.

In terms of overall lifecycle greenhouse emissions, lamb, beef, and milk are the most harmful due to their production of methane gas (which is four times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Pork, turkey, and farmed salmon are considerably better. Chicken and eggs are the animal products with the least environmental impact. Veganism remains the most ethical dietary choice. However, equally important is the role of food transport. The long-distance shipping of one pound of vegetarian food is more detrimental to the environment than one pound of local organic meat. Eating a piece of chicken from your state is better, environmentally, than eating acai berries from Brazil. 

3. Vote.

We must bring the fight to our local and state leaders. Make sure you’re electing officials who support renewable energy and clean jobs, oppose subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and will work to increase restrictions on oil drilling, coal mining, and fracking. Consult endorsements from the Sierra Club or local environmental groups. 

4. Severely limit or entirely cease air travel.

One transatlantic flight is equal to an average year’s worth of driving. Shorter flights don’t let you off the hook either, since most of the emissions take place during takeoff and landing, not while cruising. The globally affluent travel for work, for pleasure, to visit family and friends, and don’t think twice about it. Sometimes travel is necessary; most of the time it’s not. Consider the train when possible. 

5. Use public transportation.

If you live in a city, you can do this easily. It will take slightly longer to get where you’re going, but this is part of the new ethos. Leave your house a little earlier. If public transportation is not an option, carpool. Every time you get behind the wheel, consider whether you actually need to go where you’re going right now. 

6. Never drink bottled water again.

It takes 1.5 millions barrels of oil each year to produce the plastic for bottled water. The water is often extracted from desertifying states, and it takes 3 liters of water to package 1 liter of bottled water. For nearly all Americans, bottled water is an unnecessary luxury. If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, buy a water filter. 

7. Eat local and seasonal foods.

This does not mean “it’s autumn, time to enjoy a sweet potato every once in a while.” This means finding out what fruits and vegetables are in season where you live and letting these be the bulk of what you eat. You do not eat apples in March. Depending on where you live, you might not eat bananas or avocados ever. The carbon cost of shipping food across the country for the whims of our palates is inexcusable. Farmer’s markets, community gardens, CSAs, and food co-ops are the best way to have access to local produce, eggs, and meat. The next level is to look for food from your state or region in grocery stores. We shouldn’t be eating anything from other countries, especially not from across oceans. It’s true that local foods cannot be the entirety of everyone’s diet. There will be some gaps that need to be filled, but we cannot fill them with coconut water from the Philippines or almonds from drought-ridden California. 

8. Eat organic produce.

Organic is not perfect and, yes, has in many cases become corporate. However, corporations have turned to organic because consumers are buying it. Agrochemicals require massive amounts of fossil fuels to produce and pollute our air and water. By refusing to buy products grown with these chemicals, our collective purchasing power forces corporations to shift their practices. There’s no middle ground here: to buy non-organic Big Food is an investment in agrochemicals and fossil fuels. 

9. Cease support for environmentally unfriendly corporations.

Your dollar is your vote. Every time you spend a dollar at a Shell station or on a Coca-Cola or Nestle product, you are voting for ignored oil spills, draining of aquifers, and increased pollution. Corporations follow the dollar. Do your research and invest accordingly. 

10. Decrease energy usage in your home.

Turn your thermostat up ten degrees in summer and down ten degrees in winter. There’s no reason to be wearing a t-shirt indoors in February. Put up double-paned glass and insulate drafty windows with blankets or sheets. Turn off lights when you’re not in the room. Take shorter showers. Unplug appliances when not in use. Use the top shelf of the oven. Buy energy-efficient appliances. Hang dry your clothes. 

11. Invest in clean energy.

If you own your home, install solar panels. Buy renewable energy credits to offset your carbon emissions. Urge your legislators to support investment in green energy infrastructure. 

12. Don’t buy new.

Buy used furniture, clothes, books, etc. in order to decrease dependence on factories and transcontinental shipping. Share what you have.

13. Cease use of disposable items.

This includes paper towels, napkins, to-go coffee cups, paper plates, plastic silverware, plastic and paper bags, all of which require fossil fuels to be produced and are completely unnecessary. Bring your own bag to the store and your own reusable coffee cup.

14. Plant a garden.

This is the easiest way to get cheap local organic produce. You can grow most vegetables and herbs in pots in even the most cramped city apartment. Plant flowers and herbs outside that feed bees; colony collapse (as a result of monoculture and neonicotinoid pesticides) is a crisis that threatens our food supply.


This list was personally difficult to write. I love to travel, want children, eat a variety of foods from around the world, own a car and live in a cold place where I’d really quite like to have the heat on right now. I calculated my carbon footprint at 16 metric tons per year. This is not acceptable and I can no longer pretend like it is.

We’re in a new era. As Bill McKibben has warned us, World War III is already happening. It’s not against terrorism, ethno-nationalism, or illegal immigrants. It’s against carbon and methane. They threaten our lives in a way that no other enemy ever has. Complacency is not neutrality. Continuing in your current consumption of fossil fuels is actively allying with the enemy.

But unlike the last world war, there’s no massive government mobilization coming, at least not in a Trump administration. So the responsibility falls to each of us individually, and collectively as communities: to plant our own victory gardens and set our own rations.

There are upsides to the new ethos. More of your life will take place in your immediate community and you’ll get to know your neighbors. Because you’re driving less, you’re exercising more by walking and biking. You’re eating more vegetables and less processed foods, so your health will probably improve. You’re saving money on electrical bills, air travel, and gas. Your life is aligned with your values.

We cannot trust either the government or corporate self-interest to protect the climate. Nor will these individual actions alone be enough. But we can no longer pretend that fossil fuel companies are not intimately entwined with the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are all shareholders in this crisis. We cannot stomp our feet in outrage at fossil fuels while also ravenously consuming them. The list above won’t solve the climate crisis, but it must become the new baseline.

For more from Samara Reigh, visit Living Off the Grid in Earthship, New Mexico.

Psychological Warfare at Standing Rock Reservation, Oceti Sakowin Camp

Water Is Life
Facebook Hill (All photos courtesy John Sheldon)

An airplane, flying low overhead, circling the camp. It comes at any time, dusk, midday, 3 in the morning. It stays up there for a half hour, or one hour, or four. Why? There are rumors that it is spraying chemicals, blocking cell phone service, doing surveillance. Sometimes it is joined by a yellow helicopter, which I am told belongs to DAPL, the pipeline company.

Up on a hill above Turtle Island, an armored vehicle sits among the police cars. It crouches there, among police, some with rifles.

At night, Kleig lights beam white light from the hill into the camp. Now, razor wire has been installed up there, and downslope, on the ancestral burial grounds of a people that were here long before we were. Imagine razor wire snaking through Arlington Cemetery.

We are talking about a law enforcement that has used dogs, mace, pepper spray, sound cannon, water cannon in freezing temps, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and golf ball sized “bean bag” ordinance. We know that they are equipped, and ready to use these weapons.

The result of all this, as I stand in the camp, is psychological. It is very hard to not be afraid.

What will they do? How far will they go? It dawns on me that this is exactly what they want. They want us to be afraid. The pipeline, christened “The Black Snake” by the tribes, has its agenda.

Water Is Life
Water Protectors set up a tent

I have never been to any occupied territories, never felt the cold fish eye of being watched by an army, a force that is suspicious of everything I do. It is deeply unsettling. And this is happening in America.

I stopped trusting the military command during the Vietnam War. But, even as I hated what they were doing to the Vietnamese, the US military’s guns and bombs were pointed outward, at enemies, real and imagined. Here, at this camp full of peaceful people praying over the water and their ancestral lands, I experience what it feels like when those weapons are pointed inward, at our own citizens.

These citizens, I am convinced, are the best we have right now. They are deep in prayer for the water, our water, our earth, our environment. There are prayer circles from before dawn to well into the night. There is no central authority here, no hierarchy. There is no Martin Luther King figure to lead them. It is democracy, true democracy, where every single person is important. I saw a man feed a boy in a wheelchair, I saw kitchens, humming with activity, as volunteers prepared meals for hundreds of people. On the edge of chaos, there was never a discouraging word. I saw building crews working together with no bosses, no foremen. Instead of being a recipe for disaster, the work got done.

Water Is Life
Water Protectors unload supplies

On Thursday, Thanksgiving, as I sat up on the hill they call “Facebook Hill,” where you can get service, I heard an announcement: “All women and children must go immediately to the Dome.”

The Dome is one of the larger structures, a geodesic building where large groups can meet. A woman, running up the hill, was yelling. “Everybody — women and children and elderly to the Dome, men to the South Gate — they are going to raid the camp!” I walked toward the Dome, and saw a procession of hundreds of women and children. One woman was saying to her daughter, “It’s alright honey, you’re with momma, and things will be all right.”

Walking back up the hill, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tan armored vehicle on the opposite hill. Would it start moving? What would they do? I became afraid.

The raid never happened. Later we learned that a voice had sounded an alarm on the network of walkie talkies the camp uses for security: SHOTS FIRED, SHOTS FIRED, THEY ARE COMING IN! This seemed to confirm the rumor that the militarized police were going to change from rubber bullets to live rounds.

Do you see the pattern? It is psychological warfare. I, a white person from the East Coast, have never been subjected to this. Sure, a helicopter was flying around my neighborhood this last fall, looking for pot plants. I thought that was intimidating. This is a new reality. The fear in the pit of my stomach became a cannon ball, as I contemplated what a raid on this camp would look like. Thousands of people, with no weapons, against hundreds of heavily armed storm troopers. The raid didn’t happen, except in my imagination. So, in a sense, my mind was occupied by the dark side — split, confused, and afraid.

Water Is Life
John Sheldon at Standing Rock

I am never going to be the same. Focusing on the light, the love in that camp, the willingness of the people to be there in the first place, and their steadfast adherence to the principles of peace and inclusion, I find solace. Still, the question stands out in bold relief: how can I help my friends?

In this camp called Oceti Sakowin, the place of “water is life,” under the surveillance of a police state that is perfectly willing to use violence or the threat of violence against peaceful people, there is no mention of giving in.

May we find ways to support and encourage the light that is streaming into the world, while bearing witness to the shadow that aims to keep us in fear. We all drink the same water. Aho.

John Sheldon (johnsheldon.com) is a guitarist and songwriter. He wrote “The Same Water” in support of the Standing Rock phenomenon and felt compelled to be part of the movement in person.

Indians and Cowboys

Cowboys and Indians are at it again. 


Americans who don’t live in the West may think that the historic clash of Native Americans and pioneering settlers is long past because the Indians were, after all, defeated and now drive cars, watch television, and shop at Walmart. Not so. That classic American narrative is back big time, only the Indians are now the good guys and the cowboys—well, their rightwing representatives, anyway—are on the warpath, trying to grab 640 million acres of public lands that they can plunder as if it were yesteryear. Meanwhile, in the Dakotas, America’s Manifest Destiny, that historic push across the Great Plains to the Pacific (murdering and pillaging along the way), seems to be making a return trip to Sioux country in a form that could have planetary consequences.

Energy Transfer Partners is now building the Dakota Access Pipeline, a $3.7 billion oil slick of a project. It’s slated to go from the Bakken gas and oil fracking fields in northern North Dakota across 1,100 miles of the rest of the Dakotas and Iowa to a pipeline hub in Illinois. From there, the oil will head for refineries on the Gulf Coast and ultimately, as the emissions from fossil fuels, into the atmosphere to help create future summers so hot no one will forget them. Keep in mind that, according to global warming’s terrible new math, there’s enough carbon in those Bakken fields to roast the planet—if, that is, the Sioux and tribes allied with them don’t stop the pipeline. 

This time, in other words, if the cavalry does ride to the rescue, the heroes on horseback will be speaking Lakota.

Last Stand at Standing Rock

If built as planned, the Dakota Access Pipeline will snake through the headwaters of the Missouri River, a life-giving source of fresh water for millions of people who live downstream, including Native Americans. It’s supposed to pass under that river just a few miles from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles North and South Dakota. Protestors point out that, eventually, the pipeline is likely to leak into that vital watershed and the contamination could prove catastrophic. The Army Corps of Engineers, which green-lighted the project’s design, and Energy Transfer Partners have continued to insist that there is no such risk—even though, suspiciously enough, they decided to change the pipeline’s route to avoid the water supply of North Dakota’s capital, Bismark. As ever, tribal leaders point out, they were ignored rather than consulted in the planning stages, even though the project was to pass directly through their lands. 

When the Keystone XL Pipeline, slated to bring especially carbon-heavy tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, was killed thanks to years of fierce environmental protests, the stakes were raised for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Keystone was a disaster for the energy industry. In its wake, opponents claim, the new project was fast-tracked without the usual environmental reviews so that construction could be completed before a Keystone-style opposition formed. Fast as they were, it turns out that they weren’t fast enough.

Keep in mind that such a project wasn’t exactly a first for the native peoples of the region. In the wake of their defeat and confinement to reservations in the nineteenth century, they lived through a profound transformation of their landscape. Settlers let cattle loose on meadows cleared of wolves, cougars, and bears.  The rude stamp of progress followed: fences, roads, dams, mines, sawmills, railroads, power lines, towns, condos, resorts, and in the twenty-first century, vistas increasingly pockmarked with fracking’s drill rigs and service roads. 

In the Dakota prairies, hundreds of species of grass and flowers were replaced by monocultures of soy and corn, while millions of cattle were substituted for herds of free-roaming bison. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, the neighboring Sioux and Cheyenne lost 200,000 more acres of valuable reservation farmland to dams built without their permission. Entire villages had to relocate. The Dakota Access Pipeline is just the latest of these assaults and yet, in every way, it’s potentially more disastrous. As Lakota Chairman David Archambault puts it, “To poison water is to poison the substance of life.”

Slaughter, internment, and neglect were bad enough, say tribal leaders, but threatening the people’s life-giving water was the last straw. As a result, thousands of Native Americans drawn from 280 tribes across the country and even around the world are now camping out at the construction site where the Dakota Access Pipeline nears the tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Almost two million signatures have been gathered on a petition opposing the pipeline; dozens of environmental groups have signed on to the resistance; and tribes nationwide have expressed their solidarity. 

On September 3rd, the private security guards hired by Energy Transfer Partners used pepper spray and dogs on those trying to block the pipeline. This eruption of violence halted work until U.S. District Judge James Boasberg could rule on the tribe’s request for an injunction to block construction while its case was heard in court. On September 9th, while conceding that “the United States’ relationship with Indians has been contentious and tragic,” he denied that request. Then, in a move described even by the Sioux as stunning, the Obama administration suddenly stepped between the protesters and the pipeline construction crews. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and even the Army Corps of Engineers called for a halt to the process until the permitting procedure could be reviewed.

Although putting an oil pipeline under a major river should have triggered an environmental review, the Corps chose not to do one. Now, it will take a second look. The administration also committed itself to finding better ways to include Native Americans in future land-use decisions. 

Where this goes next is anyone’s guess. The construction halt could, of course, be lifted if the protesters were to disperse under a false sense of victory. The Sioux now plan to litigate vigorously against the pipeline. One prediction, however, is easy enough. The unity and purpose experienced by the people in that encampment will resonate powerfully for years to come. A movement has been born along the banks of the Missouri River.

Native Americans have played the crucial role in this campaign to “keep it in the ground,” just as they were leaders in the successful struggle to block the Keystone XL Pipeline, the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline that would have carried dirty crude across Canada to the Pacific, and the building of a massive coal export port on Canada’s Pacific coast. As Native American leader Winona LaDuke puts it, “For people with nothing else but land and a river, I would not bet against them.”

This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the cowboys have been engaged in a not-so-old-fashioned range war over who can best manage 640 million acres of public lands now owned collectively by the American people. Backed by the Koch brothers and their American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, legislators across the American West, where most of the public lands are located, are calling on the federal government to cede control and management of them to counties and states. This would include some of our most beloved national parks.

In Utah where I live, the Republican-dominated legislature has put forward the Public Lands Initiative (PLI). It’s the latest round in a 30-year feud pitting conservationists and businesses tied to tourism and recreation against ranchers and miners. At stake: whether to give the last publicly controlled wild places in the state formal wilderness status and federal protection or (though this isn’t often directly said) let private interests exploit the hell out of them. Every few years the Utah legislature’s “cowboy caucus” has pushed just such a “wilderness bill” filled with poison pills and potentially devastating loopholes that the local conservation community can’t abide. 

Billed this time as a potential grand bargain to settle who controls public lands and how they can be used, the PLI has proven no different. It was, in fact, generated by local fears that President Obama might use his wide-ranging powers under the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument in the state as he left the Oval Office. This was exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1996, establishing the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on 1.9 million acres of land in southern Utah’s spectacular canyon country, already the home of five national parks. 

That 1906 act, passed while Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, gives the president wide-ranging authority to create national monuments from public lands in order to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. Since activities like drilling for oil and gas, mining, timber cutting, and grazing are barred or tightly restricted on such protected lands, Western politicians tend to regard them as a tool wielded by conservationists to suppress economic development. 

Grave Robbing for Fun and Profit

Sure enough, the nightmare of the cowboys is being realized. A coalition of five tribes, all either presently in Utah or claiming ancestral lands there, is now pushing a bold proposal for just such a national monument—a park co-managed by the five tribes and the National Park Service (which in itself would be a significant first for the Native American community). It would include 1.9 million acres of the ancestral grounds of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain, and Ute Indian tribes and would be known as the Bears Ears after the area’s most famous landmark, twin buttes that are said to resemble a bear's ears.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewel recently toured the proposed monument and was amazed by what she saw, including spectacular cliff-house ruins, as well as paintings and rock carvings depicting clan signs, shamanic visions, and ghostly herds of bighorn sheep and elk. Bears Ears would possess more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including many of the oldest and most spectacular ruins in the United States. Members of the coalition of tribes regard them and the ground littered with their ancestors’ artifacts and bones as sacred. 

A grassroots group, Utah Dine Bikeyah, did extensive groundwork collecting data and interviews to create cultural maps of the region. The extraordinary archaeological and historical record they built effectively made their case that the ancestors of the coalition tribes have relied on that landscape for hunting, gathering, and ceremonial activities for centuries. The Utah conservation community, which had mapped out its own plans for such a monument, stepped aside for the tribal proposal.

Protecting the Bears Ears is considered an urgent matter. A mere handful of rangers currently patrol thousands of square miles of rugged canyons where the looting of archaeological sites for fun and profit is a rural tradition. In remote outposts like Blanding, Utah, Indian grave robbing was considered an acceptable family pastime until agents from the FBI infiltrated the black market for artifacts and busted a prominent local family. Ute leader Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk expresses a motivating concern of the tribal leaders. “Without swift action,” she says, “we fear that the archaeological and cultural riches of the Bears Ears will suffer shameful, disgraceful dissolution and obliteration.”

Her fear is well founded. In recent years, for instance, rural county commissioners have led illegal all-terrain-vehicle rallies on a route through Recapture Canyon that Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers shut to motorized traffic because it crosses several key archaeological sites. State and county politicians were not content to challenge the BLM’s closure of that canyon in court. Instead, they openly promoted such rides to defy the feds. The last of these protests in 2014 did, in fact, significantly damage unprotected archeological sites.  The indigenous community saw it as a shocking show of disrespect, like driving directly over cemetery graves. The well-armed vigilantes who rode through Recapture Canyon were led by Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and the famous hothead of the Bundy clan.

You may remember the colorful Bundy boys. After all, they became the stars of the “cowboy rebellion” against federal regulation on public lands. In 2014, BLM rangers were dispatched to Nevada to remove Cliven Bundy’s cows from lands on which they had been grazing illegally for 20 years. The feds claimed that he owed the taxpayers a million bucks in unpaid grazing fees. He, on the other hand, insisted that such public lands belonged to the ranchers whose grandparents first grazed them. The rangers sent to enforce the law were met by hundreds of armed cowboys, many of whom took up sniper positions around them. Faced with such overwhelming firepower and the prospect of bloodshed, they withdrew and a range war was on.

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

That retreat in Nevada undoubtedly emboldened the Bundy clan and their militia allies to seize Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. Well-armed, they occupied the visitor center at that bird refuge, leaning on every cowboy cliché in the book. They dressed the part with chaps, boots, buckles, and Stetson hats, carried American flags, and regularly posed with their horses for news photographers. 

In the end, despite the Marlboro Man look and the Clint Eastwood demeanor, the Bundyites came across as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The “constitutional revolution” they wanted to spark by seizing Malheur fizzled amid a festival of cognitive dissonance and irony: men carrying assault rifles and threatening to use them proclaimed themselves “peaceful protesters” and, while declaring it off limits, attempted to “return” land to the American people—land that they already owned. Federal agents eventually arrested all of the principal players in both the earlier Nevada standoff and the Malheur fiasco, except for one killed at a roadblock when he charged armed rangers and reached for his gun. Trials began on September 7th and are slated to last for months.

Given the open hostility of state and local politicians to the protection of sacred sites, as well as their willingness to break the law and offer tacit support for vigilantes like the Bundys, tribal leaders decided to take their concerns about protecting their ancestral grounds to the top. A delegation traveled to Washington and met with President Obama, while a media campaign was begun to persuade others to endorse the plan. 

A broader coalition of tribes and the conservation community rallied to the idea, especially because it was the first time that Native American tribes had proposed such a monument. The vision of a park to honor sacred indigenous lands, shaped and directed by Native Americans themselves, caught the public imagination. The New York Times and Washington Post have both written editorials urging the president to create such a park and Utah polls show a solid majority of citizens in favor of it.

Peace Pipes, Not Oil Pipes

The genocidal policies that accompanied settlement across North America crested in Sioux country at the close of the nineteenth century. The survivors of the vanquished indigenous nations there were interned on reservations. Their children were taken from them and sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut, and their language and ceremonies banished. This was—and was meant to be—a form of cultural genocide. In the Bears Ears and Sioux country today, however, the culture of Native Americans endures. The descendants of those warriors who died defending their homeland and of those children taken from their families and their native cultures have proven remarkably resilient. They are once again defending their world and, as it happens, ours too, because even if you don’t share the Missouri River watershed, you live on a planet that is being rapidly transformed by the sort of toxic cargo that will fill a future Dakota Access Pipeline.

In the Hollywood Westerns of my youth, Indians were often one-dimensional villains who committed atrocities on good white folks trying to bring civilization to the frontier. As with so many notions I inherited in my youth, reality has turned out to be another story. 

Certainly, before the onslaught of colonialism, the way indigenous people across the planet viewed what we now call our environment has come to seem like sanity itself. The land, as the Sioux and other tribal peoples saw it, was a living being saturated with spirits that humans should both acknowledge and respect. 

The Indians whom the cowboys and bluecoats fought didn’t share European concepts of cash, property, profit, progress, and, most importantly, technology. Once upon a time, we had the guns and they had the bows and arrows, so we rolled over them. But here’s the wondrous thing: a story that seemed to have ended long ago turns out to be anything but over. Times have changed, and in the process the previous cast of characters has, it seems, swapped roles. 

An economy hooked on carbon is threatening life on Earth. The waters of seas and oceans are warming fast; the weather is becoming unpredictable and harsh. Perhaps it’s time to finally listen to and learn from people who lived here sustainably for thousands of years. Respecting Sioux sovereignty and protecting the sacred sites of tribes in their own co-managed national monument could write the next chapter in our American story, the one in which the Indians finally get to be heroes and heroines fighting to protect our way of life as well as their own. 

Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon. Returning from hiking trips in the Bears Ears, he long kept his knowledge of the ruins he visited to himself, fearing the vulnerability of ancient cliff houses and granaries to looters. He is hopeful that they will now get the protection they deserve.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Chip Ward

Photo by Zack Frank/Fotolia

Overpopulation: The Global Population Speaks Out


1) How does your campaign differ from other population initiatives?

First and foremost our campaign, the “Global Population Speak Out” approaches the global population issue with the power of positive thinking. We do not approach the issue as an intractable, scary, or utterly oppressive problem. Rather we act with the conviction that near-term global population stabilization—such as the United Nation’s low-variant population projection, which shows the end of population growth just 40 years from now—can be achieved through the vigorous pursuit and realization of a progressive human rights agenda and will be a powerful contributor to solving today’s most pressing ecological and social challenges.

Our program is designed as a force-multiplier to help in that pursuit: helping equip young learners, professional activists and other concerned citizens with tools to help spread environmental and social-change messages. Voluntary participants from all over the world work in their local spheres of influence to emphasize the sensible, progressive and compassionate means human communities have to stabilize our numbers and seek an improved balance with our home planet. Since 2008, we’ve had participants from virtually every country on Earth.

Over Development 

2) What is the role of photography toward your organization’s goals?

For the 2015/2016 Speak Out campaign, we were delighted to partner with The Foundation for Deep Ecology to publish the dramatic and powerful coffee-table book, Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (OVER). The emotionally intense series of photo-essays that constitute the heart of this book have captured the attention of citizens and major mainstream media outlets from all corners of the Earth. We’ve distributed about 6,000 complimentary copies of OVER to students, educators, NGO organizations and environmental activists. In many instances, recipients have written back to tell us that after going through the book, they broke down in tears of uncontrollable emotion. The success of our campaign has proven to us that bearing visual witness to human domination of the Earth and our collective and egregious disregard for the rights of other species to exist would be much more powerful than yet another dry, statistical report or study. Seeing is believing, as they say, and OVER has opened the eyes of millions.


3) I know there’s no “magic number,” but is there an appropriate population level to maximize biodiversity; and, is biodiversity an appropriate goal for this conversation?

The Speak Out is very much a conversation about biodiversity. For example, in June 2013, a study titled “Human Population Density and Growth Validated as Extinction Threats to Mammal and Bird Species” confirmed what everybody knew already: As human populations grow, human demands for water, land, trees, and fossil fuels also grow. Unfortunately, the price of all this “growth” is paid for by other endangered plant and animal species. Jeffrey McKee, professor of anthropology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study says, “The data speak loud and clear that not only human population density, but the growth of the human population, is still having an effect on extinction threats to other species.”

We won’t assert that there is a magic number to which we should hue. However, given that we are now well over 7.4 billion and climbing rapidly (adding a net of 1.5 million people per week) and given that no honest person will dispute that biodiversity is already suffering horribly and in danger of systemic collapse, attaining a size of 2 billion seems like a reasonable, against-the-tide present day goal.

Of course, while population size sets the scale of human impact, it is not the sole determinant of the human relationship with Earth. Unlike other animals whose impact is generally limited by their appetites, humans have discretionary environmental impacts far and above our basic biological needs. This behavior is often lumped under the umbrella-phrase of “consumption”, but really includes an enormous number of resource extraction, production and consumptive decisions that occur around the clock, at a world-wide scale of 7.4 billion people. To simplify, let’s say that even 2 billion people living at Americans’ average consumption level and treating the Earth as a discount dollar-store of “natural resources” would not be able to maximize biodiversity.

However, when human beings come to agree on the desirability of a long-term project to steer our population size in the direction of, say, 2 billion, we will also have gotten to the place where we have rejected the conspicuously consumptive characteristics of the advanced economies of the world. Our worldview will have shifted toward building a thriving human civilization capable of, and eager to, preserve substantial tracts of wilderness supporting robust, generally unperturbed biodiversity.


4) EO Wilson suggests setting aside half of the planet for nonhuman life; is that something that your initiative supports?

Conservation biologists generally agree that conserving between 25 to 75 percent of representative habitats is required to preserve the full suite of species and processes on Earth. Fifty percent is thus a median (with the additional virtue of being a memorable number) and has come to be known as “Nature Needs Half” or, in EO Wilson’s terms, “Half Earth.” We fully support this initiative for several reasons: First, it the best conservation science instructs us on how to save other-than-human life. Secondly, the goal of not domineering half the planet strikes at the heart of anthropocentrism, as it will require conscious human restraint. Finally, the “Half Earth” goal also requires a long-term commitment and effort by humanity.

 Global Over Population

5) How do gender inequalities contribute to global overpopulation?

Arguably, gender inequality lies at the heart of humanity’s already oversized total population -- and its ongoing rapid growth. Population activists know that to achieve population stabilization, the human rights of all people will need to be fully realized. Especially important are women’s rights and, specifically, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. This means that good population advocacy should always Speak Out against oppressive cultural practices such as gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.

How well a society treats its women is one of the strongest indicators of the success and health of that society. Even now, gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development. While girls and women have made some advances over the last 20 years, they still suffer from prejudice and discrimination in health, education, political representation, labor markets, etc. With these rights impinged upon—or totally absent—family size decisions are often controlled by husbands or in-laws and end up being larger than if women could truly decide for themselves how many children to have and when. Such injustices add to global population growth and increases human pressure on the Earth’s natural systems.

Human Overpopulation

6) Should this conversation differ by continent, or by the type of environment in which a population resides?

In some senses, all sustainability is local: we wouldn’t expect similar conversations to be happening in all the world’s diverse countries and communities. As we’ve noted, this campaign is really about empowering local activists to “Speak Out” about human population size as a substantial and fundamental aspect of local, regional and global sustainability. So, ideally, there is not one conversation, but multitudes – and those conversations are informed by local sensibilities, local issues and local community interests. Hence, we would hope the conversations will be as diverse and different as human culture itself.

Habitat Loss 

7) What is the relationship between human population and fossil fuels?

Humans existed for a very long time prior to making consistent use of fossil fuels. Our numbers never even approached 1 billion for tens of thousands of years, pre fossil fuels. Then as we began seriously exploiting coal and then moved on to oil, our population grew at unprecedented rates. The correlation is not random. The dizzying population growth of the past two centuries was predicated on the windfall of energy that fossil fuels presented to humanity.

It is important to understand that fossil fuels, especially oil, are not simply used to manufacture and propel passenger automobiles or trucks. They facilitate the mass assembly of tractors, plows, irrigation pipes and pumps and then turn around and power them also. They constitute the base of many crucial fertilizers and pesticides. They are also the building blocks of agricultural plastics. They refrigerate perishables. In short, the industrial agriculture system could not function without copious amounts of fossil fuel.

The other side of the coin is that when humans co-opt the extraordinary power found in fossil fuels, we become “over-powered” and that is how we are over-powering the Earth’s biosphere. We cannot destroy rainforests at the rate of several football fields per minute, or trawl the deep oceans, or attempt mass-scale aqua-culture, or fragment habitat with asphalt roads, or construct miles and miles of urban sprawl without the power of fossil fuels. In summary, fossil fuels underwritten both our population size and growth and our discretionary overconsumption.

Fossil Fuels 

8) How do you develop an inclusive approach to family planning?

Family planning, one of the greatest public health achievements in human history, allows individuals and couples to anticipate and attain their desired number of children and the spacing and timing of their births. Right now, there’s a huge opportunity for progress because there’s an estimated 225 million women who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a contraceptive method. Speak Out participants agree that bringing family planning information and services to all people, everywhere is a non-negotiable priority for a sustainable future.

Making family planning information and services available to anybody who might be interested is a stand-alone moral imperative, needing no further justification. Reproductive self-determination needs no further justification either. But, when the coincident effects of meeting these human rights also helps to slow down population growth, then that is a win-win for people, planet, and the other species with which we share Earth. It is worthwhile and ethically correct to celebrate family planning’s many benefits—not all of which relate directly to humans. After all, at its root, family planning isn’t a technology or ideology, but an act of human will and personal agency. When that act is deemed to be a personal benefit by the individual adopter of family planning, and yet also has broader social or environmental effects, the outside observer has a right to celebrate.


9) What tangible goals should people support in order to address global population issues?

The most critical factors in determining the future size of the human population are the family size decisions being made today. This leads many people to imagine various forces pushing down on fertility, such as China’s “One Child Policy.” Instead, Speak Out asserts that the way forward is to imagine eradicating the forces that keep fertility needlessly elevated. Indeed, when it comes to family planning and unrestricted access to modern contraception (and the unhindered agency to use a preferred method of contraception), things like misinformation about side-effects, lack of knowledge about the benefits of small family-size, and religious or male opposition to contraception form a sort of scaffolding that keep fertility rates higher than they would otherwise be. Remove this scaffolding and fertility and average family size decisions will fall of their own accord.

The Speak Out supports tangible goals that will help remove this scaffolding. These goals include robust political support for vastly increased international family planning financing and aid; universal primary and secondary school education; improving the status of women and girls around the world; financial support for Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) programs; financial support for entertainment-education and behavior change communications initiatives to promote the use of family planning, improve reproductive health, and increase spousal communications on sensitive topics (see Population Media Center); and, of course, continuous public discourse, campaigning and activism on population and related issues.


10) How does anthropogenic climate change affect this conversation?

The international community is already falling short in its response to humanitarian emergencies. Anthropogenic climate change and all the attendant ecological upheavals, such as catastrophic droughts, super-storms, and heat waves increase the frequency of humanitarian disasters and, in general, negatively impact food production.

Rapid population growth also exacerbates vulnerability to the negative consequences of climate change, exposing growing numbers of people to climate risk. The impacts of extreme weather events and projected sea level rise are particularly significant due to high population density on and near coastlines and low-elevation zones. Each person added to the world’s population increases the propensity of greenhouse gasses to flow into the atmosphere, especially through increasing the demand for food. The global food production system itself contributes roughly 30 percent of greenhouse gasses emissions, yet, ironically, the biggest threat to food production is escalating climate disruption. In short, anthropogenic climate change embrittles the resiliency of an already stressed global environment, thereby increasing the risk of catastrophe for humans and other species.

On the solution side, activists and organizations that promote low-carbon development strategies and climate change adaptation will be strengthened by embracing population factors in determining investment priorities. For example, a 2010 study published in the proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States (PNAS) titled “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions” demonstrated that slowing population growth could provide 16 to 29 percent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.

Unsustainable Consumption

11) What is the relationship between technology and overpopulation?

At best, the relationship is tortured. First, we have to remember that technological advances that allowed for exploiting fossil energy largely constitute the driving forces that enabled the gargantuan population growth of the last 200 years. Today, technology enables resource extraction and production activities that then set the stage for unsustainable discretionary consumption. The past three hundred years of scientific and technological advances have obviously accelerated, not slowed, the degradation of the natural world.

On the other hand, given the already enormous size of the global population, technology will be important to achieving universal primary and secondary education, providing family planning information and services, increasing the status of women, and educating about the benefits of small family size decisions. For example, the use of radio, television and the internet to deliver curriculum, information and entertainment-education programs are proven to be a good use of communications technology.

Population Solutions 

12) How do we make this conversation less about the problems and more about the solutions? Or, more generally, how do we make this conversation positive?

Speak Out does not shy away from emphasizing the problems caused by the enormous size of the global population, nor its ongoing rapid growth – indeed, these tremendously important issues are the reason Speak Out exists in the first place. However, Speak Out does not repeat the behavior of so many population advocates throughout the years – relentlessly presenting the population issue as a scary, intractable problem. That strategy has proven to be nothing but a sure-fire recipe for producing public disengagement and apathy. Neither is population presented as a “silver bullet” for all the planet’s woes: a presumptuous and off-putting meme that sows division rather than unity across the activist community.

Instead, we present a vision for understanding the population issue as a powerful contributing solution to today’s most pressing ecological and social challenges. To repeat: population is not just a global challenge, it is a solution.

The new generation that is working on population issues is working against oppressive cultural practices such as the low status of women around the world, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage. After all, these are important factors that significantly contribute to high fertility and population growth: because they rob women of social power, self-determination and true choice in how many children to have, and when. By weakening and eliminating these scourges—along with expanding access to family planning information and services—global population will stabilize and start a gradual decline sooner rather than later. No doubt the natural world will applaud this, as will the individuals around the world benefiting from strengthened human health and rights.



Photos courtesy Global Population Speak Out

How to Get Solar Panels Onto More Affordable Apartment Buildings

This is a guest post from Laurie Mazur, editor for the Kresge Foundation/Island Press Urban Resilience Project.


Solar power seems like the ultimate no-brainer. Free energy from the sun! And the cost of installing solar panels — like other renewables — has plummeted in recent years. Still, solar power has not yet penetrated one of the markets that needs it the most: affordable multifamily housing.

That could change, thanks to the advent of solar photovoltaic systems with backup battery storage (solar + storage). A new report, “Closing the California Clean Energy Divide,” shows how solar + storage can overcome technical and financial problems that discourage owners of affordable apartments from embracing solar. Coauthored by the California Housing Partnership, Center for Sustainable Energy, and Clean Energy Group, the report says solar + storage systems could nearly eliminate electric bills for owners of affordable apartment buildings in California. And those savings could — with the right policies and strategies — be passed on to tenants.

The first problem solved by solar + storage is the bane of all solar energy systems: night. We expect our electric meters to keep spinning along, even when the sun doesn’t shine. (This is the dreaded “intermittency” that challenges other renewable energy sources as well.) Solar + storage handily defeats this problem, by banking excess energy generated in the daytime to be used after the sun goes down.

In this way, solar + storage tackles another insidious problem: utility demand charges. These are fees that utilities charge commercial customers based on their highest peak power use during a billing period, and such fees can make up half of the electric bill for some apartment buildings. A stand-alone solar system without battery storage might not be able to shrink peak demand — because, for example, demand could still be high on a cloudy day. But solar + storage can reduce overall demand for grid power and lower peak use, thereby helping some building owners avoid demand charges. And adding storage to a solar system isn’t prohibitively expensive; it adds only about a third on top of the cost of stand-alone solar.

These cost savings also can hedge against future electricity price increases, which are poised to become a real problem. As solar gets big enough to threaten their bottom line, utilities are trying to roll back incentives like “net metering,” which lets solar-powered households sell their surplus energy back to the grid for a profit. Without those incentives, affordable housing owners who invest in stand-alone solar systems will see higher electric bills. But solar + storage can make the economics work better and bring more financial benefits to developers and tenants. “Installing solar without batteries is leaving money on the table,” says Lewis Milford, president of the Clean Energy Group and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

There are other benefits, too. Solar + storage can make affordable housing more resilient. When the larger grid goes down, a solar system with battery backup can power life-saving services like water pumps, fire alarms, heating, and cooling. That means apartment dwellers can “shelter in place” during an emergency — which can be a lifeline for low-income residents, the disabled, and others who are vulnerable in times of disaster. And, of course, by reducing carbon emissions, solar power helps mitigate climate change, making disasters less likely for everyone.

So, is solar + storage the game changer that finally brings clean energy to the masses?

It certainly could be in California, where owners of affordable housing have many reasons to go solar. The state legislature recently established a groundbreaking Multifamily Affordable Housing Solar Roofs Program and earmarked up to $1 billion in cap-and-trade funding over 10 years to incentivize solar installations on such buildings. But even in states with a less favorable regulatory climate, the benefits of battery storage may tip the scales in favor of solar for many building owners.

Still, if owners of affordable housing adopt solar en masse, will the cost savings get passed on to tenants? While the answers to that question are beyond the scope of “Closing the California Clean Energy Divide,” its authors suggest a few ways to make that happen — including a shared savings model that ensures tenants get a portion of demand charge savings. The authors are planning a series of papers that will explore how additional benefits could be delivered to tenants.

“There are lots of ways to make sure that tenants benefit from solar in affordable multifamily housing,” says Milford. “But first, you have to make sure that the owners and developers want to install solar.” As this report makes clear, there has never been a better time to do so.

Laurie Mazur is the editor of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. Follow the project @IP_URP

Photo by Fotolia/Gekon

Protecting Communities from Climate Change (Hint: It’s not Just About Seawalls)

Little Village
Youth Summit in Little Village, Chicago

Climate change is here, and it is already affecting our health and wellbeing. That’s the conclusion of the National Climate and Health Assessment, released in April by the prestigious U.S. Global Change Research Program. Fortunately, it is possible to make even our most vulnerable communities more climate-resilient. In fact, it’s already happening—but not in the way you might expect.

To make our communities more resilient, we first have to understand the threats we face, and the factors that make us vulnerable. The National Climate and Health Assessment details a litany of threats: heat waves; poorer air quality; food and water shortages; and mental stress. The Assessment also shows that, while climate change affects us all, some are more vulnerable than others.

Of course, geography and weather patterns determine our communities’ exposure to risk. But social factors shape our vulnerability, and our ability to bounce back after disaster.

Children and the elderly are among the most vulnerable to climate-change impacts, as are the one in four Americans who live in high-poverty areas. As we saw during Katrina, communities of color are often hit hard, as are immigrants, Indigenous peoples, and those with limited English. And anyone with an existing health condition—heart disease, asthma, diabetes—is especially at risk.

Climate change takes its greatest toll in low-income neighborhoods that concentrate many kinds of vulnerability. These neighborhoods are dealing with multiple challenges: poverty, unemployment, failing schools, crime, crumbling infrastructure and poor quality housing. Many also face environmental problems like lead-tainted water, polluted air, and contaminated soil. And too often, these neighborhoods lack clinics and grocery stores, much less trees and parks.

Not surprisingly, many residents in these neighborhoods already suffer from poor physical and mental health. In some cities, the difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods just a few miles apart is as much as 25-30 years. As the health impacts of climate change increase, those disparities will only widen—unless we can build resilience in our most troubled neighborhoods.

Those efforts are already under way. And the most innovative resilience-building strategies are not just about building seawalls and levees; they seek to address the factors that make some people more vulnerable than others. That means thinking holistically about what makes a healthy community, and working to create high quality housing, access to healthy foods, good education, cleaner environments, and economic development.

Case in point: the Villages of East Lake in Atlanta, Georgia—a whole-neighborhood revitalization of what had been the most troubled and violent public housing project in the Atlanta area.

East Lake
East Lake, a Residential Neighborhood in Atlanta, GA

Working closely with residents of public housing, the East Lake Foundation corralled public and private investments to build a neighborhood with opportunity for all. In addition to new, mixed-income townhouses, East Lake now boasts a top-notch charter school; a grocery store; a YMCA; and a public golf course that anchors both youth development and community events—all in a leafy, appealing, walkable neighborhood.

The benefits for the residents of East Lake are stunning. Since the revitalization began in 1995, educational outcomes have risen to among the best in the Atlanta school system, and violent crime is down by 95 percent. In East Lake’s subsidized housing, only five percent of healthy working-age adults receive welfare. More than three fourths of the teens involved in the local afterschool academic support program in 2012 went on to college.

East Lake Students
East Lake School Children

Other neighborhoods are building resilience by tackling threats to public health. For example, Little Village, a Mexican-American neighborhood in southwest Chicago, was just a mile from two of the oldest and dirtiest coal power plants in the U.S. As a result, residents faced high rates of asthma and respiratory diseases. A Harvard study found that pollution from these two plants was causing 40 premature deaths, 550 ER visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks per year. So the community organized, and in 2012, pushed the plants to shut down.

The people of East Lake and Little Village may not know it, but they are reducing vulnerability and building resilience to a changing climate. Their efforts are not focused on climate change, per se, though they do include “green” elements. Perhaps that’s the point: much of what we must do to adapt to climate change are things we should be doing anyway, to make our communities healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable. East Lake and Little Village show us that it can be done.

Jeni Miller is a senior public health researcher based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her @JeniMiller.

This post was produced as part of the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

Top photo by Little Village Environmental Justice Organization

Bottom two photos by East Lake Foundation

Two, Three ... Many Flints


Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan.  “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.  To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks.  Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive.  In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.   As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint.  But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis.  There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland, Herculaneum, MissouriSebring, Ohio, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and that’s just to begin a list.  State reports suggest, for instance, that "18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint." Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood.  The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined.  From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them.  Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

Two, Three ... Many Flints

In Flint, the origins of the current crisis lay in the history of auto giant General Motors (GM) and its rise in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the status of the world’s largest corporation. GM’s Buick plant alone once occupied “an area almost a mile and a half long and half a mile wide,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and several Chevrolet and other GM plants literally covered the waterfront of “this automotive city.” Into the Flint River went the toxic wastes of factories large and small, which once supplied batteries, paints, solders, glass, fabrics, oils, lubricating fluids, and a multitude of other materials that made up the modern car. In these plants strung out along the banks of the Flint and Saginaw rivers and their detritus lay the origins of the present public health emergency.

The crisis that attracted President Obama’s attention is certainly horrifying, but the children of Flint have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. Three generations of those children living around Chevrolet Avenue in the old industrial heart of the city experienced an environment filled with heavy metal toxins that cause neurological conditions in them and cardiovascular problems in adults.


Industrial pollution affects numerous cities, not only in the Rust Belt but throughout industrial areas in America.

As Michael Moore documented in his film Roger and Me, GM abandoned Flint in a vain attempt to stave off financial disaster.  Having sucked its people dry, the company ditched the city, leaving it to deal with a polluted hell without the means to do so.  Like other industrial cities that have suffered this kind of abandonment, Flint’s population is majority African American and Latino, and has a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line.  Of its 100,000 residents, 65% are African American and Latino and 42%  are mired in poverty. 

The president should be worried about Flint’s children and local, state, and federal authorities need to fix the pipes, sewers, and water supply of the city. Technically, this is a feasible, if expensive, proposition. It’s already clear, however, that the political will is just not there even for this one community. Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, has refused to provide Flint’s residents with even a prospective timetable for replacing their pipes and making their water safe. There is, however, a far graver problem that is even less easy to fix: the mix of racism and corporate greed that have put lead and other pollutants into millions of homes in the United States. The scores of endangered kids in Flint are just the tip of a vast, toxic iceberg.  Even Baltimore, which first identified its lead poisoning epidemic in the 1930s, still faces a crisis, especially in largely African American communities, when it comes to the lead paint in its older housing stock.

Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck.  A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child's mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.

There is, in fact, a grim broader history of lead poisoning in America.  It was probably the most widely dispersed environmental toxin that affected children in this country.  In part, this was because, for decades during the middle of the twentieth century, it was marketed as an essential ingredient in industrial society, something without which none of us could get along comfortably.  Those toxic pipes in Flint are hardly the only, or even the primary, source of danger to children left over from that era.

In the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was introduced as an additive for gasoline.  It was lauded at the time as a "gift of God" by a representative of the Ethyl Corporation, a creation of GM, Standard Oil, and Dupont, the companies that invented, produced, and marketed the stuff. Despite warnings that this industrial toxin might pollute the planet, which it did, almost three-quarters of a century would pass before it was removed from gasoline in the United States.  During that time, spewed out of the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks, it tainted the soil that children played in and was tracked onto floors that toddlers touched.  Banned from use in the 1980s, it still lurks in the environment today.

Meanwhile, homes across the country were tainted by lead in quite a different way. Lead carbonate, a white powder, was mixed with linseed oil to create the paint that was used in the nation’s homes, hospitals, schools, and other buildings until 1978.  Though its power to harm and even kill children who sucked on lead-painted windowsills, toys, cribs, and woodwork had long been known, it was only in that year that the federal government banned its use in household paints.


Lead paint is still common in low-income housing where it affects the lives of millions of children.

Hundreds of tons of the lead in paint that covered the walls of houses, apartment buildings, and workplaces across the United States remains in place almost four decades later, especially in poorer neighborhoods where millions of African American and Latino children currently live.  Right now, most middle class white families feel relatively immune from the dangers of lead, although the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the renovation of old homes can still expose their children to dangerous levels of lead dust from the old paint on those walls. However, economically and politically vulnerable black and Hispanic children, many of whom inhabit dilapidated older housing, still suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the toxin. This is the meaning of institutional racism in action today.  As with the water flowing into homes from the pipes of Flint’s water system, so the walls of its apartment complexes, not to mention those in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, and virtually every other older urban center in the country, continue to poison children exposed to lead-polluted dust, chips, soil, and air.

Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. Add to this the risks these same children face from industrial toxins like mercury, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and you have an ongoing recipe for a Flint-like disaster but on a national scale.

In truth, the United States has scores of “Flints” awaiting their moments.  Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs — just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster.  Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive.  Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.  

The Future of America’s Toxic Past

A series of decisions by state and local officials turned Flint’s chronic post-industrial crisis into a total public health disaster.  If clueless, corrupt, or heartless government officials get all the blame for this (and blame they do deserve), the larger point will unfortunately be missed — that there are many post-industrial Flints, many other hidden tragedies affecting America’s children that await their moments in the news. Treat Flint as an anomaly and you condemn families nationwide to bear the damage to their children alone, abandoned by a society unwilling to invest in cleaning up a century of industrial pollution, or even to acknowledge the injustice involved.

Flint may be years away from a solution to its current crisis, but in a few cities elsewhere in the country there is at least a modicum of hope when it comes to developing ways to begin to address this country’s poisonous past. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. If this judgment is upheld on appeal, it would be an unprecedented and pathbreaking victory, since it would force a polluting industry to clean up the mess it created and from which it profited.

There have been other partial victories, too. In Herculaneum, Missouri, for instance, where half the children within a mile of the nation’s largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, jurors returned a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms. That verdict is also on appeal, while the company has moved its smelter to Peru where whole new populations are undoubtedly being poisoned.

President Obama hit the nail on the head with his recent comments on Flint, but he also missed the larger point. There he was just a few dozen miles from that city’s damaged water system when he spoke in Detroit, another symbol of corporate abandonment with its own grim toxic legacy. Thousands of homes in the Motor City, the former capital of the auto industry, are still lead paint disaster areas. Perhaps it’s time to widen the canvas when it comes to the poisoning of America’s children and face the terrible human toll caused by “the American century.”

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, TomDispatch regulars, are co-authors and co-editors of seven books and 85 articles on a variety of industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and, most recently, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.  Rosner is a professor of sociomedical sciences and history at Columbia University and co-director of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Markowitz is a professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Both have been awarded a certificate of appreciation by the United States Senate through the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has recognized the importance of their work on lead and industrial poisoning.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

Top photo by Fotolia/spiritofamerica

Middle photo by Fotolia/Narin Sapaisarn

Bottom photo by Fotolia/photoeyestock